The real key to understanding the admissions process is to consider the broader criteria against which each applicant is evaluated. There are different ways to break it down, but every top MBA school, in my opinion, is basically evaluating each applicant across four basic areas: First, they are looking at the applicant’s ability to succeed academically in what can sometimes be a pretty rigorous set of classes. Here, they look to the GMAT score, undergraduate school attended and GPA, and courses taken. Second, they’re looking at the applicant’s rationale for wanting to attend business school. They are trying to understand specifically where the applicant is looking to take his or her career and how business school will help get them there. Third, they’re looking at what that applicant will bring to that specific program, which may place an emphasis in one specific area, such as finance, marketing, entrepreneurship, or even teamwork. Fourth, all MBA schools are looking for potential students who have demonstrated the potential to develop the managerial skills required to succeed in business; for example, good communication skills, the ability to work well in teams, leadership skills etc. Based on my experience applying to and attending Kellogg, discussing the process with classmates, helping others write their essays, and writing recommendations, I believe that across these four elements there is a hidden key to gaining admission: simply starting the “admissions process” early, well before you are actually ready to write applications.
Perhaps the most important thing an aspiring MBA school applicant can do is realize he or she is an aspiring MBA school applicant earlier rather than later. Starting the process early is important simply because applying to and getting accepted at a top MBA program is a complicated, complex and competitive process. As written above, business schools are looking at a variety of criteria and evaluating you in many areas. And the top business schools are extremely competitive, there are a large number of applicants each year, and a safe bet is that 10 to 15% will get accepted at any given top program. One super simple example of “starting early” is taking the GMAT while still in college. The GMAT prep process, unless you’re a natural test taker, can be stressful. So, get it over with while you are in college or soon after, even if you’re not sure if you’ll ever go to business school. It’s not a great feeling to decide you want to go get an MBA, and realize you have many months of studying just to take the GMAT, which is but one small (yet critical) component of the overall application process. If you just consider yourself a potential MBA applicant while still in college, you’d check this box much earlier (and have time to retake the test if need be). The ideal situation is to decide that you want to go to business school early enough so that you can sketch out all of the required elements of a strong application, and compare those elements to your specific situation and experiences. This way, if you find that you are weak in any given area, you can proactively address this potential weakness in your application by building experiences or taking specific steps to strengthen that area of your application. You can “fill your application gaps,” so to speak, as your undergraduate and professional career progresses. For example, let’s say you become interested in applying to business school, you look in to what it takes to get admitted, and you realize you don’t have much community service experience to speak of (this was actually my situation). When this happened to me, I was 25, and four years removed from college. This was actually pretty late in the game, but I wasn’t actually planning to apply for a few years. So I did have time to find a role as an assistant youth hockey coach, which provided me with one year of community service related experience to reference (and which I enjoyed) in my application. Had I been 27 and two months away from submitting my application, it simply would have been a gap. There just wouldn’t have been time to address the situation. Community service, of course, is just one example. Let’s say you haven’t taken any analytically rigorous coursework since high school—no math, no economics, no finance, etc. If you have the time to take an online or community college class or two, you can fill this gap. But, if you are applying in two months—you just don’t have time. Hopefully the thoughts above increase your chances of admission. Most importantly, if you’re reading this early on, and have a few years or even a full year before actually applying, take advantage of this time. Review your “application” in your head, identify key gaps, and start working to fill them. Good luck. About Mark Sckoskiewicz Mark Skoskiewicz holds an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and an undergraduate degree from Indiana University – Bloomington. He’s a Manager at a boutique strategy consulting firm in Chicago, as well as a co-founder of MyGuru, a provider of in-person and online private tutoring and test prep, with a focus on the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT. Click here to learn more about MyGuru’s boutique in-person and online 1-1 tutoring and test prep.