6.6 percent, 10.6 percent, 12.6 percent. Those are the acceptance rates at Stanford, Columbia, and Wharton, of course, and if you're a prospective MBA student, you probably know them by heart. With numbers like these, getting into business school is difficult for even the most qualified applicants, and there is no magic formula that guarantees you'll be accepted. Still, even the top schools have to admit someone, and it might as well be you.
So what does it take to stand out? In a word, knowledge. Know yourself: Be able to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Know why you want to get an MBA and what you plan to do with it. Know the school you're applying to, how it can help you achieve your goals, and where you stand with regard to the rest of the applicant pool. Last, know the process. Understand how you can maximize your chances of landing in the "accept" pile. Fortunately, we can help you figure some of this out. Just read on.
Where to Apply?
The best schools for you are not necessarily the top three in the Business Week or U.S. News & World Report rankings. The top-tier schools have many advantages, of course-higher starting salaries, more prestigious alumni, and elite recruiters among them. But even an elite school may not satisfy other important criteria, such as geographic location, specific areas of study, or flexibility.
Research is key to determining which schools fit your needs. School Web sites are probably the best resource. Embark.com's Matchmaker feature quizzes you on the importance of factors such as location, areas of study, selectivity, and placement information, then spits out a list of schools that match your criteria.
Even if you're set on attending a top-five program, it pays to get to know the ins and outs of each school thoroughly. Admissions officials' biggest gripe is generic applications-cookie-cutter essays and recommendations that don't speak to the individual school.
If you're looking for...
• Great schools for women: University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern's Kellogg, and the University of Virginia's Darden are Working Woman's top picks.
• The best schools for technology: Computer World singles out Northeastern, University of Texas at Austin, University of Maryland, University of Alabama, and University of California at Irvine.
• Top programs for e-commerce: MIT's Sloan, Carnegie-Mellon, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton, Stanford, Kellogg, and UT Austin all made Business 2.0's list.
• Great schools for budding entrepreneurs: The best include Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, the University of California at Los Angeles' Anderson, and Sloan.
• Programs strong in finance: Take a look at Wharton, Chicago, New York University's Stern school, Stanford, and Columbia.
• Nonprofit-focused programs: U.S. News & World Report cites Yale, Harvard, Kellogg, Stanford, and Case Western Reserve University as the top five.
• Unusual programs: Check out Chicago's international MBA, Kellogg's media-management major, and Columbia's January-entry option for people who prefer to skip the summer internship and graduate in 16 months.
When to Apply
You'll notice that many schools have three or four application deadlines with drop-dead dates as late as March or April. Don't be fooled into actually applying that late, though. Nearly every admission director gives the same advice: Apply early. In the early rounds, the field is clear and every space in the class is still open. That isn't likely to be the case a few months later.
This is especially true at the most competitive schools, where the vast majority of the applicants are qualified. Would you rather be the two-hundredth applicant with 720 GMATs, a 3.9 GPA, and five years at a top consulting firm or the two-thousandth? The director of admissions at Dartmouth's Tuck School confessed in a Business Week interview that in 1999, just four people were admitted in the fourth round. And smart candidates know to apply early to Stanford, where the acceptance rate in the first round can be as high as 10 or 11 percent (much better than the average acceptance rate of 6.6 percent).
Admissions directors will say this until they're blue in the face, and it's true: There is no formula for acceptance. While policies vary from school to school, of course, business schools are very committed to evaluating the whole package an applicant presents. Want proof? Chicago has accepted applicants with GMAT scores in the 300s; Darden one year rejected five out of six applicants with perfect GMATs.
Think through the picture that your application will present, and try to balance out any weaknesses. For example, if you majored in philosophy or fine arts in college, make sure to prepare thoroughly for the quantitative part of the GMAT, and consider taking a statistics, economics, or calculus course at a community college to show you can handle the work. If your work experience is in a nontraditional field such as teaching or journalism, use your essays to highlight leadership roles you've taken on and specific projects you've tackled.
• Undergraduate grades: Schools are going to pay particular attention to your performance in quantitative courses like calculus, statistics, accounting, and economics—especially if you majored in a nonquantitative field like English or philosophy. The overall difficulty of your course load and the school's reputation will also likely be factored in. Unfortunately, you can't go back and change your transcript, so what can you do to overcome a less-than-stellar college career? Strong GMATs and solid work experience might be enough, but your essays are powerful tools here. Use them to discuss circumstances that might have affected your GPA—perhaps you had to work your way through school, experienced a personal tragedy (steer clear of whining here, just talk about how the experience changed you), or were just young and too focused on having a great time instead of on academics. Whatever the reason, a well-thought-out essay discussing what you learned from the experience can work wonders.
• GMAT: These scores are rarely the sole determining factor for admission, but don't take them too lightly, either. At top schools, you'll be competing against people with very high scores, and many of them won't get in. So it pays to make sure that you can hold your own. Aim to get a GMAT score within 50 points of a school's average; if your score is lower, consider retaking the test. Schools don't generally notice or care how often you take the test—they only see the three most recent scores. However, unless there are extenuating circumstances, you aren't likely to raise your score much from test to test, though prep courses can help a lot. Be sure to read Jungle's Ace the GMAT for some great tips on taking the test. Then check out The No Stress Guide to the GMAT CAT to tackle sample questions from Princeton Review.
• Work experience: In the 1980s, over half of MBA students had just two years of work experience or less. Now the vast majority of applicants have worked for at least four or five years. What admissions committees are looking for here is evidence that you've made progress in your career, taken on increasing responsibility, and demonstrated leadership. Strong communications skills and a proven ability to work well in groups are also important. Highlight these experiences throughout your application.
• Recommendations: Almost every school will want to see one recommendation from your current supervisor. If that's not possible for whatever reason, one from a former supervisor is also acceptable. Choose your recommenders carefully—a big name won't help you as much as a thoughtful, positive letter from someone who knows your work well. The kiss of death is a recommendation where the person just checks off the boxes and doesn't make any personal comments, so make sure to give your recommenders enough time to do a thorough job. Give them a copy of your application and resumé and brief them on how you believe that you can best contribute to your particular school. The more informed they are about the school and your application as a whole, the better the recommendation will be. A little-known tip: If given the option to provide an additional recommendation, think twice. Unless the recommender can really add something to your application, an additional rec can hurt you more than it can help you.
• Essays: Proofread! You wouldn't believe the number of essays top schools receive that have typos or use the wrong school's name (e.g., an essay for Wharton discussing the writer's lifelong dream of attending Harvard). A small mistake can land an application in the reject pile, so make sure you have someone else read your essays. Following directions is also crucial—schools do not appreciate essays that are over the word limit, and if the directions say to double-space, then by all means do so.
A significant pet peeve of admissions offices is the generic essay that doesn't answer the particular question asked. Don't try to reuse the essay you wrote for one school for another—admissions personnel can spot them. Take the time to make sure that the essay serves a purpose. It should highlight something about you that the rest of your application doesn't show. Anecdotal information is the most effective—be careful that you don't fall back on simply regurgitating your resumé. Essays that address a failure and demonstrate how you overcame it can often be the most notable, but pick your topic carefully. Not making the soccer team in high school is probably not the best choice.
Wherever possible, use the essays to differentiate yourself from the other 3,000 applicants. One Wharton hopeful went so far as to include with her application a product she had invented. It worked: She got in, and two years later, the admissions office still remembered her application. But make sure to check with the school in question before you take extreme measures—some admissions offices have strict policies against sending any additional material and will just toss your offering straight into the trash.
Most of all, understand what the school is looking for and be able to articulate why you want to attend that particular program. Wherever possible, draw parallels between who you are and what you've done and the characteristic values of the school. And don't be afraid to let your personality show—that is what will ultimately make your application memorable.
Now that you've gotten your application ready, how can you get it to the schools of your choice? Most schools encourage applicants to submit their applications electronically, either through the school's own Web site or through a service such as Embark.com.
Your applications have been sent, so now what? You may be asked to come in for an interview, or you might request one, but be sure to research each school's policy. Some schools conduct interviews by invitation only, some will let anyone who wishes schedule an interview, and some don't interview at all. At invitation-only schools, it's generally a good sign if you are asked to interview, but again, know the school's policy. Some schools interview all candidates who are under serious consideration, while others use the interview to make a call on a borderline application.
Your interview might be on campus, or with an alum or campus representative in your area. In either case, unless you're told otherwise, dress professionally and treat it as you would a job interview: arrive promptly, don't talk negatively about your boss or your coworkers, and make sure that you are prepared to talk about why you want an MBA, why that particular school is the one you want to attend, and what you can offer.
If you've followed our tips, you should get fat acceptance envelopes (and with some schools, congratulatory phone calls) from every school you applied to. But even the best-laid plans go awry. On the off chance you're waitlisted or rejected, what's the next step?
If you find yourself waitlisted, be patient and don't flood the admissions office with pleas from your grandma and your cousin Sue about why you should be admitted. It's okay, however, to follow up with any supporting material that adds something new to your candidacy—maybe you got a promotion at work, or you took the GMAT again and received a higher score. If you haven't had an interview (at an interview-optional school), request one.
If—and we truly hope you're not reading this far—you didn't get in, think through your application to see where the weaknesses are and spend the next year addressing them. It may be that taking (and acing) a calculus class will help, or perhaps simply another year of work experience will do the trick.
Some schools, including Tuck, Fuqua, Kellogg, and the University of Michigan, will give you feedback on why you weren't admitted if you ask. You should definitely take advantage of this and follow their recommendations. You can then reapply the next year and have a much better chance of admission.