Building a Successful Application Strategy

Admissions directors are frequently asked “What is the most important part of the application?” Each piece of the application provides the admissions committee with different information about a candidate’s skills, all of which is important to the evaluation of his or her candidacy. The admissions committee considers candidates multi-dimensionally. Critical areas they must assess include a candidate’s career goals and work experience, academic ability, motivation and drive, leadership and teamwork skills, and overall fit with the school.

The following describes each separate component of the MBA application process and explains how and why these components are evaluated as part of an overall applicant’s candidacy:

Career Goals
The MBA is a professional degree. For this reason, applicants have to be able to explain why they want an MBA. The necessity of the degree and a candidate’s professional goals should be clearly articulated. While he or she does not need to specify the exact job desired, the applicant will need to be able to articulate whether his or her goals include a change in career (and why!), the ability to assume different responsibilities, the development of skills necessary to start a business, etc.

Work experience
The information collected from your resume, letters of recommendation, interviews, and essays tells the admissions committee whether a candidate for admission is at the point in his or her career where an MBA will be beneficial. Is the applicant experienced enough to recognize what he or she has learned and what is needed to grow professionally? An applicant’s work experience typically demonstrates many things — that the candidate has progressed professionally; learned to recognize his or her strengths and weaknesses; understands the challenges of working with diverse groups of people; and accepted risk and responsibility.

Academic ability
Strong academic skills are necessary to complete your courses successfully. The demands and stress of MBA study are high, and the admissions committee wants to make sure that you have the necessary preparation. Your university records and your GMAT information provide a lot of the information needed to assess this.

Motivation and drive
The MBA is a degree designed to prepare its graduates to be able to manage complex business projects and personnel. Successful managers demonstrate certain personal qualities, such as motivation, leadership, and decision-making skills. The admissions committee evaluates essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation to learn what kinds of challenges and rewards motivate the applicant, what kinds of things you are passionate about. Just being a good student is not enough. Candidates for the MBA have to demonstrate that they learn continuously, take initiative, and are proud of accomplishment. Candidates should be sure to include experiences and anecdotes that demonstrate these qualities in their essays and interviews.

Leadership and Teamwork
MBA candidates need to be able to demonstrate their leadership and teamwork abilities. Admissions committees are looking for evidence of initiative, willingness to take risks, influence (direct or indirect) that brought about change at work or at home, or many other examples of leadership potential. Additionally, since so much of the work during the MBA degree and upon its completion is done in teams, it is important for the applicant to show that he or she has some team experience. (This could be at work, in sports, or even something that was accomplished collaboratively with family or friends.) The committee wants to hear how he or she grew by working with others to achieve common goals and overcome challenges or disagreements. It is very important when describing leadership and team experiences to give specific information about what was learned and the impact of the experience on the candidate’s professional development.

Overall fit
The MBA degree is an important step in one’s professional and academic development. For this reason, it is of critical importance to have researched the MBA program carefully. There are a number of ways to do this, including conversations with alumni; meetings with representatives from the business school at fairs, conferences and information sessions; and visits to the campus. As part of a successful application, the candidate will need to explain exactly why that MBA will help him or her achieve both personal and professional goals. Each business school offers a unique opportunity; the successful application will demonstrate how that particular opportunity will benefit the student, as well as how the MBA candidate’s experiences and skills will benefit the other students, faculty and staff associated with the program.

The chart illustrates how each component of the application contributes to the various dimensions of an MBA applicant’s candidacy.

Interviews Resume Letters of
Academic Ability and English Skills    
Work Experience      
Leadership and Teamwork      
Motivation and Drive    

Your essays and your evaluative interview (when offered) are the components that provide the most comprehensive views of you. These pieces also are the parts of the application over which you have the most control. While transcripts convey information about past academic performance, and letters of recommendation provide information from second parties, your essays and interview are your forums to tell us --in your own words -- who you are today and why you should be offered admission.

Sherry Wallace
Director of Admissions
Kenan-Flagler Business School
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Letters of recommendation are a great tool for the admissions committee to hear about the leadership skills, people management, and team experiences that are key competencies for success in an MBA Program - so think carefully about who to ask! Use a professional reference - someone who knows you well and either managed or worked directly with you - these individuals can provide depth and detail demonstrating you have the qualities our admissions committee is looking for in a very convincing way. Last but not least - spend some time with your references explaining why you want to pursue an MBA. Ensuring they are invested in your decision and understand your motivation for applying to MBA Programs ultimately results in a strong message to the admissions committee.

Niki Healey
Manager, MBA Recruitment
Richard Ivey School of Business
University of Western Ontario

We look for evidence that applicants are developing leadership skills, both in their formal work experience and in their involvement in social and community service organizations. After all, we're preparing our students for leadership roles in many types of organizations, and evidence that an applicant is already developing the necessary skills may give them an advantage over other candidates. Personal qualities that support an applicant's potential for leadership roles, including interpersonal skills, ability to work in teams, communication skills, and an innovative mindset are also helpful.

Peter Johnson
Director of Admissions
Haas School of Business
University of California, Berkeley

Leadership in the past is the best proof of managerial potential for the future, which is what our admissions committee is looking for. It can take many forms -- e.g. leadership in extra-curricular activities or on work teams. The best examples are those which show a sustained commitment to a group or organization, structuring activities and roles while persuading others of a shared vision. Some people are natural leaders and others develop their skills over time. Either way it is important to show that you have the raw material to refine during business school to reach a whole new level of leadership power.

Craig Hubbell
Associate Director of Admissions
Anderson School of Management
University of California, Los Angeles

Work experience is an essential component of the application process. The average work experience for candidates admitted to the HEC MBA program is five years. MBA participants are generally looking to transition or enhance their career paths and develop into leaders in their chosen fields. To facilitate this, much of the time MBA participants spend in class is spent working in groups. As a result, cooperative learning is inherent in the program. For this to be most successful, it is necessary for participants to bring multiple years of real-world experience with them. They are then not only learning from their professors but from from one another as well.

Rick Doyle
Business Development Manager – Asia
HEC MBA Program
HEC School of Management

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