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What business schools really want

What business schools really want, image by Will Folsom
Image by Will Folsom

Competition to get onto MBA courses at top business schools is at an all time high. Being a strong candidate may not be enough when your competitors have the same qualities and experiences as you. It is important to have a ‘cutting edge’ and a complete understanding of what a business school really wants from applicants.

The Fundamentals
At the most basic level you should have a minimum of three years work experience in a business environment, occupying a role that has given you responsibility and scope to demonstrate leadership ability. You will have achieved a good undergraduate degree in any discipline – there are fast track programmes available for those who have previously studied Business/Finance/Economics.

Candidates will also have to perform strongly in the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) - how strongly will vary from school to school, but the top institutions will demand an impressive score. (GMAT is a standardised test that assesses analytical, quantitive and verbal skills).

There are four main assessment criteria upon which a school admissions office will select candidates: intellectual ability, managerial and leadership potential, personal attributes and career plan.

Intellectual ability will be judged primarily on an applicant’s undergraduate record and their GMAT score. Extent of managerial potential will be inferred from previous work experiences and positions held.

Personal attributes (such as determination, enthusiasm, etc.) will be viewed at a more general level. Extracurricular and community activities will play an important part here. In addition, schools want applicants to have a clear idea of what they want from their MBA, and how this will add to their clearly defined career goals.

Candidates will need to demonstrate their suitability for a particular MBA. To do this they will have to fulfil the paradoxical aim of 'fitting in' whilst 'standing out'.

In this context, fitting in means having the ability to handle the basic requirement of the course. For example: how will you handle the coursework, does your background suggest you will get on well with the other students?

Standing out is an equally important quality for potential MBA students and this will mean having that ‘wow’ factor that distinguishes you from other applicants. This might be an interesting former career such as a military position, or aid work in a developing nation.

Decision Time
How do the admissions boards of top business schools make their selections when confronted with thousands of highly qualified and motivated candidates? The truth is that business schools at the top end of the market – Wharton, Harvard, Insead – have no need to compromise their standards at all. Due to the quantity of top talent wishing to take MBAs at these schools, they need only accept applicants who have very few weaknesses.

A further issue that business schools consider is the diversity of the student body. White males have traditionally dominated MBA programmes so women and individuals from minority groups are particularly encouraged to apply. Admissions staff monitor the balance of applicants closely in an attempt to ensure the ‘desired mix’ is achieved.

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