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What Admissions Officers of top business schools look for in MBA applicants

What MBA admission officers in Bschools look for

Do I have what it takes to get an MBA degree?

It’s a question many young professionals ask themselves a few years into their careers. Although increasingly becoming the Mecca of the young, global professional, let’s just say that Business School is not everyone’s cup of tea.

While bschools wave the diversity flag, it still takes a specific type of person to get in and get through.

One way to find out whether you qualify for this rigorous program is to look at what BSchools want to see in applicants. The official MBA websites of universities have all this information. But in the name of glitzy marketing and image building, many of them make the content pretty difficult for the regular applicant to grasp.

Let’s see if we can simply it.

What you need to keep in mind here is that the basic criteria do not vary across business schools; only the standards do, depending on whether you plan to apply to the ‘top three’, ‘elite eight’, ‘sweet sixteen’ or ‘rest of the best’.

Doesn’t sound intuitive?

Consider this. A top-10 MBA college and a top-30 university would both say on their websites that they expect a ‘competitive GMAT score‘.

You won’t hear any reputed MBA college saying:

Despite our earnest attempts at gaming the MBA rankings, we are still low ranked. And we know you haven’t won any Nobel prize either. So in the interest of our financial well-being and your lust for a foreign degree, we’ll accept a low GMAT score from you.

While that may be exactly what they do in reality to stay in business. Look at the average GMAT scores they publish and you’ll know what the acceptable standards are. Ditto for other aspects they evaluate to select students.

Alright, point made. Let’s go deeper now into what MBA colleges want to see in the application.

What the top business schools want

Here’s a look at what the Admission Committees (Adcoms) at the top MBA colleges are looking for:

1. Good Test Scores

Superior intellectual ability and academic excellence are the most basic criteria for admission to the top B Schools, and these are judged by your GPA, course selection in college (if you have had the flexibility) and GMAT / TOEFL / IELTS scores.

But there is much more to an individual than their test scores, and a good business schools recognise that. They love creative problem-solvers who think out of the box, and these qualities will reflect in your track record, essay and interview.

Adcoms also want to see evidence of adequate quantitative ability and how comfortable you are crunching numbers. More so when you come from a non-quantitative background (like Arts, Medicine, Army, family business etc).

For a more holistic look, they will look at your grades and for attempts to strengthen vulnerable areas. Did you take extra classes to up your performance in subjects that dragged your grades down? Or did you take any courses (like MOOCs) to broaden your knowledge base? The point is, B-Schools prefer applicants who are well-rounded.

2. Leadership Qualities

Yes, there’s the ‘L’ word again! Well, we have just one thing to say – get used to it. Sure, not every MBA grad has emerged as a leader in their field but if you’re aiming to get into the top B Schools, then ‘leadership’ is a crucial box to check.

These elite institutions want to make sure they are investing in a candidate who will go out and make a difference, and you will have to demonstrate leadership potential either in your academic life or your work experience or elsewhere.

For instance, the application reviewer would want to know whether you are eager to shoulder new responsibilities at work, or whether you are the go-to person for both management and your peers. They also want to know whether you were a student leader in college or on the managing committee of, say, a cultural festival, or whether you played a key role in a fund-raiser.

Adcoms look for evidence that you have managed people and resources effectively, are adept at conflict-resolution and can work well under pressure.

B-schools love applicants who can seize the moment and carry a team with them. The assumption is you will continue to demonstrate these qualities after you graduate.

3. Work Experience

Unlike B-Schools in India that accept applicants straight out of college, international MBA colleges insist on some work experience; four to five years is ideal.

More than your career choice per se, they will assess you on how you have progressed within your career path vis-à-vis yourself before you are judged against other candidates, that is, whether your career path reflects a consistent upward graph.

Also, are you moving up faster your peers? If you’re in an unconventional career, take the trouble to put your work in context. Help the reviewer understand what the standards are within your industry and, more specifically, your particular company.

Adcoms are always looking for candidates who go beyond their job description, are involved in team-leading and managerial tasks, who proactively seek out opportunities for growth within the organisation, and who can see the bigger picture even at junior levels. Even volunteer commitment is a plus as it is indicative of your drive.

4. Clear Career Goals

If there’s one thing B-Schools definitely don’t like, it’s an applicant who is clueless about where they are headed. They do not want to invest in someone who will not put their program to good use.

Even if they don’t expect you to roll out a flawless roadmap during your interview, they expect you to, at least, have a few career choices in mind.

Will your MBA degree be a stepping stone to better managerial or leadership roles within your career? Or will a degree help you switch careers?

Alternatively, are you a budding entrepreneur and believe that an MBA degree is a stepping stone to realising this dream?

Since most applicants already have some work experience, they are expected to exhibit some maturity about the direction they want their careers to take. Having a few well-researched options is good, being clueless is not.

5. Social Involvement

Giving your work one hundred percent is extremely desirable but if you passionately pursue activities outside your work environment, you have an edge.

Of course, we don’t mean simple hobbies like hiking or playing the violin, but, let’s say, you consistently engage in green initiatives or are a music coach for children, that definitely counts.

Adcoms want to know what you do outside work, whether you believe in giving back to your community and whether you have a well-rounded personality. They need to know what excites you and what you are passionate about, other than work.

So, if you are part of a community initiative, part of a Big Brother programme, or part of political campaigns and rallies, it is important that you highlight these engagements in your essay and interview.

If work is to demanding to leave any time for personal pursuits, then adcoms will look for such engagements within your work environment, like CSR initiatives. They will also want to know what role you played in the initiative and whether you made a difference.

6. A ‘Fit’ With The Program

Wanting to get into a specific B School, even if you have the scores, is one thing; the other half of the equation is whether the B School wants you!

While all programs may appear similar on their websites, each one has a ‘personality’. Showing compatibility with the school and university culture is very important.

Admission officers want to see whether the applicant has done enough research about the management college to know what they want to take away from it and give back to the community. Good test scores can get you only this far.

7. Solid Communication Skills

More than any other degree in the world, as an MBA student you’d be expected not just to be good at what you do, but to also ‘show’ that you are good. Many Indian professionals do ok with the former, but they suck at the latter.

You’ll find many instances in your office where brilliant employees doing phenomenal work are stuck in their cubicle for years.

At Harvard, class participation makes up for upto 50% of the overall grade. The admissions office wouldn’t want to fill the class with brilliant students who can’t make a pitch for their ideas and opinions.

The filtering for such candidates starts at the application stage. If you can’t do an impressive job with your application (where you’ve had so much time to prepare), admission officers won’t be convinced that you are ready for the big league.

Your essays and interviews are your best bets to demonstrate your communication skills and put in a strong case.

Now that we’ve covered the main criteria that will define the destiny of your application during the screening and admission process, a word of practical advice – make sure your application is absolutely complete when you submit it.

Provide all the details sought in the application form. Make sure there are no omissions, no unnecessary additions, and no deferred submissions like GMAT scores, recommendations and transcripts.

If that happens, your application will not be looked at for several weeks by the adcom, during which time you will be spending time communicating with someone from operations. Definitely not a good first impression.

Take care of these points to improve your chances of getting selected by your dream college.

We interact with the top admission officers of the elite programs. Here are some of the interviews we’ve published:
Q&A with the top bschool admission officers.

Send us an email if you’d like some professional help with your applications: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

Read these related posts:
How to Impress MBA Admissions Officers
How to improve your profile in college?
How to plan your MBA Application Timeline
What is most important in MBA applications?
How to get into Harvard Business School
How to get into the Stanford MBA program
How this Electrical Engineering graduate got into UCLA MBA with a $60k Scholarship
Applicant profile improvement leads to offers from India, USA and Canada with scholarships
Image Source: The Telegraph

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

11 thoughts on “What Admissions Officers of top business schools look for in MBA applicants”

  1. Hi Sameer,

    I am 27 years old and have a B.Tech Engineer with 5 years experience in IT. I have completed my 10th, 12th and B.Tech from West Bengal Board.

    10th – 79%
    12th – 79%
    B.Tech – 8.01 GPA

    Currently I am preparing for GMAT. I am actually confused about the course i should aim for, i.e. executive(1 yr) or a full time(2 yrs). Also, which one will be the better option – doing an MBA from Abroad or from India for experienced people.

    Dipanwita Ray

  2. @Rakshith: Thanks, buddy!

    @Dipanwita: Start with the geography you want to work in and the 1-year vs 2-year dilemma will get sorted. With your current experience, 2 year programs will be better suited.

  3. hi Sameer,

    Thanks for the insights. I have 11 years of experience in IT in Banking domain and would like to go for MBA from tier 1 university outside India.
    I am preparing for GMAT and sample test scores have been encouraging. I am wondering if I should focus on 2 years program or 1 year program.

    Note – I scored 760 in GMAT in 2010 and could not go due to financial constraints. But now I think I am in better position both experience wise as well as from financial aspects.

  4. Hi Sameer,

    I am an IT professional with a 2.5 years of experience. I completed my B.E. from Gujarat University with decent grades (10th- 88, 12th- 81 B.E.- 8.7 CGPA).

    I am in dilemma whether I should go for an MBA degree (abroad- Canada,US) right now or should I wait and gain some more experience?

    Please help resolve my query.

    Jay Maniar

  5. Hi Sameer,
    Greetings for the day,
    I am a Pharma professional (30 years old guy) (M.Pharm., PhD from one of the renowned university) having 2 years of Project management experience. I am planning to do MBA from one of the world class university. I am preparing for GMAT. Should I wait for some more time to get more experience?

    I have one more doubt, Does PhD is hurdle to get in to MBA or its an added advantage to my career.

    Please guide me.

  6. @Rahul: A one year program would fit better. After 11 years, most don’t want to spend any more time in the class than what’s absolutely required.

    @Jay: Waiting for a year more would put you in the sweet spot, since you’d be close to the median for most 2 year MBA programs.

    @Sudheer: An MBA after a PhD is unusual and would require a solid reason to convince the Adcoms, since you’ve spent a lot of time in the academic world and have lower experience compared to peers of the same age.

  7. Hi Sameer,

    This is Rohit, I will be completing my undergraduate (M.Sc. mathematics and B.E. Civil) this year, with a CGPA of 6.5 from BITS Pilani. have a few internships in my account but not with a great credibility as one might say. I want to settle outside from India, preferably US.
    My question would, should I pursue MBA from IIMs or directly go for B-Schools outside India. also, should I get a job ex of 2 years and then go for MBA or just after my graduation. quite a dilemma I am in.

    Please guide me


  8. Greetings
    I am Sanchita and I am currently pursuing bachelors in commerce form University of Delhi with an aggregate CGPA of 6.885. My score for 10th was an 8 pointer and my 12th score was 93%.
    I am really perplexed if I should do MBA from abroad or from India as my end career goal is to be an entrepreneur.
    I currently have an offer letter from National institute of information technology but I am still in a position of my life where everything seems like a good option.
    If you could, then please guide me through.

    Sanchita gupta

  9. I wanted to know the basic difference between top tier institute and non top tier institute, why companies do look after the talent from top tier, why they did not consider from non top tier institute, what the basic quality, skills and ability they founds in top tier students, which they can’t find in non top tier. I just don’t understand the Point.Are they have already setup their mind and forms an image that the only talent they can get from top tier.Can anybody tell the difference ?


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