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How to Impress MBA Admissions Officers

How to Impress MBA Admissions Officers

With most things In life, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. MBA admission committees, or adcoms for short, are no different.

This of course doesn’t mean that if you don’t knock the socks off your admissions officers the first time they read your application, they’re going to toss your file into the trash can and move on to the next one, like a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare.

What it means is that if you manage to jam your toe in the first time, getting yourself through that door leading to your dream B-school becomes that much easier.

So how do you do it? Is there a science to making good first impressions?

Yes there is, and we are here to break it down for you, step-by-step.

MBA applications typically have multiple components and the secret to impressing admission officers lies in doing the following.

  1. Cultivating your academic transcripts
  2. Getting a competitive GMAT score
  3. Building a strong professional resume
  4. Nailing your admission essay
  5. Highlighting diverse extra-curriculars
  6. Nailing your letters of recommendation

This list is not comprehensive and does not reflect the relative priority of each component. But it is the standard set of what you need to make a good impression on the adcoms.

Depending on the school you apply to there might be minor variations on what else they need. Below, we unpack each one in detail.

How to Impress MBA Admissions Officers


1. Cultivating your Academic Transcripts

Let’s begin with the elephant in the room, the mouse in the house, the panda in the verandah – your academic transcripts.

This is a sensitive topic, we know, and you’ve probably come across all 50 shades of shrill opinion on God’s green earth about it.

Your graduation grades don’t matter. You are much more than a number on a report card.

Yes, they do. That ultra niche management consulting firm only hires people who score 99.99% in every grade from play school to Ph.D.

It’s a never ending debate and you will find people on both (and extreme) sides of the argument and squeezed into every inch of space in between.

So what does this mean for the admissions committee?

Here’s the thing – your scores in any standardized test are an indicator of your potential. They tell a recruiter or an admissions officer what you might be capable of.

They do not guarantee that you will be able to translate your performances in standardized tests into favorable outcomes in a real-world scenario, time after time.

Or, to be more specific to the needs of an MBA, to grow a business and lead an organization. Assuming otherwise is like putting the cart before the horse.

The admissions officers understand this, which is why your transcripts are just one element of your application.

The essential trait the admissions officers are looking for in your application is the ability to be dynamic, face challenges, and emerge a winner.

A consistently good academic performance throughout is a good indicator of this.

An average or below par score in 12th grade, compensated by a great professional record is also an equally good indicator of this.

What the former demonstrates to the adcom is that you are reliable and can be trusted to score everytime you are passed the ball.

What the latter demonstrates to the adcom is that you are a fighter and even if you drop the ball once, you will stand your ground and make sure you score twice the next time.

The first shows you’re dependable. The second shows you’re resilient. Each is a valuable trait.

The adcom understand that even the very best have their bad hair days, bad hair months, bad hair years. Sometimes, we’re just stuck with a bad hair life. Do we still have it in us to walk up to the stage, face the world, put on a smile, and give it our best shot?

That is what it all boils down to.

So, if you have great scores in school and college, congrats! You’ve aced this part of the application and the adcom can’t wait to get to know you better.

If you don’t have great scores in school and college, congrats! You’ve just landed the chance to tell a great story of setback and redemption to grab the adcom’s attention, and they most certainly can’t wait to get to know you better. As the ancient Latin phrase goes, per ardua ad astra – through adversity, to the stars.

Also read:
All you need to know aout Official Academic Transcripts for GRE GMAT colleges abroad for MBA and MS in USA
Managing low academic grades (GPA) in MBA applications to write your success story
How career counselling helped me get into ISB despite poor academics

2. Getting a competitive GMAT score

In most cases your GMAT score is the most prominently visible component of your application. It’s the one thing that stands out, simply because it is a lot of information packed into 3 digits. And unlike your high school grades, you’re not stuck with a poor GMAT score for life.

So if you want to impress your admission officers, make sure have a good GMAT score.

What is a good GMAT score?

It is the average score range your target B-school has been known to accept in the past.

If you haven’t managed to score within that range, it is always a good idea to give the exam again.

There are limits to the number of times you can take the GMAT. There are also limits to the money in your bank account that you can use for those re-takes.

(Unless you’re Elon Musk, in which case you might want to consider buying the B-school instead of bothering with the GMAT)

So make sure you prepare meticulously for the GMAT exam, focusing especially on your weaknesses. This part of your application is a variable you have the greatest degree of control over, and you must put your best foot forward.

Also read:
How to overcome a low GMAT score and get into a top MBA program?

3. Building a strong professional Resume

Most MBA applications will require you to submit a resume detailing your qualifications and work experience.

The first thing to note here is that a resume is different from a CV. Make sure you pay attention to which of the two your B-school application requires. ( usually, its a resume)

A resume is a summary of your qualifications and professional experience, whereas a CV is a detailed catalogue of your academic credentials, your work experience, other qualifications, and references.

If you are required to submit a resume, make sure that it is no longer than a single page, unless you have a lot of professional experience.

The second thing of importance here is the presentation of your resume.

Avoid using thick, jargon-heavy descriptions that leave the reader scratching their heads in incomprehension.

For instance, consider the following sentence

“A lecherous sunrise flaunted itself over a flatulent sea, ripping the obsidian bodice of night asunder with its rapacious fingers of gold, thus exposing her dusky bosom to the dawn’s ogling stare."

This sentence, written by Stu Duval of New Zealand, is the winner of the 2021 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction prize, also known as the Bad Writing contest. It celebrates the most florid, pretentious, and just plain bad writing from all over the world.

While this may be a literary, and a rather extreme example, business writing fares little better when it comes to bad prose. A lot of resumes, and even LinkedIn bios today read like this

“...highly motivated professional skilled in executing data-driven methodologies to meet progressive strategic business goals while working at the intersection of big data analytics and sustainable AI.”

This is a very impressive feat of lexical obfuscation (pardon the French) that the writer probably imagined would leave the reader impressed.

However, it is more likely that the reader zoned out after the first five words and started thinking about the tuna sandwich they were going to have for lunch.

So how do we avoid ending up as a candidate for next year’s Bad Writing Contest?

A cardinal rule of good writing is…

Show, don’t tell.

You don’t need to tell your reader that you’re a highly motivated professional. You need to show it to them.

What this means for your resume is that you need to communicate clearly, concisely, and in as few words as possible, what difference you made to your organization.

For instance the sentence below does all of the above:

“Worked with the business development team to increase revenue from X to Y using data analytics.”

Albert Einstein famously said that if you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself. Unless what you do is more complicated than the theory of relativity, there’s no need to deviate from this principle. If it worked for Einstein, it’ll very likely work for the rest of us too.

MBA Resume Tips for your business school application
How to write a good resume

4. Nailing your MBA Admission Essays

Your admission essay is where you let the admissions officers know three things – why you want to do an MBA, why you want to do it from this particular school, and what difference you suppose it will make to your career goals.

Your admission essay is not an extension of your resume. The admission officers already know where you went to school and which companies you worked for. There is no point repeating information in your essay.

Be precise and honest, while making your essay as engaging as you can.

Also, make sure you stick to the word count. It is natural to feel a little daunted by the word count when you begin writing (how am I going to write 1200 words when I can’t even think of 120!) But once you begin writing, the inverse happens.

The floodgates of creativity are thrown open and words gush forth like the waters of a long-dammed river. With most essays, exceeding the word limit, rather than falling short of the word limit, is a challenge.

Telling an engaging, honest story in your essay while sticking to the word count lets the admission officers know that not only do you possess clarity of ideas and vision, you also possess the ability to communicate those ideas clearly and precisely to others.

The best B-schools are looking to produce dynamic leaders, not just churn out managers on an assembly line.

And as Winston Churchill said, “the difference between mere management and leadership is communication.” Your MBA essay lets the admission committee know which one of the two you are – manager or leader.

How important are MBA essays, and why?

5. Highlighting diverse extra-curriculars

Having good extra-curriculars is the secret sauce that can really make the adcom sit up and take notice.

Impressive extra-curriculars do not mean you need to take a year off from work to care for orphaned koalas in Australia.

It can be anything that shows you have a side to you that is either creative, caring, socially responsible, or all of these.

For instance, you may have hobbies like playing an instrument or singing, or you may have participated in theatre while in college.

Or you may be involved with a charitable organization that supports the aged or an NGO in your neighborhood that cares for stray animals.

Or perhaps you have a blog on which you write poetry, or a website where you teach coding for free ( or for money). Perhaps you sell handcrafted notebooks on Amazon or Etsy.

Maybe you put on a cape at night and paint graffiti on the walls of your hometown like Banksy.

Or maybe you are the mysterious Satoshi Nakomoto who created Bitcoin whose true identity no one knows ( but you will be generous enough to reveal the world’s best kept secret to the adcom in return for admission to your dream B-school)

Point is, there’s a little altruistic hero in all of us, and it is your job to draw that side of yourself out and bring it with you to a date with the admission committee.

Best tips on writing impressive MBA essays

6. Nailing your Letters of Recommendation

Depending on the school you apply to, you may be required to submit letters of recommendation along with your application.

A letter of recommendation is an endorsement from someone who has known you in a professional capacity.

It vouches for your capability to live up to the standards of excellence demanded by the school you are applying to.

A well-drafted recommendation letter goes a long way in shaping the decision of the admission committee regarding your candidature.

Make sure you get letters of recommendation from people you’ve had great professional or academic relations with, such as a professor you studied under or a manager you worked with.

What every applicant should know about MBA letters of recommendation


Tips from an Admissions Director

An article on admissions officers won’t be complete if we don’t include perspectives from an admissions officer. So we reached out to J.R. McGrath, Executive Director of Masters Admissions at CMU Tepper with a few questions.

MBA Crystal Ball: How do you evaluate candidates with limited or lesser than average work experience? What can they do to make their application stand out?

Tepper: At Tepper, we are always trying to ensure that candidates can be competitive for MBA level employment opportunities. When there is a candidate that has less work experience, we need to explore their career goals. There are some companies and/or industries that prefer or require more work experience.

If their intended career goals require more experience than they have, then we have a conversation about waiting or possibly considering a part-time option. That way they can gain experience while in their MBA to be competitive for their intended career field post-MBA.

For those that chose careers that are open to younger candidates, we are looking for a few things.

  1. What is their intellectual potential? Do they have excellent grades or test scores?
  2. What leadership experiences can they pull from to showcase they have the skillset needed for their roles?
  3. Do they have strong internships? What can they showcase on their resume to make future employers feel comfortable that they understand the work environment?

Overall, they need to show they have high potential since they have less experience than their fellow MBA students.

MBA Crystal Ball: What are some common but ineffective ways applicants try to impress the admissions team?

Tepper: There are two ways that come to mind.

1. Some candidates feel they need to make the most of their time when they speak to the admissions team.

When it turns ineffective is when they completely take over the conversation and talk at us. We want to get to know you but if we ask you a simple, basic question and you speak for 10 minutes plus, it is hard to follow and remember all you said.

Let the conversation happen naturally. If there are things you did not get to share, that is okay. It is a great opportunity for a follow-up email or conversation.

2. There are some that want to know, “what do you want to hear or what is the right answer?”

Please do not craft your story or resume to what you think we want to hear or see. When you do this, you typically have basic responses or cannot have a good conversation about the topic. It is much better to know yourself well and share the things that are important to you.

Believe me, we both will enjoy the conversation more when you are being true to yourself and you will be more impressive. That will lead to a better conversation as well as us getting to know the real you.

When we say we are trying to assess if you are the right fit for our program and community, we mean it. We can only make a confident decision if we know the real you.


Putting It All Together

The reason an MBA application has a number of components is because adcoms want to see every side of your personality. It also ensures that each candidate gets a fair shot at making it.

Good B-schools look for intelligent, sensitive, well-rounded individuals they can hone into becoming business leaders.

As John Zenger once said, “Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weaknesses, but by the presence of strengths.”

Let your strengths shine forth in your application, but don’t hide your weaknesses either.

Wear them proudly like hard-earned battle scars. That, in a nutshell, is the key to impressing your B=school admission officers.

Before we wrap up, here’s one final secret.

You don’t need to have a perfect profile. With a good MBA application strategy, what you lack in one area, can be made up in the others.

That’s our specialty at MBA Crystal Ball – helping applicants with not-so-perfect profiles to punch above their weight and improve their odds of success.

We regularly interact with admissions officers of the top business schools to stay updated on the latest developments in the MBA world.

Check out these MBA admission consulting reviews to get an idea of the variety of challenges these applicants have managed to overcome.

Drop us an email if you want one of our best admission consultants to work with you in your quest to get into a top business school in the world: info [at] mbacrystalball [dot] com

Also read:
Advice from the top Admission Officers

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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

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