MBA Season: How to Create a Winning Application for Advanced Degree Programs

There's no golden ticket, but use this foundation to be a stand-out applicant

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In this special five-part BlackEnterprise.com series, Daria Burke, founder of BlackMBAWomen, shares insider tips and insights on getting your MBA to upgrade your career. You’ll find out how to make the choice, leverage opportunities and maximize professional fulfillment in the job market.

Prospective students often ask me for advice on maximizing their chances of getting into a top-ranked school. The truth is, there is no golden ticket. MBA admissions decisions are based on a holistic approach, with consideration of each facet of your application. So, as you start to develop your MBA game plan, remember that business schools are evaluating your candidacy through three lenses:

The student: One strong indicator of how you will fare is how you stack up against your dream school’s class profile. They will assess your academic potential as demonstrated through your undergraduate record (GPA, pedigree of the school you attended, level of difficulty of your major). Are your undergrad stats aligned with most recently admitted students? Use these data points to understand what the admissions team seeks in successful candidates.

The good—and bad—thing about this part is that it’s in the past. There’s nothing you can change about it. The best solution is to take the GMAT. It levels the playing field for applicants and plays a role in helping the admissions team understand if you can handle the rigor of a competitive MBA program.

While your GMAT score does not fully determine your chances of being admitted into business school, it most certainly matters and can greatly affect your chances of admission. That said, many applicants tend to focus on the average score of the schools they’re applying (for top schools, the average is 700 or more) but a competitive score is usually one in the school’s 80% range, which you can find on their Website. If the GMAT is your greatest concern, consider investing in a professional test-prep program like Kaplan.

The professional: Admissions directors are looking for professional maturity, self-awareness and the ability to leverage the MBA to successfully meet your career goals. What type of work experience do you have? They rely on your resume, essays and letters of recommendation to evaluate this aspect of your candidacy.

The perfect resume is honest, well-organized and outlines your professional achievements with as many quantifiable data points as possible.

Essays are often the most daunting part of the application process, particularly because they’re the only part of the application that is completely under your control. They give you the opportunity to articulate: 1) your short- and long-term career goals and how the MBA supports them; 2) your decision to pursue the MBA at this point in your career; and 3) how you fit with that particular program.

Your job is to demonstrate your readiness to join the incoming class and potential as an alum. My greatest piece of advice is to do your homework and write a unique, intricate essay for each school to which you’re applying. Admissions officers will see right through an essay that you repurposed from another application by doing a quick replacement of the school name.

And don’t forget about the optional essay, which is the perfect place to address any deficits in your application. For example, if you have a low undergraduate GPA, you will want to use the optional essay to further highlight examples in your professional experience that illustrate your quantitative and analytical ability. You may also use the optional essay to explain why you were not able to secure a letter of recommendation from your direct manager (ie. “My boss doesn’t know I’m applying to business school.”)

Finally, your letters of recommendation provide a third-party assessment of your leadership potential, contributions to an organization and how you function on a team. The majority of business schools require two recommendations, of which one should be from your current manager. The other ideal person would be a former boss or client who can attest to the value you would bring to the business school community. Who you choose is a reflection of your judgment and decision-making skills, so be sure to select people who know you well and will favorably speak to your experience in great detail. A recommendation from a prominent figure adds no value if it’s generic and lacks examples.

The person: To gain admission into a top business school, you must genuinely portray yourself as a unique individual with talent, passion and purpose.

“We seek applicants who want to transform their lives—students with strong intellectual and interpersonal skills who believe that business can be a force to improve the world,” says Peter Henry, Dean of the New York University Stern School of Business. “We, in turn, provide our students with an experience that inspires and enables them to create value—for business, for society and for themselves.” In other words, they’re looking for leadership potential.

The interview is traditionally the final step in the admissions process. Interviews may or not be blind—meaning that the interviewer has not read your application; At most, they have read your resume— and may either be conducted by a member of the admissions team or an alumnus of the program.

Some schools require the interview as part of the process and extend invitations only to candidates whose application piqued their interest in learning more about you, while others make it optional for you to schedule. Regardless, you should treat the admissions interview like a job interview. Come armed with your resume and a fresh review of your essays and the school’s website. Look the part and be prepared to show them who you are and why you’re the perfect fit for their program!

Ultimately, there is no magic formula for getting into a top MBA program. Admissions committee members want to know that you have what it takes to thrive in the classroom, build an impressive post-MBA career, and contribute to society and the school. Your goal as an applicant is to tell your unique story, striking the perfect balance of fitting in and standing out by clearly defining the diverse set of authentic experiences that distinguish you from thousands of other applicants.

Daria Burke is a marketing and brand strategist, public speaker, and founder of Black MBA Women. The former beauty executive also works as an independent strategic marketing consultant in New York City, helping luxury, beauty and consumer goods clients with a range of marketing initiatives. Burke earned her MBA in marketing and strategy from the New York University Stern School of Business and her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan.

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