I am so excited to finally share this article. It’s been a long work in progress and it covers a topic many of you have asked me about – advice on applying to business school! Business school admissions are extremely competitive. And for many, the business school application process is long and grueling. My husband, Philip, has an MBA from Wharton and I have one semester left at Columbia Business School. We both learned a lot throughout the application process so I’m spilling all our secrets and resources to help you get into the business school of your choice. You’ll find our best business school application tips consolidated in this post!
If you are ready to apply, the first thing I recommend you do is purchase the book Great Applications for Business School by Paul Bodine. Philip and I used this as a guidebook for everything. In addition to sound advice, it provides several examples of essays and sample letters of recommendation.
STANDARDIZED TESTS & GPA
Which test do schools prefer?
I applied to business school with a GRE score and my husband applied with a GMAT score. The vast majority of MBA programs accept both GMAT and GRE scores now. I get a lot of questions from prospective MBA students about which test they should take. Many worry that admissions committees have an unspoken bias against the GRE. I do not believe this is the case. Most MBA programs explicitly state that they have no test preference (on their websites and at admissions events).
Should I take the GMAT or the GRE?
If you are trying to decide which test is right for you, my advice is to take a full-length GMAT and GRE practice exam (see below for links to the best practice tests and prep resources). You’ll get a sense for where your baseline score is and which test has more sections that suit your strengths. Try to simulate a real testing environment and follow the recommended times allotted for each section.
Once you have your initial practice scores on both tests, you should usually focus on the test where you have scored higher on a percentile basis. If test scores are the weakest aspect of your profile consider taking the GRE. Schools only have to report GMAT scores for the purpose of rankings. This might give them a bit more leeway to take accept a candidate with lower GRE and otherwise strong profile.
How do I prepare for the GMAT/GRE?
The best way and time needed to prepare will depend on your learning style. My husband and I both decided to take prep courses as an introduction to the tests. He took an accelerated two-week GMAT prep course and I took ten week GRE prep course, both offered by Manhattan Prep. We then supplemented the prep course with tutoring. We were both working 70+ hour weeks when we were studying for the tests so I budgeted 6 months of time to prepare and take the test.
Prep Course Route
The benefit of the prep course was that it provided an overview of each test and a review of the math/verbal concepts you need to know. That said, prep courses are expensive, and you could cover all the same material through buying well recommended books. Ultimately, they provided a good overview but neither of us found them particularly helpful in getting to our goal scores.
While the prep course laid a solid foundation, our tutor provided the tools for us to get the exact scores we wanted. There are specific strategies to attack most types of GMAT/GRE problems. A good tutor should be able to focus your time and give you the exact resources to quickly increase your score. My husband and I both worked with Nirmal Chandraratna from GMAT Coach NYC. Nirmal is an amazing tutor and based in the New York area. We highly recommend and refer every friend of ours to Nirmal. He is friendly, flexible, kind and develops a customized game plan to meet your needs. If you are not in the New York area and decide to work with a tutor, I hope you can find a Nirmal!
What are the best GMAT and GRE prep resources?
GMAT practice problems
• GMAT: Official Guide, Verbal Review, and Quant Review are the gold standard. They are retired test questions, so you will get a very strong idea of how different topics are tested.
GMAT practice tests
• GMATPrep offers six practice tests from the folks that administer the official GMAT, two for free. These tests are the most accurate in difficulty to the real test so use them wisely.
• ManhattanPrep offers one free practice test and five additional practice tests for $49.
GRE practice problems
• 1,007 Questions for the GRE is surprisingly good and really close to the level of difficulty and scope of the questions on the actual GRE.
• Manhattan Prep 5-lb Book is great although some of the questions in the quant tend be harder than the actual GRE.
GRE practice tests
• PowerPrep offers four practice tests form the folks that administer the GRE, two for free. Again, there are only four that CANNOT be re-used without seeing the same first math and verbal section, so be very judicious with them (the GMAT draws from a pool, so you can reset them without seeing too many repeat questions).
• ManhattanPrep offers 1 free practice test and 5 additional practice tests for $39
• Nirmal Chandraratna, GMAT & GRE Coach: http://gmatcoachnyc.com/
• Manhattan Prep: https://www.manhattanprep.com/
What GMAT/GRE score do I need?
For top MBA programs, I was advised to aim for the 80th percentile or above on each section. That said, while test scores are important, they are just one part of a holistic MBA application process. Your candidacy is not ruined if you are unable to score in the 80th percentile. MBA programs will usually list their admitted students test score range online. Check your target schools test score range to set a realistic goal. Keep in mind, MBA programs do not release any statistics on admitted students GRE scores.
When should I take the test?
Start your test prep early! Information sessions and writing the essays take so much out of you. It is best to get the test out of the way as early as possible so you can focus completely on the application when you are ready to apply. Depending on your baseline and goal scores, you should give yourself 3-6 months of time to prepare for the test. GMAT & GRE scores are valid for five years once you take the test.
How important is my undergrad GPA?
- If you are an undergraduate reading this, go for the best GPA that you can get because this will only help you later down the road. There is no formal GPA cut off for MBA programs but it is helpful to see where your GPA lines up against a schools GPA range for admitted students listed on their websites.
- A weak undergraduate record can be easily overcome with a strong GMAT/GRE score.
- If you have a very low GPA, you can address it head on in the “optional essay” section. Do not make excuses. Concisely, show awareness for the low GPA and the lessons you have learned. (For example: I would like to note that my overall GPA of 3.x was lowered by my performance my freshman year. I was learning how to juggle my XYZ commitments with adjusting to life at a large university from a small high school. I have since learned better time management skills without my performance suffering).
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
When should I apply?
The average amount of work experience among students entering top business schools is typically four or five years. I started business school with four years of work experience under my belt.
There is a real reason for the need to have solid work experience. In MBA classes, a large part of classroom learning is discussion based with lots of cold calling. Being able to apply experiences from your time in the workforce is the best way to contribute.
While it is not impossible to get admitted with less than three years of work experience, I know of a few cases where someone with 0-3 years of work experience and a near perfect application was rejected from most programs. By waiting a few years more, they likely could have been admitted as a first-time applicant to their top choice school.
How important are campus visits?
Most MBA programs offer the opportunity to visit campus, meet with current students and attend a class. The visits allow you to learn about each program, express your interest and feel out whether you are a fit. You’d be surprised how vastly different each program is.
Admissions usually tracks who has visited campus so I highly recommend carving time out for a visit. That said, if you are applying to a program on the other side of the country they likely won’t hold it against you if you are unable to attend an on campus session. If your target school is in the same city or a few hours away, not visiting might be more of a red flag. Throughout the year, admissions teams also travel and host information events in many cities across the country. If a target school has traveled to your home city, it’s important to attend their event.
Be sure to think of a few thoughtful questions to ask in advance. I still remember when an admissions committee member was discussing the classic weakness essay question someone asked the question, “what do I do if I do not have any weaknesses”? Red flag! Thoughtful questions followed by a personal introduction can leave a lasting impression. Thoughtless questions can sink your candidacy.
How do I create a list of target schools?
While geography, culture and academic offerings are all important components of fit, remember that the MBA is a professional degree. Too many people go to business school with only a vague idea of what they want to do after. Due the prevalence of group think, business school is a difficult place to figure out what you want to do with your life. Pick a career goal when you’re selecting your target schools and be sure the programs have all placed students there in prior years. This can be easily accomplished through a combination of checking a schools employment report and LinkedIn.
How do I polish my resume for the application?
Position your resume to paint the best picture of your professional experience. Do not lie. This can get your admission revoked. Use metrics on your resume when possible. For example, you instead of stating that you “managed a team of sales reps and improved YOY performance” say that you “managed fifteen sales reps and accomplished a 23% increase in cold call conversions and 35% increase in annual team revenue generation.”
What should I say in my essays?
Admissions committees place high value on the quality of your work experience. Describing your work experience, reasons for applying to business school and your future goals well is critical to your business school application.
Your essays should show a logical progression of events that led you to realize business school was the right move in your career. The story you tell should be consistent throughout the application. Some of the essay questions may seem straightforward, but they require a large volume of introspection.
Don’t use one template for all schools. Admissions committees will be able to tell that you did not do your research. You should be able to demonstrate that you have spoken with current students or professors to identify unique resources at the school that will help you reach your career goals.
Lastly, there is a cottage industry of application consultants who offer to help package your application for a generous fee. Philip did not use an essay consultant and I had editing help from a family member who has extensive experience helping students with admissions essays. Be wary of essay consultants. They are extremely expensive, and I have heard too many horror stories from friends. They’re often spread too thin to give you adequate attention and don’t always exercise the best judgement or give the best advice. If you go the essay consultant route, make sure you work with someone who comes highly recommended by a trusted source.
How do I get strong letters of recommendation from my coworkers?
Most business schools will require two letters of recommendation. Ideally, your recommendations should come from someone who has supervised you at work. As you will see in the Great Applications for Business School book, the recommendations are very, very detailed. A strong recommendation will almost always have excessive praise while citing specific examples of your work. If you have doubts someone will speak very highly of you, DO NOT select them to write your recommendation. You want to pick someone who is a good writer, somewhat senior and someone who you have 100% confidence they will speak very highly of you. If this doesn’t sound like your direct manager then just ask someone else!
Your recommenders are likely super busy. Provide them with detailed bullet points of your accomplishments. Philip and I also gave them a copy of the Great Applications for Business School book (with the with the sample letter pages flagged) so they had tangible examples of what a strong letter should look like.
I was invited to interview! What do I do now?
Each school has a very different interview process. At Columbia I had a fun conversational interview with a young alumnus. At Wharton, my husband had a contentious group interview where several applicants were hostile towards others’ ideas. Some schools are known to put zero weight on the interview. For others it is as crucial as your letters of recommendation. It’s hard to generalize across schools so do your research and, if you can, speak to a current student about their interview experience and advice.
No matter where you interview, remember to express confidence but do not be cocky. The schools are trying to make sure you would be a pleasant classmate and that you are who you portrayed yourself to be in the application.
ACCEPTED, WHAT’S NEXT?
The best part! I still remember the moment I got the call that I was accepted into Columbia. Philip and I were in between immigration and customs at IAH. I turned my phone on to a congratulatory voicemail and I started screaming so loudly that everyone at the baggage claim turned to stare. While you think the work and research might be done once you are accepted, that is not the case. Here are three things to do once you get your acceptance.
The first thing you should do is say thank you to anyone who helped you in a meaningful way with your application (friends, family, mentors, tutors, recommenders etc). This seems obvious but many people overlook this. DON’T JUST SEND A TEXT. Go the extra mile to write a thank you letter or thoughtful email to that person. You can also consider getting a small gift for your recommenders/biggest advocates or take them to coffee as a token of appreciation. It took everyone a lot of time to help you. Expressing gratitude is a sign of your appreciation and respect.
Start building your MBA network
Connect with your future classmates and current students. Join the admitted student groups online and try to attend some of the admitted student events. These events can be overwhelming, but they are very helpful. They provide an opportunity to meet potential new classmates, meet current students and they are a great way to get a feeling for whether you fit into that school’s culture. I met two of my best friends from business school at a Columbia admitted student event. Your MBA network is invaluable and I encourage you to start getting to know your classmates.
Make a graceful exit from your job
You never know when you might need a recommendation or favor from your former employer. Whether or not your managers knew you applied, be sure to give them adequate notice of your departure. If appropriate, offer to provide support to anyone who will assume your role. The way you leave a job will speak volumes about your character.
I have several other tips for what you should do once accepted and how to prepare for business school. I will save those for another post! While the business school admissions process is very holistic a lot comes down to luck. Therefore if you are serious about applying to business school, it is helpful to cast a wide net. Last, but not least, go for your goals. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that it is impossible for you to get into a certain school. Anything can happen in this crazy process and there are always exceptions to admissions statistics!