Getting into a Top 10 Business School

I am often asked by business school aspirants about how they can get into a top 10 business school. Here is a summary of the advice I often give people.

Is an MBA for me?

The very first thing that one needs to do is to figure out why he or she wants to go to business school. Think about what your goals are. What would be your ideal career? What would be your ideal job (note that a job is different from a career). Think about why you need to go to business school to get the ideal job and establish yourself in the desired career. Can you get to that position without going to business school? Applying to business schools is a long and arduous process that can lead to a lot of stress. Unless you are convinced that you definitely need to go to business school to advance your career don’t apply to business schools.

Business school is also not for everyone. Some bad reasons to go to business school are:

  1. You don’t like your current job: If you don’t like your current job you need to understand why you don’t like it. Try to figure out what you would like to do. Maybe you can find a job that you like without going to business school. If you don’t do this exercise maybe you won’t like your work after business school either.
  2. All your friends are doing it: What may be good for others may not be good for you.
  3. You want to make money: In my view, money should not be the sole reason to do something. If what you do doesn’t make you happy, there is no reason to do it.

If you are still reading this post, I guess you have found a good reason to go to business school and you want to know what you should do to get in.

Do I have the right profile?

There is no ‘right’ profile. Business schools are looking for a diverse class so there is no right or wrong profile. No matter what your profile is, you will have to work hard in your application to prove that you belong to the school.

The thing that business schools do care about is how the alumni will increase the brand value of the school. The right candidate is the one who will show promise to do so. Thus business schools look for patterns of success. If someone has had successes in the past, they are likely to have success in the future as well. What have you achieved so far given the opportunities that you have received? If you think you will be able to answer this question reasonably well, you should be a competitive candidate at any of the top schools.

Which schools should I apply to?

This is a really difficult question to answer and yet it is one of the most important questions that one faces when applying to business schools. Because the application process is so rigorous you cannot apply to too many schools and yet you don’t want to apply to too few schools that you don’t get into any. You want to apply to schools where you would like to go and where you stand a reasonable chance of being admitted. Last year I applied to too few schools (only 3), was able to put in a good application only in one and was denied admission to all three. Trust me it was not a nice feeling – putting in all this effort without any admit. Note that I didn’t say ‘any results’, because the introspection process is valuable by itself. I was able to recognize my weaknesses and strengths. I also got used to the idea of writing about myself in essays and as a result I had an easier time this year.

Use rankings only as a general indicator about the reputation of the schools. Do not base your choice of schools to apply to only on the rankings. Try and visit the schools if possible. If this is even remotely feasible you should definitely do it. This will help you immensely in your application. Most schools say that they don’t consider if anyone has visited the school or not. I tend to think otherwise – visiting schools can only improve your chances. Visiting schools also allows you to attend classes and meet current students. You will be able to evaluate how that school will be able to help you accomplish your goal. This provides a lot of useful material for your ‘Why this school’ essay. The next best alternative (which in my opinion is a distant second) is to attend information sessions of these schools.

Check the placement statistics of the schools. Did companies that you may want to work for recruit on campus? If you are an international student, you may want to contact the schools to find out the recruitment statistics for international students. For example, I did not apply to INSEAD after looking at their placement statistics in the United States.

Try and find out what the schools are looking for while admitting applicants. All schools have their admission criteria listed on the admission websites. See how you fit into their evaluation criteria. See what the profile of the class is. If you think you have any major weakness which will prevent you from getting admitted, start work on removing it. Whether it is poor grades or lack of extracurricular activities – it is never too late to show your commitment to addressing the weakness. Think if it may be better to apply the following year so that you get more time to address the weakness.

Narrow your choice of schools to 5 at this point. Any less will be risky and any more will mean that you cannot put in your best in all the applications. Also look at the deadlines and decide which round you will apply in at each of these schools. Try to stagger the applications so that you apply to some in the first round and the others in the second.

Ultimately I found that the entire process was a bit of a gamble. It was almost impossible to predict which schools I would get into. After all, the admissions process is quite subjective. However at this point all you can do is to put in your best effort and pray for the best.

How should I approach the application?

Here are the different components that go into a business school application:

  • GMAT: Try and get it out-of-the-way as soon as possible. I had given GMAT more than a year in advance (when I first applied last year). I gave a sample test first to familiarize myself with the structure of the test. I determined what were the areas which I needed to improve and what were the areas which I really did not need to put in much work. In my case for example, I knew I needed to put in more effort in sentence correction while but not the quantitative section. I used the The Official Guide for GMAT Review to practice. I tried to do as many problems from the sections where I needed to improve. Finally I gave another full length test to see where I stood. I am really good at standardized tests and did not need to put in more than a month to prepare. You need to assess yourself how much time you will need to prepare for the test.
  • Essays: This was by far the hardest part of the application for me. Do not underestimate the time it will take to write the essays. More over most schools have essays that have different topics and word limits. While you may be able to modify a few essays to fit another schools application, you will need to write most from scratch. Your first drafts will be far from perfect. Be prepared to write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite… You get the picture! Some of the things you need to keep in mind are:
    • Present a coherent story (no contradictory messages)
    • Make sure that you explain clearly but briefly what you did, why you did it, what you want to do and why you want to do it. How do your past actions lead to your future goals? What have you done to prepare yourself (other than business school) to achieve future goals?
    • Keep goals realistic and achievable. If you write something that doesn’t seem feasible, admissions committee will think that you do not know how to distinguish between what is achievable and what is not.
    • Never be negative. For example in an essay that talks about a failure or a conflict, don’t just say that the other person(s) were wrong.
    • Never make anything up. People in admissions committee can tell when something is fake.

    Make sure that you have someone who knows you well (spouse, close friend) as a sounding board for ideas and feedback. Be prepared to listen to criticisms and accept suggestions for improvements.

  • Recommendations: You need to get recommendations from people who know you well and who will be willing to spend time on your writing a recommendation for you. Do not think you need to get a recommendation from the CEO or the Director. What matters is that the people recommending you are able to give examples from your work which illustrate certain qualities in you. Give the people recommending you plenty of time to write a recommendation – it takes a long time to write a good recommendation.

What books will be useful during the application process?

Before starting the admissions process make sure that you have the following two books:

How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs
by J.D., Richard Montauk

ABC of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge
by Matt Symonds, Alan Mendonca

These books were very useful to me in my essay and interview preparation.

What if I don’t get in?

Finally the results come out. Either you are in, in which case it is time to celebrate and embark on to the next stage of your life. Or you are denied admission. Don’t be disheartened, there is always the next year to re-apply (certain schools are quite re-applicant friendly). Take feedback if any of the schools you applied to give feedback. Talk to successful candidates – the number of people you can talk to is never enough. See if anyone is willing to look at your essays and give their opinions on what you could do better.

Finally good luck on the application process.