Financial TimesWhat is the secret of a successful MBA application?

March 22, 20210

After a year of disruption caused by coronavirus, many prospective students are asking whether now is the right time to apply for an MBA, how to choose between different business schools and what to do to maximise the chances of successful admission.

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The pandemic has pushed most learning online and created uncertainties about economic growth and prospects in the job market, but done little to slow down demand for the prestigious degree. Many people have decided to remain in education — or return to it — in order to improve their skills and chances of future success.

Yet high tuition fees, the opportunity costs and earning losses of giving up work now, as well as the intensity of study, are discouraging some potential students from applying now. “It’s the $1m question from candidates: is this the right time?” said Eddie Asbie, interim executive director of admissions and financial aid at SC Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, one of half a dozen experts the FT assembled to answer readers’ questions on MBA applications.

Eddie Asbie of SC Johnson says prospective applicants should consider their motivations, such as a desire to acquire new skills, shift careers or specialisms
Eddie Asbie of SC Johnson says prospective applicants should consider their motivations, such as a desire to acquire new skills, shift careers or specialisms © Patrick Shanahan/University Photography

“A lot has happened — personal circumstances, employment, family life,” he said, arguing that prospective applicants should consider their motivations, such as a desire to acquire new skills, shift careers or specialisms. “The most important is to self-reflect. Can you put together the best application possible? Have you really done your due diligence to know the schools? What is most important?”

Joy Jones, chief product officer and general manager of assessments at the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Gmat test for business schools, a leading indicator of demand, said there were “strong positive trends” — notably in Europe.

Joy Jones of the Graduate Management Admission Council said there were ‘strong positive trends’ for MBA demand
Joy Jones of the Graduate Management Admission Council said there were ‘strong positive trends’ for MBA demand © HANDOUT

Tarini Sundar said she had no regrets about taking an MBA at Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, after deciding she wanted to shift from a start-up to a large tech company. She graduated last year and now works at Salesforce and helps with recruitment. She said US employers valued the degree for skills it taught including “leading with empathy, critical thinking and collaboration”.

Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions and financial aid at Insead, argued that while some European industrial companies were traditionally less focused on recruiting those with MBAs, the degree was widely recognised and valued.

On the question of whether it is a good idea to apply to business school this year, rather than wait until the pandemic is over, she said that one factor to consider was course duration. While many MBAs — notably in the US — take two years, Insead’s one-year course means participants applying now will graduate in 2022. “I see people who don’t want to be bystanders, hoping for the world to be better in a year’s time,” she said.

Virginie Fougea of Insead says Gmat is a useful indicator of ‘commitment, comparison and competition’
Virginie Fougea of Insead says Gmat is a useful indicator of ‘commitment, comparison and competition’

David Simpson, recruitment and admissions director at London Business School, which offers courses lasting between 15 and 21 months, argued that applicants who are hesitating should “think long term and on the impact on your career, not just your initial job.” He added: “You can’t put your life or career on hold. The world will see people who go to business school now as the brave ones who stand out.”

His school still has places for an MBA starting in 2021, but he warned against applying simply to keep options open and then seeking a deferral if accepted. “The question is, when are you ready? It’s a lot of effort to make an application, so make sure you apply when you want to go.”

Sundar stressed that MBA courses and students varied widely and applicants should spend time doing their research. “Don’t make the mistake of using the same application and trying to retrofit it. Different schools have very different cultures which will dictate your experience,” she said.

Simpson recommended drawing up a list of criteria and looking at others’ priorities and choices. “Speak to students, alumni, the people who are paying,” he said. He said graduates were typically proud of their school but also frank because they had a “gatekeeper attitude” to ensure the quality of future applicants.

Donna Swinford of Chicago Booth says prospective applicants should study schools’ employment reports to understand more about their graduates’ career outcomes
Donna Swinford of Chicago Booth says prospective applicants should study schools’ employment reports to understand more about their graduates’ career outcomes © HANDOUT

Donna Swinford, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, agreed that current students were a pivotal source of guidance. “They are the ones who lived the programme and will answer honestly how they navigated it . . . and areas for improvement.”

She said prospective applicants should study schools’ employment reports to understand more about their graduates’ career outcomes. They should also consider the teaching style, which was in some places lecture-based and at others primarily focused on interactive case-based teaching.

For most applicants, taking the Gmat will be a first step. Jones said business schools offering waivers typically did so only for candidates who were “extraordinarily strong” in other ways — such as clearly demonstrated specialist skills or deep professional experience. “The Gmat provides an objective measure when you have a very broad and diverse applicant pool.”

She said the process of preparing for the Gmat helped candidates as “an on-ramp” to an MBA, covering issues such as critical thinking and data analysis. It was a useful experience in itself for those who are working and had “sometimes been out of study mode” to brace for the intensive study of their course.

Simpson said the Gmat was useful as an indicator of “commitment, comparison and competition”. For Fougea, it was sometimes “the only way we can understand how [candidates] will cope with the academic aspects” of the MBA, especially for the subset who had not taken an undergraduate degree.

In response to questions about writing effective applications, Swinford at Booth said: “Make sure you are writing what is true to you, not what you think the school wants to hear. It’s easier to be you.”

London Business School asks for a single essay, which Simpson said was to “describe what you have done, what you will do at the school, and what you hope to do in the future”. He advised applicants to stress “simplicity, clarity, honesty — let your personality shine through”.

Asbie said academic ability was important but admissions officers were also interested in work experience, to understand “how have you made an impact in your organisation, and how are you leading projects or teams”.

For those making it to interview, his advice was “be authentic”. He stressed that the style was “conversational”, giving candidates a chance to explain career moves and achievements as well as personal interests. “The interview really gives us a good sense of who’s really done their due diligence, who will be successful.” For Swinford, it was also a chance for candidates to interview the schools.

Fougea’s final advice? “Be honest, passionate, don’t over prepare. Be genuine.”

The FT’s annual Online MBA survey has just been published. Read more here

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