The MBA application process can feel like it touches every corner of your life and career. Applicants need to take the GMAT (or GRE), conduct school research, develop their story and and career goals, write and revise essays and resumes, request recommendations, and attend interviews, to name a key steps – enough to warrant the creation of 600-page MBA application guides for goodness' sake!
In working with clients, doing ding reviews for non-clients, holding Free Consultations with prospective applicants, and chatting with curious folks on GMAT Club, several elements of the MBA application process consistently stand out to me as overlooked or underappreciated. These are essentially the "Oh wow, I had no idea I needed to..." parts of the MBA application journey.
With that in mind, I decided to put together a summary that highlights these key themes, and I've included a series of steps and prompts to consider in each category. Many will feel obvious if you're deep into the application game – but even then, perhaps one or two will help refine your focus. If you're new to application land, I hope this helps you think through your strategy. A lot of these are really cornerstones of the MBA application process more than they are surprises or hidden gems.
1. Career Goal Specificity
The most basic "under-articulation" of career goals comes in the form of simply citing an industry of interest or offering too vague a notion of one's short-term and long-term career goals. I often encourage applicants to develop their goals to the point that they can answer not only "question one" about them (the most basic), but also "questions two through 12" (the why and the details).
Twelve is something of a made-up number – the point is that you need to be able to articulate a clear, coherent, connected, and specific career vision. What company(ies) do you want to work for? What role? Where? Why? What type of projects do you hope to work on and impact do you hope to have? Within your industry, what specializations will you aim to develop or areas will you focus on?
Where do you hope to intern? Where will your first post-MBA job lead? Consider the medium-term "bridge" between your short- and long-term goals. What are your long-term goals? What is your dream job? Why is that your dream job? What exactly do you hope to accomplish if you achieve it?
How does who you are and what you've done to this point – plus the MBA – lead to your short-term goals? How does all of that together enable your medium- and long-term goals? What knowledge, skills, and experience do you already have that are relevant to these goals? What knowledge, skills, and experience do you lack and therefore need to acquire via the MBA? Why is now the right time?
2. School Specificity
That last piece begins to address why you believe you need an MBA. And it segues nicely into "school specificity" – another critical area that is all too commonly under-articulated in MBA essays. You have certain knowledge, skills, and experience that are relevant. But there's also a whole lot more you need to achieve your goals. How exactly are you going to fill those gaps at XYZ program?
Through what courses, clubs, extracurriculars, and special programs? Which case competitions, conferences, and community initiatives? What about each program's culture, community, and career opportunities make it a good fit? And remember – while you hope to grow toward your goals, it's also critical to articulate how exactly you'll contribute to the MBA program and your classmates.
Be specific but not self-aggrandizing or individualistic. What (unique) contributions can you make to study groups, classes, clubs, and social initiatives? Beyond mere "participation," consider what leadership positions you would want to pursue (and why), and what you and your classmates could together accomplish in those positions for the benefit of the MBA community and beyond.
3. School Research and Engagement
How does one build such a deep understanding of each program? The short answer is school research and engagement. Get to know the programs and their people. MBA program websites are loaded with details on every element on the MBA experience. But that's just a start. To make a compelling and school-specific case, you'll need to do more than just click around on the Internet.
Attend single- or multi-school admissions events. Go to school-sponsored coffee chats. Reach out to alumni who work at your company. Speak with friends or acquaintances who went to the programs you're interested in. Visit if you can. If you live in a remote location, participate in online events. And if you don't really know any alumni, reach out to each program's Student Ambassadors.
Deep school research and engagement helps you get to know and understand the programs and decide whether you want to apply. It significantly enriches your essays (and doesn't leave you awkwardly scratching your head when an application asks whom you've spoken with and what events you've attend). And it shows a credible pattern of interest. Adcoms will know you're serious.
4. Passion, Purpose, and Personal Story
Another subset of applicants might have the "brick and mortar" of career goals and school fit well covered, but in crafting their essays and applications, they don't adequately or authentically reveal what drives them, what's shaped them, who they are, and what makes them unique. This can feel a lot more abstract than articulating a career or school narrative – but it's of extreme importance.
Admissions directors shared their own insight into this topic (and many others) at Poets & Quants' MBA Summit back in May. At a most fundamental level, Michigan Ross's Soojin Kwon noted that Ross wants "to know [applicants] as a whole person," while Yale SOM's Bruce DelMonico pointed out that "one of the biggest mistakes applicants make is to tell us what they think we want to hear."
Berkeley-Haas's Morgan Bernstein added further nuance: "As I reflect back on some of the applications that really stand out, it's the candidates who are willing to take a risk in their application, in the sense that they have the courage to show their authentic self. There's a little bit of vulnerability that comes through, and that's different to every candidate." And later: "We're really interested in what your passion is, what your purpose is... what is the fuel that's igniting that fire?"
5. Recommendation Quality
Whereas articulating your career goals, engaging with programs, and telling your story very clearly fall under your purview as an MBA applicant, recommendations can sometimes feel like they don't. With so much to think through and do yourself, it can be very tempting to simply tap your current and former supervisors on the shoulder, ask them for recommendations, and forget about the rest.
If only it were that easy. The two main "categories" of problems I see with MBA recommendations are (1) many recommenders do not understand how thoughtful and specific their recommendations need to be, and (2) even if they think they do understand, the content they deliver and examples they cite often make candidates sound nice / solid / good – but they don't make candidates stand out.
Choose your recommenders wisely. Meet with them to explain the process, go over the questions, and discuss why you're pursuing an MBA. Imbue upon them how (again) thoughtful and specific they need to be. Prepare a document that details what you've worked on and accomplished, along with key qualities and themes you hope they might consider. Examples and evidence are critical.
Mediocre and overly general (or generic) recommendations can keep you out of the schools you want to get into. Bad recommendations can undo strong candidacies. And superb recommendations can be the difference in getting in. So own the process as much as you can. Recommender selection, recommender prep, and recommendation feedback are often major parts of my work with clients.
6. Interview Prep
If you handled the previous bullet points properly and applied in a reasonable round, you've got a decent shot at getting an interview invite to schools that are solidly within your profile range (and maybe even a reach or two!). As soon as that invitation is in hand, your goal is turn it into an admit.
That requires work, prep, and practice. Everything you submitted to this point now needs to come to life, and you need to be able to articulate all of it smoothly, specifically, and succinctly. Those last two words are not contradictory, either. Balancing specificity and conciseness is key. It's also hard.
I view Interview Prep as "overlooked" and "underappreciated" because every year after decisions are in, I speak with candidates who received a bunch of interview invites, felt (a little too) good about themselves, didn't adequately prepare for the interviews, didn't end up getting in anywhere (or only got into their last choice), and want to know what they can do differently in the future.
The most effective Interview Prep is school-specific and super-methodical – we're talking a mock interview (in the style of a given program) followed by question-by-question feedback that leaves no point or nuance related to content, style, or delivery unaddressed. I invite you to read more about Avanti Prep's hyper-thorough Interview Prep service, as well as Interview Prep testimonials.
There's a lot to digest in this post, so hopefully you've skipped around to the parts that are most interesting or relevant to you. (Or maybe you wanted to dive into the whole thing!) Either way, I'm always happy to discuss the particulars of your situation. So sign up for a Free Consultation today!