How To Make Your MBA Application Better Than ‘Good’

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions advisor – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + distinctive” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a carry-all cop-out. What I mean is–putting it another way–the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say “yes”.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you – it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything — you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

The Enduring Myth of the 800 GMAT

For many MBA applicants it is GMAT test prep or test-taking season. Below is a piece I wrote a while back on Business Week b-school site, which I hope provides something of a strategic reality check in terms of how a GMAT score helps and hurts in MBA admissions, and therefore what score you really need:

I had a MBA admissions client recently who I’ll call Tim, and when Tim and I got talking about his admissions profile he told me he’d scored 720 on the GMAT, and then retaken the test (and scored the same again). I nearly dropped the phone. “Why would anyone ever want to retake a 720 GMAT?” I gasped.

The truth is, I know why. Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious but is it right?

Yes, of course the GMAT is crucial. It tells Adcom about an applicant’s intellectual and cognitive skills, and is particularly useful in allowing easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. Furthermore, every 10-point gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools they can legitimately hope to get into. All true.

But this is true only up to a certain level, about the 700-750 range. A higher score has diminishing returns and can even — believe it or not — harm one’s chances.

Why? As I told Tim, there are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a post-graduate university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people in business management positions, not academic positions. Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the cleverest people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or consultants. Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher, George Soros, Ted Turner, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einsteins. MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

This explains why an ultra-high GMAT can be harmful. Scoring in the super bracket (750+) means that you are, by definition, in the 99th percentile. People who score like that are often better pure scientists or philosophers, than managers. It’s a stereotype, and perhaps a poor one, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being a poor people-person and a poor manager. If you get a very high score, Adcom will be absolutely sure to thoroughly check and almost disbelieve that you are also a leader and team player and can manage adversity and do all the practical things you need to get done in a business day.

Maybe you can and do. But an extra burden of proof falls on you in this regard if you are in the GMAT super-bracket.

The second, related, problem is it takes a mix of talents to get admitted to a competitive school. The operative term here is “mix”. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership potential, team player profile, work experience, volunteer experience, profile diversity, and so on. Academic ability is definitely a requirement, but so are many other attributes. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

People who obsess with improving an already 700+ GMAT are, almost certainly, taking time and effort away from improving the rest of their admissions profile.

This is how it works: a threshold is reached at around (depending on GPA results and other  variables) the 700 level, where Adcom can safely put a check mark next to your academic ability, and move on to see what else you offer. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count. But once you hit the threshold, it’s pointless to keep knocking in that nail. A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” and chances are it’s already checked at 700. A super-score is not going to help you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview. Adcom greatly prefers “balanced good” to “unbalanced excellent.”

This also explains why there is more malleability in the GMAT rating than most candidates realize. If the rest of your application is good, and your undergraduate record is in the right range, you can be up to 40 or 50 points below the school’s published GMAT average (providing not too lopsidedly in Math or Verbal.)

Obviously, the published average means that half of accepted applicant’s scores are below that mark.

Bottom line: It makes sense to be very concerned with the GMAT until it is within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and spend time on other aspects of your application.

The Value Of An MBA In 2015

I can’t say it any better, and no point in re-inventing the wheel, so I’m reposting this with credit:

For MBA students who decided to go to business school over the past five years, it’s been an amazing time, rich with career opportunities and increasingly handsome pay. If anything, the value of the MBA itself has been confirmed again and again as one of the very few degrees that brings an immediate payoff.

For the Class of 2014, starting pay packages and job placement rates are at either record or near-record levels. Indeed, at some of the super elite schools, the job offer rates may seem somewhat lower than a casual observer might expect. It’s only because the MBA job market has become so frothy that graduates of a handful of very prestigious schools have become ever more choosy and are holding out for the perfect opportunity, highly confident it will come.

Starting salaries of $110,000 to $125,000 are now the median at 16 top U.S. schools, ranging from Harvard where the median was $125,000 to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business where the median was $110,000. Median sign-on bonuses–now given to the vast majority of MBA graduates from top schools–are $25,000. And all these numbers tend to be highly conservative because they do not include increasingly common year-end bonuses, tuition reimbursement, stock grants and relocation expenses. The graduates of several top European schools, including such key players as London Business School, INSEAD and IESE Business School in Spain, are also in that upper range.

Most importantly, the placement rates at these schools are virtually near full employment, a massive turnaround from the numbers posted in the depth of the recession in 2009 and 2010. Last year, a remarkable 98% of the MBAs from Emory, Wharton and Chicago had job offers three months after graduation. None of the top schools had placement rates below 90% at the three-month mark.

At Emory’s Goizueta Business School, where its job offer rate at graduation was higher than any other MBA program at 90.4% and equal to the very best rate of 98%, it was a landmark year. “2014 was a very strong year for the MBA job market and Goizueta,” says Wendy Tsung, associate dean of MBA Career Services at Goizueta. “Last year, our top hiring partners extended more offers on campus and we also saw a 15% increase in new companies recruiting on campus. 2015 has been just as strong, especially in consulting and financial services. This is a good time to be graduating from an MBA program.”

Another telling statistic about the demand for MBAs: The starting pay packages being landed at such schools at the University of Texas’ McCombs School and Vanderbilt University’s Owen School are nearly as much as those at the highest ranked elite schools. McCombs grads reported starting salaries of $105,000 this year, while Owen MBAs hit the $100,000 mark. That’s just $20,000 or $25,000 lower than the $125,000 commanded by Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton MBAs. If you adjusted those numbers to account for pay and cost of living in the wider markets of Austin and Nashville and again for industry choices, the difference in MBA starting pay would be negligible.

For graduates of the Class of 2015, it looks only to get better and in all likelihood could be the single best year in history to graduate with an MBA. In fact, the latest research is suggesting that the demand for MBA talent is so great that major corporate recruiters are now reaching deeper into the pool at second tier schools ranked between 20 and 100. Another sign of good fortune is that the most significant increase in recruiting is coming from financial services, a sector that is likely to boost overall salaries and bonuses as it competes more aggressively for the best grads at top schools.

This recent release of the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance survey found that 64% of the responding schools have seen increased recruiting for full-time jobs, up 23% over last fall. And more than three-quarters reported an increase in full-time job postings. At B-schools ranked from 21 to 50, the increases in on-campus recruiting were nothing but massive, with 81% reporting increases. That compares with 57% of schools ranked from 1 to 20 reporting increases, while 67% of those ranked 51 to 100 reported increases.

“2014 was a very strong year for MBA employment and the increases noted by the majority of participating schools suggest that the 2015 results will be even better,” says Damian Zikakis, director of career services at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. It’s highly possible that this year will be the best year to ever graduate with an MBA degree, even better than the 1980s and 1990s when business school education had its biggest gains.

While there can never be a 100% guarantee of placement in the job a graduate most wants, it’s just about as close as it can get to that ideal. “Placement in our tradition MBA program is probably as robust as ever, with over 95% of the graduates reporting employment success within 90 days of graduation at the top 10 schools,” says Paul Danos, dean of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “And the total pay packages are exceeding pre-crash levels.”

Average starting salaries at Danos’ school hit $117,860 last year, up 2.5% from $115,031 a year earlier. Average signing bonuses–reported by 87% of the class–were $28,712, while other guaranteed compensation averaged $34,431. For a graduating student who collected all three forms of compensation, the average would have totaled a whopping $181,003–to start.

-John Byrne, Poets & Quants.

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