Category Archives: MBA Admissions Book

Get Wise: MBA Admissions Is The Final Exam

MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw-Hill Education) is now out in 3rd edition, 2017. With regular updates to track a fast-changing industry, the book has been #1 or 2 seller in category since first published in 2005, widely valued for its “straight shooter, what-you-should-know style.” To celebrate, here are the first few paragraphs…

With ever-more business schools offering the MBA degree worldwide, and online options quickly getting better, there has never been more ways to get an MBA. But business education is an area where brand really matters. Graduates from the top-25 or so elite programs start higher, progress faster, and have much more senior and interesting careers. Whatever the degree costs, those exiting the elite institutions reap many times the investment in their lifetimes. It’s dumb not to aim as high as possible.

Of course, everyone else knows this too, which is why MBA admissions at the top level is so competitive. Figures vary with the economic cycle, but on average across the most competitive programs, about six of every seven applications fail.

But, here’s the quick and dirty secret: nobody fails at elite business schools. Every year, in every program, everyone graduates­, possibly excluding a handful of extreme cases where a student has had serious adjustment or disciplinary problems and was excluded early. In other words, every candidate who is admitted will graduate because they were admitted. In fact, the better the school’s reputation, the less exams or grades appear to matter. If you were good enough to get in, you’re good enough, period.

In other words, while MBA degree failure is very unusual, MBA application failure is the norm. What this means is the MBA application is, for all practical purposes, the final exam. Admission is the only real hurdle between the candidate and an elite MBA qualification, and the fast-track career good fortune it commonly represents.

But real people pass it

Part of business school culture, one quickly learns, is that the MBA is not an “academic” degree. Smart people are required, of course, but you will repeatedly hear how the most intelligent people don’t make the best managers or business leaders. This explains why admissions is often refused to “brainiac” academicians and those with 750+ GMATs, and offered instead to candidates with diverse experience, personality, talent, and drive. Admissions committees (Adcoms) reward dynamic people who have a track record of real-world impact, particularly if they have meaningful plans for the future.

This means that anyone of appropriate age, with respectable undergraduate results and standardized test scores and a good professional record, has a realistic chance of getting into an elite business school, assuming they also have the strategic and competitive understanding of what in their background is valuable for admission and the ability to communicate their case clearly and powerfully.

Yes, the top business schools have their pick of Olympic medalists and Senators’ sons, and there’s nothing much you can do about that, but every year many thousands of very ordinary people are accepted too, because they applied well. Which is to say, they found and compellingly communicated the valuable attributes in their background and connected these closely to the needs of business schools and the preferences of admissions officers.

Getting in is a little bit about pure intelligence or family luck, and a lot about procedural and organizational smarts. The tools and techniques of admissions matter enormously. You don’t need to be a celebrity. You just need to be credible and to apply well.

Advice On B-School Application Timeline From Yale SOM

I often get questions about the MBA admissions timeline from applicants, asking “what should I be doing, when? How far in advance? When should I be doing the GMAT, the essays, asking for recommendations?”

There’s no such thing as one correct one answer of course. Much depends you–how fast you work, how much you feel you need to do to feel comfortable, and how many schools you are targeting.

There are general common milestones for the months leading up to application deadline, and I’ve given a distilled sense of timeline best-practices in my book.

Further to all this, I came across a post from Yale SOM EMBA worth sharing. Note that the deadlines are for an executive MBA (later in the year, on average) and generally the terms of advice assume a smaller applicant pool. Nevertheless it is relevant in principle to address common admissions timeline questions.

By the way, if you’re in the EMBA market, Yale SOM is worth your application time. Yale University needs no introduction of course, but the business school has spent a few decades finding itself. It is now undoubtedly racing into the top tier.

With all that said, here’s Hillary Larsen, Assistant Director of Admissions, MBA for Executives talking to applicants ahead of the April 12 final deadline:

February through April

  • We would be delighted to get to know and work with you. I recommend meeting our team, current students, and alumni at events online and all around the United States so that you can make a better-informed decision about applying to Yale SOM. Explore the Yale culture and experience the benefits of our small class size.
  • You are not on your own. If you have any questions along the way, our admissions team is available to help at


  • As a part of the application, you will need to designate the individual who will be signing off on your time away from the office. Now is the time to discuss the EMBA program with your employer. Make sure he or she understands that your EMBA experience will directly benefit the organization. Our students are able to apply what they learn on Fridays and Saturdays directly to their organizations the following Monday, while focusing on developing their own unique leadership attributes throughout the program.
  • Discuss this program and the time commitment it will entail with family and close friends. To perform at your best in the program, you will need the support of those around you.
  • If you haven’t taken the GMAT or GRE in the past five years, start looking at these standardized tests and decide which one you’d like to take. We have no preference. We recommend taking one of the free practice tests available to gauge your strengths and weakness and to develop a plan of study. Many of our students have taken courses to keep their preparation on track. Keep in mind that the standardized test score gives us an understanding of your current ability to process and analyze (primarily) quantitative data in a time-constrained environment. Since our students have a range of work experience from 5 to 25 years, we have different expectations of test scores. This is just one component of the application, which we review holistically.


  • Open the application and review the essay questions. The essays are your best opportunity to showcase who you are and what you are passionate about.
  • Consider who you would like to submit a recommendation on your behalf. We suggest asking for a recommendation early and following up with the recommender to ensure that he or she understands the application deadline. We require two recommendations as a part of a complete application.
  • If you do not already have copies of your transcripts from your undergraduate institute and any other institution from which you have earned professional or graduate degrees, request them. If your transcripts are not in English, you will need to provide a notarized English translation. Please note that you do not need official transcripts for the purposes of the application; you can upload unofficial copies.
  • If you have not recently updated your résumé, now is the time to do so. Please keep the résumé to no longer than two pages. This is your opportunity to clearly show your career acceleration and advancement.


  • Finalize your application! Be sure to review the entire application. You have until April 12 to take your GMAT or GRE and record your unofficial score. You must submit your application by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 12. You must also submit your application fee at that time in order for the application to be reviewed by the admissions committee.
  • Confirm with your recommenders that they will submit the review form by the final deadline.
  • Once you have submitted the application, the employer approval form will be sent to the individual you have indicated. You can check the application status page to monitor if we have received your official test scores and employer approval form.

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” 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 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 reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life 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 for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness 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, 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. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is 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.