Tag Archives: GMAT

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.

Interview with an MBA Admissions Expert, redux

This is an old – in the venerable sense! – interview that I did with Karen Schweitzer, which I was reminded of through a link from her 50 Free MBA Application Resources ‘about’ education piece. Footnote: I’m no longer with the World MBA Tour – that was a while ago.

Karen: How soon should potential MBA students start preparing for the admissions process?
Avi: About 9 months to a year prior to submission deadline – giving time to research the process, research schools, line up recommenders, do the GMAT etc.

Earlier start is good, but it’s not a simple case of the earlier the better… the candidate needs to get immersed in the application process. Certainly s/he doesn’t want to dilute the process over years and years. That’s a recipe for a lukewarm application. Generally applicants should be wary of spending too much time on their application research and production – some do – at the risk of having their career stall and missing the key workplace award or promotion that would help them shine in front of Adcom.

Karen: Should prospective MBA students submit applications to several schools or are they better of concentrating their efforts on one or two favorites?

Avi: Both really. Favorites should be carefully targeted, no holds-barred. But the applicant should also be street-smart in recognizing that competition for top schools is intense, and any one favorite school acceptance may not emerge. In my experience the ideal number of applications is 4-5. Less means the randomness of random dings is not taken out the equation.

More starts to dilute the energy of the applicant and recommender, and take too much time (ref answer above).

Karen: In your book, MBA Admissions Strategy, you mention that nearly everyone under 35 with respectable undergraduate transcripts and a good professional record has a realistic chance of getting into the finest business schools. Some prospective students don’t share this optimistic view. I get a large number of emails from individuals who feel that poor GMAT scores or attendance at a less prestigious undergraduate school can hurt their chances during the admissions process. What advice can you offer these students?

Avi: In my experience a less prestigious U/G school is a very minor factor, and is entirely a non-factor if there is some concrete reason (normally funding) why the applicant went to “Buckwheat State” and not Harvard College. What counts more is how the applicant performed academically at whatever institution they were at. But even more than that, business schools heavily weigh what a candidate has done between college graduation and MBA application. A good professional record trumps college level branding. (This is different to Grad & Law & Med schools, where applicants apply younger and with less or zero work experience, so college brand is all adcoms have to go on.)

As to GMAT, yes, it is true a minimum threshold GMAT is necessary. If one is not in the high 600s, an application to a top-10 school will stall. But the GMAT works on a threshold principle – the applicant needs a high enough score to relax Adcom about his or her academic ability. After that they start asking other questions – about leadership, team skills, career arc, etc.

Footnote to this is that, believe it or not, a GMAT score can be “too good” – anything above about 760 is problematic. This is because the applicant starts to look like a genius and questions will be asked about whether that person will make a good manager and leader. B-school is a professional place with the aim of turning out people who will survive and thrive in the cut & thrust of real world business. That’s what recruiters want. So Adcom looks carefully at apparent geniuses and dings them if it appears they may be better suited to PhD program and research career.

Karen: What are four attributes every admissions committee wants to see in an MBA student?

Avi: See my book, Chapter 2 “Attributes that Count” for a list of 22 such attributes. It’s hard to say which 4 count the most. I think a clear success record is definitely up there; along with personal integrity; being a team player that mixes well; and leadership experience and potential. But there’s no privileged four. I strongly believe in all 22.

Karen: How important is it for applicants to show that they possess these attributes?

Avi: The key here is “show”. So many applicants claim they possess attributes. That’s worth nothing. The attributes have to be shown by telling proof stories – that is, anecdotes of the candidate in action, acquiring or living the attribute.

Karen: What are the three most common mistakes that an MBA applicant can make, and how can these mistakes be avoided?

  • Trying to be a typical MBA applicant – leading to a generic and therefore low-value application.
  • Inability to see what is precious and valuable in their past activities, from Adcom’s point of view.
  • Wasting precious essay space with sentences and paragraphs that do not deliver or prove profile value.

Karen: Is there any additional advice that you can offer students who are trying to develop an MBA admissions strategy?

Avi: Candidates should balance their energy between the major blocks of an application, which are: (a) GMAT, (b) File essay questions & long essays (c) Recommendations (d) Interview. I assume their college record is set. In having helped hundreds of applicants get into top schools, the application strategy weakness I see most is candidates who are willing to spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy, not to mention money, trying to get their GMAT score up one notch, while neglecting the rest.

As mentioned, the GMAT operates on a threshold principle – more is better up to a certain point – then more is irrelevant. And the balanced good application beats the unbalanced excellent/patchy application (and remember, they don’t want brainiacs). They are looking for people who appear good on all fronts. Someone who looks like they will continue to be good on all fronts. This is what I call the “CEO-in-Waiting” image.

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.