Tag Archives: mba

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.

The 6 Dimensions In Choosing a Business School

As we exit the dormant months, and minds start to turn to applications season of Fall 2016, I’m starting to get the question: “which schools should I apply to?”

Choosing which business school MBA or EMBA to apply to requires knowledge of each institution, its culture, curriculum emphasis, extramural activities and recruitment opportunities, among many other things. The key parameters to consider are:

1. Fit. You’re paying the money and you’re going to be doing the work, so you want to put yourself somewhere you’ll be happy. Only you will know the answer to whether you want a small or big program, urban or rural, US or Europe or Asia, entrepreneurial or financial, etc. Sometimes it’s okay to knowingly put yourself in a slightly alien environment too, for the growth challenge. Either way, know thyself. Know the school. Choose fit consciously, don’t just apply to the “top” programs and take the highest offer.

2. Brand. Forget rankings. School brand is what matters. That’s what is going to give you your short- and long-term career boost. While rankings bounce around, real brand value of the top b-schools changes very slowly, if at all. If you genuinely don’t know a school’s brand strength, how do you get a sense of it? Every school publishes a list of companies that come to campus, how many graduates they hire, placement rates, and average starting salaries. Quality of recruiting firm and average post-MBA salary is a much better guide to a program’s real prestige than any magazine ranking.

3. Location and recruitment: Location strongly affects the industry orientation of the school and the companies recruiting on campus offering internships and jobs. You will get different exit opportunities in New York than you will in Texas, or Lausanne, Switzerland (IMD). Pick a school with an eye to your exit opportunities.

4. Profile of participants: Make the effort to understand the subtle differences in the type of person each school attracts. INSEAD and LBS both offer MBAs, and there is overlap in the student profile, but there are clear differences. This is true of HBS and MIT, Booth and Kellogg, and everywhere else. Go somewhere where you will more easily make real friends and you will be a lot happier and productive. Better still,  in 15 years, your alumni network will be real.

5. Length, structure, and flexibility: The time it takes to get an MBA can vary from 10 months to almost two years. Longer programs offer more electives, exchange options, and other forms of enrichment including summer internships. If you are younger, chances are you need the time to figure out what you want to do and will benefit from an internship or two on your resume. If you are older, speed of completion may be your highest priority.

6. Electives and options: The core curriculum is effectively the same everywhere and it doesn’t drastically matter where you do it. Electives however, differ significantly from school to school, according to faculty interest and expertise. External projects, “treks,” and exchange opportunities will also vary.

In short, the more you know the better your decision-making will be. Some of the information about schools is easy to find out via the Web. The rest will be more difficult to judge without visiting the campus or talking to current and recent past students.


What’s Your USP for MBA Admission?

There’s a debate in the MBA Admissions community as regards the benefits of applicants “selling themselves.”

On the one hand, some say the applicant is as one among dozens of cereals in the supermarket aisle, and so has to work to actively pitch herself to the Admissions Committee to stand out as a valuable admissions “package” and thus be selected.

Others say the applicant should not do a sales job. Any form of selling takes away from the authenticity of his voice, which is what Adcom really wants to hear.

As in many things, the truth is somewhere in-between. You can’t afford to be naive. Companies spend millions on marketing and sales because it works. Admissions to elite schools is very competitive, and if you pitch an admissions message that is tightly designed and produced to meet and beat Committee expectations, that will advance your admission chances.

On the other hand, if you come across like a used-car salesman with a greasy handshake and a cheesy grin, that’s obviously not going to help you at all. If you’re going to sell yourself in any way, you must sell yourself as an authentic, reflective voice imbued with “humble confidence” in your leadership skills; as a manifestation of ambition-with-integrity; as a persistent force for innovation; and so on.

If you can package yourself this way, then selling yourself will work for you.

And when selling yourself, don’t forget what is perhaps the very essence of a market proposition that works in the world — a unique selling point (USP.)

In other words, just as a venture capitalist will ask the entrepreneur of a new product: “what’s its unique selling point?” which is to say, what’s so different about this vs. all the other competing offerings in the market, such that the consumer is going to buy one? So you should ask yourself: “what’s my unique selling point for elite MBA admissions?” What is going to make Adcom pick me?

Two things come together in a USP: uniqueness and value. Uniqueness is what’s different about you compared with the general applicant: the things in your personal and professional experience that are uncommon. Value is what the Committee sees as valuable in you: what you will contribute to the program and the b-school, both while at school and in the future.

I’ve blogged at length in preceding posts about candidate uniqueness and candidate admissions value, and these topics are also handled in my book. My point here is to say: look for ways to run uniqueness and value together, and if you do, you’ve found your USP.