July 25, 2011 12:19 am

Ask the expert: MBA applications 2011

Q&A: Chioma Isiadinso

Welcome to the Financial Times Ask the Expert online Q&A on MBA applications.

Are you thinking of an MBA? Are you studying for your GMAT test? Perhaps you are preparing for an interview at one of your dream business schools?

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IN Ask the Expert

Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of Expartus, the business school admissions consultancy and author of The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets, will answer your questions about the application process, on this page, on Wednesday July 27, 2011, between 14.00 and 15.00 BST.

Email your questions now to ask@ft.com.

I am a member of the military, who is planning on applying for an MBA programme upon separation from the service. Any advice on the transition or, more specifically, how best to highlight my military experience in the application process?
Ryan Pile

Chioma: Hi Ryan, MBA programmes value diversity and individuals with military backgrounds can bring a different viewpoint to the business school. Business schools are looking for leaders and many military applicants can showcase strong leadership examples from their time in service. What you need to consider is how your leadership experience in the military translates in a civilian environment.

So for example, if you have lead a military unit, the school is interested in learning how you motivated your team, got through obstacles/setbacks and how you handled unexpected situations. Your stories shouldn’t focus only on combat situations but should also extend to include things like helping with the rebuilding of the community post conflict, if you have such examples.

To facilitate your transition to business school, spend some time reading The Financial Times or Wall Street Journal, to get a better sense of the business environment. For an excellent resource on applying to business school as a military person, I recommend the following blog: Military to Business.

I am a year away from obtaining my degree in accounting. Does it matter if I get my MBA at an expensive private college or would I be alright receiving one from a cheaper college such as the University of North Dakota? Does an MBA really pay off over time, even in this economy?
Joshua Schustaak, Minnesota, US

Chioma: Hi Joshua, great question. There are many individuals who attend less expensive MBA programmes that meet their needs. You have to start off knowing what it is you want the MBA to help you achieve. If your goal is to work at one of the leading private equity firms or consulting firms, you will find that most of these companies recruit at only top business schools.

I recommend finding out which employers recruit at the University of North Dakota. If you find out that many of the companies you are interested in recruit from that programme then it is a strong data point towards your decision to target that programme. Having said that, career opportunity, while important, is only one of the many reasons one considers an MBA. An MBA is a personal investment in yourself and you should consider the students who will be your classmates, the rigour of the programme, as well as the calibre of faculty when making your decision.

There are different arguments around whether the MBA pays off. By and large, there is enough data that shows that individuals who attend a well-ranked business school tend to make more money after they graduate. Take a look at the salary data of the school you wish to attend as well as the percentage of students who are employed after graduation to assess whether the MBA is a worthwhile investment for you.

I would like to know how get into a top tier business school if my grades aren’t all A’s. What do I have to write in my personal statement so that the business school will love me? I’m specialised in risk management and investments.

Jaan Lainurm

Chioma: Hi Jaan, while strong grades are important to business schools, there are a lot of admitted candidates whose grades are not perfect. If you are concerned about your grades you should aim for a high GMAT score to mitigate the concerns the admissions board will have over a weak transcript. The admissions board evaluates candidates across multiple dimensions and academic record/test scores are only a part of that evaluation.

Other variables that are considered when assessing a candidate’s application include their leadership impact and potential as well as the different perspective they will bring to the programme (diversity of experiences, backgrounds, etc). The essays/personal statements that are well-written, insightful and reveal a mature candidate will endear you to the admissions board.

As a risk manager/investment professional, you will need to tell the admissions board why you want the degree and how it fits with your long-term goals. The more clarity you have of why you want the MBA, the more likely you are to “win” the admission board over.

Applying for MBA in a good insitution has always been blended with the need to have experience, which makes us fresh graduates wonder how we can apply? Also, what is the reasonable GMAT score that one has to consider before applying?

Okwir Simon, Brussels, Belgium

Chioma: Hi Okwir, you are right, the majority of the top business schools want candidates with some level of experience. If you are targeting a selective MBA programme, it is ideal to work for at least two years before you apply. If you are planning to apply without work experience then you may want to consider applying to a masters in management programme, which is a degree programme that doesn’t require prior work experience and is for individuals interested in a business career. You can check out the Financial Times 2010 Rankings of top masters in management programmes.

As for the GMAT, research what the range is for the schools you are targeting. MBA programmes often report the high and low GMAT range as well as their GMAT averages. Ideally, your score should be within the range reported by your target school. If it is outside of the range, it is worth retaking the test. Keep in mind that the top MBA programmes all have average GMAT scores above 700 so aim to score above 700 with an even breakdown of your verbal and quantitative scores. A GMAT below 700 should not prevent you from applying. You should focus on other parts of your application if that is the case.

I am looking for an online MBA with affordable tuition fees or a scholarship. I am a young entrepreneur from Tanzania, I own a small construction company and I have a degree in building economics from the University of Dar es Salaam, where I did my studies in 2003. I hope you can advise me, thanks.

Chioma: You have to be careful when selecting an online MBA programme as there are many fraudulent ones out there. Resources to vet online programmes can be found on The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website. For a comprehensive list of online MBA programmes, refer to the Financial Times 2011 Online Listing.

Keep in mind that many students who opt for the online degree can have their employer sponsor them. This may not be an option for you, as an entrepreneur but still check with the schools to see what kind of financial support they have available.

I am a student actuary under The Faculty and Institute of Actuaries. I entered the profession without a degree; just A-levels and at my current pace, I should gain fellowship in 3 years, at 24. I intend to get onto an MBA course after fellowship, to make my CV more rounded rather than the way it’s specialised in risk management from my actuarial. I’m emailing to find out what are my chances of getting into a top MBA school anywhere in the world, considering I have no undergraduate degree? What do I need to start doing, along with my actuarial exams to make myself stand out from the crowd?

Sam Mawoyo

Chioma: Hi Sam, the short answer is that top MBA programmes require a degree. However there are some that would waive the requirement under extremely unusual situations. You should contact the schools that you are targeting and present your situation to them to see if they will waive the degree requirement. The question you will need to address for the admission board at the leading programmes is why you want the MBA. What exactly is your experience, which firms have you worked for and why do you need an MBA? Are you looking to make a career change? If so, in what area? If you plan to remain in risk assessment/management then you have to demonstrate that the MBA is necessary for you.

The professional experience is also one factor in a comprehensive assessment. Schools want to know about your experience working with people, what you are like as a person (extra activities beyond work) and that you have the aptitude to thrive academically. So, without an undergraduate degree the GMAT will play an even greater factor when evaluating your candidacy.

Admission to top MBA programmes is very competitive and for candidates to be successful they need to have a very strong set of work and life experiences as well as solid academic records. You have to decide whether the MBA is the right course for you or whether there are other ways to achieve your objectives (for example through certifications or short term study to build particular skills).

I am a project manager at a global Fortune 500 company and have little exposure to the market. I am very interested in shifting to a more business focused role such as business development.

I know that an MBA will help me reach this goal, but realistically, will I be starting at the bottom? If I commit to an MBA at one of the top schools, I need to make sure that it is worth the financial investment and that the tuition and opportunity cost of my salary will be paid off within a few years of my MBA completion.

I plan to work in North America but there are few 1 year MBAs at the top schools here. In general, do large global corporations want a 2 year MBA graduate? Will it have a significant impact on my salary?

Kristina Gale, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Chioma: Hi Kristina, congratulations on your current success at your firm. You are right in carefully weighing the ROI of your MBA investment to assess whether it is a viable option for you. You should be able to move into a business development role after an MBA. What you have to assess is what you will be giving up now. In your current role, are you able to make a switch at your firm without the MBA? Could you pursue a part time degree to build your credibility and broaden your skills to make the functional change you desire, while continuing to work for your firm?

While you wouldn’t necessarily start at the bottom post the MBA it is important to maintain a realistic outlook regarding what you will be able to do with your first job in a business development capacity. You may find that you may not have the same level of resources (a team that you manage, a budget, etc), in your first job in business development. But what is more important is taking a long term view of your career objectives. You ought to think of the career beyond the first job or two and instead focus on the career you desire for yourself and the skills, network and perspective that you will gain with the MBA.

You are right, most top MBA programmes in the US are two years unlike the case in Europe. Shorter programs may be attractive given their less expensive price tag. However, keep in mind that you lose the chance to do a summer internship with accelerated programmes like the Kellogg one year MBA or Columbia’s 16 month January start MBA. These internships can serve as a bridge to a new industry or job function.

Nevertheless, you can work for a large corporation with a one year MBA regardless of whether you study in Europe or the US as long as you select a programme that is highly regarded. Many of the global firms have offices around the world and the language benefits that you will find at programmes like Insead could be a differentiator when it comes to your job search. If you absolutely plan to stay in the US then you should consider only US schools. See which firms recruit from the programmes you want, talk to students and alumni and then decide if you want to make the investment in the degree. Most people report that the MBA had a positive impact on their salary earnings both in the short term and over the course of their career.

What are the best institutions from which I can seek an MBA? I am currently studying finance but it is at Cal State University. Should I transfer before completing my undergraduate studies or should I transfer once I get started on my graduate studies?

Luis Aguilar

Chioma: Hi Luis, there aren’t a predetermined list of schools that applicants should attend before pursuing an MBA. I don’t recommend transferring to a different programme solely for an MBA. If you are dissatisfied with the Cal State University college experience and want to study at a different institution, then go for it. The important thing is to excel in any environment you are in.

A mediocre academic performance at a state school or Ivy League school will be detrimental to your admission. Excellent performance at both types of institutions are also viewed favorably. While the MBA draws application from students from highly selective universities around the world, there are many students in the pool who apply successfully without having this background. The admission board would want to understand what factors influenced your choice of school selection and what you were able to achieve given the resources that were available to you. I also don’t recommend transferring in the middle of your graduate degree.

I would like to know if an average GMAT score can be compensated with compelling essays?

Nagarjuna Babu Gutti

Hi Nagarjuna, thanks for your question. It depends on how low the GMAT score is and what other experiences and achievements you have. If a school’s average for example is 710 and the GMAT is 500, it is almost impossible to overcome this discrepancy, even with excellent experiences. The admission board will remain concerned about the person’s ability to handle the course rigour. If the gap is less pronounced (say 680) and the person has excellent work achievements, interesting stories from their personal life, and glowing recommendations, they can overcome the low GMAT.

In our country, most bachelor programmes are three year degrees. However, several business schools list a four year undergraduate programme in their application requirements. Do US business schools, especially the Ivy leagues, accept an equivalent three year programme from India while considering admissions?

Aniket Nikumb, Mumbai, India

Hi Aniket,the MBA admissions boards are familiar with the different educational degree requirements around the world. As an example, look at Stanford Graduate School of Business’ extensive list of academic requirements by region. In the case of Stanford it states: “The two-year master’s degree following the three-year bachelor’s degree is preferred but not required”. You will need to research each programme you are targeting to figure out exactly what its policy is on the degree requirements for students who studied in India.

I am a qualified Chartered Management Accountant (CIMA), with almost 4 years experience in a professional working environment. I am currently working for a foreign exchange specialist with an approximate annual turnover of over £850m ($1.4Bn), as a business analyst.

My main job involves managing forex risk and management information systems, reporting management information and constantly enhancing the firm’s operations and systems.

So based on my background, should I go for an MBA or EMBA? If an MBA, should it be one year or two years? What are the best MBA institutes in the UK and Europe? What should my electives be if I have a choice between finance, accounting, management science and operations or strategic and international management? Do you recover your debts in medium term range if you completely self-finance it? How should I prepare for an MBA interview?

Syed Teumur Alam, UK

Chioma: Hi Syed, thanks for your questions. Let me address them one by one.

MBA vs. EMBA: You mention that you have nearly four years work experience as a business analyst. Most EMBA candidates have closer to ten years work experience so you have to wonder if you will fit in that context. The MBA programme is likely to be a better fit.

One year vs. two year programmes: The decision to opt for a one year versus a two year programme comes down to several factors. US schools have mostly two year programmes with a few one year options available. Conversely, the European programmes have primarily one year programmes with a few longer term programmes available. Many students choose their programmes based on the region of the world where they wish to work: if Europe is where you want your career to be then considering European schools make sense….the same goes for America and Asia.

Cost is also a factor: the shorter programmes are attractive if you are concerned about the hefty price tag of the MBA. If you are also clear on your career and don’t need the summer to explore a new career or desire to make a huge career change then a shorter programme can be the ideal fit for you. The European programmes, in general, tend to draw larger numbers of internationals (more than 70%) than their US counterpart, where internationals make up about 35% of the class.

Best MBA programmes: There are many great programmes in Europe and the UK. Each programme has its strengths in different areas. A good place to start is reviewing the Financial Times 2010 European Rankings. You should also review the career placement data at the programmes you want to target, to see which industries and positions graduates of the programme enter.

As for electives and what you should study, that is a personal decision and should be based on what career you desire in the long term. Some programmes offer opportunities to specialise, allowing you to drill down in your area of interest while you build greater expertise in that space. Other programmes offer a wide choice of courses across all functional areas of business, preparing you with general management training.

If you have the chance to cover the cost of the MBA by self-funding then go for it instead of taking out loans.

Finally, the best way to prepare for an interview is to take the time to practice, practice, practice. I cover how to ace the interview in a chapter in my book, The Best Business School’s Admissions Secrets . You should also take time to fully research the programme so you can articulate in a convincing way during the interview how you are a fit with the programme and what you will be able to do to enrich the programme.

It’s been reported in the FT that there’s a growing number of women applying for MBA programmes. Why do you think this is and as a woman, is now a particularly good time to apply?

Chloe, France

Chioma: Hi Chloe, thanks for your question. For the past decade or so, many top MBA programmes have invested in consistent outreach efforts to target more women to consider business school. Many of these activities have included admissions information sessions for women on campus, events with Forté Foundation, a non-profit organisation focused on increasing the number of women leaders and female students pursuing an MBA, outreach to women colleges, etc.

I haven’t seen data on the makeup of the applicant pool but I suspect that the applications for women have gone up. The recent enrollment data suggest that the recruitment efforts targeting women are beginning to yield fruit (Wharton female students for this entering class is 45%, Stanford is at 39% and London Business School is at 27%), compared to the statistics of female students from years before.

I believe more women see the MBA as a viable option worth exploring instead of a cutthroat environment for only individuals in finance. You should definitely apply if you feel ready. Take advantage of the programme’s outreach efforts to learn more about the schools, the MBA in general and then decide on the programmes you wish to apply to.

How do online MBAs compare with those obtained at a brick and mortar institution? For many, time and place restrictions make traditional classes difficult to attend and alternative methods appear attractive.

Gabe Seif

Chioma: Hi Gabe, online programmes are a more recent phenomenon (and growing quite rapidly), compared to brick and mortar programmes that have been around in some cases for over 100 years. Online programmes offer significant flexibility since you can pursue the programme from anywhere in the world, regardless of geographical restrictions. You can fit the classes into your life instead of having to stop your job to enrol in a traditional MBA programme.

The downside of online MBA programmes is that you lose the close bonds that emerge from the day to day interaction of student and faculty engagement, which is one of the main benefits of pursuing an MBA in the first place. You have to be clear on what you wish to achieve with the degree. If you want to make a significant career change then an online programme may be more challenging to achieve that switch, compared to a traditional MBA where you can do internships or projects to gain exposure to the new industry you wish to enter.

Fortunately, more employers are becoming more accepting of online MBA programmes. Reflect carefully on your situation and decide on the type of programme that will meet your objectives.

Which holds more weight: GPA or GMAT scores?

Rhoundy J. Jones

Chioma: Hello Rhoundy, both the GPA and the GMAT are very important in the admissions evaluation. There are some factors that influence how each of these are viewed. The longer the time between your undergraduate degree and your application, the less critical the GPA is.

For example, if you graduated a long time ago and your GPA was on the low side, but you have a recent GMAT score that is quite high, plus if you have excellent work experience, you may be able to overcome the low GPA. Schools recognise that not everyone is a great test taker and so if your GMAT is lower than average, but your academic record is very strong and you majored in a challenging course at a highly reputed university, then the GPA can help to offset a low GMAT score.

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