Deciding to apply for on an MBA is a bit like deciding you are going on an expedition. After deciding where you would like to go, a huge amount of work must be done.

Prospective students must first prepare to gain a good score in either the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and decide which one to take – schools publish their average admissions scores on their websites so that students know what to aim for. At the same time students must identify and recruit favourable referees, known as recommenders, hone their essay writing skills for both the application forms and for the exams and prepare for what could be a gruelling interview process.

Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of Expartus, the admissions consultancy that she founded 10 years ago, says too many students underestimate how long they should give to each part of the process.


Deciding whether to take the GMAT or GRE is starting to become more of a personal choice. The GRE has slightly more emphasis on verbal skills and was originally designed for general admission to postgraduate education, but increasing numbers of business schools now accept it. The GMAT, however, remains the dominant test and, although research shows its dominance is fading a little, some top schools will only accept GMAT.

A survey by Kaplan Test Prep of 265 MBA programmes in August/September 2012 found nearly 70 per cent of business schools now allow applicants to submit scores from the GRE instead of the GMAT, against only 24 per cent of those surveyed only three years earlier. Check what your intended school’s requirements are.

Gaining a good test result

Doing well in either the GMAT or the GRE remains crucial. The score from either test remained the most important factor for nearly half of the schools polled in the Kaplan survey. Undergraduate performance was considered most important by 31 per cent, 18 per cent emphasised work experience, 2 per cent looked at letters of recommendation and 1 per cent emphasised the essay component of the application.

Kyle Wu, who is in his second semester of a two-year programme at Thunderbird School of Global Management in the US warns against complacency.

“I didn’t correctly analyse how long it would take me to get the mark I needed for my GMAT and I had already left my job by that time. It awakened me to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you’d planned it,” he warns.

Gaining a good GMAT score of above 700 or the GRE equivalent remains the Holy Grail for prospective students who dream of going to the very best business schools. There are hundreds of business schools, however, and GMAT confirms that the mean score for the test remains at 530, where it has always been.

Personal study or hiring a tutor

Preparing to do well in either examination is time consuming. Typically, students should be prepared to undertake between 100 and 150 hours of study – a level of commitment that some US and European students find shocking, says Andrew Mitchell, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of pre-business programmes.

“Some people think that because they did well in the SAT [a general aptitude test that students sit to gain admission to US universities at undergraduate level] they will also do well on the GMAT, but that is not necessarily the case,” Mr Mitchell says. He points out that by the time potential students sit the GMAT they are joining a rather elite group of very capable prospective applicants who are all dedicated to succeeding on the exam and the admissions process.

Both the GMAT and the GRE are computer-adaptive tests which are designed to assess critical thinking abilities. Yet, despite the complexity of the actual tests, tuition can have dramatic results. “We’ve seen test scores improve by over 200 points,” Mr Mitchell says, although he admits this is rare.

For those who cannot afford the time or the money for tuition just hitting the books can be sufficient.

Students should also be prepared to take the exam more than once. “On average, if people take the exam more than once they can increase their point score by 30 points – that includes some that go up by a 100 and some that go up by nothing,” says Dave Wilson, president and chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council that runs GMAT.

How important is the new integrated reasoning section of the GMAT?

The newest hoop to jump through on the GMAT is the integrated reasoning section. Introduced in June 2012, it challenges students to assess data from a variety of sources and make decisions. “A lot of students find integrated reasoning intimidating, the reason being that it’s heavy with graphical information. It also tests them on material they’ve likely never been challenged with before,” says Mr Mitchell.

Mr Wilson says it is too early to know what weight business schools will give to this new section.

Preparing for the essays and the interview

Good essays or a memorable interview could make all the difference. Ms Isiadinso says she has worked with students who have gained entry to the most selective schools with scores as low as 640/650.

For tasks such as the essay or the interview, Ms Isiadinso says candidates should try to be themselves. She recounts the experience of a recent client from Asia for whom English was a second language. She had failed to get into any of the top schools in the US and asked for help with her next application.

“When I spoke to her on the phone it became clear that she was a fascinating woman – a leader who had had many interesting experiences, but in her applications she was more concerned with writing perfect prose.” Ms Isiadinso convinced her to make sure that her resubmitted application was in her own words. The fresh application contained some grammatical errors, but the client was successful.

The interview could be a chance to shine or one where students could trip up, especially in a group interview situation, which some business schools are beginning to favour.

“It’s a true test of emotional intelligence,” Ms Isiadinso says, adding that candidates might be encouraged to try to dominate proceedings in group setting, but should avoid the temptation to do so. It might be wise, she says, for candidates to ask someone they know and trust to tell them what their strengths and weaknesses are, or consider approaching a consultancy who could coach students for interview.

Letters of recommendation

“Select your referees carefully or you will get a knife in your back.” Ms Isiadinso says, adding that, here too, candidates typically find themselves in a rush. She recommends spending time selecting recommenders. Try to find out if they approve of the idea of MBAs, a negative feeling towards the qualification can sour a reference. She says candidates should never write a recommendation letter themselves and ask a recommender to sign it, it will be obvious they have done so. They should give their recommender plenty of time, so they do not feel compelled. And, most importantly of all, candidates should try to find out if the recommender likes them. She reminds prospective students that if they cannot think of someone from their work (they may not wish to let on to their supervisor or line manager know that they intend to apply for such a programme) a client or someone who they have made contact with in their working life might be suitable.

Think about the impression you will create in every part of your application

Andre de Haes, who is studying on a two-year programme at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says his best piece of advice would be to try to see the overall picture you are presenting.

“Ensure your application tells a coherent story – your essays, recommendations, interview answers and academic/employment histories should be complementary,” he says.

To get all of that right, the most important thing students should bring to the table is time.

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