Applying for an MBA programme is a two-year project for most candidates, with good reason. Many applicants see it as a life-changing decision. Although an accountant seeking a move into finance might have a clear focus, for others it is part of a personal review in which the process helps determine a career direction.

Then there is the research: MBA course applicants are looking to buy a product costing a minimum of $30,000, and often more than $100,000, so it is not a process to be rushed. Chioma Isiadinso, an admissions consultant, asks: “Would you buy a Ferrari without taking it for a test drive, or a Tiffany ring off the internet?”

Next there are the boxes to be ticked. Many schools require you to pass the Graduate Management Admissions Test or Graduate Record Examination – involving three months of preparation for most candidates. Some also require proof of ability in English, if it is not a candidate’s native language. But the toughest test is perhaps getting your curriculum vitae into shape and articulating your motives.

When to apply
MBA programmes are seasonal. In both the US and Europe, some schools run two courses a year – at Insead, for example, courses begin in January and September. There, applications are carved into tranches, with rolling deadlines. So to apply for a course beginning in September 2011, you need to apply by March at the latest, or by July for a course beginning in January 2012. Check deadlines early.

In the US, many candidates apply to multiple schools. Isiadinso recommends that most candidates make five or six applications. One or two should be aspirational – your ideal choice; a couple should be “in the bag” – schools you are pretty sure will accept you; and the other two should fall somewhere between the two.

A battle for market share has broken out between these two rival testing bodies but GMAT is still overwhelmingly the market leader. Schools such as MIT Sloan or Stanford accept both; Chicago Booth only accepts GMAT. So check which your target schools accept – but do not get hung up on technicalities. Some schools outside the US require neither. Judith Bouvard, dean of Grenoble Graduate School of Business, says: “We do not systematically require any kind of GMAT or GRE score, but we may require a GMAT score sometimes if we have a doubt about a particular ability.”

The lesson is clear: develop an early dialogue with your chosen schools.

The fine print
It is worth reflecting on who is best able to recommend you. One referee should probably be your line manager, but the other could be an alumnus you know well, a client, a consultant or a former boss. Candidates should develop a “recommendation strategy”, says Isiadinso, and ensure that referees can explain why you deserve a place.

However, it is the essays that will probably decide whether you get interviewed. These are typically short – often 500 words or less. There may be 2-5 to complete for each application, covering current responsibilities, career choices and professional aspirations.

As one admissions chief observes: “It is the thinking process that matters.” Never cut and paste an essay written for one school into an application for another. It shows.

It is worth knowing exactly what schools are looking for. Bouvard of Grenoble says: “We are getting more diversity, both among candidates and in our selection. Today, applicants may come from backgrounds in engineering, the arts and the medical profession, as well as corporate management. We are looking for people who want to be team players.”

An international outlook, cross-cultural awareness, personality and active participation in extracurricular activities are essential.

If possible, visit the school. Schools love visitors. They introduce you to participants, let you sit in on classes, give you time with admissions staff. Sit in a classroom and often you can decide intuitively whether a school is right for you. Plan visits early, and you can tag them on to a vacation or business trip, reducing stress and cost.

At Wharton, admissions staff say the goal is to achieve “the right fit” and a balanced group. So if the school has already picked an international sports star with a background in marketing, it might not want another one.

A perfect GMAT score, meanwhile, is no guarantee of success. The most common failings at interview are poor communication skills, poor interpersonal skills or dubious motivation.

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