Inside information: MBA student Sónia Vaz advises applicants to ask questions of alumni before attending selection day interviews
Inside information: MBA student Sónia Vaz advises applicants to ask questions of alumni before attending selection day interviews © Anna Huix

The Graduate Management Admission Test was the worst part of the MBA application for Sónia Vaz. On top of the intense study and mock tests, the computer she was given during her final exam was broken.

The GMAT test result was disappointing. “My final grade was not what I was hoping for, but I had no other option than taking it,” says Vaz. “I had to give everything to the assessment day and interview.”

The good news for Vaz — and other candidates worried about their scores — is that the GMAT and the alternative Graduate Records Examination (GRE) are just one part of the application to study an MBA. Vaz is now an MBA student at highly ranked Iese Business School in Barcelona.­

A high test score helps but it is no guarantee of acceptance. Business schools look at all components of the application process ­— from essays to interviews — before making a decision.

“During the assessment day I met the MBA admissions officers at Iese and they could see me as a person, not just a piece of paper or a set of test results,” says Vaz.

Schools advise that prospective students apply only to institutions that match their needs and values. They should look at the core subjects and electives a school offers and consider how the academic programme will help them fulfil their goals.

They should also talk to current students, faculty and alumni to determine whether the school is the right fit.

It is important that would-be applicants think about the diversity of a school’s typical cohort since much of an MBA’s value lies in learning from, and networking with, peers and alumni. The same goes for faculty. Anyone interested in working in a specific industry should establish the staff and school’s connections to that sector.

Decisions must be made over whether to go for a one- or two-year course, as well as full- or part-time study. Full-time MBAs provide a chance to be immersed in study, but there can be financial snags such as leaving a salaried job while incurring hefty tuition fees and living expenses.

The format of the course also needs to be considered. There are plenty of options to complete MBA courses either fully or partly online, but these can mean less time networking on campus and fewer opportunities to take part in lectures, tutorials and workshops in person.

Contacts made while choosing a school can help with the application. For Vaz, the most critical interaction during her application was not between her and the test computer, but rather with Iese admissions staff, current MBA students and alumni, all of whom shared information that helped during the assessment day and interview stages.

“Rely on the alumni to clarify every question you might have,” she advises. “Everyone will be happy to help you.”

Networks can be established at MBA fairs, but some business schools have schemes to help prospective students build contacts. HEC Paris has 60 MBA student “ambassadors” who offer one-to-one consultations and campus visits to anyone interested in studying at the school.

“We connect candidates with students, either from their region or professional sector,” explains admissions director Benoit Banchereau. “The majority of people who join our MBA programme have met or interacted with a student or alumnus prior to making their decision.”

Since most programmes take a holistic approach to reviewing applications, prospective students should place equal emphasis on all parts of the process, says Jamie Wright, an adviser with admissions consultancy Accepted.

“Each question is asked for a reason,” she says. “For example, if a question about career aims asks for just 100 words, candidates shouldn’t breeze through this just because it has a low word count.”

Applying for an MBA course: an insider’s guide

Applications to MBA programmes are down 6.9 per cent year-on-year, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council. However, competition for places remains fierce at top institutions where acceptance rates are as low as 6-10 per cent.

The key to a successful application is weaving together seemingly disparate components — test scores, CVs and essays — into a compelling narrative, says admissions adviser Jamie Wright. Here are her tips on how to do that:

The test

This shows your aptitude. Your GMAT or GRE score enables business schools to be confident that you can handle the academic rigour of an MBA.

Allow sufficient time for test preparation. Ideally give yourself six or seven months so you have time to retake the exam, if required. “It is worth taking your time to prepare properly,” says MBA student Sónia Vaz.

The CV

Your résumé should highlight your soft skills, such as leadership, communication and teamwork. Provide examples of your character and success stories. How have you overcome obstacles and learned from adversity, for example?

Avoid industry jargon, however — MBA officers should not need a translator.

The essay

While the test demonstrates your aptitude and the CV shows you are accomplished, the essay is your chance to tell admissions officers about who you are as a person and what your goals are. It connects the dots of what could otherwise seem like a collection of disparate life experiences.

Write in an authentic way that allows the admissions team to get to know you and how this specific MBA — whether it is a full-time or part-time programme — will get you from A to B.

The interview

Be prepared to flesh out any details given in your application and arrive armed with insightful questions that show you have thoroughly researched the programme. Your goal is to show that you are self-reflective and interesting. Your interaction with the interviewer will speak volumes about what kind of student you will be if you are enrolled on the programme.

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