Applying to a top business school is tough. The level of competition is fierce.

The process of applying can range from a few months to two years depending on the applicant, but candidates need to do a lot of groundwork, which can be stressful and time consuming.

Applicants need to consider which schools they like, which courses they want to do, the culture and opportunities on offer, as well as doing the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or Graduate Record Examination. Recommendations must be found and additional essays are often required.

Cast your net wide

Getting into a top school “is like winning the lottery”, says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of Expartus, an admissions consultancy, and author of The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets. She adds that acceptance rates can be as low as 6 per cent at Stanford and 12 per cent at Harvard Business School. Many programmes admit fewer than 20 per cent.

Given the increasing competition, Isiadinso recommends “casting a wide enough net to ensure admission success. Applicants can target schools with differing admission rates to give themselves the best odds of securing admission.”

Dawna Levenson, director of MBA admissions at MIT Sloan stresses the importance of thorough research, visits and online “webinars”. “Some schools will clearly feel a better fit than others,” she says.

Testing times

One of the most important aspects of an application is the GMAT.

Benoît Banchereau, director of communications, development and admissions at HEC Paris, says the GMAT is a good indicator of how successful a student will be on an MBA course “but it is much more than that”.

“Let’s be honest, the test is hard. If you want to succeed, you have to put the work in to study.” He says the difficult questions combined with the strict time limit test more than just reasoning skills. “They show us how well a person is able to respond to stress and manage their time. These skills are vital during an MBA programme and beyond.”

Isiadinso says applicants need to do everything they can to prepare for the exam. Self-study is one way, but applicants who have below-average scores — top schools look for about 700 — can take a test prep course or hire a private tutor.

Although the GMAT carries significant weight, John Colley, associate dean for the MBA at Warwick Business School, which requires a score of 650, emphasises that this is far from all that is required.

“Most schools are looking for a diverse cohort so will go out of the way to attract people with interesting or unique backgrounds,” he says.

Essays and questionnaires

In addition to the GMAT there may be other tests or essays. Some MBA programmes require applicants to answer questions that cover a wide range of subjects. In the past, candidates applying to US business schools often had to write six essays or more, but Isiadinso says most American business schools have reduced this to two or three. Stanford requires two essays, for example, while Harvard asks for one and Columbia requests three.

Applicants can use the essays to distinguish themselves, but they must also ensure their true personality comes across. Levenson suggests applicants ask two people to read their essays so they can judge that “it is really you”.

“Sometimes you can get buried in the words and you need to take a step back,” she says.

“The application and the interview are about a school getting to know you and you getting to know them.”

Language and leadership

For those who do not have English as their first language, tests are required since business schools’ student bodies are international. “[At Warwick] one of the largest barriers for overseas students is English,” Colley says. “You need to make sure it is up to scratch as you need to gain high marks in the tests to gain a place in programmes.”

Banchereau says that the tests ensure “each candidate has the intellectual agility to fully participate in class discussions”. But he adds that high GMAT and English test scores alone are not enough. “We look at a variety of additional criteria to assess a candidate’s success in the programme, including previous academic performance, professional accomplishment, international exposure and leadership potential.”

There is no correct number of schools to apply to, but if a candidate has done the legwork, they can concentrate on a few. This means he or she can better tailor applications to each individual school.

Referrals and your USP

Recommendations must also be relevant, so they need to be given by people who are familiar with the candidate’s business achievements. And like applications, references need to be tailored to the specific school. It is worth remembering that business schools want leaders and the earlier you can demonstrate this, the better.

Business schools also value diversity, says Isiadinso. “Know what your unique selling perspective is. You can have 10 investment bankers doing the same types of deals but the schools will only take one or two. Those are the people who show how they add value beyond just doing a good job . . . Know your difference and how you add value,” she says.

Colley says it is important to be open minded. “You will have skills, but so will everybody else. Be ready to act like a sponge and soak up as much as you can. Never again will you spend such an intense year with people from so many different countries, so many sectors and so many professions.”

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