Applying to a top-ranking business school requires a lot of preparation — in some cases as much as two years — before a candidate is ready. It may sound like a long time, but applicants must make a considered choice about the school, the course, the culture and the location before they commit to perfecting their submissions.

Kathryn Lucas, founder of New York-based consultancy Square One Prep, which helps candidates apply, says: “Sometimes we start partnering with people one to two years before they apply. There is a lot involved. It is intense, immersive and competitive, and applicants must ensure they have as strong a profile as possible.”

Michael Malone, associate dean of the MBA programme at Columbia Business School in New York, says the school reviews between 5,500 and 7,000 full-time MBA applications a year, with only 15 per cent of applicants admitted in recent years.

Moreover, candidates must compete against the world’s best and brightest. “Diversity is important,” says John Thanassoulis, professor of financial economics at Warwick Business School. “We compete with the world and place our graduates across the globe. People compete from Europe, Asia and Africa to do our MBA.”

Competition explains why, despite a mean score of 547.35 for the Graduate Management Admission Test (800 is the maximum), business schools are searching for scores of 700-plus.

“There are so many amazing people applying, most of whom craft incredibly strong written applications, that some candidates revisit the GMAT several times to get the highest possible score and differentiate themselves,” Lucas says.

Prof Thanassoulis adds that a low score can be a “turn-off”, especially if the course is highly technical. “If the candidate only has ropey academic grades and no relevant work experience, this can raise red flags about the individual’s ability to cope with the rigours of the course,” he says.

But Guy Brown, head of Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University in the UK, says a good GMAT score is only one of several indicators. “We do not want to set people up to fail, so prior knowledge and learning is important, but we look at the whole student — their work experience, GCSEs, professional qualifications and diplomas,” he says.

It is vital to make the most of the short essay questions that accompany the application. “While a GMAT can tell a committee about someone’s ability to perform in the classroom, admissions committees will forgive a GMAT score in an instant if the candidate demonstrates rich professional and life experiences, as those dimensions can make a candidate dynamic and distinct,” says Lucas.

IE Business School in Spain asks all prospective MBA students to answer three “express yourself” questions that could be in the form of videos or presentations, as well as written essay answers. “We are looking for whatever makes them unique and to see whether they can cope outside their comfort zone,” says Pilar Vicente, senior associate director for admissions.

Cultural fit
Most schools hold open days for prospective students, and Newcastle, for example, hosts “webinars” for distance learners, so students know if it is right for them. At IE, Vicente says: “More than 90 per cent of our students come from outside Spain, and from all different business disciplines, so we want to get to know applicants personally and help them understand what IE can offer them.”

Applicants should consider a longlist of four to seven schools, rather than putting their hopes on just one.

Crucially, every candidate competing for a place must have a personal project in mind and one that they can articulate well before applying. “We can spot people without a goal immediately,” Vicente says. “It has to be realistic, especially if people are using the MBA to change their career.”

For Malone at Columbia, candidates must demonstrate what they have already learnt and why an MBA is a good fit. “They should be able to answer what their short- and long-term goals are, and whether an MBA is necessary and the best way for them to achieve these.”

Brice Ollivault, now in private equity, had been a Formula 1 racing engineer for six years. After his team pulled out of F1, he used his redundancy money to fund a one-year MBA at Cass Business School in London and graduated in 2011. “There is no room for complacency,” he says. “It is not about having the letters ‘MBA’ after your name. You must convince the admissions team that you really want this, and show prospective employers afterwards that you made the most of the MBA.”

Reputation and accuracy
Candidates should think carefully about their referees. Well-known academics or business leaders count more than peers or non-relevant business contacts. “We often see letters that were clearly written with another business school in mind,” says IE’s Vicente.

Every piece of the application counts, so get someone to read it all, not just for spellings but also to assess sincerity. A template essay that was not written for a specific programme will be spotted.

Lastly, while everyone expects students to socialise, anything unflattering on Twitter or Facebook could raise eyebrows, while Brown of Newcastle warns students to reconsider applying from “childish” email addresses. “Think about what it is saying about you,” he says.

It all comes down to careful planning: for the very best MBA application it pays to take as much time as you can.

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