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5 Ways You'll Fail Your MBA Application

Ex-Harvard admissions expert tells you what not to do

Thu Feb 2 2017

By Chioma Isiadinso

Pursuing an MBA is a significant undertaking. But it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of putting together an MBA application.

Carelessness in filling out your application is one sure way to start your business school journey on the wrong foot. Here are five more:

1. Choosing your target schools based on reputation

The thought: “When it comes to business school, the only thing that matters is the university name on your diploma. Who cares where you go, as long as it's a top-ranked school?”

The reality: The choice of which schools to apply to is hugely important. Before you decide on a target school, you should be thinking about fit, taking a look at the school's faculty and course offerings, looking at employment reports to see which companies and sectors are hiring from the school, and researching the school's teaching method to see if it's a good fit for the way you learn.

By focusing exclusively on rank and reputation, you run the risk of applying to schools that won't help you achieve your career goals. And when the admissions committee asks, “Why did you apply to this school?”, you won't have anything substantive to say. Adcoms want to bring in students who are passionate about being a part of their school, not candidates who only care about a name.

2. Not preparing for the GMAT

The thought: “I'm a smart person. I did well in college. I'm sure I'll knock the GMAT out of the park, no problem.”

The reality: The GMAT has been designed to reflect the skills needed to do well in an MBA program. It's not necessarily a measure of how smart you are, but how well you're able to apply those skills. And as average GMAT scores have been rising for years at top business schools, it's more important than ever to devote some time to getting the best score you can.

Given that a lack of preparation can result in having to re-take the test (at a cost of $250 and with a minimum of 16 days between tests), there's no reason not to crack the books and spend some time studying beforehand.

3. Telling the admissions committee what you think they want to hear

The thought: “Admissions committees only want to admit perfect candidates. If you want to get in, you should try to answer all their questions like the ideal student would.”

The reality: Dee Leopold, former HBS admissions managing director, says: “It’s a selection process. There aren’t rules like if you have this score you will be in and if you have that score you will be out. It’s about the class. It’s not about whether I think John is a better person than Jim. It’s about what ingredients does John bring and what does Jim bring.”

Admissions committees are looking for real people, flaws and all, who show passion and dedication both at work and in their personal life. It's not about checking boxes. Don't submit an application for “perfect finance drone #337A” – tell your own story.

4. Getting your letters of recommendation from high-level execs who don't know your work

The thought: “The most impressive letters of recommendation come from people with the most impressive titles.”

The reality: The most impressive letters of recommendation come from the people who know your work best. Just like a good essay, a good letter of recommendation should show, not tell. Admissions committees want to see specificity. They don't want to hear that you're a good leader; they want to know about the time you stepped up and ran a meeting with the firm's biggest client because the project director got caught in a traffic jam.

5. Leaving everything to the last minute

The thought: “How hard could it be? I've pulled all-nighters before to get a project done, and this is no different.”

The reality: Pursuing an MBA is an investment in your future – and an investment of two years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages and tuition costs. It's something that should be approached with a lot of thought and care, from the decision of where to apply to the final lines of your application essay.

Your time in business school will shape you, so don’t leave anything to chance, especially given how hard it is to get admitted in the first place.


Chioma Isiadinso is an education entrepreneur and co-founder/CEO of EXPARTUS, the first MBA admissions consulting firm to integrate personal branding into every aspect of the MBA admissions process.

She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.

Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.