By Stacy Blackman
For successful professionals accustomed to getting ahead on their wits and talent, the admissions process at the world’s top business schools can feel both mysterious and unnerving.
As a recent MBA admit explained, “I remember feeling very confused about what it was the MBA programs were looking for in a good candidate. It often felt like admissions was a black box and I was hopelessly trying to crack the code.”
Our team embarked on a mission to decipher the code by analyzing admit and ding data across the past two admission seasons. We began by focusing on applicants to Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, and ultimately discovered patterns that held up across admissions decisions for every top-10 MBA program.
In the process, we identified five significant takeaways that go well beyond the traditional criteria of leadership and academic record for MBA admissions success.
1. Pedigree and employer brand are not essential
Ivy League-educated applicants and those from well-regarded ‘feeder’ firms once had an edge over candidates from lesser-known arenas. Times have changed. These factors no longer correlate with admit success for the top MBA programs and can even represent a higher hurdle due to saturation in the applicant pool.
“Far more important to MBA admissions readers is what you have done relative to what you have been given,” says a former MBA admissions officer on the Stacy Blackman Consulting (SBC) team. “It now helps to come from a less travelled path, such as outside the top feeder schools and outside of the dense geographies. Admissions readers love a great story.”
2. High GPA and stellar test scores are not dealmakers
Dazzling stats—such as a 780 GMAT—will not ensure a top MBA admit. In truth, a strong academic record only illustrates that the candidate can handle the analytical coursework of the MBA program. Once that threshold is met, the test score becomes meaningless.
Across SBC’s client pool, our top MBA admit stats generally fell within the 80 percent range of reported test scores for MBA programs. Scores this past season ranged from a low 600 GRE to a 770 GMAT, with a median score of 710. The lowest GPAs for top MBA admits last season were 2.4 and 2.3. We also saw numerous top MBA program admits offset a weak GMAT or GRE score with a proven track record in a quantitative job and compelling leadership activities.
3. Community citizenship is what matters, not heroism
Candidates have gained acceptance to top-10 MBA programs even with limited social impact work. A Polish applicant who fences in her spare time got into every top MBA program to which she applied, without any volunteer experience on her resume. Another candidate with a background in finance got into four out of six top MBA programs and had mentioned only running and skiing as his outside interests.
Modest extracurriculars, such as professional organization membership, one-on-one mentoring, and basic volunteering, are just fine. Admit success is determined by the motivations for those side interests and activities, as well as how an applicant’s character is displayed in multiple areas.
4. Share personal qualities to reveal your values
“Go deep. Get personal. Make sure the reader feels genuineness and authenticity. Make them get goose bumps while they are reading,” advises a former MBA admissions officer on our team. While an applicant’s resume may have listed “Two years at Facebook,” his essays spoke much more personally, bringing to life his true character.
Rather than just a story of achievements, the best essays touch on defining moments, fears, or experiences to invoke a creative theme or compelling thread that acts as a mechanism to showcase your identity. Upon reading your application, the admissions officer should feel so moved and inspired that they want to meet you immediately to hear more of your story.
5. Demonstrate how you will play in the sandbox that is the MBA classroom
An effective MBA application strategy needs to convey a capability of collaborating with diverse resources and stakeholders. In the cases we examined, confidence and capability were always balanced by likeability and humility. Our self-aware admits had worked hard to compensate for and overcome their limitations. For example, passive personality types spoke about the ways he or she has advocated for change or pushed outside of their comfort zone.
More aggressive personality types, meanwhile, had to work harder to show they possessed understanding, empathy and consensus-building skills. In short, these are real people with both flaws and strengths, going to b-school in order to improve and achieve more. They showed the maturity to understand that success requires support from others in addition to their own abilities and hard work.
There is no magic formula that guarantees admissions success, but as these tips demonstrate, personality, passion, and a sincere desire to contribute can help tip the odds in your favor.
Stacy Blackman is the president and founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting advisory launched in 2001. Stacy earned her BS in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.