Useful Info

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions –
From MBA


Frequently Asked Question:  Is it true that a set of mediocre or poorly written MBA essays can derail the application of an MBA candidate who has an exceptionally strong academic and professional record?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Your MBA essays are key to your admission. It is hard to overstate this. There have been many instances when MBA candidates come to me after applying unsuccessfully on their own, and after reviewing their applications, I have determined that a key weakness in their application was the quality of their essays—both in terms of their strategic choice of content and the specific words they used to try to convey their achievements and credentials.

In some instances, candidates failed to put forward compelling long-term goals.  In other cases, they failed to shine a light on their most strategically important achievements.  At times, the essay themes were not clear.  In other instances, candidates failed to communicate their achievements and qualifications in the most business-relevant terms.  With essays that did not serve their purposes well, it did not matter to the admissions committee that some of those applicants had near-perfect academic records—high GMAT scores and near-perfect GPAs from excellent schools like Princeton.

The essays matter a great deal and can make the difference between admission and rejection from a top MBA program!


Frequently Asked Question:  What specific examples do you recall that illustrate the significant impact that MBA essays can have on MBA admissions?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA There are many examples.  Nearly every time I review the application of a candidate who failed to gain admission to their desired business school after applying on their own, I see a great deal of room for improvement in their MBA essays.  The good news is that once I have worked with candidates to revise or completely re-craft their essays, these candidates have fared much better in the admissions process.  In one case, with his newly written essays, a young man who had been rejected from Columbia’s full-time (September-start) program gained admission just a few months later to Columbia’s January start program.  In another instance, I guided a young man on the waitlist at a top-10 busines school to re-write his entire long-term goal essay and he resubmitted it to the admissions committee—even though they had not asked him to do this.  (He was highly qualified, but the first version he had submitted on his own was so awful that I did not think the admissions committee would move him off of the waitlist.)  Shortly thereafter, this top-10 business school took the candidate off of the waitlist and granted him admission.

In yet another instance, a young lady who had been rejected from four top-10 business schools in Round 1 came to me for assitance and, with newly crafted essays, she gained admission to all top-10 schools she applied to in Round 2.  In other instances, candidates who were rejected from multiple top-5 business schools in one year when applying on their own, gained admission to all of the same top-5 business schools the next year with their newly crafted essays (including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Columbia).

The take-away: pay great attention to your MBA essays. They are pivotal to your success in the admissions process.


Frequently Asked Question:  What is the distinction between presenting a weak application and presenting a weak candidacy?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA A weak candidacy means there is something about your qualifications that makes you less attractive to the admissions committee of a particular school.  For example, if you have a 2.0 GPA, but the average GPA for matriculating students at a particular MBA program is a 3.8, you might be considered to have a weaker-than-ideal candidacy.

If you presented a weak application, however, this does not necessarily mean that your candidacy is weak.  You could have wonderful qualifications, but you failed to present those qualifications to the committee in the best way.  Perhaps your essays were not strong.  Perhaps you presented two recommendations that were lukewarm in their endorsement of you.  Perhaps you failed to correct a lot of typos in the application form itself, leaving the impression that you put the application together in haste.

Your aim is to present both a strong candidacy and a strong application. Significantly, though, the stronger you make your business school application—the essays, recommendations, resume, etc.—the greater the odds are that you can overcome a perceived weakness in your candidacy and gain admission to a great school.  So put a great deal of effort into presenting an outstanding MBA application!


Frequently Asked Question:  Can one mediocre recommendation derail my entire MBA application?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Yes.  Many candidates don’t realize how important the recommendations are to their MBA applications.  In requesting two or three recommendations, the admissions committee has asked you to provide references, and you of course will go to the two or three people who you believe will comment most favorably about your abilities and achievements.  What these recommendation writers report, therefore, can be key to your success or failure in the admissions process.  If any one of those recommendation writers communicates to the admissions committee that they do not think highly of you, the admissions committee may be hard pressed to overlook this.

In fact, quoted my insights about this topic, providing my advice to its readers along with the insights of the admissions directors of Wharton and the University of Chicago. reported:

“It’s important for recommenders to give a positive and up-to-date portrayal of the applicant. Admissions consultant Shel Watts explains that this can sometimes end up being the deciding factor because many top MBA programs pay special attention to the quality of recommendations. ‘Even if you have one that’s mediocre and you are applying to a top school, you will get rejected based on that one recommendation,’ says Watts. She tells clients to be extra diligent in picking recommenders who respect their work and can attest to career growth in their new application.”

For the full article, see here:

Frequently Asked Question:  Is it especially true that, when applying to the top-5 business schools, one lukewarm recommendation can derail an MBA application?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA In the case of the top-5 MBA programs, the admissions committees want to hear that you are the best in your professional world.  If any one of your recommendation writers indicates that you are not the best—just “second best” or just “fairly good”—the admissions committee may conclude that there is no compelling case for your admission.

So the long-and-short of it: one poor MBA recommendation can close the door to admission.  Even a lukewarm recommendation can cause fatal damage, becoming a deciding factor in the admission committee’s choice to reject your application.


Frequently Asked Question:  Have you had cases when you believe an MBA recommendation was the main reason for an applicant’s rejection during the admissions process?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Yes, there have been many instances when candidates have come to me after they had applied on their own and were rejected, and I determined that a key factor in each rejection was the quality of the recommendations.

For example, several years ago a highly accomplished young businesswoman came to me seeking assistance after she had applied on her own and was rejected from a top MBA program.  Her academic credentials (a Harvard college graduate!) and GMAT score were impeccable.  Her work experience was solid. Her essays were good—not great, but much stronger than I typically see when a candidate has written them on their own, without formal guidance. Yet, she had not even landed an MBA interview!  From this, I believed the main problem must have been with her recommendations.

I asked her to secure copies of her recommendations for my review. She had never seen them. When her recommendation writers forwarded to me their copies, my suspicions were confirmed.  The recommendations were awful!

The very next year, we re-wrote her entire application, presenting outstanding essays and a compelling storyline. After receiving feedback from me, her recommendation writers also presented new, strong and supportive recommendations. This candidate was admitted to the same school from which she had been rejected the year before. Her case presents a clear example of the importance of recommendations.


Frequently Asked Question:  I have a low GPA.  With regard to MBA admissions, is there anything I can do?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Of course, your academic record matters.  But, don’t assume that a lower-than-ideal GPA will keep you out of your dream business school.  For many of the top schools, your professional record can matter more.  If you have a strong record as a leader in the community, this can also help to draw attention away from a low GPA.

To steer the admissions committee’s focus away from your low GPA, stress your achievements in other areas, and make sure your recommendation writers do the same.  For example, if you have excelled tremendously in the workplace, make that front-and-center in your essays.  Likewise, if you demonstrated outstanding undergraduate leadership, place attention on this in your application by highlighting a key example in one of your essays.   With this approach, I have helped MBA candidates with GPAs as low as 2.7 and 2.8 to gain admission to Stanford, Wharton and Harvard.


Frequently Asked Question:  With regard to MBA admissions, can any other steps help address a low GPA?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Other steps would include pointing out in your application other achievements that can help the admissions committee to believe that you have excellent academic and analytical abilities.  For example, some candidates have completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program successfully, and the CFA designation is a challenging credential to earn.  Success in achieving the CFA credential provides evidence of strong analytical abilities and an ability to focus successfully on academic goals.  These factors can weigh in your favor in the admissions process.

When a GPA is extremely low, some candidates find it useful to get an additional degree before applying for the MBA (often, a one-year degree in a relevant field).  The new degree usually becomes the focal point for the admissions committee and helps to render the prior undergraduate record of low performance far less significant.


Frequently Asked Question:  If I have a low GPA, can the passage of time before I apply to business school help?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Absolutely.  The further in time you are away from the lower-than-ideal academic record, the less relevant that record becomes.  As a few years pass, what will become much more relevant are your record of performance in the workplace and your GMAT score—two recent indicators of your abilities and potential for future success.  So, work diligently to build a strong professional record, make sure your recommendations are very strong, and study hard to score well on that GMAT.

Frequently Asked Question:  When applying to business school, are there instances when it is not possible to overcome a poor undergraduate GPA?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA If you graduated from college only one or two years prior to applying to business school and you also have a low GMAT score, your low GPA—together with your low GMAT score—could become defining for you in the admissions process.  Your approach should be to address these weaknesses in your candidacy, and to also make sure you apply to some schools that will be relative sure-shot schools for you.

How can you address these weaknesses? If you can get your GMAT up, that can help.  But, if you cannot improve your GMAT score, then you might want to try working for a couple of more years to help make your professional work record the most defining aspect of your application.  During the time before you apply to business school, take the opportunity to also build an outstanding record as a leader in the community, which can aid you in the MBA admissions process.  Of course, you should also make sure that you apply to some surer-shot schools in addition to less sure-shot schools: make certain to include among your applications at least two or three MBA programs that have average GMAT scores and average GPAs for matriculating students that are very close to your own.


Frequently Asked Question:  I have a low GMAT score relative to the average score for matriculating students at my first choice business school.  Will this prevent me from gaining admission?

Dr. Shel Watts of MBA Your GMAT score plays an important role in your overall “package” and can have a notable impact on your admissions outcomes.  However, there are many types of situations in which a GMAT score may be less important in your admissions process.  For example, your field can influence how important the GMAT may be. A doctor who decides to go to business school, for instance, may not be expected to have the same strong GMAT score as a person who has been in the business field for the past six years.  If your score is high on the quant side, a low overall score can sometimes be less damaging.  A candidate with a very unique profile can sometimes maneuver around a low GMAT score, because that candidate might be perceived as a uniquely valuable presence in the MBA program.

The admissions committee may also be willing to overlook a lower-than-desired GMAT score if you have demonstrated excellence in your field and strong quantitative abilities in other ways. So, be certain to point out other achievements—such as certifications or credentials like the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation—that attest to your strong analytical skills.