Answers to Top Questions: Applying to Business School

Posted By SWatts on May 24, 2014 |

From The Staff of MBA
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Answers to Top Questions: Applying to B-School

My experience over the past 24 years in MBA admissions consulting has led me to advise top MBA candidates and students who have gone on to become great business leaders. Throughout the last 10 years, I have founded and operated MBA, my MBA admissions consulting company, and have had the pleasure to receive and answer countless questions from promising candidates. My work and advice has since gone forward to be published in notable works including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and

Below are compiled some of the most common questions that I have received throughout the years about the MBA admissions process along with corresponding responses. Regardless of a candidate’s country of origin or background, the topics below involve issues that will be of concern to any serious candidate in the MBA admissions process.

This thread will consist of five topics:

– What to do about a low GPA
– What to do about a low GMAT score
– The impact of MBA essays on your admission prospects
– The impact of MBA recommendations on your admission prospects
– Prospects for admission upon re-application

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?

Without question, your MBA application essays will be fundamental to admission. That said, perfecting your essays is an indispensible part of the application process. It is hard to overstate this. Many times, candidates have come to me after having been rejected in a previous year or previous round, and after a quick review of their application, it was clear that a large part of their rejection was due to the quality of their essays — both in terms of the strategic content and the specific words they used to convey their achievements.

One of the first mistakes many candidates make is failing to dictate compelling long-term goals. In other cases, candidates fail to successfully highlight what admissions committees would see as strategically important achievements. At other times, the essay themes were not clear. Candidates also often fail to communicate their achievements and qualifications in business-relevant terms that appeal to MBA admission committees. Even applicants who have near-perfect academic records from some of the world’s top schools can be rejected when admissions committees feel that their essays did not serve their purposes well.

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

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

I have seen countless examples of a candidate’s MBA essays making or breaking their admission. In nearly every application I review 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 the essay portion of the application. Although the initial rejection is never a good feeling, the good news is that, with the right help, candidates can completely re-craft their essays and gain admission. Candidates that I have worked with in the past become extremely strong candidates after our team works to align their essay content to their profile and the wants of their desired business school.

In one case, a young man who had been rejected from Columbia’s full-time (September-start) MBA program gained admission just a few months later to Columbia’s January-start program after working with our team to seriously revise the content and appeal of his essays. In another instance, I advised a candidate who had been waitlisted at a top-10 business school to re-write his entire long-term goal essay and resubmit it to the admissions committee, even though they had not asked him to do so. Shortly thereafter, the business school took the candidate off of the waitlist and granted him admission. In yet another instance, a candidate who had been rejected from four top-10 business schools in Round 1 came to me for assistance and, with newly crafted essays, gained admission to all top-10 schools she applied to in Round 2.

I have seen dozens of candidates accepted to top schools that they had previously been waitlisted or rejected from after careful revisions of their essays. The take-away: pay great attention to your MBA essays. They are pivotal to your success in the admissions process.

What is the distinction between presenting a weak application and presenting a weak candidacy?

A “weak application” and a “weak candidacy” are two similar phrases with two very different meanings. 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.

However, you can have a strong candidacy by meeting all of the school’s qualifications and still present a weak application. Many candidates have wonderful qualifications but fail to present those qualifications to the admissions committee in a way that helps the committee see the candidate’s fit with the program. For instance, a weak application can have several roots to the weakness. Perhaps the essays were not strong. Perhaps the recommendations were lukewarm in their endorsement. Or perhaps the application had many typos, leaving the impression the applicant was careless.

To gain admission, your aim is to present both a strong candidacy and a strong application. This means finding a school that fits your qualifications and taking the required time to perfect your application. But, you should remember, 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!

Can one mediocre recommendation derail my entire MBA application?

Recommendations are critical to your success in the MBA admissions process. One mediocre recommendation can completely derail admission for the most impressive on-paper applicant who is highly qualified in every other portion of the application.

In requesting two or three recommendations, the admissions committee has asked you to provide references, and you, of course, are expected to go to the two or three people who you believe will comment most favorably on your abilities and achievements. What these recommendation writers report, therefore, can be key to your success or failure in the admissions process. The admissions committee expects that truly excellent candidates will present recommendations that accurately reflect their outstanding work and shining personality. If any one of those recommendation writers communicates to the admissions committee that any part of this is not true, the admissions committee may take the recommender’s opinion as reason for rejection.

In 2008, quoted my insights on this topic, along with advice from the admissions directors of Wharton and the University of Chicago:

“It’s important for recommenders to give a positive and up-to-date portrayal of the applicants. 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: … 660876.htm

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

All top-5 business schools are extremely competitive and want to accept only the best of the best. These committees want to hear that you are the best in your professional world, with potential to excel beyond. If any one of your recommendation writers indicates that you are not the best—just “second best” or “fairly good”—the admissions committee may conclude that there is no compelling case for your admission.

One poor – or even mediocre – recommendation can cause fatal damage to your odds of admission and end up being the deciding factor in the admission committee’s choice to reject your application.

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

The quality of recommendations cannot be overstressed. 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 their rejection was the quality of the recommendations.

Several years ago, an extremely skilled 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 many candidates who have not had formal guidance. Yet this extremely qualified candidate had failed to land one MBA interview! After close examination, I suspected that the main problem had been her recommendations.

I asked her to obtain copies of her recommendations for my review. 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 presented newly revised, strong and supportive recommendations. This candidate was admitted to the same school from which she had been rejected from the year prior. Her case presents a clear example of the importance of recommendations.

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

Your academic performance will always be important to an admissions committee. But, don’t assume that a lower-than-ideal GPA will be the one factor keeping you from your dream business school. For many of the top schools, your professional record matters just as much – and often more – than your academic record. Similarly, records of experience as a strong community leader can also 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 spearheaded a large project or excelled in another way in the workplace, make that clear to the admissions committee through your essays and resume. Likewise, if you demonstrated outstanding leadership during your undergraduate years, 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 gain admission to Stanford, Wharton and Harvard.

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

Other steps to addressing a low GPA include highlighting achievements in the workplace and extracurricular achievements that show excellent academic and analytical abilities. For example, some candidates have completed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) program successfully, which is an extremely challenging credential to earn. Success in achieving the CFA credential provides evidence of strong analytical abilities and an ability to focus on rigorous, long-term academic goals. These factors can work to sway the admissions committee in your favor.

For candidates with an extremely low GPA, obtaining an additional degree before applying to an MBA program can benefit the applicant by building an alterative record of academic success. Often, a one-year degree in a relevant field is sufficient. The new degree becomes the focal point for the admissions committee and helps to render the prior undergraduate record of low performance “outdated”.

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

Absolutely! The more time that passes between your undergraduate years and applying to business school, the less relevant the academic record becomes. As you spend more time out of school and in the workplace, your record of performance in the workplace and your GMAT score will become the two most recent indicators of your abilities and potential for future success. Because of this, we often advise that professionals work diligently to build a strong professional record, establish recommendations that are very strong, and study hard to score well on that GMAT.

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

In some instances, overcoming a low undergraduate GPA can be extremely challenging. This is particularly true for candidates who graduated from college only one or two years prior to applying to business school and also have a low GMAT score. These two factors – a low GPA together with a low GMAT score – could very well define the end result 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 based on your profile.

However, there are several actions that candidates can take to help address these weaknesses. Retaking the GMAT and seeing an improved score can help a great deal. But, if you cannot improve your GMAT score, you might want to consider working for a couple additional years to make your professional work record the most defining aspect of your application, drawing attention away from the low academic record. During this time, it is also wise to begin building an outstanding record as a leader in the community, which shows the admissions committee strong leadership potential.

Lastly, applicants should carefully research business schools to make sure that their applications include at least two or three MBA programs with average GPAs and GMAT scores close to their own.

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?

The GMAT score is an important variable in your admissions application and can significantly affect outcomes. However, there are many situations in which a GMAT score may be less important in the admissions process. For example, your field can influence how the admissions committee perceives your GMAT score. 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. Additionally, if your score is high on the quantitative side, a low overall score can sometimes be less damaging. Likewise, a candidate with a very unique profile can sometimes maneuver around a low GMAT score because he or she may be seen as a uniquely valuable presence in the MBA program.

A lower-than-desired GMAT score may also be outweighed in the admissions decision by demonstrating excellence in your field and strong quantitative abilities in other ways, such as obtaining the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation or other certification. A testament to strong analytical skills should be clear in the application.