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4 Key Traits Top MBA Schools Look for in an Applicant

by Hannah Smith

Getting into a top business school can result in great payoffs after graduation. Promotions, salary raises, an expanded network, new opportunities, and a completely different skillset are all benefits of getting your MBA. But getting into top programs is hard. Acceptance rates at these top schools can be very low; it’s only 7% at Stanford Graduate School of Business. The reality is that thousands of applicants won’t get into any of the top MBA programs.

So how can you maximize your chances of admission? Well first, you need to understand what these schools are looking for. To some extent, different schools, such as HBS vs GSB, look for slightly different qualities in their applicants, so you should make sure you look through the admissions sites at individual schools. But in general, here are 4 key aspects that top MBA schools look for in an applicant:

1. Your Academics

This is obviously a key player in any admissions process. When you apply to business schools, admissions offices will look to your GPA and transcript as well as your GMAT as indicators of your academic abilities.

And while there is a certain degree of wiggle room with this, you need to demonstrate high-caliber academics to be able to get into a high-caliber school. So, maybe your GPA is a little low because you switched majors tracks your freshman year. But if you graduated from a strong undergrad institution and killed it on your GMAT, you’re doing a better job of balancing out a slight negative.

As you make your business school list, you should look at your grades and test scores in comparison to the averages at these top schools. In general, a 3.7 GPA and a 730 GMAT score will put you in a solid spot for any top school. That being said, academics are just one small piece of the application.

2. Your Work Experience

When applying to business schools, strong work experience is just as important as a strong academic record. Unless you’re applying to the 2+2 programs at Harvard or Stanford, you need to have 2-4 solid years of work experience under your belt.

What is good work experience?

Sitting quietly at an analyst desk for a year or so – even at a big-name investment bank – will not cut it as “good” experience. You need to be able to point towards tangibles on your resume. Did you lead a team or pitch a high-worth project or go through a fast-track promotion process? What sets you apart from other applicants who are coming from similar backgrounds? What have you done differently than your peers? Why would an admissions officer advocate for your application in a pile of thousands of other students?

These are all questions you need to consider before putting together an application. Work experience is key. It is the next step in what sets you apart from applicants with similar hard statistics to you.

3. What Makes You Unique

Your work experience is one aspect that can set you apart from other applicants. But you are more than just your resume. Why are you different? What perspective would you bring to campus? What do you do outside of work? How would your friends describe you?

This idea of “being unique” can take many different shapes and forms. It could be that you’re passionate about equal pay and organized a local interest group. Maybe your grandfather was a famous jazz musician, and you have followed in his footsteps by playing saxophone in your free time. Or maybe you were a varsity basketball player in college, and your obsession with sports statistics got you interested in finance. Whatever it is, make sure to present yourself as the individual that you are.

4. Your Motivation for Applying to Business School

One of the biggest mistakes applicants make is leaving this information off of their application. You need to clearly and explicitly show why you need an MBA degree to further your career. Especially if you are applying to top schools, this is a key point of review. If you are working at an investment bank and want to transition to consulting or if you have been working at Google and want to move on to start your own tech company, you need to explain this direction.

Many people apply to business school because it feels like the “next step” they should take. This is not a good answer. It doesn’t show motivation, it is not actionable, and it definitely is not unique. Make sure to explain the “why” behind why you are applying. Understanding these four key qualities is the first step towards putting together a strong application!

Hannah Smith is a graduate of Stanford University and an Admissions Expert at InGenius Prep.

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