A great GMAT score is not the only thing required to apply to a top business school like Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD, Stanford, ISB or NUS. So what exactly is required to get a seat in a prestigious B School? The admissions committee takes GMAT score, past academic record, work experience, essays, recommendation letters and interview into consideration while evaluating prospective applicants.
For most applicants who have already written their GMAT, it is not possible to make any changes to their score, their past academic performance or their work experience. But what they can definitely do is prepare a good quality application which has interesting essays, a careful choice of recommenders and a precise resume which highlights the strengths of their work experience.
Essays: Each Business school has specific essay questions which the applicant has to answer. A typical top application can have between 2 to 7 essays. The essay topics could include subjects such as applicant’s career goals, the need for an MBA, leadership experiences, accomplishments, failures and activities pursued outside of work. Most business schools put a lot of emphasis on well written and interesting essays. The essays are the first point of filtering out applicants in the admissions process in a lot of business schools. Therefore while a good set of essays may still not assure you a place in the school of your choice, a bad set of essays will ensure that your application is rejected. So what is a good essay? My take on this is that good essays are not essentially about writing fancy English or writing difficult English. Good essays are honest stories which are interesting. Most of us read the newspaper in the morning. By the evening we might remember only 2 or three stories that we read in the morning. Treat your essay like a story. If your story stays in the mind of the admissions committee, you are most likely to be admitted. Be honest, make a unique story and write it simply – you will invariably come up with a winning essay.
Another critical point about essays is that Business schools like diversity. How are you different from other applicants? What is unique about you? A common mistake students would make is to talk about their Indian heritage as being unique. This would not do. The way you need to think is “How are you different from your colleague sitting on the desk next to you?” Because if a business school wants to take one Indian IT applicant, you would need to make a case of why it should it be you and not your colleague?
Recommendations: All business schools also want you to submit two or three recommendations from people who have taught you or supervised you. I believe that recommendations have lost some importance because I have yet to see a recommendation which is badly written. Most applicants will pick recommenders who will write good of them, therefore most applicants have flowery recommendations. In this situation what can you do differently?
The first thing will be to select your recommender very carefully. While selecting recommenders, it is important to select people who can comment on different aspects of your profile. Therefore while one recommender highlights your professional career, another could talk about your strong academic or extra curricular experiences. Even if you have recommenders who are all from your work place, they could be chosen in a manner that they bring out different qualities in you. Therefore whereas one talks about career progression another talks about client interactions. The second thing is to have your recommender spend time on your recommendation and add original inputs. Due to the time constraints of the recommenders, these documents a lot of times tend to be drafted by the applicants themselves. An objective assessment of your recommender will stand out and bring a different perspective to the recommendation. I once met an applicant who had a Japanese recommender. The recommendation was written by the recommender in such broken English that one was tempted to discard the letter. However it had strong words of appreciation for the applicant. The applicant made it to a top business school.
Work experience: This becomes an important element of your business school application. However what matters here is more the quality of your work experience than the quantity. What can enhance the quality of your work experience is if you present your CV in a manner which highlights 1. Strong career progression 2. Opportunities of leadership and accomplishments in the career 3. Impact on the organization 4. Any International assignments that you have had.
Business schools love applicants who have worked in or led multi national teams, applicants who are string team players and who have displayed strong leadership skills. Demonstrating these attributes through the CV thus becomes paramount,
Extra Curricular activities: Extra curricular and community activities play an important role in the application and can dramatically enhance the quality of the application. However, most of what you have done in school does not count. What will count more is what you have done in college and after college. Be sure to include these in detail in your application. And if you are someone who still has time to apply to a top school, you can involve yourself in extra curricular activities and community activity to have good things to write on your CV when the time comes.
Lastly, timing your application is also important. Business schools encourage applicants to apply early. Therefore you might be a strong applicant but if you apply late most business schools might have already filled up their class and you can loose out in the process.
The students who would like to target the Fall 2012 session should try to file in their applications between September 2011 and January 2012. So pull up your socks and go for it. All the best!