Thinking of returning to school for an MBA? If so, you have lots of company. Highly ranked MBA — master of business administration — programs remain extremely competitive, despite the economic downturn. This is true not only for the full-time and part-time MBA programs that are geared toward people who have between two and eight years of work experience, but also for executive MBA programs tailored for more seasoned workers.
When earned for the right reasons, an MBA degree surely is a career booster and a ticket to a career change. But you need to distinguish yourself from the competition and show you have done your homework before a good school will admit you. And while your GPA and test scores must be competitive for the programs you apply to, schools also want assurance that you are informed about your field of choice or the role you hope to fill if you want to change careers. In addition to all that, you also need to show you are a good fit for their school. How to do all that? Here’s a brief primer:
Define Your Goals for the MBA Degree and Beyond
Investing the time and energy in this process is essential because schools require you to make a logical and plausible link between where you have been in your career and where you want to go. For example, consider how transferable the skills you already possess will be to your new field or function. If you’ve been in the nonprofit sector and want to become a business consultant, you may already have strong sales, organizational and people management skills. Another example: Applicants from the military often have leadership and operations management experience, both of which are highly desirable in the business world.
Career changers also need to demonstrate plausible links to their new industry or function of choice: Where and when have you worked with people in this industry? What experiences do you have that point to your potential to succeed in this area? What steps have you taken to gain knowledge, experience and a network in your new field? Showing proactive, enthusiastic preparation for your career shift could include acknowledging obstacles you expect to face as a newcomer to the field as well as your plan to address them. This insight underscores both your knowledge of the field or function and your maturity — both of which the schools will look for.
Goals are, quite simply, front and center in the minds of the admissions committees. Make sure they are front and center in your mind as you prepare to apply, too.
Research the Schools That Are Right for You
Don’t be blinded by a school’s “star status.” Each year, hundreds of talented and smart applicants are dinged from Harvard, Stanford, UCLA and other top programs because, quite simply, there aren’t enough seats in those programs for everyone who might otherwise qualify. Instead, research the programs that are right for you. Look for schools whose educational approach, specialty tracks, curriculum flexibility, recruitment possibilities, location, financial aid options, extracurricular clubs and student life will prepare you to achieve your goals and suit your educational needs, learning style and, yes, even personality.
The Internet makes most of this work very easy, but it does take time. Scour the schools’ Web sites for information about recruitment, academics and the student body. Check out each school’s career services, such as mentoring programs, resumé review and career workshops, and find out which companies recruit and hire there. (Recruitment options are most pertinent for applicants to full-time programs, as applicants to executive and part-time MBA programs continue working throughout their programs or have other jobs waiting for them.) In essence, make sure that the schools where you apply send grads in the direction you want to go.
Visit the schools if possible, and/or attend receptions and informational events hosted by the schools. Time your visits so you can sit in on classes, meet students and get a feel for campus life. Third-party organizers, such as TheMBATour.com, Top MBA, and The Economist’s Which MBA?, also host both in-person and virtual MBA fairs. Accepted.com hosts online Q-and-A’s throughout the year. You can also learn more about schools by reading Businessweek’s MBA section, Poets and Quants, and MBA50. Talk to current students and/or recent alumni, and read student blogs, often published on the school sites, to get a feel for campus life as well as for the personalities and vibe of the students who thrive at that school. Can you see yourself fitting in with those students and the student culture?
Determine Your Qualifications
MBA programs admit students based on many factors. These include intellectual horsepower, professional savvy and acumen garnered from work experience, and qualities such as leadership, emotional maturity, communication skills and other traits. The main litmus test for the strong quantitative skills required by MBA programs remains the Graduate Management Admission Test, the GMAT. For the top programs, your score ideally should be in the 80th percentile in both the quantitative and verbal parts of the test, or about a 700 or higher. And yes, you can retake the GMAT (schools “count” your best score) as well as take additional quant classes (but better get A’s!) to show that while you might not test well, you can still do a regression analysis without fainting.
Beyond numbers, you also need to show impressive work experience, not only in terms of title or quantity but also in impact. Be prepared to demonstrate how much you have contributed and what impact you have had in ways you can quantify. If you have the focus, determination, stick-to-itiveness, collegiality, initiative and maturity that MBA programs prize, chances are you will have found an opportunity to have made a difference. That’s the impact schools want to see.
The most important qualifications schools prize in their applicants are leadership, teamwork, integrity, analytical talent, initiative, organizational ability and communication skills. No one is expected to demonstrate all of these in equal measure, but make sure you can highlight them through specific examples (with a focus on the last three years) in your professional or personal life, and point to notable and quantifiable achievements.
Schools also value diversity, but that goes beyond race and gender. You can show diversity by highlighting how you have overcome particular challenges, demonstrating the unique ways you have contributed at work, and revealing your specialty backgrounds, personal interests, cultural or geographic roots and defining values, as well as how they will help make you an asset to the class.
Applicants who think through their goals, research appropriate schools and determine their qualifications first will have the best shot at gaining a seat in a coveted program. l