For successful professionals accustomed to getting ahead on their wits and talent, the admissions process at the world’s top business schools can feel both mysterious and unnerving. The Stacy Blackman Consulting team embarked on a study to analyze admit and ding data across the past two admission seasons. We began by focusing on applicants to Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, and ultimately discovered patterns that held up across admissions decisions for our clients at every top 10 MBA program. In the process, we identified the following significant takeaways that go well beyond the traditional criteria of leadership and academic record for MBA admissions success.
Lesson 1: Pedigree and employer brand are not essential.
Ivy League-educated applicants and those from well-regarded “feeder” firms once had an edge over candidates from lesser-known arenas. Times have changed. These factors no longer correlate with admit success for the top MBA programs and can even represent a higher hurdle due to saturation in the applicant pool.
“Far more important to MBA admissions readers is what you have done relative to what you have been given,” says a former MBA admissions officer on the SBC team. “It now helps to come from a less travelled path, such as outside the top feeder schools and outside of the dense geographies. Admissions readers love a great story.”
Lesson 2: High GPA and stellar test scores are not dealmakers.
Dazzling stats—such as a 780 GMAT—will not ensure a top MBA admit. In truth, a strong academic record only illustrates that the candidate can handle the analytical coursework of the MBA program. Once that threshold is met, the test score becomes less important.
Across SBC’s client pool, our top MBA admit stats generally fell within the 80 percent range of reported test scores for MBA programs. Scores this past season ranged from a 600 GRE to a 770 GMAT, with a median score of 710. The lowest GPAs for top MBA admits last season were 2.4 and 2.3. We also saw numerous top MBA program admits offset a weak GMAT or GRE score with a proven track record in a quantitative job and compelling leadership activities.
Lesson 3: Community citizenship is what matters, not heroism.
Candidates have gained acceptance to top 10 MBA programs even with limited social impact work. A Polish applicant who fences in her spare time got into every top MBA program to which she applied, without any volunteer experience on her resume. Another female candidate with a background in finance got into four out of six top MBA programs and had mentioned only running and skiing as outside interests.
Modest extracurriculars, such as professional organization membership, one-on-one mentoring, and basic volunteering, are just fine. Admit success is determined by the motivations for those side interests and activities, as well as how an applicant’s character is displayed in multiple areas.
Lesson 4: Age can vary broadly, especially for unusual industry candidates.
We found that age and tenure showed a broader range among less common industries, such as education, healthcare, Fortune 500, social finance, etc. There isn’t a right number. On average, we saw between four and seven years of post-college work experience across the study. Traditional profiles–from finance and consulting–usually have 3-4 years on average work tenure upon applying. We regularly assure both older and younger applicants that it’s not about chronological age. It’s more about maturity, readiness, and where you are in your career, relative to your industry cohort.
Lesson 5: Share qualities to reveal your character.
“Go deep. Get personal. Make sure the reader feels genuineness and authenticity. Make them get goose bumps while they are reading,” advises a former MBA admissions officer on our team. While an applicant’s resume may have listed “Two years at Facebook,” his essays spoke much more personally, bringing to life his true character.
Rather than just a story of achievements, the best essays touch on defining moments, fears, or experiences to invoke a creative theme or compelling thread that acts as a mechanism to showcase your identity. Upon reading your application, the admissions officer should feel so moved and inspired that they want to meet you immediately to hear more of your story.
Lesson 6: Convey personal yet collaborative goals.
An effective MBA application strategy needs to convey a capability of collaborating with diverse resources and stakeholders. In the cases we examined, confidence and capability were always balanced by likeability and humility. Our self-aware admits had worked hard to compensate for and overcome their limitations.
For example, passive personality types spoke about the ways he or she has advocated for change or pushed outside of their comfort zone. More aggressive personality types, meanwhile, had to work harder to show they possessed understanding, empathy and consensus-building skills.
In short, these are real people with both flaws and strengths, going to b-school in order to improve and achieve more. They showed the maturity to understand that success requires support from others in addition to their own abilities and hard work.
Lesson 7: Illustrate a big picture, strategic mindset.
Most of our MBA admits demonstrated that they were strategic thinkers, aware of industry issues and trends. Think big picture themes like innovation in a cause you’re passionate about. A recent admit wanted the MBA experience to learn about emerging technologies. Her desire long- term is to advance autonomous vehicles and smart cities. Another admit desires to leverage the MBA to transition into a frontier market investment fund, after her pre-MBA tenure in social impact. At the end of the application read, the Admissions Officer should feel so moved by your visions that they want to meet you to hear more of your story.
Lesson 8: Be self-aware and likable, confident but also humble.
Confidence and capability was always balanced by likeability and humility. We found that it was less about what what said but rather more about the overall tone of how the messages are shared. Personal appeal– through a range of potential styles–usually communicated signals around being social, fun and adaptable. Our admits were self-aware and worked to overcome their gaps.
There is no magic formula that guarantees admissions success, but as these tips demonstrate, personality, passion, and a sincere desire to contribute can help tip the odds in your favor.
Stacy Blackman is the president and founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting advisory launched in 2001. Stacy earned her BS in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.