How To Get an MBA: Start by Understanding How MBA Admission Works

If you want to know how to get an MBA, your immediate first step is to figure out how MBA admissions really works. How do admissions officers choose the class and shape the class profile? How do they make a decision on your MBA candidacy? And how can you ensure your dream business schools choose you?

If you’re applying for a Masters of Business Administration, let me help you answer five questions today that will put your mind at ease and help you succeed in your business school application.

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How do MBA Admissions really work?

If you prefer video, this one on our YouTube Channel explains it all:

YouTube video

While each business school has its own process for evaluating candidates that is both holistic and iterative, an easy way to think about the process by which a top tier business school chooses students is like this:

Stage 1: Someone reads your entire application. That includes

  • your MBA essays and personal statement
  • your resume
  • your academic records from your undergraduate degree, any graduate studies and advanced degree programs, and your GMAT or GRE exam scores
  • your professional references, testimonials from alumni and current students, and recommendation letters
  • and your online application with facts about your professional goals, leadership experiences, biographical data and other personal odds and ends.

Yes, even if you have a terrible GMAT, they’re gonna read ALL of it. They give everyone an equal chance to show them who they really are. At this stage, there may be only one application reader or two or more independent members of the admissions board engaged on your file.

Stage 2: After the first read, your business school application lands in one of two piles: yeah or nay. At this stage, the nay pile is also the ding pile, so if you get a no here, that’s probably the end for your candidacy to this MBA program. If you’re in the yes pile, then you advance to the next step.

Stage 3: You interview with the school.

Stage 4: The admissions committee makes a final decision on who ends up in the final yeah pile, who remains in limbo (the waitlist pile), and who has to move over to the ding pile. This committee decision could be digital, with some kind of calculation and weighted algorithm of yeahs and nays, or it could be a real committee discussion around a table.

This last step is the hardest to understand, but you can think of it like packing for a long trip with only one carry-on suitcase.

They have to cram as many interesting, strong, and different professional backgrounds as possible into the fixed class size (~500 total admits for Stanford Graduate School of Business, ~1000 for Chicago Booth and Harvard Business School, etc.).

They start with the people they love – the yeah pile post-interview.  Keep in mind, they’re incorporating all elements of your profile at this point, and the interview is just one piece in the puzzle, not the dealbreaker or maker in most cases. Then they winnow it down to the right number, taking into account a variety of dimensions of diversity: academic background, professional experience, professional goals, gender, nationality, ethnic background, other demographics, etc.  

At this stage, in the case of all schools, but especially smaller ones, this means they have to eliminate a lot of yeahs because there simply isn’t room for all of them.

This is where the tough trade-offs come in. For example, they can’t have a class of 100% management consultants or 100% men, even if they have enough strong consultants and men to fill the whole business school class. They want a class that is both awesome and diverse on a variety of dimensions: academic background, industry experience, gender, nationality, goals, and many more. At this stage, it’s apples to apples; you’re competing most directly with other students like you.

That means that the final decision depends not only on you, the strength of your candidacy, and how well you performed in the interview. It also depends on who else is still in the yeah pile. If there are a lot of other people more or less like you in that pile, that means more of you will have to be jettisoned to the ding pile so that class diversity can be preserved. At this end stage of the process, you’re competing most directly only with other people who share your various background classifications.

How do I get into my favorite MBA programs?

Tactically, you get there in 3 steps: 

  1. Don’t get knocked out in the first round for too many major weaknesses in your candidacy. Everyone is allowed one weakness. A major weakness or having more than one puts you at risk.
  2. Crush the interview.
  3. Be someone the admissions committee genuinely loves throughout every aspect of the application so that in the final tally, they don’t have the heart to reject you and you’re one of the few who stays in the Yes Pile.

If you do those three things, you’re in!

So how do you do those things? Let’s get to it.

What do MBA Admissions Committees actually evaluate when choosing candidates?

Here’s the Career Protocol framework for the various dimensions of your MBA candidacy that matter to your MBA programs at your favorite universities.

Your Profile
What the school is wondering about you:
Can this profile land you in the ding pile on the first read?
Brain Power
Are you going to slay your classes?
Yes. Without compensating strengths, schools will be concerned about your ability to handle the program if your academic stats are too weak.
Career Progress
Have you done cool stuff in your career?
Yes. Without enough great relevant work experience, you won’t be able to add value to your classmates. (And no, that doesn’t have to be business experience or management skills!)
Do you fit with the culture and values of this specific MBA school?
Yes. This is an easy decision factor. If you don’t have career goals helped by a graduate business degree and if you don’t fit with this school’s culture and alumni community, there’d be no point in an MBA investment for you!
Are you a good person?
Yes. This is the easiest and swiftest dealbreaker. If you’re a jerk, you’re out, plain and simple.

How can I understand my MBA Admission odds?

Your odds depend on your statistics: your GMAT or GRE scores, grades from your undergraduate degree studies, and career progression. Basically, the first two profiles above. Whether you will get chucked into the ding pile in step 1 or in step 3 because of a major weakness or too many small weaknesses comes down to what you look like on paper.

Prospective students need to start assessing their odds at various programs by looking at their basic statistics. Then do your best to improve those as much as you can. Finally, and most importantly, shift your attention to your intangibles and construct an inspiring application that showcases your leadership capabilities and your best self – maximizing the value of your other three profiles.

If you want a read on BOTH your MBA odds and some of the positive intangible qualities your MBA application presents, then look no further than MBAmo, the MBA Admissions Calculator Robot brought to you by my team at Career Protocol.

Just take 60 seconds to enter a little information about your background and experience, and MBAmo will generate a 20+ page customized report on your MBA odds for your favorite U.S. programs, the competitiveness of your profile across a variety of dimensions, and the things you can do to strengthen your candidacy before you apply to business school. He’s pretty cool, and we built him with a ton of love to make him as valuable a free resource as possible!

What if I don’t like my odds?

The acceptance rate at top U.S. business schools is less than 50% across the board, sometimes as low as 6%!!! That means that no matter who you are, the odds are against you.

But odds and outcomes are not causally linked.

If you’ve forgotten this fact, go back to your basic stats class! We mostly don’t live like the odds can’t predict or determine outcomes, but if we did, we’d live much more fearless lives

When we calibrate our students’ chances at target schools and help them assemble their portfolio of schools, we tether our assessment to the hard facts about their candidacy. Because these are the dimensions on which you can be objectively compared to other candidates:

  • Everyone has a GMAT or GRE
  • Everyone has a GPA
  • Everyone has companies they’ve worked for
    of varying levels of prestige and competitiveness
  • Everyone has been promoted (or not)
    and changed jobs (or not)

Everything else about you – your passions, your character, your professional goals, and your fit with the school and its alumni network– is entirely subjective. In other words, it can’t be measured in any kind of systemic and objectively comparable way.

Take for example, two people that do 5 hours of community service a month. One person uses that time to mentor local youth to apply to college. The other person uses that time to plan benefits for a large nonprofit but doesn’t help specific individuals in any way. How do we rate those people against each other?

The answer is: we can’t. Because what’s more important than objective hours, tasks, or titles is the drive behind the work, the impact it has (small or large, short term or sustained) and the meaning and values behind your choices.

In your MBA applications, it’s not the law of large numbers that determines whether you get in. It’s the law of small numbers. As in, the number one. There is only one of you in all the world. Your test scores and GPA will be what they are; your career progress will be what it is. But if the admissions committee wants the one and only you, they’re going to have to accept you as you are.

In the end, the hard facts are important, but in our experience, the qualitative elements of your candidacy are what ultimately make the difference between a YASSSS and a ding.

Every year, many statistically strong candidates get dinged. The favorite sometimes loses the match. In admissions to full-time MBA programs, this happens because they don’t shine in the qualitative elements of the application. Or they write essays that inadvertently make them seem like self-absorbed jerks.

On the flip side, many of our students get into reach and even moonshot schools because they submit complete MBA applications beaming with their best self. They’re so lovable and their one-of-a-kind nature is so apparent that the admissions committee is willing to accept them just as they are – GMAT warts and all.

How do I beat the MBA odds and transcend my statistics?

You’re a complete person, far more than a pile of statistics, far greater than any aspect of your life that can be measured. The admissions committee wants to get to know the whole you. That’s why admissions to the Masters of Business Administration is so much more involved than admissions to other types of graduate school (with essays, multiple professional recommendations, a resume, short answers, interviews, even videos sometimes!)

And full on, completely unique, real you is extremely difficult to compare to anyone else. It’s like comparing apples and spaceships. What? Impossible!

When you help the admissions committee understand who you truly are, they will naturally fall in love with you

I mean, not like romantic love, but, you know, the admiration, respect, and inspiration kind of love. And when they fall in love with you, they want to admit you even IF your hard statistics and scores are less favorable than those of other applicants. This is why the third and final step to MBA admissions is the most important: Being a candidate the business school admissions committee loves.

So your ultimate success in MBA applications depends on things like your passions and character, your specific achievements, your unique fit with the school, and all the elements of MBA application execution that can make the difference between a big fat Yes and a ding.

This is because objective facts convince the head. But subjective experiences sway the heart.

The admissions committee is human. They’re still not letting robots do their job. And humans make decisions based on emotion, not purely on mental rationalizations. So, if you want them to want you, it’s the latter three profiles that mean the most in the MBA application process, the subjective parts of you that touch the emotions of your reader.

That means that to transcend your statistics, you’ve got to become a complete human being in the application. It means bringing forth authenticity, humility, kindness, and a sense of humor through storytelling, executive communication skills, presence, and confident humility.

The whole app comes down to that!

This is why so many of our test score-challenged students get into their top choices. Because this is what we help them learn to do.

So once you choose your schools, HOW to apply is all about your softer 3 profiles: your passions, character, and fit. Working with a member of our elite team 1:1 through our Authentic MBA Application Project will ensure you’re maximizing those three profiles in your application and showing your very best self while growing as a person in the process. Whether a school is a reach, a match, or a safety, showing the adcom who you are is essential to MBA admissions success.

We’d love to get to know you and be a part of your success, so let’s get the conversation started!

Talk to us.

Picture of Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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