Getting into Business School – The Real Story

Getting into a top business school is as much about being a STELLAR candidate as it is about putting together a GREAT application. The GMATPill Study Method will help you get above that threshold to be “qualified” to apply. But just as scoring well on the GMAT exam requires you to *think* in a different way, applying to “top” business schools will require you to think about the process in a different way as well.

Part 1: Being a Stellar Candidate at a Top Business School

Being a stellar candidate. This is what you spend 4 years (median) of your life to develop. You start working, understanding how business works, how people work, and what it takes to get ahead. This is your real world work experience and business schools pride in their students’ ability to contribute to classroom discussions about real world problems that business executives face.

1. Diversity in Class Profile: MBA Programs will want representation from various types of applicants

By nature, certain industries play a big role in shaping the business landscape. Investment banking, private equity, management consulting. These fields deal with business at a very high level. Schools will want about just as many candidates from various business sectors of the economy – usually no real preference for any sector unless the industry is poised for significant growth. Then a handful of candidates will be in miscellaneous fields as noted below.

So as an MBA applicant yourself, think about where you fit in given such a target class profile. Take note of the size of the MBA class you are applying to. For example, NYU has about ~400 students in their MBA class. This means that if you are an investment banker, you are competing for one of 180 Finance/Consulting designated positions. More importantly, the number of applicants of this type tend to be extremely large.

On the other hand, if you are applying from a non-profit background, you are competing for one of 20 (or even less) such designated spots. But at the same time, the number of applicants in this field tend be extremely low.

So if you find yourself comparing yourself to someone else with different credentials who got into your school of choice – think twice. You should be looking at how you stand out in the overall class profile and judge whether you would be adding value or diversity to the business school.

The figures below are *approximate* but represent a good way to think of incoming MBA Class Profiles for some of the top schools.

45% Finance/Consulting
25% Finance (banking, PE, hedge funds)
20% Consulting

45% Business Sectors
5% Manufacturing / Operations
5% Non-Profit / Education / Govt
5% Healthcare / Biotech
5% Hightech/IT
5% Real Estate
5% Communications / Media
5% Military
5% Consumer Products
5% Energy / Oil & Gas

10% Other (Advertising / Public Relations / Pre-Law / Entrepreneurship)

100% Total

2. Excelling in Your Role

– An advanced position where your role changed and you began handling underlings, interacting more frequently with clients, taking on a greater range of responsibilities. Whatever the case may be, it’s important to paint a picture of this *change* in your career. It is this change that is the foundation for your stories on tough challenges you faced, risks you engaged in, people management issues you confronted, etc.
– The technical and the managerial. Business requires technical competency. Above this standard is an industry built around people – networking, handling clients, managing below and above you, building rapport with colleagues, etc. Being a competent business professional who can work well with others is a key attribute for successful business executives.
– “Work well with others” is certainly a very fuzzy concept – but it involves communication skills that are extremely important on the job. Whether it’s oral communication, ability to build rapport with new strangers/clients, ability to hold conversation in politics, sports, business, family, travel, etc. —all of these soft skills are important and will be reflected in your recommendations and ultimately your career progression.

3. Globalization Perspective

– This largely applies to students at top business schools. The world’s future business leaders understand global dynamics, language / cultural differences, and the beauty of a global perspective. International experience for at least 6 months or more is a big plus. It is this international perspective that makes top business schools unique – and a notch ahead of other business schools.
– If you don’t have six months abroad, any experience that may help you paint yourself as culturally unique is helpful (growing up in a foreign country like Peru, Brazil; study abroad programs; internship/conferences abroad).
– If you really don’t have any of these experiences, try to seek out these opportunities if you can. But don’t sweat it. Not having an international experience that you can point to and show DOES NOT MEAN that you are a bad candidate. It just means that among the applicant pool, it’s harder for you to stand out and differentiate yourself. Think about the business of marketing products on supermarket shelves – there are a ton of great products. Sometimes consumers can’t tell the difference between two brands, but one that has a bell and whistle might just stand out as more attractive – even though its technical specifications might be lower. Just keep that in mind. For top schools, you’ll need to stand out in other ways.

Part 2: Putting together a GREAT application for Top Business Schools

1. Scoring high enough on the GMAT Exam (>700 for top business schools)

At top business schools, most admits are 700 and above with a some below. In this day and age with test prep resources available to so many students, don’t neglect this valuable resource to help you get ahead. The fact that there might be so many programs out there that might help you “beat the system”, the data continues to show that students with higher GMAT scores fare better in business schools. One important note is that scores tend to fall after the GMAT test itself changes, so watch out! In June 2012, the GMAT will add a new section (in addition to Verbal and Quant) called Integrated Reasoning. And from what I’ve seen, these questions are much more real world questions that may involve manipulating an excel-type table, looking at charts, and choosing multiple answer choices.

2. GMAT Exam >700 Even for NEAR top business schools?!

If I were to guess, I’d say more than 30% of applicants who scored 700 and above get rejected at top business schools. So where do they go? These remaining 70% of folks fill up all the other business schools that are just a notch below. And so that makes these “near top business schools” even more competitive, especially as more and more students score over 700 each year. When this happens, the scores realign and it becomes even harder to score the same score. To prevent this vicious cycle, GMAT needs applicants to score lower and so it is making a change to the exam and updating it to reflect more real world type problems. All that matters to you is getting a respectable solid score, so that the admissions committee will have interest to READ your essay.

Personally, I think scoring above a 700 requires a lot of thinking. A different way of thinking. And in my opinion the test prep companies out there were ineffective – based on everything I heard from my friends. Question after question with the assumption that practice makes perfect.

Well, smart people will realize that continual practice without guidance will NOT make you perfect because eventually you’ll reach a point where your score just won’t go any higher. It might take a movie like “Inception” to rewire your thinking, but my new assumption is that improving your score requires a different way of THINKING. And it is this thought process that I teach and that I feel is the most effective method to boosting your score. Empower yourself to THINK like a top test taker.

4. Application Essays

This is probably the most important part of your application. What is your story? Can you paint a picture for us of who you are? Do you fit the profile of somebody who has the mindset to make a big contribution in business? Everyone faces risks and problems, how have you dealt with yours in the past? What have you learned that you can take away for the future?

Storytelling skills are important here. This is vital, as admissions people are human after all, they want to get to know you and feel the emotions of what makes you a standout candidate. Let’s take, for example, a situation where you took on greater responsibilities with a client.

    Story Telling Your Application

  • A. Assume a framework and make a concerted effort to capture the emotions associated with that framework

    Take the position that you normally do analytical work and don’t interact with the client – capture your emotions of being eager, ambitious, and nervous at the same time.
  • B. Introduce characters and challenges

    The “situation” – who are the characters and what are their roles? You can mention your boss, you, the client who might be a VP and his respective analyst. You might include descriptions like very aggressive or very lazy, maybe even unresponsive, etc. Do what you need to do to paint a picture of the “scene”.
  • C. Development – tell the story with rising action

    This is where you talk about the project and how it progressed. You did the analysis, shared your work, got some feedback from the client and re-edited your work with those comments. Then as presentation went on to the next level, the analytical work was largely ignored and just became a discussion that went on for hours. Ultimately negotiation for the deal came down to making the other party feel comfortable – the deal was signed and you helped the firm earn a fee.

  • Climax / Turning Point / Twist:
    So, basically the climax was just told before – the deal got signed. But more importantly for application essays, you’ll need to reinterpret this event in your eyes to capture the “aha” moment for you. This is where you talk about what you learned and how it changed you. What do you see differently now? As a result, what do you do differently now?

    As an analyst, you were always focused on number crunching. But through a series of meetings at the client level, you started seeing how business was not really just number crunching. Once you got beyond this level, business was business. In fact, it blew you away that the number crunching that took you hours to work on was not even mentioned in discussions with the client. You started seeing that business was much more people oriented than you had imagined before. As a result, you started lifting up your head and thinking about how discussions with the client would go. You would get through your number crunching as fast as possible, then immediately start thinking about higher level business questions on your own. You took more responsibility to think at a higher level before discussing with your boss – consequently you became more prepared to handle discussions with clients and began contributing more at this higher level.

    This is just one way to tell your story which paints you as someone gradually rising the ranks. This is a great attribute. At the same time, be careful of how you tell your story because that is how the admissions committee will brand you and perceive you. Remember, they are going to want a diverse student body with diverse perspectives. If you have a unique story that can be told using the same storytelling elements described above, then you’ll have an edge.

5. Recommendations

Hot Shot Recommendation: In the business world, recommendations are social proof. Getting one from a big name guy in the industry who is widely recognized is a huge plus. If your boss is a hot shot or your client is a hot shot (CEO, CFO, Founder, etc) etc, then fantastic! All of these guys can give great recommendations. While it’s a great leg up, it’s still important for them to convey how you were a business success for the firm. When it comes down to it – how did you bring in money for the firm or save money for the firm? What about people skills – did you facilitate business moving forward thru your ability to work well with others? Did the CEO/CFO like you? Or did conflicts ultimately get in the way of business achievement?

How likely are you to get a hot shot recommendation? This largely depends on where you work – it’s rare to get this type of recommendation.

Boss Recommendation: Typically a candidate may have several bosses. As you’ve worked for them, typically they can gauge how well they work with you, how smart they think you are, and how capable of success in the business they think you are. If your boss loves you, he’ll write a genuinely positive recommendation for you – emphasizing certain character traits that stand out. Hopefully there’s one meaningful/impactful project that he can point to and show how you stepped up and contributed. Top business schools stress an assessment on communication skills – both oral and written – this is a fuzzy concept as I described above. But generally, companies with reviews will mention this. In general, make sure you’re on your boss’s good side. Express your opinions. Find common ground with your boss on topics that are interesting to the both of you. Building rapport is important as it creates a lasting impression of you.

Busy Boss Recommendation: In a lot of cases, your boss will be busy and will have to go out of his way to write your recommendation. To make his task easier, jot down key accomplishments you would like him to note in bullet format. Ideally, a recommendation is most meaningful when the recommender can write about a particular instance that allows certain positive character traits to stand out.

Ultimately, applying to business school is a complex process that is long-term (your 4+ years of work experience), challenging (GMAT Exam Score), and self-reflective (application essays).

-Zeke Lee
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