First off, what are the Top MBA Programs?
There are many lists out there as included in the links below, with Stanford, HBS, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton, Chicago Booth, Columbia, MIT Sloan, and Northwestern (Kellog) being among the top institutions on a yearly basis. Several other institutions including Duke (Fuqua), Yale, Dartmouth, UC Berkeley, NYU (Stern), and others offer extremely strong educational experiences with superb opportunities thereafter.
Different ranking lists have separate methodologies giving different weights to competitiveness, networking, compensation, and other factors for a program. However, it is important to go beyond simply pure rankings and consider the program fit that is right for you based on additional factors such as the curriculum offered, culture of the program, and placement of graduates thereafter by industry and geographically that match your particular interests best.
If you’re looking for some of these lists, here are the US News, Fortune, and Business Week rankings for comparison.
When should I apply?
Applying early is key. If your application is fully prepared prior to round 1, then you should certainly apply then. If it is not completely prepared, a fully revised and well-edited application round 2 will beat out a poorly-done application in cycle 1, so do not rush it last minute. It is possible to apply to round 3 (and some schools have rounds 4 and 5), however the earlier the better as we will explain shortly.
There are multiple reasons for this strategy. First and foremost, when you apply in the first round, a full budget is available for scholarships and this can drastically reduce the cost of attendance. Secondly, if you are from an over-represented group, admissions committee reviewers will not be as concerned about general guidelines for the background of applicants and this can help you if you are otherwise superbly qualified.
It should be noted however, that if there is something that may improve your chances significantly – for example retaking the GMAT, then it is worth waiting until round 2 to optimize your application.
How Much Experience Do I Need?
MBA admission committees are looking for applicants with at least some level of legitimate real-world experience. The reasons for this are that they will benefit most from the leadership experience gained in MBA training, become great candidates for job applications upon graduation which improves the schools employment statistics, and foremost they will be able to contribute meaningfully to discussions in coursework and to the diversity of experience in the student body.
The sweet spot for this is generally 3-5 years of experience after graduating from university, however one or two years more than this is completely reasonable. It should be noted that less than 2 years of experience will be a difficult selling point to many top programs.
What should my GPA and GMAT scores be?
A general rule of thumb is that a 700+ GMAT score is recommended to give yourself the best chance of acceptance at the top MBA programs. For optimal chances at the very top programs, a GMAT range of 720 to 730 is considered average for accepted students. Indeed, all of the top 7 MBA programs ranked by US News boast average GMAT scores in this range, from number 1 ranked Stanford at 733 to UC Berkeley at 727.
Regarding GPA, the mean of accepted students at top programs is generally between 3.6 and 3.7. This is merely a mean, and students above and below this average certainly achieve acceptance to top programs. With that being said, the lower your GPA is from the typical accepted average at this institutions, the more critical it will be that your experiences, letters of recommendation, and essays stand out.
What kind of experiences and extracurriculars does the ideal MBA candidate possess?
MBA programs are looking for creative thinkers who will be leaders in their industries and fields. The best way to prove you possess this potential is demonstrating that you have already done this in some form with previous clubs, organizations, and work experiences.
While holding a leadership position at work is helpful, some experiences will ideally also be outside of this realm and showcase another side of your talents not otherwise apparent in your application. This can include leading a language studies group on an international trip, being involved in political campaigns or grassroots organizations for the betterment of the community, co-founding or holding a leadership role in a non-profit, or self-starting a business alone or with partners even if that business was small.
The list of potentially ideal features is certainly not limited to this list, however these are examples that are meant to stimulate you to consider activities where you have demonstrated leadership, determination, and creativity that will be most attractive to admissions committees.
What about the application essays?
It cannot be stressed enough that you should not simply write these as a formality and move on. There is a very small cohort of incredibly competitive applicants that are so amazing to the degree that their essay becomes a mere formality.
Otherwise, particularly for the top programs, there are thousands of applicants who all have great GPA’s from strong universities, excellent GMAT’s, enough years of experience at fantastic firms, and so forth. This means that what differentiates you and makes you stand out in reviewers minds will precisely be the essay for that institution. It is imperative that your essay speaks to the unique traits that you can bring to a class of already very qualified individuals at that institution which will enhance the MBA experience for everyone.
The prompt will vary from institution to institution, for instance at Stanford they consistently ask the question ‘What matters to you most and why?’, whereas Harvard will inquire ‘What more would you like us to know?’. Choose one of your greatest stories, and one that is at least somewhat related to the qualities and traits that will be integral to your future career. Fundamentally, your answer should display something new about you that cannot be simply gleamed from your resume, and it should shine a light on a unique quality that you will bring to that class of MBA applicants that others may not.