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How to Get Into an MBA Program

business students listening to a lecture

The Master of Business Administration degree (MBA) is a graduate degree designed to help you enter a business field or advance in your business career. MBA programs teach management and leadership skills, and often offer the chance to specialize in specific business fields such as finance or project management.

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Earning an MBA can give you a competitive edge in your career, but admission to these programs can be highly selective. Moreover, the application process can be complicated and tends to require more prerequisites than many other graduate degrees.


Steps to Getting into Business School

Identify your aspirations

bullseye

Before deciding on a business school, take some time to think about your career goals. If you are already working in business, you may pursue an MBA to accelerate your career. Earning an MBA may help you get promoted, assume a leadership position, or take a new position where you might earn more money. Perhaps you're interested in specializing in a subfield of business management. You might simply be ready for a new adventure. An MBA could jumpstart your career in management or help you start your own business.

In any case, it's important to have an understanding of your own goals. That understanding can help narrow down the best school, program, specialty to help propel you where you want to go.

Research and Fulfill Prerequisites

magnifying glass and paperwork

In some respects, all business schools are looking for common prerequisites: you should have a bachelor's degree, work experience, good references, and the ability to succeed in graduate school. Beyond that, schools can vary widely in the specifics.

A good example is the GMAT requirement, a standardized test used to measure the academic skills needed in a business program. Highly-competitive, top-tier schools will require high scores of 700+ (out of a possible 800) on the GMAT. On the other hand, some schools don't require you to take the GMAT at all, and will look at your other qualifications instead. If you're looking to earn your MBA in the U.S. from outside the country, you'll have more prerequisites to consider.

Another common variation is work experience. Some schools will look for a minimum number of years, especially for certain MBA programs like the Executive MBA.

If your work experience is not in business, or you have a lower GPA in your undergraduate degree than you might like, you may be able work on strengthening your qualifications by taking some business classes at a local university.

At the same time, work on networking by volunteering, serving an internship, or joining a business-focused group. You'll need quality letters of recommendation for your application.

Once you've narrowed your choices of business schools, find out what they're looking for in a candidate and be prepared to meet their criteria.

Get some work experience

person working on laptop

It is possible to move from earning your bachelor's degree directly into an MBA program, but it's uncommon. Most people work for a few years before applying to business school.

Business school admissions departments look for work experience that involves management or leadership. A background in banking, marketing, sales, or management can make an application more appealing. If you are working an in industry far removed from business or management, you may want to consider changing jobs before applying.

Some MBA programs, such as the executive MBA, will require a minimum number of years working in business or a related field as a prerequisite.

Decide on a concentration

business tools and office supplies

The majority of MBA programs begin with core classes such as finance, marketing, leadership, and economics. From there, many programs allow students to specialize in areas that interest them. Popular concentrations include:

Accounting
An MBA in accounting can prepare you for a career in analyzing budgets, making strategic financial decisions, and conducting financial audits.

Economics
An MBA concentration in economics emphasizes the complex relationships and operations of markets, policies, international finance, and consumer behavior.

Finance
An MBA in finance may focus on management of the analysis of financial markets, investment strategies, and banking.

Human Resources
A concentration in human resources includes the study of employee management, organizational behavior, talent development, training, and labor relations.

Information Technology
With an MBA in information technology, you may learn about managing, computer systems, cybersecurity, data analysis, and digital technologies.

Project Management
With an MBA in Project Management, you may focus on managing complex projects of all kinds from conception to implementation.

Business schools vary widely in what concentrations they offer. Knowing the concentration you want to pursue can be helpful in narrowing down which schools to apply to.

Explore schools and programs

cambridge university

You should research several schools before deciding on your top choices. Schools' official websites are good starting points for basic information. You can find out what concentrations each school offers and what the typical timeline is for completion of the degree.

You'll also be able to find out if your school and program are accredited. MBA programs that have earned accreditation are generally better respected by employers compared to those that are not accredited. Accreditation demonstrates that the school and the program have met the educational standards set by an accrediting agency.

"Accreditation is a mark of quality," advises Marco De Novellis, Senior Editor for BusinessBecause and GMAC Media. "It means the school has gone through a process of evaluation."

If possible, tour the campus, meet people on campus, and talk with current students and alumni.

Consider the GMAT

pencils and test sheet

Most business schools require people to take the GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) and submit their scores as part of their application packet. The GMAT is a standardized test that evaluates a person's readiness for business school.

Three parts of the GMAT consist of objective questions (such as multiple choice) that evaluate a person's quantitative, verbal, and integrated reasoning skills. The last part of the test assesses analytical writing. Each individual section is timed, and you can take no more than three-and-a-half hours to complete the entire exam.

You can take the GMAT online at home or at a test center; both versions are proctored to ensure integrity. Scores range from 200–800. Elite business schools generally prefer scores of 700 or greater, while other schools accept a lower score if other portions of the application, such as the essay and interview, are strong.

Many business schools offer GMAT waivers, but Melody Jones, co-founder of Vantage Point MBA counseling, recommends that you don't count on qualifying for a waiver since the requirements are often onerous.

"Just because the option is there, it doesn't mean they're going to approve your waiver," Jones explains. "You really need to have all the other boxes checked."

Executive MBA programs will often accept work experience in place of GMAT scores, while some online and part-time programs have eliminated the GMAT requirement altogether.

At the same time, more and more schools are accepting other test scores, such as the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) and the Executive Assessment, according to Jones. The schools you are interested in will detail what test scores they will accept.

Apply to grad school

college application

Each business school may have slightly different application requirements. If you're applying to several different schools, look carefully at exactly what you need to submit. Generally, the application packet consists of the following:

Undergraduate transcripts
Request official transcripts from all colleges and universities you attended to earn your bachelor's degree. The transcripts will be sent directly to the schools you apply to.

GMAT scores
When you take the test, you can designate up to five schools you would like to send your scores to, and GMAT will forward them as soon as they are available. You can also have them sent to other schools later (up to five years after you take the test) by contacting GMAT.

Two or three years of work experience
Schools will be looking for work that is relevant to business, and they like to see growth and progress in your career, Jones says. If your experience is in another industry, you may be able to make a case for admission if your future goals are clearly defined in your essay or interview. "Craft a story that makes a compelling case for why you want to attend business school," Jones advises.

Essay
Each school has different required questions for their essay, so you'll need to write an original essay for each school you apply to. The essay should tell your unique story and emphasize why you want to attend the specific school you are applying to, says De Novellis. "Answer the questions using real examples from your own experiences," De Novellis recommends, adding that the STAR method (telling about the situation, task, actions, and result), can help structure your examples in both your essay and your interview.

Interview
Like the essay, the interview is a chance for you to tell your own story and persuade the business school admissions team that you are a good fit for the school. To prepare, De Novellis recommends that you do research to find out what the school looks for in a candidate, what they value, and how you can contribute to the program. Business schools look for diversity, so don't be shy about being yourself. "The biggest mistake you can make in an interview is putting forth what you think the school is looking for rather than being authentic," De Novellis advises.

Letters of Recommendation
Two or three letters of recommendation will be required and should be sent directly to the schools you are applying to. Your recommendations should come from people who know you well, such as a direct supervisor or former supervisor, a project leader, or in some cases, a client or vendor, says Jones. Jones recommends that you talk with your letter writers so they understand what you'd like them to emphasize in the letters. Provide them with a packet of information with specific examples they can use in their letters. Also, make your deadlines clear and follow up.

Decide on a format and start your program

taking classes online

MBA programs are offered in several formats including full time and part-time attendance. Many schools offer fully online programs or a hybrid of on campus and online classes. There is also the executive MBA, which is specially designed for people with substantial work experience. You'll need to decide which format will work with your specific needs, especially if you plan to continue working while studying for your MBA.


FAQ: How to Improve Your Chances of Admission

What components of the application are the most important? What if I'm weak in a certain area, such as undergraduate GPA or GMAT scores?

Business schools vary in what qualities they emphasize in their MBA candidates and how they weigh the different parts of the application packet, but most schools will take a holistic look, Jones says.

"There's no perfect applicant," she explains. "Business schools are looking for diverse applicants."

With that in mind, play up your strengths, show enthusiasm for the school, and make your educational and career goals clear.

If I didn't do well on the GMAT, should I take it again?

To raise your score, you can retake the GMAT up to five times during a calendar year. If you want to attend a top-tier school, a high GMAT score can boost your chances.

However, you may not need a high score. Research the average GMAT scores for the students at your chosen business schools. Your score may compare favorably to some of them. If not, consider schools that don't require the GMAT or will consider a GMAT waiver.

What if my work experience isn't in business?

Work experience in business can be a plus, but experience in another field isn't a mark against you.

Your essay should explain the skills you've learned in your work and how they apply to a business career. For example, if you've worked as a teacher, you've developed organization skills and supervised diverse groups of people who produce work that you evaluated — all skills highly related to working in business.

You can strengthen your application by volunteering for a group or organization that allows you to develop leadership, budget management, or other management skills.

Do I need an internship?

When you hear the phrase, "MBA internship," it's usually referring to the work experience many business schools require between a student's first and second year, typically during the summer. Landing a traditional internship before you start your MBA program isn't typically required, although it doesn't hurt — especially if you don't have any work experience.


Should I Hire an Admissions Counselor?

If you're hoping to attend a top-tier business school, you want to study abroad, or you feel unsure about your qualifications, you may benefit from hiring an MBA admissions counselor. The counselor can help you with all steps of the admissions process, from choosing a school to negotiating scholarship offers, according to Jones.

Jones says she uses a questioning approach to help people identify their goals, objectives, and priorities. "I help them get to the answers so they'll have great essays and interviews," she says.

I help them get to the answers so they'll have great essays and interviews.

Before you hire an MBA admissions counselor, carefully consider your expected return on investment. Counseling can be expensive, and the service may be unnecessary if you plan to attend a business school with a high acceptance rate. However, if you want to get into an elite school, counseling might be a good investment for you.


What Does it Take to Get Into an Elite Business School?

Several organizations create rankings of business schools in terms of quality, and those schools that consistently make the top 10 are widely considered to be elite. These schools typically require GMAT scores of 700 or higher along with an undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or greater. They admit only a fraction of the number of applicants they receive.

An MBA from an elite business school looks impressive on your resume and may attract the attention of recruiters from prestigious employers.

If you're applying to one of these top-ranking business schools, you're probably already aware you'll face tough competition to get in.

"Acceptance to a top MBA program is not easy," says Jones. "Candidates are evaluated along multiple dimensions—leadership experience (through work and/or extracurriculars), teamwork abilities, career progression, career goals and vision, academic ability, unique contribution (such as unique skill, perspective, etc.), and the ever elusive quality of 'fit'".

An MBA from an elite business school looks impressive on your resume and may attract the attention of recruiters from prestigious employers.

Although the application process is similar to other schools, the top-tier business schools have greater expectations in terms of test scores and experience. While there are some things you can't change, you can work to improve your chances in other areas, Jones says.

"If you have below average years of work experience, could you lean into your extracurricular activities in order to gain more substantial leadership experience?" Jones suggests. "Sometimes, waiting a year or two to apply might also help your chances."

If your GMAT score is lower than the school's average, try taking it again. Taking a GMAT prep course or practice test may help improve your skills. Or, you could compensate for a lower GMAT by emphasizing your other qualifications.

Finally, don't overlook the importance of strong essays and letters of recommendation.

"Picking folks who will write amazing letters for you can truly be a game changer," she says.


How to Nail the Interview

If your application meets admissions requirements, you may be invited to interview. Landing an interview doesn't mean you're certain to be admitted, but it is an additional opportunity to persuade the school you'd be a great candidate.

Your interview may be in person or by video conference. Either way, you'll need to be well-prepared and present yourself as professional, confident, and eager to attend the school.

Quick Tips to Help You Shine During Your Interview

  • Do research to find out what the school looks for in a candidate
    Talk to the admissions department and alumni. Read reviews of the MBA program. If possible, tour the campus and talk to current students about their experiences.
  • Prepare your unique story
    Select a few examples of real-life situations where you showed good leadership, critical thinking, or management skills. Interviewers will want to know how you handled problems and obstacles, and how you've shown progress in your career trajectory.
  • Make your career goals clear
    Be ready to explain how the school's MBA program can help you achieve your goals.
  • Explain why you want to attend this specific school
    The interviewer may ask why you are interested in their MBA program. You may mention the curriculum, the faculty, the campus culture, or job placement. Tell why you would be a good fit for the school. "Explain what you can contribute to the program," De Novellis advises.
  • Find out as much as you can about the school and their MBA program
    Be prepared with intelligent questions.

What Business School Was Like for Me

When Christine Foushi entered business school in 2018, she was already doing the work of a project manager but without the degree or the opportunities for advancement.

christine foushi
Foushi

"I was sort of stagnant at my current position so I decided at that time to get an MBA," Foushi reflects.

Foushi's undergraduate degree is in journalism, but over the years, she had gained experience in editorial management, digital publishing, and project management. 

"I felt like there was an educational gap," she explains, adding, "I wanted to make more money, and I wanted to do something that mattered."

Employed full-time and with three small children, she wanted a school that was close to home and an MBA program with a flexible schedule. She chose a regional university not far from where she lives in the Chicago suburbs. The school offers night classes and small class sizes, and she says the cost was reasonable.

"I wanted to make more money, and I wanted to do something that mattered."

Foushi finished her degree in two years, taking one or two classes per semester as well as summer courses. She took two courses online but the rest on campus. She says she encountered classmates and professors from a wide diversity of backgrounds and experiences, which helped prepare her for occasionally doing business with clients overseas.

Foushi says she began seeing the benefits of an MBA even before she graduated.

"My bosses knew I was going for an MBA and exposed me to operations of the company," she says. Her role expanded, and so did her salary.

"Since I got the MBA, I've gotten a 30% raise in two years," she says.

She now works in workflow management, which involves managing budgets, estimating costs, making projections, writing proposals, and supervising other employees—all skills she expanded on while attending business school.

"The MBA has done what it's supposed to do," she says.


Tips for International MBA Students

Attending a business school in another country can be a benefit if you intend to work internationally or in a global industry, says De Novellis.

Many students are looking for better quality schools than can be found in their home countries, De Novellis explains. They want top-ranked institutions that offer academic strength and career opportunities.

In studying abroad, you will be exposed to new cultures, new lifestyles, and broader perspectives, all of which can contribute to your understanding of business.

Many students are looking for better quality schools than can be found in their home countries

Student visas are usually not difficult to obtain, De Novellis said, but there may be government restrictions in some countries.

Studying in a different language may be an obstacle, however. MBA candidates are required to demonstrate language proficiency. In the United States and United Kingdom, students from abroad usually take the TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language).


karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

marco denovellis

With professional insight from:

Marco De Novellis

Senior Editor, BusinessBecause and GMAC Media

melody jones

Melody Jones

Co-founder, Vantage Point MBA counseling

christine foushi

Christine Foushi

Digital Workflow Operations Manager, Logictran