How to get into Indiana University’s No. 1-ranked online MBA program

BY Kayla SolinoMay 23, 2023, 5:46 PM
Indiana University student athletics board members march in the Indiana University Homecoming Parade, with banners and placards, as seen in October 2021. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Thanks to key considerations like flexibility and affordability, more professionals are opting to attend business school online. In fact, enrollment in online MBA programs has even surpassed that of full-time programs: During the 2020-2021 academic year more students were enrolled in online MBA programs in the U.S. than in full-time programs, according to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

Enrollment in online programs even dwarfs that of in-person programs at some schools. That’s the case at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, where the school’s online MBA program—which currently enrolls nearly 1,700 students—is several times larger than the school’s full-time and part-time offerings.

Indiana University’s online MBA program is also the largest among Fortune’s ranking of 100 business schools and has the lowest acceptance rate, at about 28%. Combined, those attributes helped the school land the No. 1 spot on Fortune’s ranking of the best online MBA programs in 2023.

Students looking to join the ranks of Kelley’s top-tier program must be competitive applicants. In 2022, admitted online MBA students had an average undergraduate GPA of 3.4 and an average GMAT score of 678. But those candidates who do make the cut can reap rewards. The average post-graduation salary of a Kelley online MBA graduate is $143,000 and 85% of students started a new job or received a promotion or raise while enrolled. 

Kelley’s unique environment generates more than a basic return on investment, says Sarah Wanger, the executive director for Kelley Direct programs. “Students come into the program saying that they crave flexibility, which we can provide, but they leave the program saying that what they got was a connection and a network that’s far deeper than what they ever had in their undergraduate program.”

Why Indiana Kelley’s MBA is so competitive

One of the reasons students are drawn to Kelley’s online MBA program is its price tag. With a total cost of just over $82,000—or $1,521 per credit for the 54 required credits—the program is more affordable than other top-ranked schools, such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Southern California.

For Kelley, maintaining a rigorous program with a competitive acceptance rate boils down to a supportive administration that isn’t focused on the cash. 

“We have a hugely supportive dean’s office that has a long-term perspective,” says Will Geoghegan, the chair of the Kelley Direct Program and a clinical associate professor. “If we took in 1,000 students this year, then we would have far more tuition dollars, but ultimately it would be a disservice to our students [in] that we wouldn’t be able to offer the same high-touch experience.”

Kelley isn’t focused on class size, Geoghegan says, but rather admitting students of the “highest quality caliber.” Further, Kelley’s success comes from its approach to viewing all MBA offerings as the same.

“We like to call Kelley Direct an online MBA that doesn’t feel like an online MBA,” Geoghegan tells Fortune. “We give out one MBA and that is the same MBA between our full-time students and our Kelley Direct online MBA students—same rigor, same faculty—and when it comes to Kelly Direct, we have a huge value proposition that allows us to offer an immense amount of electives.” 

So how do you demonstrate to the Kelley admissions team that you’re a qualified individual who can maintain a rigorous program? The following five tips will help you construct an application to the Kelley School of Business. 

1. Do your research

While this tip may come as no surprise, Wanger says it sometimes falls to the wayside. “We find that many applicants fill out their initial application—we have a phase one and phase two application process—and during phase one, many of them fill out their application on a whim, particularly during COVID, and haven’t necessarily done the thinking ahead of time as to what they need.”

To combat this, Kelley created the program comparison tool, a tool that helps zone in on the critical factors that are important as vet the best program for you. 

“We do hope and expect that you use that tool,” Wanger says. “If you don’t do the homework, then that is when you’re going to struggle in that very first term, so having the conversations early is really important, but that does require the candidate to start their homework before they’ve even started their MBA or the application process.” 

2. Consider your values

Kelley embodies three tenants—humility, perseverance, and tenacity—that admissions staff are looking for among applicants, according to Wanger. “At a high level, those are the types of things that we want to see either in an essay or in a resume,” she adds. 

Not only do candidates need to demonstrate these three traits during admissions, but all the time as well. “Those three are the values that we really look for in our students both in that admissions context, but also when they’re here as students,” Geoghegan says. 

3. Define what flexibility means to you

Make sure you know what flexibility means to you, and be sure to search and apply for programs that match your definition, says Wanger. 

Kelley’s online MBA program can be completed in two years and offers seven majors or concentrations. Half of the required 54 credits are elective credits chosen by the student based on their interests. Classes utilize both synchronous and asynchronous learning but live, 75-minute classes take place every week for each course. Students participate in several in-person events such as a case study competition throughout their program.

“Define flexibility for yourself because flexibility is used as just this keyword thrown out there for marketing,” Wanger says. “Oftentimes candidates want an online program because it’s flexible, and we say and ‘What do you mean by that?’ Because we may or may not be the right fit for the flexibility they’re looking for.” 

Wanger says it’s important to consider the types of flexibility you are looking for as there are different facets that can all be considered flexible or not, such as curriculum, class attendance or mode of instruction. Wanger says if you’re looking for a completely asynchronous or “easy” online program, Kelley isn’t for you.

4. Use the interview to highlight your best self 

At Kelley, the admissions process includes an enrollment interview, and it’s an important opportunity to get to know more about the university—and share more about yourself. “I think some folks go into it thinking, ‘Oh, this is probably just going to be a sales call, they’re going to try to pitch me in there,’” Wanger says. “No, this is a true enrollment interview. We have lots of questions for you and then we expect you would ask questions of us.” 

It’s important to be engaged and use the interview as an opportunity to prove yourself as a candidate, making sure to focus on experience in your professional life, teamwork, and communicative skills, Wanger says. “During that interview, we want to make sure that the student can articulate how they use their own quantitative capabilities in their professional lives.”

5. Don’t count yourself out too early

Kelley is a competitive school with a lower acceptance rate, but Wanger says not to let it scare you away from giving yourself a chance, particularly if you’re a woman. 

“We know that imposter syndrome disproportionately affects female MBA applicants, but this does go for any MBA applicant—we are looking for students who are the best fit for Kelley and we give our applicants multiple opportunities to showcase that in their personal statement, in their resume and during that enrollment interview,” Wanger says. 

She suggests taking advantage of the information sessions and other resources available before even applying. 

It’s also good to keep in mind that at the end of the day, a selective nature is all a part of applying to a No. 1 ranked program. “We’re going to get a lot of folks who want to apply to us. We’re going to be selective about who we feel is going to be truly successful at Kelley,” Wanger says.

Check out all of Fortune’s rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.