What it’s like to apply to a top MBA program

BY Sydney LakeApril 27, 2021, 3:00 AM
Illustration by Martin Laksman

Applicants to MBA programs are generally divided into the following camps: Candidates who have their eye only on a very short list of top schools, and those who will take a broader approach to their school search.

That’s how Shaifali Aggarwal breaks down the candidates for top MBA programs. The Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate is the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm. 

“I have two types of clients. The first says, ‘These are the only schools I want, and it needs to be one of these schools. And if I don’t get in, that’s fine. I’ll just go down the path that I’m on,’” she says. “And then there’s another type of candidate that says, ‘I do want the MBA. I realized these are tough schools and I’m willing to broaden beyond.’”

There are two tiers to the top MBA programs in the U.S.: the M7 and the top 15. HBS, Stanford University, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Columbia University make up the M7, or the Magnificent 7, so named because of their competitive acceptance rates. The top 15 includes the above plus Yale University, Dartmouth College, New York University, University of Virginia, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Haas School of Business, and Fuqua School of Business. 

Most business schools have multiple admissions rounds per year: fall, winter, and spring. Beyond a high test score and GPA, the admissions process to top programs requires a deep understanding of self, authenticity, and a compelling story to tell. 

Applying to one of the top programs requires a great deal of preparation, about a year to be exact, says Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, an MBA admissions consultant with Accepted, who also previously held MBA admission leadership roles with the University of Michigan and Cornell University.

“I’ve had clients do this: calling us up right before the deadline wanting to go through the full gamut of things,” she adds. “It’s probably not the most productive thing.”

What all is a part of lengthy admissions processes? Essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and post-interview tasks.

Essay: How to differentiate yourself

While it’s important to cement your profile with strong test scores and a high GPA from your undergraduate school, essay and short-answer questions mark the first chance you get to differentiate yourself among other applicants.

“Now, do schools accept people who have lower scores? Yes, they do,” Aggarwal says. But there’s usually something really unique about them. The open-ended essay questions asked by top programs provide applicants an opportunity to tell their story and require a lot of deep thought, she adds.

Harvard typically asks, “What more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy?,” while Stanford asks, “What matters most to you, and why?” Other schools such as Columbia and Wharton ask more specific questions, like, “What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal?” and “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”

During brainstorming for essay topics, Epstein challenges clients to reflect on their achievements, leadership, goals, background, origin story, and motivations. She says this helps establish a brand for the client, which can be molded to fit essay topics from several schools, as candidates should write different essays for each school.

Letters of recommendation: Who knows you best?

“The best recommender has a really good sense of strengths and weaknesses from a supervisory level,” Epstein says. “You can have peers that really understand your strengths and weaknesses well, but are they going to be as honest as a supervisor?”

It’s important to be discerning, however, about who you ask to write a letter of recommendation. Some supervisors or others in management could see applying for an MBA program as an impending end to your employment. It’s also always better to have someone who is close to you write a recommendation instead of forcing an alumni recommendation, MBA admissions experts agree.

Once you’ve settled on whom you’re going to ask, Epstein suggests compiling a list of characteristics and personal stories to share with recommenders along with your résumé to aid their process and to ensure important points are hit. MBA admissions candidates should never write their own letters of recommendation just to have a recommender sign off on it, however, she adds.

Interviews: A chance to speak up

Among the top business school programs, you’ll find a variety of interview styles: individual versus group and blind versus non-blind. Interviews may be conducted with admissions officers, program alumni, or current students.

At HBS, applicants are interviewed by admissions officers who know their profile ahead of the interview; this is considered a non-blind interview. Wharton applicants participate in group interviews and a short 10-minute individual interview. Stanford interviews are heavy on behavioral questions and are conducted by alumni or admissions officers who likely have a similar background to the applicant, Epstein says.

The time after the interview process is largely a waiting game. While Epstein deters applicants from contacting admissions officers, she says there can be a chance for “shout-outs” from alumni, including an informal email or a phone call to people in the admissions office or the dean. These shout-outs could address characteristics the specific school is looking for such as teamwork, leadership, persuasion, commitment, and diligence, she adds.

“I always tell people, ultimately, when you hit that submit button, you want to hit it and not have any regrets,” Aggarwal says. “You want to truly make sure you have put your best foot forward throughout the process so that whatever happens, [there are] no regrets.”