How to earn a spot at UNC Chapel Hill’s No. 1 online MBA program

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 09, 2021, 4:00 AM
Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as seen in August 2020. (Melissa Sue Gerrits—Getty Images)

This year, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler)’s online MBA program celebrates its 10th anniversary—and its ranking by Fortune as the top virtual program in the U.S. Its parent school, UNC–Chapel Hill, is often referred to as a Southern Ivy League school and certainly gives the program clout, but there are other endearing qualities about its online MBA program.

Online MBA programs use different delivery methods, but UNC boasts and emphasizes the importance of its mandatory live virtual class sessions. The program also offers asynchronous content like recorded lectures, readings, and group projects in addition to its weekly 90-minute lectures.

“It really gives you the opportunity to develop relationships and still feel like you’re getting a little bit of that in-person learning experience where you can talk to faculty, take a deeper dive into what you’ve learned throughout the week,” says Kara Adams, an associate admissions director at Kenan-Flagler. “A lot of other online programs don’t necessarily have that [live] component.”

The MBA@UNC outranked both Indiana University–Bloomington (Kelley) and Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) thanks to the strength of its programming and brand recognition, two of the main components of Fortune’s online MBA ranking. UNC’s program hosts two in-person summits, which are three-day intensives held on campus in Chapel Hill and at international locations. During this time, students work on leadership development, career planning, and peer networking.

UNC, the top online MBA program, has high application volumes each year. It’s one of the most competitive online programs to get into: UNC’s average incoming student has a 670 GMAT score (although waivers are available) and an undergraduate GPA of 3.2. In 2020, the MBA@UNC program admitted 57% of applicants. UNC welcomes four cohorts each year with start dates in January, April, July, and October.

So what does it take to earn a spot at one of the most coveted online business programs in the country? 

“UNC is very particular about the kind of people they admit in the program,” says Nabila Sayed, an MBA@UNC student. “They don’t just want to admit someone who looks good on paper. They also want to admit someone who can enrich the learning experience.”

The admissions process

The application process for UNC’s online MBA program is nearly identical to that of its full-time offering, Adams says. Prospective students must submit two essays, a transcript, two recommendation letters, and complete an interview with school officials.

Of all the application elements, Adams says, the interview is a “really big piece” of an admissions decision. 

“Anybody can submit a great résumé, have some great letters of recommendation,” Adams says. “With our program, you still have a lot of that online presence. It’s really important that somebody embodies our core values—that they really fit the program in regards of not dominating the conversation, being able to be a solid contributor to the program.”

Adams suggests that applicants prepare just as you would for a job interview. You’ll discuss your career background, day-to-day responsibilities, what you hope to accomplish in your career, why you want to earn an MBA, and why you’re interested in the program. Also expect to be asked situational questions about experiences you’ve had at work.

Sayed used the essay responses as an opportunity to illustrate what she would contribute to the program. As an immigrant with about eight years of work experience, Sayed focused on her diverse background and the value she would bring to the classroom. 

“Transparency and honesty go a long way,” Adams says about the essay responses. “We understand things shift. That’s a big reason students do an MBA.”

Letters of recommendation are also important to UNC and are “weighed really heavily,” Adams says. 

“It gives us a whole different insight into how you function as a teammate, how you function in your career, how those around you view you,” she says. “It also helps provide insight into some areas this program will help strengthen.”

UNC offers two deadlines to apply to its online program—one being a priority deadline. Adams suggests that prospective students try to apply ahead of the priority deadline so that if admitted, they’ll have their pick of classes in which to enroll. That’s important for online students, as many need to schedule classes around their work obligations.

What else you should know about UNC’s online program

When applying to any school, it’s important to ask questions, attend virtual events, and connect with current students, Sayed says. A strong student and alumni network was also a top priority for Sayed when choosing an online MBA program. 

“Not going in person has some limitations, but I seem to be a part of a very supportive online community,” she says. “It also extends to the MBA alumni from UNC in general,” which includes the full-time and evening and weekend program students. 

MBA@UNC students also have the on-campus summits to connect. Adams reminds applicants that this experience differs from many other online programs—and a commitment that should be considered before applying. Know that you’ll also be expected to attend live 90-minute class sessions and your time management skills will be tested, she adds.

“You get a pretty big bang for your buck,” Sayed says. “You’re getting the best education you can from a public school.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.