10 Rules for Landing Top MBA Schools

Whether you want to pursue consulting, start your own company, or secure a promotion, the MBA unambiguously states you mean business, and a top program can seal the deal.  However, the process of getting an MBA is not nearly as clear as getting your undergraduate degree was.  In fact, the work experience requirement, the GMAT, and the collaborative nature of the degree itself make it completely unique among all college degrees.  Having just completed the application process myself and having been admitted to Cornell—my top choice—amongst others, I learned that there are some “rules” you can follow to land your dream school, or, at the very lest, make the process simpler.


1. Know Why You Want an MBA

It may seem overly simple to say this but you should know why you want an MBA.  Too many friends and candidates I have spoken to use the MBA as an “application booster.”  They assume they simply will “go back to school for business” and come out more qualified for a dream job.  The truth is an MBA is not meant to help you find a job that is what Monster.com is for.  If you cannot state in 10 words how you will use an MBA in your career, the degree probably is not for you.  Consider another business degree if you simply want to bolster your resume, such as the more general (but less offered) Masters in Management Studies.  Or if you are interested in a specific field that requires formal training, consider a more specialized degree, such as the Masters in Finance or Masters in Accounting.

2. Get a 3.5 Overall, or a 3.7 Quant

A top MBA program requires a good GPA, but unlike law school, a 4.0 is not a requisite for any top-10 school.  The rule of thumb for a top-10 school is to have an overall GPA of 3.5 or above.  With this, you will be either an average or above average candidate at any of the country’s best schools.  They are looking for well-rounded students with proficiency in all areas, not perfection!

But what if you do not have a 3.5?  Do not fret! Look at all your math coursework and calculate the GPA just on that.  If it is over a 3.7, you should be a good candidate at most schools.  And if that score is not quite there, take a few community college or extension courses to raise it.

3. Join the 700 Club

It is no secret that 700 is the magic number to shoot for when taking the GMAT.  To illustrate its importance, every top program from number 15 up has a 700+ average applicant GMAT score.  What you may not know, however, is it is not only the combined score schools look at.  There are two sections on the GMAT and schools like to see a balanced score, in other words, a high percentile in each section.  Grabbing a 99th percentile on the verbal section does not mean as much when you have a 50th percentile on the quantitative section.  In fact, I found out in a talk with MIT and Cambridge that they would admit a balanced 680 score over an unbalanced 720 score.  With that in mind, if you are a low-700 scorer with an unbalanced score or a lower-than-700 scorer overall, consider retaking the GMAT.

4. Do Not Apply Before You Have Sufficient Experience

Unlike almost any other degree, work experience matters for the GMAT.  Top 10 programs by-and-large have no minimum work experience requirement, but they all expect at least some experience.  As a reference, five-years full-time work experience is average across the top 10 schools’ applicants.  When it comes to work experience, the rule is simple: the more experience the better, and meaningful experience is best.  Ideally a candidate will have had a few years in their desired industry laying a foundation, and then a few additional years in a management position.  In each position, they should have some specific examples of their accomplishments with quantifiable results (e.g. facilitated a $30,000 stock buyout).


5. Helping Others Helps Your Application

During your undergraduate applications, changing your grandma’s bedpan counted as an extracurricular activity.  On an MBA application, this does not.  Substantive, solid extracurricular activities are what top schools look for: being a leader of a professional organization in college, doing scientific research in your undergraduate program, sitting as a board member on a non-profit, etc.  If you do not have something like this, this is probably the easiest (and most rewarding) part of your application to bolster.  Your community undoubtedly has hundreds of charities and non-profits that are looking for volunteers, leaders, and board members.  Approach one and get involved!  Also, a solid extracurricular activity can directly make up for any lack of work experience you may have.

6. I Recommend MANY Recommenders

Each application requires two to three recommenders, you need to apply to at least three schools (see Rule 7)—that means at least 14 letters of recommendations need to be written.  Your first step should be making a long list of people who have witnessed you in leadership, professional, or entrepreneurial roles.  Remember, recommenders for top schools absolutely cannot include subordinates, friends, family, or professors.  Once you have a long, broad list, create three categories: recommenders for my top schools, recommenders for my other schools, and backups. Email all your recommenders early so they know just when to expect communication from you.  And always thank the ones who do end up writing on your behalf.


7. Choose Your Schools Strategically

The rule for picking schools is easy, pick at least one school in each of these categories: dream, realistic, safety.  Let’s say you have a 720, a 3.5, and 4 years business experience.  Your dream schools could be Harvard and Stanford, your realistic schools could be Northwestern and Duke, and your safety school could be Cornell.

To determine what is “safety” and “realistic” for you, look at US News and World Report’s MBA ranking list to see different schools average scores, GPA’s, and years of experience.  For your dream schools, you should be in the bottom 25th percentile of scores and years of experience, for your realistic schools you should be in the middle 50 percentile, and for your safety schools you should be in the top 75th percentile.

8. Scores Get you Noticed, Essays Get You an Interview

Your scores, extracurricular activities, GPA, and years of experience will get you put in the “let’s review this application” pile.  But if you seek an interview invitation, you need a strong essay.  You should expect to go through at least five drafts for each school.  And NEVER copy and paste your essays on top 10 school applications.

The personal statement is the most formulaic.  Follow this method to write a strong one and to get noticed: clearly state what your goals are, tell a short background about yourself that substantiates why those are your goals, explain how that school’s MBA will get you to your goals (use specific examples), and discuss what you want to offer the world once you get to your desired goal.  Doing this will keep your essay focused and make you appear driven and goal oriented.

9. Use the Golden Question to Your Advantage

Hooray!  You have been invited to interview.  Top-10 schools have similar interview questions so I recommend Google-ing “MBA interview questions” for whatever schools you have been invited to.  Verbally practice answering these questions, but DO NOT MEMORIZE YOUR ANSWERS.  Memorizing answers makes you rigid, and you often panic if they do not ask those exact questions.

That advice aside, Rule 9 has to do with the golden question you will ALWAYS be asked: “Do you have any questions for us?”  It ends every interview.  This is your chance to “Wow” the interviewer and make them remember you.  Ask a question that showcases you, not one that answers something you already should know.  A friend of mine had a horrible interview, but he asked the question, “Does Oxford University do any work with the CIA or FBI?”  When the interviewer was puzzled, he was able to launch into an interesting story on how he had secret government clearance he could offer the school.  He was admitted.


10. Their Decision, and Yours

Once all your interviews are over, have a beer.  This is their time to work.  As your acceptances start rolling in (which they will if you followed these rules), you have the toughest decision to make: Where do I go?  Some schools (especially your safety schools) will offer you massive amounts of money to come to their programs.  Your dream schools will offer you a top 10 name that will open doors throughout your career.  These trade-offs are nearly impossible to decide between.  But here are some questions to guide you in making your decision easier:

  • What are the schools employment statistics, and given your work experience, are you likely to be employed at graduation?
  • You will likely be working near the school after graduation.  Can you live there for about five years?  Will you be happy?
  • What is it about this school that really matters to me?  Am I just going there for a name?  Or does the program have EVERYTHING I need to get to where I want to go?
  • Can I afford this program?  And if I cannot, will the name/alumni network/post-graduate employment statistics pay off my debt quickly?

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