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What do business schools look for?
by Richard Montauk

Business schools look for candidates who will be successful corporate, small-business and non-profit executives, civic leaders, change agents and entrepreneurs. They cannot possibly discover all they need to know about candidates from grades or test scores - these are simply insufficient for determining leadership, teamwork and other critical abilities.

So, the schools start by examining your basic credentials, including your grades as an undergraduate (as well as the university you attended and the classes you took), your GMAT score (required by some South African business schools), your work experience to date; and, to some degree, your community contributions and other activities outside of work. On top of that, however, they evaluate all the other information they receive, including your essays, the recommendations submitted on your behalf as well as the results of the interviews, to determine whether you will be successful in the business school environment and in your post-MBA career.

Schools’ assessment criteria generally fall into four categories: intellectual ability, managerial and leadership potential, personal attributes (integrity, determination and so on), and a sensible career plan. You will want to be sure that you maximise your strengths while minimising your weaknesses. Offer plenty of stories and hard evidence to support your strengths. Do whatever you can to minimise your limitations or show that they do not adversely affect you.

Fitting in and standing out
Schools generally look for candidates who will both slot comfortably into their programmes and simultaneously stand out. Fitting in means having the basic qualities needed to participate in the programme and be accepted as a peer, rather than as an oddity, by one’s classmates. If you can do the coursework, subscribe to a programme’s goals and get on well with the other students, then you will fit in. Standing out means bringing something unique to the programme, something that distinguishes you from other students.

Balancing act
The question inevitably arises: how do admissions staff determine who gets in, given that some applicants have outstanding job records, but unimpressive grades and test scores, whereas other applicants have the reverse set of strengths and weaknesses? Similarly, how do they decide between an applicant who fits in, but doesn’t stand out, and one who stands out, but doesn’t fit in? There is no set answer, but bear in mind:

  • The top schools do not need to make substantial trade-offs. They will have many applicants with sterling undergraduate records, high admission test scores and impressive work experience, which eliminates the need to accept applicants with any weaknesses whatsoever. Similarly, the top programmes attract plenty of applicants who can show both how they fit in and how they stand out.
  • Schools value specific criteria differently depending upon the applicant. For example, if you’ve worked for fewer than three years, your undergraduate record, extracurricular activities and admission test scores will count very heavily because your work experience is too slight to provide much information. By contrast, if you have ten years of work experience, you can expect that less weight will be placed on academic measures.

Shaping a class
An additional consideration is that each programme is looking to shape an interesting and diverse class. This means that you may be valued particularly highly or lowly, depending upon how you compare with others in terms of nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, family background, gender, career and functional background. Your ability to contribute to the class is also important.

Richard Montauk is MD of Degree of Difference, Inc, a consultancy for those applying to the top business schools. He is the author of How to Get into the Top MBA Programs (Prentice-Hall, 2nd edn, 2002), as well as other publications for college or law school applicants.

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