Application forms

One commentator has described the admission procedures to business schools as a two-way beauty contest: the school is as keen to find out about you as you are about it. One of its main instruments in the judging process is the application form. This is a very searching document – rather more so than most job application forms.

Here are some of the things the school might want to know about you in addition to the usual personal information:

  • Details of current job, its level of responsibility and salary.
  • Similar details of previous jobs.
  • Subjects taken in secondary and higher education courses and results achieved in them – some schools may ask for certified copies of degrees, diplomas, etc.
  • Non-curricular/extra professional activities and the role you took in them (e.g. as club treasurer, or whatever).
  • International experience, either in a private or job-related context.
  • Your financial resources – how your studies would be funded
  • Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) score, particularly in the case of applicants from abroad, or those whose qualifications and work experience fall outside the obvious areas of relevance to a postgraduate business degree.

Many South African schools do not use the GMAT as an admission criterion, but have devised tests of their own which are taken if the application proceeds. But these tests cover very similar areas of numeracy, literacy and verbal and numerical reasoning to the GMAT.

The score on the GMAT, or its equivalent, is generally seen as the cornerstone of your application – you will not be considered unless you achieve the score the school has set as its admission criterion. But they stress that they are not interested in number crunchers and logic machines – in fact, it is quite possible to achieve a high GMAT score and not be accepted, although, by contrast, a good GMAT score can offset a more modest academic record.

Schools are also interested in ‘softer’ attributes of motivation, character and personality. One school asks the following questions, which are fairly typical of what you might expect to find on an application form:

  • What are the main factors which you believe account for your academic and professional development to date?
  • What do you feel are your major strengths and weaknesses? Please provide examples to illustrate this.
  • What do you feel you would contribute to the MBA or this school?

Some schools ask for such information in essay form. This also tests your ability to analyse your personal characteristics and actions and draw coherent conclusions from them in terms of your career aims.

How honest should you be in giving your replies to application form questions?
A number of books on how to handle job applications have given hints on what are allegedly favoured answers to questions about personal attributes; for instance, they recommend that you should say your greatest weakness is to drive yourself too hard, or to expect the same high standards from others as you set yourself. Admission administrators are, however, a pretty sophisticated and creep-resistant bunch. They can readily spot applications from those who are labouring to create the right impression, or those whose answers are inconsistent with other aspects of their application.

People who advise on job application procedures suggest that it is a good idea to make a photocopy of the document first and to draft your answers on that. These forms are very similar to business school admissions applications and the same advice applies to these. You may have second thoughts about some point or other, or find that you cannot fit the information you want to give into the available space – a problem that often arises if you type your reply, as some forms specify. (Look out, however, for those that specifically ask for your replies to be handwritten, which may either be a sign of graphologists at work or a way of checking that the person who has filled in the application is the same as the one who turns up at the school, if accepted). An untidy document, or one thick with eraser fluid, creates a bad impression right away. “Your application is an important part of the total package you present,” warns one writer. He goes on to add that attention to detail is very important. Before you send your completed form off, check that you have answered all the questions, and keep a copy – you may need to refer to it if you are called for an interview.

Particular care needs to be taken over essay questions. A glance at the school’s brochure will give applicants an idea of the qualities it emphasises, and essays can then be tailored accordingly. Thus, if a school places obvious value on internationalisation, you should focus either on your international experience or your desire to acquire it.

Indeed, the general opinion of commentators on the admissions process is that evidence of an intelligent awareness of the way an MBA could add value to your present job and your future career as a manager is one of the points that admissions administrators look for. They also look for evidence of what you have done about self-development so far. The MBA course calls for a very high level of commitment and sheer hard work, so anything you can bring in to show that you are prepared to do more than your job in the personal pursuit of excellence is favourably noted.

Source: Adapted with permission from The Official MBA Handbook,

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