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Acing your MBA school application Add to ...

This is the time of year when prospective MBA students are kicking the institutional tires, trying to decide which business school has the program that is that best suited to their future career goals.

Four admissions officers from across Canada offer tips on the best way to approach applying for that life-changing MBA course.

Do your research

Deborah Wickins, MBA program director, at the University of Victoria, said there is an MBA program for everyone these days - but too many applicants fail to learn the options.

"People sometimes start the MBA here and say, 'I didn't know you did that. Why am I here?' and you think, 'Oh, my gosh, why didn't you check?'" she said. "It is so important to do your research before picking a program."

Her counterpart across the country, Scott Comber, an assistant professor and the director of the MBA program at Dalhousie University, Halifax, wants prospective students to choose a program that will take their aims the furthest.

"Look at the value points in any MBA program you may be considering, and by that I don't mean the length and the cost of the program. That's not the value. It is what you will get from it. The opportunities to work in the corporate world, the people you meet."

Take care with applications, essays and résumés

Ms. Wickins at Victoria wished more would-be MBA students would put their applications together "in an error-free manner."

"They shouldn't bother [if they don't take care] I get essays that often say things like, 'The reason I am interested in the [Toronto]Rotman MBA… Every year there are some like that and it is so discouraging. Job one: proof read."

As well, Ms. Wickins said résumés need to be more in-depth than the typical two-page abbreviated version, "because we want to know who they are."

It should be original, "not the website quoted back to us." Students need to explain why specializations of the course appeal.

Writing skills and presentation skills are important, as is experience, said Leah Ray, the managing director of the MBA program at the Sobey Business School at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

"It's a nice chance to see what kind of life experience they have in their essays and what they would bring to the classroom. What we look for is a really well-rounded student," Ms. Ray said.

Interview preparedness

Mr. Comber said he looks for applicants who are coachable and take feedback well.

"At the interview we ask questions around their ethics and values. It doesn't matter whether you've been a lifeguard or whatever; can you show leadership capabilities? We look at confidence and maturity levels, down to how they articulate the answers to questions," he said.

"Students can be accepted on their academic merit, but they are also accepted on their employability because they are going into corporate residencies six months after they start the course."

Ewa Morphy, the graduate program manager at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, said applicants to her school have no essay. Interviews are used, if there appears to be a weaknesses in the application.

"We focus on three areas: the professional, the past academic, and the GMAT. So, if one area is weak and the other two are strong, we would have an interview and talk to the applicant about that area to find out why it is not congruent with their other strengths."

Study hard for GMAT exams

These exams make applicants the most anxious, but prospective MBA student should not write the GMAT if they haven't prepared for it, says Ms. Wickins.

"If you've been away from studies for a while, you're not going to be able to show up and ace it," she said.

Ms. Ray agreed.

"The dreaded GMAT. It seems a lot scarier than it actually is. It's achievable - anyone who is qualified to do an MBA can score a 550 on their GMAT. It's Grade 12 math and English and study is required," she said.

The GMAT can be rewritten up to five times in a given year, if needed, with the best score used, said Ms. Morphy.

"It's not hard, but you just may not recall it. You have to be up to speed," said Mr. Comber.

"We give applicants strategies on where they can go to study for it, how to study for it, the books they can use."

Good references

Ms. Morphy said she is sometimes surprised by tepid letters of reference from referees who are unsupportive of the applicant or who may not know them very well.

"Sometimes people think of an individual who might be the best reference on paper but it is not someone who knows them best. I always tell [applicants] to think carefully about selecting referees because that is something we pay attention to, what the references have to say about them and their future potential."

Work and life experience

Work experience and life experience are the most important things an MBA student brings to class, said Ms. Ray.

"I like to see travel [in the application]because that shows a global perspective. It can stand out from other people. Volunteerism is also important," she said.

Ms. Ray adds that applicants don't need to feel there is only one appropriate background to get in. "There is no such thing as a cookie cutter. Some people say, 'I worked in an NGO or a bank.'" Regardless, she says, "I say, 'Great!'"

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