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mba schools - spring 2010

Niki da Silva, director of MBA admissions for the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western: Do your research - both what the school wants and what YOU want.Della Rollins

If you are one of the thousands of people thinking about going back to school full-time for an MBA, here is a bit of sage advice from the experts: Forget about trying to negotiate your way out of the basic requirements.

You may be whiz bang at negotiating with suppliers, employees and even your bosses in the job you now hold but all that skill and savvy will cut no ice with the men and women who oversee admissions at top business schools across the country, says Judy Roy, director of graduate studies in the faculty of business administration at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

"You would be surprised at the number of applicants who try to negotiate their way out of things like taking the GMAT test," she says. "I just tell them, 'If you want to be a doctor you take the MCAT; if you want to be a lawyer, you take the LSAT; and if you want to get an MBA, you take the GMAT, period.'

"Almost every school in Canada has three basics applicants must have and there is no way out of them."

Which does not mean there are not ways to up your chances of getting into the business school of your choice, the experts say.

What tips do they offer? Here is a compendium drawn from the men and women in charge of admissions at UNB, the Queen's School of Business, The Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, The Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario and the Sauder School at UBC.

First those non-negotiable basics: There are three that all the schools share with some variation: Candidates must have had solid grades in the last two years of their undergraduate degree, score a minimum on that compulsory GMAT or in some cases GRE test and have a minimum two years of work experience.

At Queen's and Ivey they look for at least B+ in grades and a minimum of 600 on the GMAT, while at UNB and Sauder the bar is set at a B grade level and 550 on the GMAT.

GMAT Tip: Arthur Redillas, associate director of admissions at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, says go to the website and have a look at the types of questions posed by GMAT. Try them on for size and if they pose a challenge, consider taking a GMAT prep course.

Next are the areas where candidates really have the chance to shine. The first will be in the résumé submitted as part of the application and the essays that must accompany it, followed by the interview most schools require before acceptance.

Application tip #1: Do your research, says Niki da Silva, director of MBA admissions at the Ivey school. That means not just knowing about the school, what its strengths are and what it looks for in candidates but also whether it suits your own needs. Can you afford the tuition and living costs? Do you want a one- or two-year program? Do you want a school that teaches through lectures or case studies?

Application tip #2: Visit the campus, meet students, sit in on classes, talk with admissions staff and get a feel for what the school prizes, says Kerri Regan, manager of recruitment and admissions at Queen's. Winning a place is all about fit: Schools want students who can not only handle the course load but turn into high achieving executives they can boast about.

Résumé tip: Stress business success, not academic achievement, says Michelle Scott, co-ordinator of the one-year MBA program offered at the Saint John campus of the UNB.

"We want to see signs of success and maybe even regular promotions," she says. "We want to know specifics of what people have done to contribute value to employers.

Essay tip: While most schools will require at least one essay and some two or three, do not send the same essay to multiple schools, says Sauder's Mr. Redillas. "Each school looks for subtly different things," he says. "Find out what specific schools look for and then tailor separate essays to each school."

If you are fortunate enough to get to the interview stage, that is the place to shine, say most experts. UNB is an exception; no interviews necessary there because selection is done entirely on the basis of the application and essay.

Interview tip: Treat the interview as if it were a sales cold call, say all the admissions executives. You will be selling a product in the face of intense competition - yourself - so stress your strengths and offer specific examples of great things you have done in past jobs. At Rotman what they look for is integrative thinking, says associate dean Richard Powers.

Finally, candidates never win a place because of one great strength or lose it because of a single weakness, all the admissions people say. "We take a holistic approach," says Mr. Powers. "We don't really care about how you scored on GMAT, for example, if you can show stellar on the job performance and the academic ability to handle the load."

Special to The Globe and Mail