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Anyone who applies to an MBA program will find out quickly that applying involves a lot more than filling out an online form.

The process can start as early as two years before you actually apply, according to John-Derek Clarke, executive director of recruitment and admissions for master's programs at Western University's Ivey Business School.

"About 70 per cent of our candidates think about doing an MBA for two or more years before they [actually] start," Mr. Clarke says. "We want to get to know people early in the process. Wherever you're thinking of applying, reach out to the school. Let them get to know you before you submit your application."

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Applicants make common mistakes, however, in terms of their approach to applying to business schools, he points out, mistakes that can easily be avoided with a bit of preparation.

"[But] rather than dwelling on mistakes," he says, "it's better to offer tips on how to succeed."

Competition for spots in top business schools is so competitive that applicants may turn to consultants for help. Everything in your application – your resumé, application essay and interview – needs to be compelling and persuasive, according to Stacy Blackman, who runs an L.A.-based MBA school admissions consultancy and has been advising prospective MBA students since 2001.

"MBA applicants must possess more than stellar test scores and a pedigreed employment and educational history…. The admissions committee is looking for that elusive je ne sais quoi," she wrote recently in the online newsmagazine U.S. News & World Report.

So, how do you incorporate that special something into your application to make it successful? Mr. Clarke, who works extensively with applicants to Ivey, offers his five top tips.

1. Be curious.

"You should demonstrate a curiosity and a passion about business," Mr. Clarke says. "Here [at Ivey], we call it 'knowing the business of business.' He notes that when asked what trends they follow, applicants would say they read the newspaper once in a while. But you should follow more regularly current trends in areas that matter to you, he points out.

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2. Know why you're applying.

You need to answer the question – Why an MBA? "We deal with candidates and ask them if [an MBA] fits with their goals and objectives," Mr. Clarke says. "You really need to articulate this. The goal doesn't have to be absolutely clear, but there should be some reasoning around where you want to take your career after your degree."

Once you've answered that question, you should also know why you have applied to a particular school, such as Ivey, Mr. Clarke adds. "For every world-class program, the first question in an admissions interview is going to be: Why an MBA? And the second one is going to be: Why us?"

3. Be informed.

Going to business school is a huge decision. "Once you do an MBA, you don't really go back and do another one," Mr. Clarke notes. "So make an informed decision. Talk to the school, talk to alumni and students. You really want to make sure that the program and the culture fit with what you want to do."

You should also be aware of your options – for example, a one-year versus a two-year program, and full-time or part-time. This is where independent business school rankings can help, Mr. Clarke says.

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The best approach is to not look at overall ratings, but instead get into the details. How does the school rank in terms of post-MBA employment and salary prospects? How about networking opportunities and its support for specific sectors?

Once you've narrowed down your choices, he recommends visiting those schools.

4. Be authentic.

Business schools are looking for the real you, Mr. Clarke explains. "It's not about what you think we're looking for. Make sure your voice comes through. Talk to us [in your essay and interview] about your experiences and what you're looking to get out of the program. Don't overthink it. Everyone has weaknesses and strengths."

5. Don't rule yourself out.

People should never self-select themselves out of the running. "There's no typical MBA student," he says. "It's important to have diversity in a classroom."

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Ivey is not as interested in applicants' backgrounds as it is in their potential for leadership in the corporate world or as entrepreneurs.

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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