Skip to main content
report on business education, spring 2012

Worried woman. From Photos.comComstock Images

You've decided to toss your hat into the ring and apply for admission to an MBA program. How can you improve your chances of success?

We talked to three administrators to see what they look for in prospective applicants: Michael Wybo, director of the MBA program at HEC Montreal; Melissa McCrae, executive director of graduate business programs at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business; and Linda Schweitzer, assistant dean of MBA programs at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business.

An MBA application usually includes an essay, a résumé, an interview, reference letters, GMAT score and undergraduate transcripts. Schools may require all or some of these, so familiarize yourself with admission requirements. Business schools also tend to have their own culture and personality. Do some digging beforehand to make sure a school is the right fit for you.

The essay

This is the most critical part of the application, HEC's Dr. Wybo says. "For me, the one thing that will sink an application is a really poorly written essay."

Conversely, an exceptionally well-written essay can go a long way toward offsetting a less-than-optimal GMAT score or other weaknesses in an application, he adds.

An essay should include clearly articulated goals of why the applicant wants an MBA degree. "It's a big investment on their part and they should have some means of evaluating that investment," he says. "They should know what the payoff is." That doesn't mean having a specific job in mind, but rather broad goals such as a desire to gain management experience.

Dr. Wybo also considers whether applicants' goals reflect their past work experience and are realistically attainable. "Some people have a very unrealistic idea of what an MBA is. It's not magic."

Applicants should also convey what they can contribute to the classroom experience, adds Ms. McCrae from the Beedie School. Much of the learning in an MBA program occurs by drawing on the experiences of its participants, she says. "That's very important to us, knowing that the learning experience for all the other students is going to be enhanced by having this student in the classroom."

Applicants who reapply are advised not to submit the same essay, Dr. Wybo says. "If they have had an extra two or three years of work experience, that should be reflected in their essay."

The interview

Conduct yourself as you would in a job interview. Applicants should have a professional demeanour, proper attire and be personable and articulate. "If someone is rude or overly persistent, that doesn't bode well," Ms. McCrae says.

B-schools want to see how the applicant comes across in person, Dr. Wybo adds. "Can they work in a group and can they check their ego at the door?"

The résumé/work experience

Many, but not all, business schools require applicants to have two or more years of work experience. Your résumé should provide more than just job titles and responsibilities; it should highlight accomplishments. Using words such as "managed, envisioned, or built" can convey that an applicant went beyond his or her day-to-day tasks and took initiative, Ms. McCrae says.

Résumés should also include details about extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Be specific about what you did for an organization and the number of hours you volunteered.

Reference letters

Ideally, these should come from current or previous supervisors or managers, a key client, or someone the applicant has worked with closely, Ms. McCrae says.

A bad reference letter can derail an applicant's chances.

"We are looking for employers to tell us how professional the person is and how they conduct themselves in the workplace," adds Dr. Schweitzer from the Sprott School. "If we have to make a decision between two people who look the same in terms of their marks and GMAT, what do we look at next? The reference letters."

GMAT scores

The Graduate Management Admission Test is used by business schools around the world as a criterion for admission. "It's not just the overall score that's important," Dr. Schweitzer says. "It's the breakdown of the score that shows they are well rounded in all areas."

The test has a strong quantitative component. Applicants lacking a strong math background should take advantage of the many online courses and workbooks and practice for it, he adds.

Undergraduate marks

Although required, admission officers admit that undergraduate marks generally aren't as important as some of the other elements of an application, particularly for applicants with a strong employment record or with management experience.

Other tips and considerations

Some schools require students to speak more than one language. Applicants to HEC are expected to be proficient in two languages. Dr. Wybo says the school has a large contingent of foreign students and many of them are multilingual.

Once you are accepted, it's wise to attend an information session offered by the school or to pay a visit to the campus before committing, says Sprott's Dr. Schweitzer. "Get a feel for what you are getting yourself into."

Special to The Globe and Mail