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U.S. News: Chirag Saraiya in What It Takes to Get Accepted at a Top MBA Program

MBA admissions officers at top b-schools say the key trait they look for is leadership potential.

By Ilana Kowarski

When prestigious MBA programs choose students, academic performance is an important factor, but it is not the only factor, according to MBA admissions officers.

Because business schools are professional schools designed to prepare students to thrive in the business world, these schools seek students with the leadership skills necessary to succeed in business. In addition to evaluating a student’s test scores and grades, a top MBA program will consider whether the student has a history of making meaningful contributions to the organizations where he or she has worked, admissions officers say.

Top b-schools typically assess whether a student is a willing team player who can collaborate on group projects and if the student has strong communication skills, according to MBA admissions officers.

“This is not a purely academic program; it’s not a Ph.D. program,” says Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean for admissions at the Yale School of Management. “We are trying to bring in people who are going to have impact after they graduate.”

DelMonico adds that test scores are a crucial factor in the MBA admissions process, because these scores facilitate comparisons between applicants. Test scores are “more consistent than some other, more subjective measures” of preparedness for MBA courses, DelMonico says. He says that quantitative test scores are especially significant for MBA applicants with humanities backgrounds, since these applicants need to show MBA admissions officers that they have the math skills required to excel in an MBA program.

Demonstrate Self-Awareness

DelMonico says that every MBA applicant has strengths and weaknesses in his or her admissions profile, so the best course of action for any applicant is to acknowledge his or her weaknesses and find some way to compensate for those deficits. “Nobody is above average across the board,” he says.

Regardless of whether applicants think their academic statistics are more compelling than the success stories documented in their application or the opposite is true, they should not attempt to hide their weaknesses. Instead, they should show humility and explain how business school would help them grow in their career, DelMonico says.

Applicants shouldn’t be afraid to admit that they have a desire for additional professional development, since that yearning for personal growth actually bolsters their case for business school, DelMonico says.”We know that anyone who is applying to business school is looking to improve themselves,” he says.

In fact, MBA applicants can cite the ways they hope to improve in business school when they are providing a justification for pursuing an MBA, DelMonico says.

Describe Nonacademic Accomplishments

Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, says one especially important aspect of the MBA application is the resume.

Kwon says that the resume is the first part of an MBA application that she reads in order to assess an MBA applicant’s candidacy. She adds that MBA applicants who have well-respected employers on their resumes do not automatically impress her, because what she’s looking for is evidence that a student has done high-quality work.

“Leadership is not as narrowly defined as an applicant might think,” she says.

Experts say that candidates who are younger than the majority of applicants should take comfort in the fact that business schools care less about the number of years spent in the workforce and more about applicants’ long-term professional prospects.

Chirag Saraiya, principal at Training The Street, a company that provides finance courses that prepare people to work in the finance industry, and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says that many years spent in the workforce do not necessarily result in a more compelling MBA application.

Saraiya says an MBA applicant who appears to have reached a standstill in his or her career is less attractive than someone who appears to be progressing.

 Emphasize Nontechnical Skills

Alumni of top b-schools say that MBA applicants who hope to get into premier programs should know that soft skills are important in the MBA admissions process.

“Beyond good test scores, top MBA programs are looking for students who demonstrate initiative,” said Vijay Koduri, an MBA alumnus of the Ross School of Business and co-founder of HashCut, a technology company, via email. “This can be entrepreneurial – have you started a company and scaled it up? It can be intrapreneurship – did you raise your hand and lead the way for a new product idea or new market in your company? It can also be social impact – are you passionate about a cause, and have you led significant change in your region or around the world to make a difference?”

[Understand how to be a team player in business school.]

MBA alumni say that demonstrating problem-solving skills is one way to stand out in a positive way.

Shaifali Aggarwal, an alumna of Harvard Business School and the founder and CEO of the admissions consulting firm Ivy Groupe, says most students selected for admission to top b-schools have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to innovate.

“These students show that they are able to think outside of the box to come up with creative solutions, which is an extremely important quality to possess when solving business problems and leading organizations,” she says.

Harvard Business School alumna Paige Arnof-Fenn, the founder and CEO of marketing company Mavens & Moguls, says having perfect or near-perfect grades and test scores isn’t a guarantee of acceptance to a selective business school. Arnof-Fenn urges MBA applicants to remember that top-tier institutions have many applicants with stellar qualifications.

Students who dream of getting accepted at multiple top business schools can explore the chart below to get a sense of what the average credentials are at these schools. However, it’s important to understand that selective MBA programs admit applicants with a range of credentials, including credentials above and below the averages displayed in this chart.

School (name) (state) Average GMAT score (full-time) Average undergraduate GPA Average work experience (months) U.S. News business school rank
University of Chicago (Booth) (IL) 730 3.61 51 1 (tie)
Harvard University (MA) 731 3.71 54 1 (tie)
University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 730 3.6 60 3
Stanford University (CA) 737 3.74 52 4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) 722 3.57 58 5
Northwestern University (Kellogg) (IL) 732 3.6 61 6
University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (Ross) 716 3.46 66 7 (tie)
University of California—Berkeley (Haas) 725 3.71 63 7 (tie)
Columbia University (NY) 727 3.6 61 9
Dartmouth College (Tuck) (NH) 722 3.52 63 10
Duke University (Fuqua) (NC) 702 3.5 66 11 (tie)
Yale University (CT) 727 3.67 65 11 (tie)
University of Virginia (Darden) 713 3.5 58 13 (tie)
New York University (Stern) 714 3.48 59 13 (tie)
Cornell University (Johnson) (NY) 700 3.36 59 15