Winning Admission to a Top MBA: An Exhaustive Guide

19 min. read

If you’re like most applicants, you’re wondering:

“How can I get into a top MBA program?”

or even:

“What does it take to win admission to Harvard Business School?”

Like the old joke, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” // “Practice, practice, practice”, any short, simple and true answer to these questions will be unsatisfying.

But we can tell you a few basic facts right away:

So, although we can’t give you a simple answer to “How can I get into a top MBA program?”, we CAN explain the application process and the actions you can take at each stage to maximize your odds of acceptance.

We cover not only the written application and interview process, but also the steps you can take to build your MBA profile in the years before you apply, and the unofficial parts of the process that can be surprisingly important, like networking with schools.

The process is broken down into a few different phases:

Prepare yourself to work hard! One does not simply walk into Harvard Business School.

Harvard Business School

When to Apply

Submitting your application at the right time can help you to win acceptance, and submitting your application at the wrong time can lead to rejection.

You can find the right time to apply by answering a few questions.

Should You Apply for Deferred Admission as a College Senior?

If you plan ahead, you can apply as a college senior, receive your acceptance at that point, and enroll after gaining additional work experience.

Several programs are open to seniors at any college:

Wharton’s Moelis Advance Access Program offers the same, but only to seniors at Penn.

Yale’s Silver Scholars Program is open to students at all colleges, but offers a unique format where college seniors enroll immediately in the first year of the MBA program, complete a one-year internship, and then return for the final year of the MBA program.

Because they’ll be evaluating you based on your college experience, it makes sense to apply for deferred admission if you think you have a strong profile between your grades, internships, post-college job offer, GMAT score, and your volunteering and leadership activities.

Only a small percentage of the MBA class is admitted through deferred admission programs. Most MBA applicants apply later, after graduating college and gaining several years of work experience, which brings us to the next question.

How Many Years of Pre-MBA Work Experience Should You Have Before Applying?

MBA programs want to know that you have enough experience to:

MBA admissions officer speaking to MBA career development officer

At most programs, having four or five years of experience at the point you enroll will fulfill these requirements nicely. If you’re targeting European programs, you might apply a year later than this, and if you’re sponsored by your employer with a guaranteed return offer, you might apply a year earlier.

Older applicants with longer work experience can still win admission, but there has to be a good answer to the question “Why is this the right moment for you to pursue an MBA?”. If you’ve become so successful that an MBA would add nothing to your career, or if you’ve been stuck in a rut for years without any promotions, it can be tough to win admission.

Round 1 vs. Round 2 vs. Round 3 Admissions

Want the short answer? If you are ready to submit your best application in Round 1, you should apply then.

Round 2 should be considered if you need to improve your profile in meaningful ways (e.g. better GMAT, campus visits, better research on your career goals). Round 1 is preferred to Round 2 if all other things are equal, but a well-prepared applicant in Round 2 will beat a poorly prepared applicant in Round 1 every time. However, over-represented applicants have to be careful about postponing to a later round.

Round 3 (by which we mean the final round — actually Round 4 or Round 5 at some schools) is tricky, and only certain applicants are likely to win admission in this round.

If you want to know all of the details, see Round 1 vs. Round 2 vs. Round 3.

Columbia’s J-Term and One-Year MBA Programs

Some programs have multiple entry dates. For example, Columbia Business School has a Fall Entry for the standard two-year MBA program (which includes a summer internship), and January Entry for the accelerated J-Term program in which you graduate in 16 months with no summer internship.

If you’re a career switcher, you need a summer internship in order to maximize the chances of securing a full-time job in your target industry. You should therefore apply only for fall entry at two-year programs. But if you’re sponsored by your employer with a guaranteed return offer, or you’re joining your family business, you may have reasons to apply for a one-year program.

Early Preparation

Once you know that you want to pursue an MBA, you can get an edge by preparing early. It’s no secret that MBA programs prefer to admit students who have a great academic and professional background, extracurriculars like athletics and volunteering, and relationships with the school’s students and alumni, but developing these parts of your profile takes time.

Pictures of pre-MBA activities

Building Your Profile

If you’re a year or more from making your MBA applications, you have time to not only think about how to present yourself, but to develop and improve your MBA profile. Which is a great advantage!

In our Early Birds program, we guide applicants as young as college freshmen in building their MBA profile and maximizing the advantages you can get from preparing early. This often includes:

If you didn’t get an early start, and you want to apply this year, don’t despair. Even if you have a few weak spots, we’ve succeeded with applicants who had low grades, unemployment or thin extracurricular activities. But there are no shortcuts, and you can’t expect to make your weaknesses disappear with an optional essay. If you have a weakness and don’t have time to address it by building your profile, it means that you need to work even harder on the other parts of the application process described here.

Campus Visits & School Networking

The first reason to visit MBA programs sounds simple: make sure you actually want to attend your target programs!

Consider the enormous cost of an MBA program. Between the tuition, living costs, the extras (you do want to join a few clubs and an international trek, right?), and the lost income, it can exceed $500,000. For those of you in lucrative pre-MBA careers like software engineering at FAANG companies or private equity, this can be even higher.

Do you really want to spend this much money and two years of your life to attend a school you never even visited?

MBA applicant looking at Poets&Quants website

You may have hoped that the process of selecting schools would be easy! Even if you’re willing to decide based only on rankings, which we think you shouldn’t, you should know that schools care a lot about fit — and they won’t admit you if they don’t see a good fit.

One of the little secrets of MBA programs is that some students drop out after the first year, and other students stay enrolled but struggle with academics, recruiting, or socializing with classmates. This is exactly the opposite of what the school wants to happen.

The school is trying to build a community! They want you to make friends with your classmates, achieve career success, and, later, promote the program to other potential students you meet. They’d love to see you stay engaged by donating money, giving guest lectures, recruiting the school’s graduates, and more.

MBA students, alumni and professors

The school knows that admitting candidates who are a good fit makes all of this happen.

But how can you demonstrate fit with an MBA program when top MBA programs are similar in so many ways?

They all teach finance, accounting and economics. They all offer training in leadership and communications, international exchange opportunities, and chances to work on real projects brought in to the classroom by major companies.

Comparison of top MBA programs

Despite these superficial similarities, applicants who actually visit MBA programs come back with clear ideas about how the programs differ, how they could contribute to those programs, and why one might be a better fit than another.

If you can make campus visits, you should. And if you really can’t… we’ve shared our advice about a few other ways to network effectively with business schools.

And if you don’t do your research about your target schools? Don’t blame us when this happens! 🙂

Applicant rejected from Darden MBA program

The MBA Application & Requirements

Once you’ve built your profile, met the schools, and decided where and when you want to apply, it’s time to think about the actual application. The formal requirements for applying to MBA programs are simple. A typical MBA application includes:

After you’ve submitted your written application, you may be invited to interview. A few schools allow you to interview without waiting for an invitation first.

Finally, you will be given a decision — accepted, denied, or waitlisted.

We’ll come back to the big question — What are my odds of admission? — after we describe the process first.

GMAT and GRE for MBA Admissions

Your standardized test scores are important for MBA admissions for several reasons.

First, the school wants to make sure you can handle the coursework. This is not an especially demanding standard, and if you look back a decade or two, top MBA programs regularly admitted applicants with GMAT scores below 700. The bar is higher today, but you don’t need an incredible GMAT score to prove that you can handle microeconomics.

Second, schools are managing their rankings in publications like US News, Businessweek, and the Financial Times. Some publications use the average scores on standardized tests as part of the formula — the higher, the better.

Business school ranking machine

Does it strike you as unfair that schools base part of their admissions process on ranking considerations?

As Bruce DelMonico, Assistant Dean of Admissions at the Yale SOM told me, “We care about rankings because the people we care about care about them.” He’s talking about YOU.

Because, if you’re honest, would you attend a school that has great professors and a close-knit community, but a low ranking? No! You know that a school’s brand and reputation is part of its value, which is why you want to attend the best program you can. So you can hardly blame the schools when they consider this factor, too.

The exact score you’ll need depends on your target schools and your background, and we help our clients to find the sweet spot where they maximize the advantages they can get from their test scores without turning GMAT study into a hobby.

For more about this, see Is Your GMAT Score Good Enough? And if you want a referral to a great GMAT tutor, just fill out our form and make this request. We’ll be happy to help.

Essays

Not a great writer? Do you hate the idea of sitting in front of a blank page and writing the first drafts of your MBA essays?

MBA applicant writing a career goals essay

You can relax, because you don’t have to be a great writer to create good MBA admissions essays. Although it is important to write clearly, and to make your points within the space allotted by the schools, the real hard part of the MBA application essays is the thinking that goes into them.

The vast majority of MBA application essays deal with a predictable set of topics:

You can find many tips, tricks and other guidance online about what you should write in your MBA application essays. But take this advice with a grain of salt. Would it make any sense if you could win admission to a degree worth millions of dollars by following a template you found for free on the Internet?

Friends talking about HBS admissions essay

Great essays cannot be reduced to any simple formula. Depending on who you are, the key to success may be contained in your personal background, your professional career, your extracurriculars, or even in your family history.

Want to know more about essays? We cover behavioral essays (e.g. leadership or team & personal failures), and general tips about writing for an admissions committee reader at Simplifying MBA Admissions Essays. Understanding the principles behind writing great essays makes the process easier. You don’t have to be a great writer — we promise.

Video Essays / Video Questions

In recent years, MBA programs including Yale SOM, INSEAD, MIT Sloan, Kellogg, UT Austin McCombs and Cornell Johnson have included videos as part of their application process.

In some cases, you shoot the video as many times as you wish and upload a finished video when you’re ready. For example, this was one of the MIT Sloan video prompts:

Please introduce yourself to your future classmates via a brief video statement. Videos should be a single take (no editing) lasting no more than one minute and consisting of you speaking directly to the camera.

The other type of video is the dreaded impromptu video. You log on to the school’s application portal, click the big green button, and then have to answer questions on the spot! These questions can vary dramatically:

Schools know that impromptu videos are stressful and you aren’t expected to give a “perfect” answer. But, they do want to see that you can think on your feet, like you would do in a classroom discussion, and that you’ve thought about basic questions like why the school might be a good fit for you.

MBA Admissions Interviews

Congratulations! By the time you’ve gotten to the selective interview stage, you probably have a 50% or better chance to be admitted. If you are well-prepared for the interview, your chances are probably even higher.

What kinds of questions do they ask you in an MBA admissions interview? Well, it depends.

Harvard Business School

In this 30-minute interview format, the interviewer will thoroughly examine your background and force you to dig deep in explaining your job and your industry, the reasons why you made the major decisions in your educational and professional career, and sometimes a few totally unexpected curveball questions. Which, if you think about it, is actually pretty close to what you’d do in a case discussion in an HBS classroom — share experiences from your background in response to novel and unexpected questions from your classmates or the professor.

Wharton

For years, Wharton has used the Team Based Discussion as a way to be sure they admit students who are ready to collaborate with their learning teams, cohorts, and clusters. In these interviews, you’ll be placed in a group of five or six Wharton applicants and will have 35 minutes to discuss a specific task, usually related to how you would improve some aspect of the MBA program at Wharton.

MIT Sloan

The school has a “behavioral” philosophy, which could be summarized as “Your recent previous achievements are the best predictor of your future success.” So, in the MIT Sloan’s behavioral interview, you can expect them to ask a series of probing questions about your successes, failures, challenges, and other aspects of your professional history.

And more!

Each school has its nuances, but interviews at many top programs will consist of a mix of questions about your background, your goals, your fit with the MBA program, a few questions about the successes or failures in your professional career, and a chance for you to ask your interviewer — who may be a student, alum, or admissions officer — a few questions of your own.

Reapplications

After the interview, you receive your decision. And if you’ve been declined, you may be thinking about whether to reapply in the following year. We discuss this in full detail in a separate article about winning MBA admission as a reapplicant.

If this is not your first time applying for an MBA, we have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that as a group, re-applicants to MBA programs are quite successful. Many applicants win admission on the second (or even third) time around. The bad news is that there’s a lot of hard work involved. Re-applicants succeed precisely because they put in the work to improve their profile. The gold standard is a higher GMAT score or a promotion at work, but in some cases, it is possible to succeed as a re-applicant even if your job and test score remain the same.

Re-applicant #1

One of our successful re-applicants had made a mistake in describing her career goals. She stated a goal to become a management consultant specialized in FinTech. This sounds fancy, but…

So, this career goals statement actually revealed that she hadn’t done enough research about consulting careers. In the re-application, she stated a goal to become a management consulting generalist, talked about how she would prepare for case interviews, and mentioned the Forté Foundation networking events at which she’d connected with many current consultants. She received an offer even without any change to the hard factors in her profile.

Re-applicant #2

Another one of our successful re-applicants worked on improving his fundamentals. He raised his GMAT score, visited campus to connect with the admissions officers (which he hadn’t done the first time around), and found a new recommender who could address a potential weakness.

Because he worked in a highly technical area of finance, and his previous recommenders both wrote about his strong financial competence, there was no clear sign that he’d be outgoing and sociable with his classmates. Thus, he picked a new recommender who described his enthusiastic participation in his firm’s culture-building activities.

Every re-application is different, and if you’re thinking about making a re-application, please contact us, including your previous applications. We’ll give you the candid feedback that you aren’t going to get directly from the school, and help you assess what to do next.

What Are Your Odds of Admission to a Top MBA Program?

Let’s get the easy part out of the way: there are a number of mistakes you can make that are bad enough to immediately reduce your chances to zero.

MBA admissions officer reading an essay
Listen to a couple of ding-worthy mistakes!

The tricky thing is that every top MBA program receives a far larger number of well-qualified applicants than they have places in the class. Although you might hope that the MBA admissions committee was planning to divide the applications into the “good” and the “bad” ones, and then admit all of the “good” ones, it’s just not true.

Robert Joss, Dean Emeritus of the Stanford GSB, famously remarked that he could double the size of the incoming class without even touching its quality. And at HBS, Poets&Quants runs an article every year listing some of the amazing candidates who have been declined by HBS (2018, 2017, 2016). Top business schools are in the position of choosing between many outstanding candidates.

MBA applicants

Compare the situation to judging for diving or gymnastics at the Olympics — a 9.99 score may win the gold medal, with 9.96 receiving nothing. And, like the Olympics, the winners go on to achieve amazing success in their career. A gold medalist receives millions of dollars of endorsements, and an admitted student to a top business school can expect a multi-million dollar career with a prestigious company. But if you don’t win a gold medal or admission to a top MBA? Better start training for the next cycle…

If you want a 100% accurate answer to your original question — “What are my odds of acceptance at a top program?” — the only way to know for sure is to apply. But there are other ways to make a reasonable estimate.

Do It Yourself

If all you need is a quick-and-dirty estimate about how you stack up at a given school, compare yourself to the school’s averages on the basic factors: GMAT, GPA, and the prestige of your undergraduate institution and your employer. If you’re in an over-represented category of applicants, assume that the school might hold you to a slightly higher standard. It’s just a matter of supply and demand. If you’re around or above the averages, you could probably be a good candidate, and if you’re significantly below the averages, admission is less likely unless you have outstanding achievements in other areas.

Listen to an Admissions Director

In an interview with us, Pascal Michels, admissions director at IESE, tells us exactly what the MBA admissions committee wants. He speaks in a totally honest and direct manner, and the message is uplifting — schools want to admit applicants who will succeed. Officially, Pascal can speak only for himself. But take it from us that other admissions professionals are thinking exactly what he is saying.

Ask Menlo Coaching!

The next best thing to actually applying to MBA programs is to contact us, giving us a resume, a list of target schools, some information about your career goals, and any other factors that you consider relevant to your MBA applications. After analyzing your background and speaking to you during a consultation, we can give you an educated opinion about where you’re likely to be accepted. This isn’t perfect, since there’s some element of chance — for example, every year, we have clients who are accepted at HBS but declined at Wharton. But we’re pretty good at handicapping and know the factors that might make you much more likely to be admitted at one school than at another similarly ranked school.

MBA Admissions Consulting

Once you know your chances, you want to improve them, right? Which brings us to the next question.

Should You Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant?

We see the MBA as one of the most important turning points in your career, because top MBA programs offer you access to the best jobs and give you the soft skills and the network to advance to higher positions after that.

If you can say “yes” to a few questions:

Then hiring an MBA admissions consultant is a good decision for you. The hard payoff of hiring an MBA admissions consultant is that you win admission to a better program than you could have on your own, or that you get a larger scholarship than you would have on your own. In some cases, consulting means the difference between getting an offer and being declined across the board.

But there are a few exceptions to this.

Who Shouldn’t Hire an MBA Admissions Consultant?

We recommend against using admissions consulting in a few cases:

Can’t I Do It Myself?

“My friend was admitted to HBS and she didn’t use a consultant!”

Yes, it’s true. Do-it-yourself applicants are admitted to top schools every year. But rational applicants know that admissions is a game of probabilities, and seek to maximize their odds of acceptance. Just because you could go it alone doesn’t mean you should.

We sometimes compare the process of applying to top MBA programs to defending yourself in a court of law. The stakes are high, and although you can appeal (re-apply), it is basically a one-shot process. You have several options:

GMAT Club forums
a cheap MBA admissions consultant
Menlo Coaching team

If defending yourself in court, most of you would pick this final option — as one of our clients told us, “If you care enough about something, you hire a professional.”

It’s not that you couldn’t learn the details of the admissions process. But is this really the best use of your time? At Menlo Coaching, our team has spent years evaluating thousands of MBA applications, visiting MBA programs, speaking to students and alumni, and researching typical pre- and post-MBA career paths. We also have a database of thousands of applications and their results, which just isn’t available anywhere publicly.

If you do all of this work to become an expert, you might find that your colleagues are coming to you for MBA admissions advice. The next thing you know, you’re in the admissions consulting business yourself. If this is your real goal, check out our careers page! But I’m betting that this is not your goal.

Wouldn’t your limited time be better spent on advancing your career and building your MBA profile? We’ve heard that you might be busy…

Pre-MBA career paths in private equity, tech, and manufacturing

Even if you have the time to undertake this research, you’ll be competing against applicants who get a huge head start on you by using admissions consultants and can jump in directly to building their profile and writing great applications, starting out hundreds of hours ahead of the applicants who go it alone.

And which person can truly take an outside view on their own strengths and weaknesses? Even at Menlo Coaching, we hire coaches for ourselves — in communications, curriculum design and business strategy — because we know that objective feedback helps us to better serve you.

This analysis has covered just the cold, hard benefits of scholarships and admissions offers. Beyond that, admissions consultants can make the process less stressful, and set you up for success during the MBA and your career.

Because… who else puts a premium on the ability to express yourself clearly in writing and in interviews, and wants to hear a clear story of why you’d be a great fit in a particular job?

That’s right: EMPLOYERS! Our former clients have often told us that the skills we helped them build in thinking, writing, networking and communicating proved invaluable when it came to the internship and full-time recruiting.

MBA job interviews

Which helps you to achieve the true, ultimate goal of our service: getting a great post-MBA job. If we’ve convinced you about the benefits of hiring an MBA admissions consultant, you’re probably ready to learn how to find the best MBA admissions consultants.

Conclusion

An MBA from a top program can have a tremendous impact on your career. You will build new hard and soft skills, make friends with a group of incredibly successful young professionals, gain access to the school’s alumni network, receive a credential that is recognized worldwide, and be given opportunities to recruit for the most exciting roles at leading employers in tech, finance, consulting, and other fields.

Not only can the MBA help you to get a great job NOW, it can help you become the kind of leader who can advance to larger and larger positions and your career advances.

corner office in Manhattan

We have laid out a guide to the MBA admissions process for you. But despite the length of this guide, and the many other resources we’ve linked from this page, we could never hope to cover everything. And for that matter… we have to save the best parts for our clients!

If you need a guide on your MBA journey, contact us and we’ll provide you with personalized feedback on your candidacy. If we think we can help you to achieve your goals, we’ll schedule a consultation.

Map of MBA admissions process

Good luck on your applications!

PS: Loved the illustrations? Buy the book on Amazon.