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So you’ve decided that you’re going to get a MBA? Congratulations. It is estimated you’ll be joining nearly a quarter million young adults worldwide that have made the same choice. Now, where do you go?

Scott Shrum, Director of Admissions Research at Veritas Prep, one of the country’s leaders in MBA admissions counseling providers, provided a critical checklist for future MBA students.

Veritas Prep provides counseling for students seeking admission in the top percent of business schools in the U.S., offering GMAT prep courses, online GMAT preparation, tutoring, and MBA admissions consulting. For students looking for in-person prep help or tutoring, Veritas Prep operates in more than 100 cities in 22 global countries from its Malibu, California headquarters.

Where to Begin

Rankings seem to be the number one place prospective students first turn after making the decision to earn a MBA.

“The reason rankings are so popular is because they answer all those questions – Do I have a shot? What schools offer MBAs? What’s a competitive program? What’s the average GMAT score? – on one page,” said Shrum. “After that, they’ve sort of outlived their usefulness. It’s a good way to get the lay of the land at the top programs. Another way to look at them is, depending on the publication, they’ll rank particular areas of study. Those are a good way to get up-to-speed quickly. But that doesn’t mean those should be the only schools you should be looking at.”

So don’t get married to a school’s ranking. Shrum tells his future MBA students: dig deeper, both personally and on the research end. Veritas spends about half of the MBA admissions consulting time, in the beginning, on helping students understand their reasons for wanting to go to business school, getting a feel for what they’ve accomplished and ensuring they are looking at the right program.

“It never ceases to amaze me on how little thought applicants put into their post-MBA career goals before applying to business school,” said Shrum. “Particularly, if they want to go into something rare, like luxury goods or working at a hedge fund. The first question we ask it ‘Well, what research have you done?’

“Why would you go through all the blood, sweat and tears if you don’t even know if you’re going to have a decent chance of getting the job you want coming out of this school?” questions Shrum, pointing out that it’s key that students’ goals match up with the strengths of the school. “Go into it with your eyes open.”

Shrum also recommends that students understand the culture of the school they’re applying to. For online students, understanding whether the MBA program is cohorted, what the on-campus requirements are, if learning is done through a synchronous or asynchronous style, are important online cultural details.

“These things matter,” said Shrum. “Applicants need to think about it, because admissions counselors will certainly be. It’s the responsibility of the applicant to know these things going in, before they put pen to paper.”

Related: MBA Admissions Insight: MBA@UNC | Database: Search, Sort, Compare Online MBA Programs | School Reports: Full Details on MBA Programs | Specialties: Research MBA Concentrations

Ready to Apply

Like the trend of shorter, or fewer admissions essays, Shrum believes the next trend in MBA admissions will be the strength of a student’s letter of recommendation.

“It’s a tool that admissions officers can use to tell students apart,” said Shrum. “As students get better at writing essays from the wealth of free information, officers are looking to No. 1, get to know someone better, and No. 2, distinguish that person from other candidates.”

Shrum noted schools like the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, UCLA Anderson School of Management and NYU’s Stern School of Business, accept power point, multimedia or art to help applicants differentiate themselves.

Shrum says he also seen more and more schools, like the prestigious Harvard Business School, have begun to accept either the GMAT or GRE test scores. Harvard found that this helps find fresher candidates, casting a wider to net to appeal to students that might otherwise consider going to law school, for instance.

“Business schools get enough applicants from investment firms,” said Shrum. “It’s not that they don’t want them, its just that also want the person that wants to work in the non-profit world and never thought a MBA would be right. Schools want different applicants.”

The Daunting GMAT

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a standardized examination that is used by business schools, including online ones, to assess applicants. Like the SAT or ACT students take to get into undergrad, the GMAT is just another tool admissions offices can use to help set a bar. However, for many adult students looking for an online, executive or hybrid MBA programs, those standardized tests may be a far distant memory they don’t want to go back to. To add worry to students’ minds, the GMAT changed this June. The test cut back on the essay-response questions and added an integrated reasoning section. The new section asks students to look at data sets and interpret data.

“The test is designed to measure the same skills you’re going to be using in business school, and what you’re supposed to be good at in business in general,” said Shrum. “Anyone who thinks they need to have brut force memorization skills is missing the point of the test, and frankly, are going to waste a lot of time.”

Much of the dread of the test is in geometry or algebra questions, but Shrum tells students, it’s not about exponents or triangles, it’s about making a decision based on limited information, something business managers do on a daily basis.

“It’s fair to expect these 20-somethings to have a basis understand of geometry and English sentence construction,” said Shrum. “But you don’t have to be a whiz, and the guy who thinks he’s going to become a whiz at that stuff, or out-smart the GMAT, is wasting his time. It measures your critical thinking and higher order thinking skills. If your manager, you have a lot of those abilities already. You do have to train yourself on how to apply those skills – walking into the GMAT cold will be disappointing – but it’s less weird and esoteric than people think.”

–Alanna Stage, @AlannaTweets