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When applying to online MBA programs, students often find themselves wondering what exactly admissions officers are looking for in candidates. With reported growth in MBA applications, which is due in part to an improved career outlook for MBA graduates, competition for MBA programs has increased. As a result, many candidates are left wondering how they can set themselves above the pool of online MBA applicants. Any university website will tell you about required GMAT scores, GPAs and academic achievement, but most admissions officers look for more than just numbers on MBA applications.

Both Dr. Darcy Tannehill, Robert Morris University’s (RMU) Vice President of Online and Off-Campus Programs, and Dr. Ash Deshmukh, Penn State’s (PSU) iMBA Program Chair, explained the specific requirements of their respective online MBA programs. Like most online MBA programs, admissions officers at both RMU and PSU look at an applicant’s GPA and GMAT scores. Both schools expect applicants to have applicable work experience as well. According to interviews conducted by Bloomberg Businessweek, the minimum amount of work experience required is two years, though some programs, such as PSU’s iMBA program, prefer five to seven years of experience. Most universities also require recommendation letters, and some may complete the application process with an interview.

Despite those requirements, applications are not all numbers and recommendation letters. Universities look for more than just a formulaic fit on paper, as Dr. Tannehill of RMU explained, “Online learning requires a large amount of self-discipline and the ability to keep one’s self on task. Strong written communication skills are essential as well as a willingness to learn to use technology if the skill is not already possessed.”

Dr. Deshmukh of PSU agreed that an application is more than just a set of “quantifiable factors,” stating, “We also look for a fit. The PSU iMBA program is designed for mid-level managers who are interested in moving into upper management or for the persons who are interested in understanding the multidimensional nature of business. We look at the statement of intent carefully to make sure that the student is joining the program for the right reasons.”

The personal essays required by online MBA programs are therefore very important, as they provide a sample of the applicant’s written communication skills as well as the motivational factors behind the applicant’s desire to enter the program.

Beyond having strong communication skills, candidates should also be independent learners ready to dedicate at least two years to the program. Applicants must also understand that “while online means convenient, it does not mean easy,” Dr. Tannehill said, “they need to be able to keep up with school while juggling their work and family obligations. They must also be comfortable or become comfortable with some independent learning, self-pacing, and the utilization of technology.”

Admissions officers at PSU also “expect heavy time investment from the students and seek evidence of such capability,” according to Dr. Deshmukh. Applicants should therefore utilize resumes and the required statements of intent to make it evident that they are very capable of balancing their personal lives with their online education. It is also important for applicants to write specific essays for each program, tailoring the content to show how they will fit in with the particularities of each online MBA program.

There are a couple more ways for applicants to stand out from the crowd. “Make sure to keep in close communication with the faculty members,” Dr. Tannehill said. Staying in contact with admissions staff and faculty is a good way to keep on top of deadlines and requirements, advice which stays valid even after an applicant has been admitted into an online MBA program.

“Treat all the administrative/admissions staff with respect,” Dr. Deshmukh recommended. The administrative and admissions staff members are the ones processing and reading applications. It is therefore important for applicants to show, through their communication with such officials, that they are capable of respect and politeness, both of which are recommended qualities for those in the business field.

When asked if she had any advice for online MBA candidates, Dr. Deshmukh replied, “Make sure that the objectives of the program fit in with your own objectives.” Not all online MBAs are designed the same. Applicants should check how their programs of interest are designed in order to see what skills the programs seek to hone and what objectives the programs help students meet. PSU’s iMBA, for instance, is designed for individuals with established careers that are seeking to move up into high-level management positions. According to Peterson’s, candidates should also have “well-defined goals” of their own. Such goals will help candidates assess whether or not a program will serve their needs. “Emotional maturity” and a “seasoned perspective” are bonuses noted by Peterson’s, which serve to help applicants rise above their peers.

As both Dr. Tannehill and Dr. Deshmukh have made clear, applying to online MBA programs is more than just reporting scores and going through the motions of the application process. By utilizing their academic writing skills, applicants should make their dedication to the online MBA program obvious. Applicants must also prove that they are comfortable with independent learning and self-discipline. Above all, applicants should “prepare to totally commit [themselves] for a period of a couple of years,” Dr. Deshmukh said. An MBA education, whether received online or in the classroom, takes both time and commitment, and candidates must be ready to give both to the program.