Getting into a top MBA program requires a high GPA, GMAT scores above 650, and relevant work and leadership experience.
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The difficulty of getting into an MBA program depends on the institution. For example, Emory University’s business school reported a 37% acceptance rate in 2018 while Brigham Young University reported a 49% rate. Many find gaining entrance into an MBA program challenging, and prospective students should note that MBA coursework is challenging in its own right. As a result, admissions offices look for students who can handle the rigor of MBA programs.
Before determining which schools you want to apply to, you should make yourself into the best applicant possible. For some, that means completing extra classes to meet prerequisite requirements or volunteering to boost their resume. For others it means looking for leadership opportunities or getting a head start on studying for the GMAT or GRE.
The admissions process can feel laborious at times, as prospective students prepare for exams, narrow their school list, seek out reference letters, and figure out how to pay for all of it. The following guide takes a methodical approach to laying out all these steps and helping students develop a game plan for each step.
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Frequently Asked Questions about MBA Admissions
How do I get into a top MBA programs?
How do I get into an MBA program?
Getting into an MBA program requires a good GPA, GMAT scores of 550-570, relevant work experience, and sometimes leadership experience.
How many MBA schools should I apply to?
More is not better in this case. You should find a half dozen or fewer programs that suit your needs and abilities and apply to them.
Do you have to take the GRE for MBA?
More business schools now accept GRE scores, but it is not a required MBA standardized exam.
Do you have to take the GMAT for MBA?
MBA Program Prerequisites
Do I Need a Bachelor’s Degree in Business to Earn an MBA?
Every school requires different application and entrance materials. The following section explores some of the more common prerequisites students may encounter during the application process.
Many prospective students need to establish themselves as viable candidates before applying. While earning a bachelor’s degree in business is typically not required, many schools expect students to possess foundational knowledge of standard business topics before starting the core curriculum. In fact, most schools see the value in students pursuing unrelated topics at the undergraduate level to acquire a well-rounded base of knowledge. The business knowledge requirement ensures that every new student understands each topic covered throughout the MBA curriculum.
For example, the University of Kentucky requires applicants to have completed studies in microeconomics, macroeconomics, financial accounting, and managerial accounting before being fully admitted to the MBA program. Thomas Edison State University requires microeconomics, financial accounting, and statistics. These prerequisites appear in many programs throughout the country, but prospective students should check with individual schools to determine their requirements. Students without these courses on their transcripts can sometimes complete them through an MBA program before moving on to advanced topics. Some also enroll as non-degree-seeking students at a local community college or university and complete the classes at a lower cost before formally applying to MBA programs.
Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to an MBA Program?
Although most people enroll in graduate programs soon after completing their undergraduate studies, MBA programs cater to experienced professionals with several years of work experience. Admissions offices often look at work experience prior to MBA entrance and expect applicants to have at least two or three years of experience. That number varies considerably from school to school and based on type of MBA program and area of business specialization. These programs want students who demonstrate a working knowledge of the business, nonprofit, or public sectors. Other programs include additional requirements. For example, an MBA program with a management specialization may require applicants to have three to five years of managerial experience, and advanced programs, like the Executive Master of Business Administration, requires applicants to have at least seven years of full-time work experience.
Timeline of Applying to an MBA Program
One year before application deadline
Research schools and MBA programs
With more than 1,200 MBA programs in America alone, students must find schools that are appropriate for their needs. Students should consider location, size, and prestige of a school as well as determining which concentration they want to pursue and what job prospects they can expect after graduation.
Six to nine months before application deadline
Register for any supplemental/prerequisite courses
Many MBA programs require students with no prior business education to complete coursework that brings them up to speed with their peers who have undergraduate degrees in business. In these cases, students should begin the process immediately to avoid falling behind.
Register for the GMAT/GRE/TOEFL
The GMAT counts as the standard exam for business schools, but the GRE score continues to gain prominence. Spaces fill up quickly, so you should sign up for either exam in advance. You’ll also want to be certain of your testing date, as the fee for rescheduling is significant. Those who reschedule more than seven days in advance pay $60 while those rescheduling within seven days pay $250. International students also need to register for the TOEFL exam to prove language proficiency.
Prepare for the GMAT/GRE
Preparing to take the GMAT or GRE requires a great deal of time and effort. Most test preparation programs take at least 12 weeks, so get started on this process as soon as you can to avoid cramming or forgetting essential information.
At least six weeks before application deadline
Choose schools to apply to
After compiling a large list of prospective schools, it’s important to determine the merits of each and create a finalized list that reflects your interests, abilities, and goals. Applicants should create impressive, individualized applications for each school they prefer instead of spending too much time thinking about schools that may or may not meet expectations.
Take the GMAT/GRE/TOEFL
It takes between 10 and 20 calendar days to receive GMAT, GRE, and TOEFL scores, and some students find that they need to take the exam multiple times. As a result, it’s best to schedule your first test early and leave yourself plenty of time to retake the exam should you need to improve your scores.
At least four weeks before application deadline
Secure letters of recommendation
Nearly every MBA program in the nation requires students to submit multiple letters of recommendation from supervisors, colleagues, and other professionals who can speak to their preparedness for graduate study. You should give your recommenders at least two weeks to write these documents to allow them to provide thoughtful, well-reasoned responses.
Secure all application materials
After reviewing application requirements, give yourself enough time to gather all of these materials and review them thoroughly. Many programs require a resume, which you should ensure is updated with your latest work information and reviewed thoroughly to remove any errors.
Write essay/personal statement
Schools use personal statements to help admissions panels understand how a student will contribute to the program culture and why they want to attend a specific institution. These documents typically take longer to write than expected, so applicants should account for extra time for edits, proofreading, and review by a trusted pair of eyes.
Usually in October (some schools have rolling admissions)
Though many schools enforce application deadlines, many also have rolling admissions deadlines or other policies that allow you to send in materials early and receive a faster response.
Two weeks to a month after application deadline
Prepare for interview
The interview often makes or breaks an application. Given the importance of an interview, it’s best to be prepared. Bentley University provides a list of 12 common MBA interview questions to help students prepare for their interview.
Up to three months after application deadline
Receive acceptance letters
Once you start receiving letters, rank them by preference. Once all letters come in, finalize your school selection by notifying the admissions department.
Three months after application deadline
Pay deposit to chosen school
Note that most schools require a deposit to hold your place in the program. These deposits can be expensive — Harvard Business School requires a $1,000 nonrefundable deposit — so make sure that your decision is final before putting a deposit down.
How Many MBA Schools Should I Apply to?
While opinions on this are divided, experts typically agree that students who put in the time and effort to find programs that align with their interests, academic record, geographic needs, and program availability will find success.
This approach appeals to students with limited cash flow. Because many MBA students continue to work full-time or care for their families, the prospect of filling out a dozen in-depth applications and paying as many application fees is unappealing. Applicants should focus on the types of schools they think they could get into and then compare which of those schools cater to their individual needs.
Admission Event Opportunities
Business schools frequently hold admissions events to get a sense of prospective candidates and allow interested students to learn more about what the department offers. As a student considering the MBA path, it’s important to fully understand the merits of each school before making a decision. Applicants often take on significant debt to complete MBAs and as a result don’t want to make the wrong choice. This makes admissions events even more important. The most common types of admission events are outlined below.
On-campus information sessions
Business schools hold information sessions on-campus that prospective students attend to learn more about the school’s offerings. These sessions typically include an admissions presentation by school counselors and the chance to meet administrators, local alumni, current students, and faculty members.
Online information sessions
Students unable to attend an in-person information session may benefit from an online version, which typically offers live sessions with faculty, admissions officers, and current students. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management offers online information sessions.
Prospective/current student meetups
The social networking program Meetup currently boasts MBA school and program meetings in over 50 cities across 22 countries. Students can use this platform to find prospective and current students to whom they can talk, ask questions, and learn more about a particular school.
Sit in on an MBA class
One of the best ways to get a real sense of an MBA program, its professors, and the students enrolled is to actually sit in on a class. Prospective students travel to campus on certain days in order to observe, ask questions, and see whether they should consider program entrance.
Speaking with admissions counselors
Speaking with admissions counselors clarifies many of the questions a prospective student can struggle to answer by themselves. Students confer with admissions counselors on the phone, via email, or on campus.
In-depth Interview with an Admissions Director
Director of MBA Admissions, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Marc Endrigat is the director of MBA admissions at the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He has more than 18 years of experience as a graduate-level adviser and administrator. Endrigat previously worked at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management in recruiting and admissions. He has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and journalism from James Madison University and a master’s degree in communications from Pepperdine University, where he also taught as an adjunct faculty member. Endrigat describes himself as a “global citizen,” having grown up in Germany, France, Great Britain, and the USA. He also speaks multiple languages.
What's most important when a student is choosing MBA programs to apply to?
I think it would be hard to narrow this question down the the most important aspect when it comes to applying to an MBA program, so I am going to provide three:
- Fit – Making sure the program is a good fit for the student, and the student is a good fit for the program, ensuring the program offers what the student is looking for in an MBA program.
- Connections – It is always a good idea to project three to five years down the line as to where students see themselves ending up, because local schools have local/regional connections. While the Shidler College of Business could be a great fit for an applicant with entrepreneurial aspirations in the Asia-Pacific Region, it may not be such a great fit for an applicant who would like to go into a more finance-related field in the Northeast region of the USA. That student may be better off attending a program closer to that region with more local connections.
- Return of Investment – ROI – The cost factor is also an important factor to keep in mind, and ultimately the goal should be to keep the ROI short term. While many schools have great scholarship programs available, students can always explore outside scholarship opportunities.
How can a student prepare for the admissions process?
I would generally recommend reaching out to the programs a student is interested in and utilizing the school’s recruitment/admissions resources from each specific program. Most schools offer class visits, info sessions, and online opportunities to get more information about their specific programs. Applicants who ask good questions always look good since it shows that they have done their research on the school and know what the areas of concern would or could be for them and they get those concerns addressed. I know this may come a little out of left field but I always encourage prospective students to show up as a “walk-in.” Many folks will roll out the red carpet if they know someone is coming, but the way prospects are treated if they show up unannounced can be an indicator of the amount/level of personal service the applicant receives once they are in the program. Ultimately, I view the student as a customer and like to make sure that an acceptable level of customer service is always maintained.
How can a student make up for low test scores or GPAs in their application?
I do believe that most MBA programs at this point evaluate each applicant by examining all of their qualifications. Ultimately, the MBA is a professional degree, and substantial work experience is usually the biggest asset an applicant can bring to an MBA program in order to contribute in the team-based learning environment that many MBA programs provide. Business does involve significant quantitative-heavy coursework, so applicants with low grades in quantitative-heavy undergraduate courses, or who lack quantitative-heavy courses all together in combination with a low test score, can be a red flag for many schools’ admissions staff.
What is the most important aspect of an application to an MBA admissions department?
I would go back to the FIT category I referred to earlier. I want to always make sure that the people we admit into our program will want and be able to make significant contributions in the team-based MBA environment. Also, you don’t want to ever set anyone up to fail, so while a lot of admissions offices do look for a reason to get someone into school, if there are too many red flags, it may be better to deny certain applicants and possibly counsel them in the direction of a different graduate degree that they could be a better FIT for.
What advice do you have for students who don't get into their first choice schools?
While getting an application rejected from your top-choice school is not what most people want, it can also provide opportunity. The options are:
- Try again – Any “no” may just be a “not now”; applicant pools and admission requirements (average work experience, GMAT score, and GPA) can vary from year to year, and an application that barely missed the cut one year, could be right in the mix the following year.
- Explore other options – There are lots of good MBA programs available, so while getting rejected from a high-ranked and very prestigious MBA program can be very disappointing initially, it may be a blessing in disguise in the long run since it makes the applicant consider programs that they may not have initially considered and that, in the long run, are a much better fit for the applicant than the program they were initially denied from.
Online MBA Application Requirements
Official transcripts help business schools determine whether an applicant possesses the academic qualifications needed to succeed in the program. How students have performed in the past — regardless of whether they studied business or not — provides a metric for predicting future academic success. Transcripts also help admission panels determine whether a student needs to enroll in prerequisite courses.
Admissions offices require transcripts from any postsecondary school attended.
Admissions offices require transcripts from any postsecondary school attended, including community colleges, four-year schools, and any previous graduate studies. Stanford University boasts the highest average GPA at 3.74. Georgia Tech averaged a 3.4 and Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management’s incoming MBA class boasted an average GPA of 3.22.
Prospective students must request their transcripts from all schools they’ve attended. This process can sometimes takes a while, so students should request transcripts early in the application process.
Before taking either the GRE or GMAT, students can specify the schools where they want their results sent. Students who take the GMAT can select up to five different schools to share scores with before incurring additional costs. For 2018, the cost is $28 per additional school. The GRE allows students to send score reports to four schools as part of the initial fee. Sending additional scores costs $27 per school.
Some students can bypass this requirement, as many admissions offices offer waivers to students on a case-by-case basis.
The University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is one example. For consideration, applicants must have at least seven years of full-time work experience, excellent academic records, and some professional certifications. Students who think they may qualify for a GMAT/GRE waiver should contact their prospective school’s admission office to see if they meet the criteria.
Previous work experience plays a important role in the decision-making process for MBA admissions panels. As a result, a well-polished resume is a crucial piece of an MBA application. You should include all relevant work experience in all of the positions you’ve held, including volunteer experience.
Tips for Crafting Your Resume
- Focus on leadership experience
- Tell the story of your career progression
- State your future career goals clearly and demonstrate how an MBA can help you achieve them
- Be thorough yet succinct
Essays and Personal Statements
When researching MBA application requirements, prospective students may come across requests for both admissions essays and statements of purpose. The admissions essay discusses what initially interested an applicant in business and what experiences have prepared them to succeed in an MBA program. While the admissions essay typically covers the past and present, the statement of purpose focuses on the future. Students are expected to highlight why they want to attend the particular school they are applying to and communicate how that institution might help them meet their educational and career goals. Some admissions offices do not require the personal statement, but students who want admissions counselors to get a sense of their passion for the school and their plans for the future should consider submitting one regardless.
Schools want to see essays and personal statements that make a compelling case for why the student deserves a spot in their program. When writing your essay, ignore your GPA, GRE/GMAT scores, and basic work history information as this will appear in other parts of your application. Instead, use every sentence to build a case for your unique candidacy.
Examples of What to Avoid:
- Impersonal personal statements that fail to provide a sense of who you are as a person
- Examples or stories that ignore your viability as a candidate
- Not including a specific statement focused on why you want to attend their institution
- Making excuses or apologizing for perceived shortcomings
Common Prompts for MBA Personal Statements Include:
- What are your career aspirations, and why do you want to pursue an MBA?
- Outside of your professional and academic careers, what are your interests?
- Provide an example of a significant achievement in your personal or professional life
- Share a time when you stepped up in a leadership capacity. What did you learn?
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation provide the only third-party personal assessment of a candidate. According to Stanford University’s admissions requirements, the letter of recommendation should tell “stories about your behaviors, impact, and personal qualities.”
Unlike applications for other graduate-level disciplines, most business schools want references that speak to your professional qualities rather than your academic abilities. Great examples of recommenders include current direct supervisors, previous supervisors, indirect supervisors, clients, colleagues, or a member of the board of directors. Only ask those who know you at a personal level to write your recommendation letters.
Students should provide some details about themselves to refresh the memories of their recommenders, including a list of all your major and semi-major accomplishments. Also include information about your education history, previous work experiences, awards, and membership in any professional associations.
Writing a well thought out letter of recommendation can take a lot of time, especially when your recommender has to balance this project with their normal work and life responsibilities. Therefore, the more time you can give them to work on their letter, the better. Many experts recommend giving recommenders an entire month to write their letter of recommendation, as this usually provides them with enough time to craft a meaningful and persuasive letter.
English Proficiency Tests
The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is an essential requirements for MBA candidates whose first language is not English who want to study in the U.S. ESL students who have already earned an undergraduate degree or have work experience in an English-speaking country are often exempt from this requirement.
These exams cover English reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills to ensure that students can adapt quickly to the demands of an MBA degree. Students can access exam details through sample test questions provided by the Educational Testing Service.
Submitting Your Application
Finally submitting your MBA application is the culmination of months of dedication and hard work. After coming so far, students understandably want to make sure that they have done everything right. The best time to apply depends on whether the school offers rolling admissions or specific admission rounds, which we will discuss in the following section.
Applicants can submit applications online through a secure portal, though some schools allow students to submit a paper application. Although very few admissions offices today require paper applications, you should be sure to send all application materials through a school’s desired medium.
Submitting applications also involves paying application fees. While schools rarely charge more than $300, most application fees amount to about $150. Some schools — such as Columbia University and Northwestern University — offer application fee waivers to certain applicants, including full-time students, members of the military, Peace Corps volunteers, and Teach for America participants.
Schools that offer rolling admissions accept applications throughout the year and make decisions soon after receiving applications. Rolling admissions works in the favor of students who apply early in the process or outside of common admission periods.
Although these schools review applications as they arrive, the absence of a hard deadline typically ensures easier admittance. Rolling admissions appear most often in less competitive schools, while rounds admissions are common at top institutions. However, Columbia Business School is one exception.
Many business schools offer two or three rounds of admissions during each application cycle. The first round, also known as early decision, is ideal for those students who want to enroll in one particular school. This round typically invites the fewest number of applicants and has the most number of available places. The second round tends to invite the highest number of applicants, but it also provides students with more time to work on their applications. The third round invites last-minute applicants who enter the process late.
Many business schools note that the interview affects an applicant’s entrance into an MBA program more than any other part of the application. While other components are also weighed heavily, the opportunity to hear from the student in-person dramatically impacts the decision-making process.
While on-campus students must typically visit campus for an in-person interview, applications to online MBA programs usually have more options. Schools often conduct interviews via telephone or Skype in these situations — especially if you live on the other side of the country from the prospective school.
Helpful Interview Tips
- Thoroughly prepare for the interview
- Listen to the questions they ask and internalize them before answering
- Prepare answers to common interview questions
- Speak confidently about your accomplishments
- Speak clearly and succinctly
- Avoid discussing things that fail to relate to your accomplishments, goals, or the MBA program
How to Prepare for Your MBA Interview
Do your research
A lack of preparation often leads to a bad interview. The inability to articulate what you like about a program can be perceived as having a lack of understanding about the program. You should spend time getting to know the school and have a solid understanding of the program requirements, which faculty you would like to work with, and other topics that might come up in an interview.
Dress for success
Business school interviews provide the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism in all areas — and that includes your clothing. Men should wear a well-tailored suit, tie, and dress shoes, and women should opt for a pant or skirt suit, or a dress with a blazer — each paired with nice-looking flats or low heels.
After completing your research, think about how to talk about your background and desired career path in a way that makes you stand out. Try to avoid clichés when discussing your accomplishments. It is also important to practice providing responses that actually answer your interviewer’s question.
Prepare questions of your own
When deciding on an MBA program, ensure that the school meets your needs. Prepare a list of questions to ask the interviewer, but make sure they require more than just basic-level knowledge of the program. Think of unique questions about facets of the program that you find interesting. This is also the perfect time to ask about any aspect of the program that you find concerning.
Know who you are
Interviewers want to see that candidates have a real sense of self and a clear goal for pursuing an MBA. Prepare to answer questions about your strengths and weaknesses and answer them honestly and fully. Admissions panels seek nuanced and thoughtful answers to these personal questions.
Remember to take your time
Interviews can be incredibly stressful, especially for something as important as an MBA program. Your interviewer will know this about their interviewees and will typically forgive a certain amount of anxiety. However, it is still important to stay composed and to take your time answering each question.
What Do I Do After My Admissions Interview Is Over?
After the interview, prospective MBA students still need to check off a few more boxes on their to-do list. First, send a thank you letter or email to express your gratitude for the interviewer taking time to get to know you better. If you do not have their contact information, you can send a letter or email to the admission department and ask them to pass it along.
Some schools — such as Harvard Business School — require students to write a post-interview reflection within 24 hours of speaking with the interviewer. Here, you can expound on those points that needed more information, provide clarity where you believe you failed to communicate yourself properly, and emphasize the points you feel most strongly about.
Waiting for Acceptance Letters
After spending so much time, energy, and money pursuing your dream of completing an MBA, it is natural to experience some anxiety as you wait for responses. Be patient about hearing back from prospective schools and try not to second guess yourself. Most schools take between six and eight weeks to issue a decision about your application — though this timetable varies by school.
The best-case scenario involves receiving acceptance letters from multiple schools. If this happens, the savviest applicants leverage their multiple offers to receive funding that can help offset the costs of MBA programs. You can also narrow down your choices by judging how well you think you’ll fit within each program. It’s important to carve out time to consider your options so that you can make the best possible choice.
Unfortunately, some students never receive that coveted acceptance letter. Though feelings of defeat will likely come, try to remember that admissions panels aim only to accept students who fit their program. Therefore, another school may be a better fit for you. While you may not have been a good fit for the programs to which you applied, earning an MBA is still within your reach. You can start by making adjustments in your next round of applications, especially in terms of writing clear personal statements and judging programs more closely to find a good fit.
Your passion for furthering your career through an MBA program is bound to come with multiple hurdles. Start afresh, learn from your mistakes, and try again.
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