Best MBA Programs

Going for an MBA? This is how to ace the application

The six steps to follow for success

NEW! Our updated 2017 MBA guide is now available »
John Molson School of Business MBA Students at Concordia University conferring in a conference room

(Concordia University)

You’ve made the leap and decided to apply for an MBA. It’s an arduous process, usually requiring a resume, recommendation letters, an essay or two, a Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) test, academic transcripts and interviews. And even if you complete this marathon of paperwork, it’s still tough to get accepted. Canadian Business spoke with experts in the field of MBA admissions to gather some tips on putting together a successful application.

Engage early and often:

A business school should hear about you before your application arrives. “If the first time we get to know you is your application, you’re robbing yourself of an opportunity,” says JD Clarke, executive director of masters programs recruitment and admissions at Ivey Business School. Call up the school, says Clarke, and get a conversation going. Some schools, such as Ivey, will assess your resume ahead of time to determine whether there’s a potential fit and make suggestions to strengthen your application.

Don’t overlook the resume:

You know the essays, the recommendation letters, the interviews, the academic records are important. “Where people mess up the most is really the simple stuff—it’s the resume,” says MBA consultant Alex Chu of MBA Apply. It’s the first thing, other than standardized GMAT test scores, an admissions officer will look at. That first impression is important. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the most cluttered resumes … written in seven-point font, no margins, and it’s like, ‘This is scripture,’” says Chu. “It’s essential to make sure it’s clean and clear.” Chu suggests thinking of the resume like a movie trailer—a highly focused highlight reel of experience and achievements, rather than an exhaustive biography. “You need to be able to grab somebody within 30 seconds.”

Emphasize your strengths

In each component of your application, think less about detailing what you’ve done and more about presenting your accomplishments, says Clarke at Ivey. “That’s a hard thing, because we’re much more comfortable talking about what we do (rather) than what we’ve accomplished,” says Clarke. Consultant Stacy Blackman stresses the importance of highlighting stories that demonstrate leadership and impact, rather than simple involvement. “Stories can come from work or any number of experiences outside of work,” she says.

Mitigate your weaknesses

There’s nothing you can do about that poor GPA from undergrad but low grades aren’t necessarily a deal breaker. “There’s a kind of defeatist mentality about the academic record,” says Dan Bauer, CEO of The MBA Exchange. “It won’t neutralize it unless you do something about it.” If you’ve got a low GPA, you may be able to compensate with a sky-high GMAT score or upgrade your undergraduate level courses. If it’s a low GMAT, you could re-write the test. “Don’t hide failures and mistakes,” says Blackman. “Provide an explanation and lessons learned, using these experiences to demonstrate resilience, growth and self-awareness.”

Start early

Think of it not as an application but rather a “candidacy development process,” says Bauer. Admissions officers will be considering your history — where you’ve worked, what you’ve done, how you’ve related to supervisors, how you’ve managed your career. While a few months is enough time to put together a polished application, the candidacy it represents will suffer if you haven’t put in far more time on it. “There is no too soon to start this,” says Bauer. In some cases, it may even be worth putting off your application for a year or two to allow you time to bolster your candidacy.

Research, research, research

You’re probably going to get asked about why you want to go to the particular business school you’ve set your sights on. “You need a compelling answer that shows you really get what the program is about and how you can benefit the community and culture,” says Blackman. She recommends visiting the school, talking with alumni, reaching out to clubs. “Really probe to find out about great programs, teachers, activities and to understand the school culture,” says Blackman. This will “help you package yourself in a way that makes them want you.”



NEW! Our updated 2017 MBA guide is now available »