Deciding to enrol in an MBA program can be a daunting proposition, but navigating through the admissions process isn’t—if you know what the school is looking for. We asked the admissions committees at some of Canada’s top graduate business schools to share what it really takes for an application to get approved. Here’s what you need to know.
Most Canadian graduate business schools require you to have completed a bachelor’s degree before applying, and the majority expect you to have earned a grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.0/4.0, which is roughly a B average.
If your GPA doesn’t meet the minimum requirement, many admissions officers say you don’t have to worry: Most understand that mitigating circumstances might have hampered your performance during your undergraduate degree, and that those grades could be a bit outdated in comparison with what you’ve done more recently in your career. The MBA program at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management doesn’t have a minimum GPA requirement; Don Melville, the school’s director of the MBA and master’s program, says applicants who struggled in their undergrad years aren’t doomed to rejection.
Don’t sweat it if your GPA is low; instead, look for other ways to get an edge, like earning a great score on your Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). “Doing well on the GMAT can potentially help out when a GPA is lower,” says Melville.
The GMAT exam is the standardized test you usually need to take when applying to an MBA program. It comprises four parts (quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, integrated reasoning and analytical writing), and most schools require you to submit your total score before they decide whether to admit you. The minimum score among Canada’s top business schools, like the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and Queen’s University’s School of Business, tends to vary between 550 and 600. Some schools, such as the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, don’t have a minimum, but if you want to be considered competitive, it’s best to score above 600 on the exam. The average GMAT score for Rotman’s 2013 entering class was 674, and York University’s Schulich School of Business says a competitive score would be 660 with a balanced score—that is, in at least the 50th percentile—across the four measures of the exam.
Some schools, such as Queen’s and Rotman, will allow you to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) exam instead of the GMAT, but you’ll need to achieve fairly high scores on that test’s verbal and quantitative components for your application to be competitive.
If you struggle with standardized tests (or simply dread them), enrol in a GMAT prep course or take practice tests, advises Su-Lan Tenn, an assistant dean at Schulich. The GMAT exam’s official website is a good place to start; it includes free material and test-writing tips designed to help you prepare.
Many (but not all) graduate business schools require you to have at least two years of full-time work experience on your CV before you apply to their MBA programs. McGill’s Melville says MBA applicants have spent, on average, at least five years on the job before attempting to enrol. In general, schools are looking for students who can bring the real world into the classroom. “We’re looking for candidates who will be able to contribute based on experiences they’ve had and problems they’ve tried to solve already at work, and who are looking to grow into that next level with an MBA,” says Leigh Gauthier, acting director of recruitment and admissions at Rotman School of Management.
Business schools are looking for candidates who show leadership and the ability to work in teams, so make sure to highlight your experience with both on your application.
With your application, you’ll be asked to include two or three professional reference letters. Make sure to choose referees who will strongly advocate for your abilities, as admissions committees look at these recommendations closely. Most want to hear from someone who can speak to your work experience, such as your direct supervisor. Only in rare cases are academic references acceptable.
Ask your referees for letters of recommendation well in advance of your application deadline; most busy professionals won’t have time to drop everything to write one the day before it’s due. (Plus, if they say no, you’ll have time to find a backup.)
The essay portion of the MBA application is your opportunity to tell the admissions committee more about yourself. Schools change their essay questions every year, but you can generally expect to be asked about why you want to pursue an MBA and how your past experiences will contribute to your future. Don’t be surprised if you have to get a bit introspective: Last year, Rotman added a reflection question to the essay requirements, which asks applicants to simply describe themselves using three to five characteristics. (Their references are asked the same question of the candidates.) The essay questions also give admissions officers a chance to determine whether you can actually write and have the communication skills to succeed in the business community.
“In business, there’s a requirement to be able to communicate effectively, and in the admissions essays, we really want to see people articulate a concept—something that’s important to them—in a way that’s meaningful,” says Rotman’s Gauthier. “It’s definitely testing an ability to write, but also an ability to think concisely and to be able to communicate an idea in a very small amount of words.”
The number of essays varies among schools; Schulich asks applicants to write five essays, whereas Sauder has reduced its short-answer questions from four to two, plus one 500-word essay question. And Queen’s doesn’t ask for any written essays.
Get somebody you trust to read over your essays before you submit them. Ask for honest feedback on the clarity, structure, flow and brevity of your words.