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To get on the right MBA course, be prepared to jump through hoops

Timothy Barber
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Taking a two year break from your career to study, and spending tens of thousands of pounds in the process, is up there with buying a house or getting married when it comes to serious, life-changing decisions. In the past decade the commercial success of MBA courses has seen them proliferate at hundreds of institutions, some elite, some very much not. If you’re going to invest that kind of time and money and come away with something carrying real, career-enhancing clout, you’ve got to make sure you get yourself into the best school possible.

Don’t assume that means blindly applying to the five highest-placed schools in the ranking systems, since the merits of various programmes will differ according to each person, their strengths and their ambitions. Deciding which to apply to, and maximising your chances of doing so successfully, is something that takes time and preparation – it’s worth allowing a year for this process, and setting aside a budget for it.

Start with some careful self-assessment. Why is an MBA right for you now? “If it’s just an opportunity to hide from the recession, or you just feel that you might as well do it for lack of any other way to progress your career, the top schools will sniff you out easily,” says Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA). “You need to be absolutely clear about your long-term goals and why that MBA is crucial to achieving these – and that includes your own development as a person, not just your professional development.”

Working this out will also help you pick the right programmes to aim for. For instance, some schools have particular strengths in certain specialist subjects that may be appropriate to you, such as entrepreneurship, marketing, real estate or strategic planning. Alternatively, you may be thinking about what foreign countries you would like to work in the future, and therefore which business schools have the best links and opportunities in these areas.

“10 years ago people would come to fairs without a particular school in mind, but now they come knowing which three or four schools they’re planning to meet,” says Jeanette Purcell.

Having decided where you’re aiming, it’s time to get on with the practical side of things. Before you can apply, you need to have passed a test in numerical and verbal reasoning – the standard exam is the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), though some schools prefer the GRE (General Record of Examination). If you’ve been out of studying for some time this may require some practice, but there are many online tuition centres and mock tests to make use of.

For most business schools you’ll need a score over 600 (out of a total 800) – and while a very high score will do you no harm, don’t assume it’ll give you a huge advantage. If you score under 600, on the other hand, it may not completely scuttle your chances if you have lots of relevant, senior-level experience and testimonials to strengthen your case.

Next comes the online application. In this you’ll be asked to provide relevant details, including official certification of your academic qualifications and professional letters of recommendation. You’ll also normally be required to answer three to five questions about yourself and your strengths as a candidate with short essays of between 400 and 600 words.

For instance, Harvard Business School’s class of 2012 application asks candidates about their three most substantial achievements, what they have learned from a mistake, and how they have engaged with a community or organisation. Don’t state your aim as doubling your salary or working for a particular company – you need to seem open-minded, reasonable and willing to grow, as well as driven.

“Applications that focus on salary are concerning, and there’s no excuse for not spellchecking,” says Chris Jeffery, director of Cass Business School’s Executive MBA. He says it’s also noticeable when candidates have cut and pasted an essay from another MBA application. “It looks formulaic, and misses the fact that each school is different. Sometimes people even forget to change the name of the school.”

Finally, there’s the interview, which should last an hour. Normally it will be carried out by the head of admissions or course director; if you’re applying to a school abroad, it may be conducted by telephone or video link, or by a senior alumnus in your country, though admissions executives travel a lot also. You may be asked to make a brief presentation, and you’ll certainly be asked some testing questions that investigate the quality of your reasoning. Remember that an MBA is a general management programme, and you need to demonstrate that you can apply your experience and knowledge outside your particular sector.

“Sometimes you get people whose thinking is so restricted to their own field, that they’re obviously going to remain a specialist in that area, and you’d have to question whether an MBA is the right form of development for them,” says Jeffery.

You’ll also need to show how your participation will enrich the class – being able to speak up confidently and communicate your ideas is crucial. If you have a brilliant mind but turn out to be shy and retiring, you’ll miss out.

“We’re largely looking for how you’re going to contribute, so an ability to present oneself is a natural advantage for being an MBA and being a leader,” says Sean Rickard. “That’s what we expect of our leaders – we need to be interested by them.”