How to manage any MBA application fears

Tom Welsh
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THIS year’s MBA students have only just begun their studies, but the first deadline for next year’s applicants has already passed. You haven’t missed the boat – schools accept new students on a rolling basis over the full year. But it’s clearly never too early to apply.

Despite the incentive of urgency, the process of applying for an MBA can prove daunting. How do you choose the right school? How do you get accepted? How can you use the process to improve your decision? The questions quickly mount up. But, in many ways, a sense of uncertainty could improve your decision.

Aashlesha Venkatachalam recently began an MBA at Cranfield School of Management. Having spent six years in risk management at an Australian retail bank, she was daunted by the choice of programmes on offer. She credits Cranfield’s network of MBA alumni in Sydney with helping her choose the right course. “The fact I could discuss my decision with former Cranfield students gave me a more detailed appreciation of what the programme might offer.”

But alumni won’t necessarily provide an objective measure of how a business school stands relative to its peers. Attending MBA events – run by the association of MBAs (AMBA) or private firms like QS Top MBA – will give you context and help you draw up a more manageable shortlist.

Most MBAs require students to have achieved a particular score on the graduate management admission test (GMAT). The GMAT is a standardised assessment in quantitative and verbal abilities, integrated reasoning, and analytical writing. Steve Cousins, MBA admissions manager at Cass Business School, thinks the process of studying for the GMAT can be useful for discovering whether you’ll thrive on an MBA. “Even if your work experience suggests you’ll be fine, you still need to handle the academic side of life.”

The MBA is equivalent to returning to university. As such, studying seriously for the GMAT is essential. Cousins says some applicants might benefit from professional coaching or online testing. “Others don’t. It’s important to rediscover how you learn best.”

Many schools require you to attend an interview – often conducted by senior academics, alumni, or professional admissions staff. David Simmons, executive director of Cranfield’s full-time MBA says this entails “discovering whether applicants are choosing an MBA for good reasons. They need the hunger, the curiosity, but also the ability to see through a challenging business degree.”

Venkatachalam was interviewed by Simmons and says it took the form of an intellectual discussion, followed by a more specific evaluation process. “It was a chance to justify, both to myself and the school, why the MBA was appropriate for me.”

Cousins says you should view it as a job interview, but with an important caveat. “We don’t want people to say how they’ll fit into our programme or school. That’s entirely the wrong way round. We want diversity among our students, so we want to know how an MBA will enhance what the student wants to do in life.”

These first few stages of the MBA process aren’t hugely difficult. But they shouldn’t be treated as just a series of hurdles to jump through.

Whichever MBA programme you choose, whatever heights you reach with your GMAT score, and however impressively you perform at interview, it’s all irrelevant if you’ve failed to appropriately use the process to determine whether an MBA is right for you.