How to secure a place on the MBA course of your choosing

Business schools will typically look for three different qualities

DECIDING to study for a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is a significant step. But it is arguably the easiest part of the process: far harder is securing a place at your preferred school.

According to QS TopMBA, most candidates apply on average to between two and five business schools. And with thousands applying each year to leading institutions in North America, Europe, and – increasingly – Asia, it is important to get the application process right.

George Iliev is accreditation manager at the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and took his MBA at Emory University Goizueta Business School in the US. He says business schools are looking for three things: successful applicants, diverse applicants and interesting or colourful applicants.

But he adds: “Applicants often don’t realise that it’s a tug of war between the admissions team, the teaching faculty and the careers service, and they all have a different degree of power over who gets admitted.” The admissions team will look for diversity, the teaching faculty will want the brightest students, and the careers service will be looking for people who are easy to place in jobs.

But as well as studying CVs, most schools require would-be students to sit an exam (commonly the graduate management admission test, the GMAT), write a personal essay and get letters of recommendation.

For the GMAT, preparation is key. Iliev recommends taking three months to prepare. “That’s what I did and I scored 780 [out of 800]. It’s all down to taking the time and getting in the right mindset.”

Practice tests can be downloaded from websites like and other GMAT forums, while studying can be done in a classroom, online or privately. “There’s no such thing as the best way to study,” argues Zoya Zaitseva, a director at QS TopMBA. “It depends on your background. For those with a quantitative background, it could be a matter of just doing four or five sample tests and you’ll be ready. For the majority of candidates, however, you will need to prepare in classes, even if it’s just for a couple of weeks.”

The essay, meanwhile, is where many shine and many more fail. Zaitseva, who used to run an admissions consultancy, says that “there’s a temptation to get a template and tweak it depending on the school. That’s a huge no-no. The admissions teams see thousands of these every year and they recognise the same essays coming through.

“Each school has its own expectations, its own culture, and candidates have to reflect that in their essays,” she says. Cranfield, for example, puts emphasis on teamwork, while at Harvard it’s more about leadership and personal success. In the UK, other schools will be looking for entrepreneurial spirit and you need to reflect this – even if you don’t have an entrepreneurial background.

Zaitseva recommends drawing up a matrix detailing preferred schools and personal requirements, thereby enabling candidates to see which courses provide the best fit.

“It’s not what’s the best school, it’s what’s the best school for you. You need to take time to self-reflect. Do you want a one-year or two-year course? To combine it with work or go full-time? What about location? Fees? Specialisations – leadership, entrepreneurship or management? These are the core things to start with. But also, why are you doing an MBA? What outcome do you want?”

Susan Thampi is a US citizen who was working in Hollywood before applying to study at Cambridge Judge Business School. She explains: “I chose Cambridge because of its track record in arts, culture and media management.

“My approach in applying for British schools was to clearly define my career goals after the MBA. I researched the curriculum and job placement statistics of each programme and tailored my application to reflect my career objectives. I have a unique background and that might be an advantage for me in the UK media industry.”

As well as attending MBA fairs and reaching out to alumni, candidates should also get in direct touch with schools and visit campuses. Steve Cousins is admissions manager at Cass Business School. He explains that “what we look for is for candidates to have done a lot of their own research: what’s the school about, what the entry requirements are, if it’s the right match for their needs and so on. So speak to the school – not everyone does, but we encourage it. That way candidates will be very clear about what they need to have in their essay.”

As for the letters of recommendation, resist the urge to go for the most senior person and instead focus on those who know you the best. Platitudes from chief executives impress no one.

AMBA’s Iliev suggests you “plan who you want a letter from a year in advance and work with them. In some cases, people ask someone they don’t necessarily trust, just because they are in a high position, but that can backfire. You could be damned with faint praise. It shows you lack social influence – and that you can’t tell your enemies from your friends.”

Cousins agrees: “The letters are important to us, as they are a different view of a candidate. Speak to your referee first, not just to ask them, but also to talk about what you want from the MBA and any advice they might have. Get a balance between somebody who knows you and somebody who’s senior.”

Ultimately, when trying to secure a place at a preferred business school, it comes down to three core areas: experience, successfully completing the GMAT, and demonstrating you understand what the business school is about. And the only way that will happen is through considerable effort and research. The whole process, from working out why you want to study for an MBA to filing the completed application, can take as long as two years.

But as Zaitseva concludes: “You wouldn’t buy a car until you’ve driven it, or a house until you’ve looked around it several times. An MBA is as serious a decision, and it will stay with you until the end of your professional career. It’s all about the right fit – and the right mutual fit.”