Ace applications

Top tips for cracking the MBA admissions process this year

Ace applications


The MBA admissions race has become much less fierce recently. After what seemed like a never-ending spiral in the quantity of applications to top-tier programs, applicant numbers appear to have moderated somewhat in 2009 and 2010. 


The global economic downturn caused a spike in applications during 2008, as a collapse in the US and European job markets lowered the opportunity cost of furthering education. But in the last two years, students seem to be critically examining the cost-benefit of MBA programs.


Indeed, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC, creator of the General Management Admission Test, or GMAT) notes in its annual report that applications to standard two-year MBA courses continued a decline from peak levels in 2008. Globally, application volumes fell an average 2% in 2010, with part-time programs down 7% on 2009. Applications to EMBA programs posted a small gain.


Yet, business schools in China, Canada and Europe seem to be bucking the global trend. More than half of European MBA programs posted a growth in application numbers last year. Meanwhile, contrary to a 16% decline in the number of applicants in Asia Pacific programs, admissions directors at nearly all of China’s top MBA schools reported that applications were up – sometimes significantly.


The increase is apparent in GMAT figures. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Chinese citizens who took the standardized test rose by 35%. With 30,264 test-takers last year, China succeeded in outstripping India as the second largest GMAT market, just behind the US.


No matter how fierce competition is from year to year, preparing a standout MBA application is always a key concern. GMAT scores, of course, play a star role.


While the average GMAT score was just shy of 540 last year, education consulting firm Kaplan estimated the average score at the world’s best schools to have been around 693 – the 91st percentile of test-takers. For most applicants in 2011, a score of at least 650-660 will continue to be a minimum requirement for consideration at the world’s top 50 MBA institutions.



Best foot forward

Fortunately, the GMAT is a test that can be taught, at least up to a point. But preparation takes time, said Matt Symonds, author of Getting the MBA Admissions Edge. He recommends at least two months of intensive practice for a candidate scoring 610 to raise 70-90 points. Nevertheless, it’s advisable to take the GMAT well in advance of application deadlines, ensuring time for a second sitting if – like many people – you do not achieve your desired score the first time round.


For non-native English speakers, Stacey Koprince, an instructor at Manhattan GMAT, encourages people to work on reading speed and comprehension.


One method is to regularly read articles from publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist, and reflect upon their content and arguments. Beginning this process six to 12 months prior to the GMAT examinations, Koprince said, allows enough time to build up to the “more GMAT-like material” featured in the Scientific American and Harvard Business Review, and finally studying official GMAT material.


An awareness of several practical issues can help significantly improve scores. For example, the GMAT’s computer-adaptive test (CAT) pitches the difficulty of multiple-choice questions according to the answers given to previous questions. Correct answers result in harder questions that generate greater opportunities to maximize scores; wrong answers, conversely, field easier questions that diminish scoring opportunity. To avoid wasting valuable time attempting to reverse a downward trend in questioning, try to maximize your scores in the first few questions.


Given the severe penalties for not completing the GMAT, be mindful of time. Gauge roughly two minutes per quantitative question, and one minute and 20 seconds for each verbal question. Although working quickly is advantageous, avoid misinterpreting questions and be aware of second-best answers, which are designed to catch rushing candidates.


Applicants must be aware of another change. In 2012, the GMAT structure will be modified. An “integrated reasoning” section will be introduced, which will present a spreadsheet, table and text, and then ask test takers a series of increasingly difficult multiple-choice questions for which there may be multiple correct answers. The overall test time will not change because the essay section will be eliminated.


The changes are designed to make the test more relevant to MBA programs, and to differentiate the GMAT from the GRE, a broad-purpose graduate school standardized test.


Beyond the test

Beyond the GMAT, an increasing number of MBA schools in China are also focusing on essays, personal statements and interviews.


Daisy Wang, assistant dean and director of admissions and marketing at Peking University’s Beijing International MBA program, stresses that candidates need to emphasize the quality of their work, not the sheer quantity. 


“We want to know how your work experiences changed you,” she said. “Ultimately, we want to find out first if you can contribute something to the MBA class, and second if you have the potential to succeed.”


With EMBA programs in particular, relevant and constructive work experience often takes precedence over the importance of GMAT scores. Melissa Mao, a student of the joint EMBA program offered by Fudan University and Washington University in St Louis, said about 80% of her application had to focus on her professional experience and why she was choosing the course. The program’s admissions officers wanted to find out what applicants can contribute to a class, and insights they could share from their own careers.


“In the end, what they want to know is what you are doing in the company you work for,” said Mao, a senior associate at Morgan Stanley in Shanghai.


The final round of Mao’s Fudan application process was an interview, held in a panel discussion format with five Fudan and Washington University faculty members. “There were lots of us, and lots of very different questions. It is a very different approach from what other schools use,” she said.


A strong sense of self and your educational goals is vital. Mao stresses applicants should take time to research their options, as the aims, methods, outcomes and faculty of every program vary substantially.


“At my interview, they were very open about the course. They asked me to evaluate how this program differs from others, and why it is best suited to me,” she said. “They made it clear that this is a high-rigor program and that it’s not for everyone.”