Understanding the Admissions Criteria
BEFORE I GO ON to discuss the specific application components, I want to review the overall admissions criteria that are used to evaluate candidates. There have been a lot
of questions surrounding exactly how candidates are evalu-
ated and which aspects of the admissions criteria count the
most when assessing a candidate. This chapter focuses on
the three admissions criteria used by the MBA Board in
evaluating all candidates. I also go into details of the specific
components comprised within each criterion to ensure that
you understand how the Admissions Board views them and
how you can maximize your chances of being admitted.
After you understand the admissions criteria, you should be
able to objectively evaluate your candidacy. This chapter
also provides suggestions of steps you can take to address
any gaps in your application.
Top business schools evaluate candidates across three core
• Academic ability/intellectual aptitude
• Leadership impact/managerial potential
• Uniqueness (diverse experiences/perspectives and differ-
entiated personal characteristics)
Some of the greatest myths surrounding the application
process are related to candidates’ misconceptions of the admis-
sions criteria. I am often asked by applicants which criterion is
the most important in the application process. The short
answer is all of them. It is important to understand how these
three admissions categories are viewed by the MBA Board.
Ideally, candidates should try to be strong in all three areas.
Given an extremely competitive admissions landscape, the
stronger you are across all three criteria, the better your chance
of being admitted. So, although we all know someone who was
admitted without excelling in the three criteria, I encourage
every applicant to present his or her strongest suit and submit
an application that presents a compelling case across the entire
Each top MBA program refers to the admissions criteria in
a different way, but, ultimately, they evaluate candidates based
on these three categories. These statements taken from MBA
admissions websites illustrate this point.
The three primary criteria for admission to the Stanford MBA Program are demonstrated leadership potential, intellectual vitality, and contributions to the diversity of the Stanford community.
Our selection process emphasizes leadership potential, strong academic ability, and personal qualities and characteristics.
The committee values academic performance and seeks candidates who demonstrate superior intellectual ability…have developed a strong foundation and/or essential skills for their future professional goals…have proven themselves as both leaders and team players, who are well rounded and interesting, and who have demonstrated the will and ability to actively contribute to the well- being of their community.
The Admissions Committee looks for people who have demonstrated the ability to succeed through work experience, academic endeavors, and extracurricular or community-service involvement.
We expect intellectual curiosity coupled with a desire to learn and stretch yourself in a rigorous academic program, as well as personal qualities to contribute to the many activities of the Institute.
What makes a candidate successful? There is no formula for admission to Tuck. Each decision hinges on the interplay of five principal factors: Demonstrated Academic Excellence, Demonstrated Leadership, Demonstrated Accomplishment, Interpersonal Skills, and Diversity of Background and Experience.
We seek students who are confident in their ability to master the required material and have the courage to ask challenging questions…who have a proven track record and clear professional goals, both short-term and long-term…who will contribute to the Stern community. We seek students with proven leadership ability, maturity, character, and strong communication skills, who will be active participants at Stern and have a great passion for, pride in, and commitment to Stern.
Let’s take a look at each of the three core areas.
ACADEMIC ABILITY/INTELLECTUAL APTITUDE
The curriculum at MBA programs is challenging. It is therefore
important that admitted candidates have the appropriate academic
preparation to handle a rigorous environment. Candidates do not
need a business degree from an undergraduate university to apply
to business school. In fact, the majority of MBA programs report
that business majors make up only about 20 to 25 percent of their
class. What’s more important is that candidates show that they are
intellectually sharp and have the discipline to engage and
contribute in a rigorous educational setting.
Whether candidates can handle the rigor of the MBA program
is assessed in two ways: their Graduate Management Admission
Test (GMAT) scores and their college transcripts. Both of these
variables are reviewed in the context of the candidate’s life: What
opportunities have they had? Are they the first in their family to
go to college? How do the GMAT and GPA overlap?
Ideally, you want both the GMAT score and GPA to be very
strong. For some applicants, although the GMAT may be lower
than the median at the school, the GPA may be significantly
higher. The reverse can also be the case. If you find yourself in
this situation, there are practical steps you can take to convince
the MBA Board that you are intelligent and able to handle a
challenging program. In such circumstances, the recommenda-
tions become even more critical in the selection process because
they can add additional reinforcement of your intellectual
ability, curiosity, and analytical and quantitative strengths.
Coursework can also alleviate academic concerns, as does
retaking the GMAT and earning a higher score. Let’s take a
closer look at the GMAT and your transcript.
The GMAT is the entrance exam that is required by all top,
full-time two-year business schools in America. A recent trend has emerged with two top business schools (Stanford GSB and
MIT’s Sloan Business School) giving applicants the choice to
submit either the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) or
the GMAT. (It will be interesting to see whether other
programs follow suit and allow candidates to submit the GRE
scores as a substitute for the GMAT.) The professional organ-
ization that oversees the GMAT is the Graduate Management
Admission Council (GMAC). Once a paper-and-pencil exam,
the GMAT has become primarily a computer-administered
exam. It is also adaptive in nature: the computer generates
questions based on your skill level and your performance on
After a candidate takes the GMAT, the score is active for up
to five years, so it is important to take the exam as early as
possible. The test itself is administered six days a week, with the
exception of holidays. Applicants can take the exam up to five
times in an academic year (waiting thirty-one days between
exams). Business schools do not penalize candidates for taking
the exam more than once. In fact, they accept the highest score
(check with your school to make sure that this is still applicable).
Candidates who are unhappy with their GMAT results the
first time should definitely retake the exam. The fact that MBA
programs accept your best GMAT score isn’t license to take
the GMAT half a dozen times. Two or three times is accept-
able. The fifth and sixth time may be overkill. The important
thing here is to invest in adequate preparation ahead of time to
avoid having to take the exam too many times. On the other
hand, if you take it once and you are dissatisfied with your
score, and if you think trying a second or third time can signif-
icantly improve your score, then that is fine. However, if your
score doesn’t improve after retaking it two to three times, I
personally feel it is more effective for you to focus on other
parts of the application where you may have greater control in
shaping the “story.”
Timing when to take the GMAT is vital since you have to
wait thirty-one days to retake the exam. Avoid taking the exam
too close to the admission deadline. I know candidates who
have scored unexpectedly poorly on the first GMAT, and
because of the thirty-one-day waiting period, they missed
applying within the first round. Also, remember that the test
itself is not cheap. Each exam cost $250, so it is to your advan-
tage to fully prepare for the exam before taking it. You can learn
more about the GMAT by visiting www.gmac.com or
www.mba.com, where you can register for the exam.
I’m often asked about the ideal GMAT score an applicant
needs in order to be admissible. Unfortunately, there are many
misconceptions surrounding this subject. The truth is that there
is no magic number to guarantee admission.
MBA programs often state that they do not have minimum
GMAT scores or cutoff requirements for admission. Although
that is true, a GMAT of 300 will not earn anyone a spot at Stan-
ford Graduate School of Business (GSB) or any top ten MBA
program; on the other hand, a GMAT score of 800 won’t guar-
antee a candidate admission to a top MBA program either.
The best way to view the GMAT is to recognize that it is a
necessary but not sufficient variable in the application. Getting
a strong score can keep you in the running for a coveted admis-
sion spot, but a mediocre score can end your admission aspira-
tions. Check out the websites of the MBA programs you are
interested in to find out where your GMAT score falls
compared with the median GMAT score of the entering class.
If your score is significantly below that of the median, 640
compared with 706, for example, you should postpone applying
and devote more time and resources to improving your score.
The GMAT scores standardize the academic components by
providing a benchmark to assess different candidates coming
from varied professional and personal backgrounds and experi-
ences. This is especially so when candidates come from schools that the Admissions Boards are not as familiar with. Even for
well-known schools, majors and grading systems vary. As such,
a 3.7 GPA at one school may be closer to a 3.4 at another school
and vice versa. The GMAT score, on the other hand, is an
admission variable that provides the MBA Board with perspec-
tive of how the candidate scored compared with others who
took the test. The other reason MBA Boards care about the
GMAT score is that some of the ranking agencies rely on this
information when ranking MBA programs. The GMAT has
considerable weight in the application process, so give it the
attention it deserves.
GMAT Components and What They Mean to the Admissions
The GMAT score is made up of three components: the Analyt-
ical Writing Assessment (AWA) Section, the Verbal Section,
and the Quantitative Section. The AWA is made up of two
essays (one on argument analysis and the other on issue
analysis). You will be given thirty minutes for each essay. The
overall GMAT score ranges from 200 to 800. The score repre-
sents performance in two areas: verbal and quantitative. The
Verbal Section is made up of forty-one multiple choice ques-
tions that include sentence correction, critical reasoning, and
reading comprehension. You will have seventy-five minutes to
complete the Verbal Section. Like the Verbal Section, seventy-
five minutes is allotted to the Quantitative Section. This section
is made up of thirty-seven multiple choice questions covering
data sufficiency and problem solving (covering such topics as
algebra, geometry, and arithmetic).
In addition to the raw number ascribed to each section, there
is a percentile figure associated with it. Admissions Boards pay
very close attention to both of these percentile figures. So not
only is it essential to have a strong overall score and percentile,
it is also important to perform strongly across both sections.
80 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
An applicant to business school, Chad, illustrates what a great
GMAT result looks like. He has a score of 760. Following is
the breakdown of his scores:
The first thing the MBA Board will review when evaluating
the GMAT performance is how the person fared overall. So,
the first note would be that Chad scored 760 and that his score
is higher than that of 99 percent of test takers. But they will not
stop there. They will then check to make sure that there are no
issues between the Verbal and Quantitative Sections. Scoring
highly in both sections is important. Chad’s Verbal and Quan-
titative breakdowns of 95 percent and 99 percent show that his
GMAT is fine—both scores are above the 90th percentile.
Some people are exceptional test takers. With more than a
billion people in China, and with a strong emphasis on educa-
tion, Chinese applicants may find steeper competition when it
comes to the GMAT. For instance, although the overall median
GMAT of an MBA program may be 700, the median for
Chinese candidates may be even higher. This means that an
applicant from China with a GMAT score of 700 may be
considered much weaker on this evaluation variable. Be sensi-
tive to how your profile fares in the overall GMAT pool as well
as the specific demographic group that you fall into.
Besides the overall GMAT score, a candidate’s performance
in the Verbal and Quantitative Sections is important to the
evaluation of his or her application. At a minimum, candidates
should aim to score above the 80 percent mark in both
sections. But what if there is a discrepancy between the two?
Being weak in either the Verbal or the Quantitative Section
can raise red flags for the MBA Board. For instance, an inter-
national applicant who has a 99 percent in the Quantitative
Section and only a 60 percent in the Verbal Section will surely
face questions concerning his or her verbal abilities. Candi-
dates in such circumstances should plan to retake the exam
and improve their performance in the Verbal Section.
Conversely, a nontraditional applicant whose work experience
is devoid of quantitative exposure and whose quantitative
score falls in the 66th percentile will have a tough time
convincing the Admissions Board that he or she has a strong
enough quantitative background to thrive in a business school.
Such a candidate can address this issue by retaking the exam
and by taking quantitative classes and having a strong
performance in them.
The AWA score ranges from 0 to 6 (6 being the highest
score). AWA scores of 4.5 and above are considered fine. A high
AWA (5.5) will rarely earn the applicant any major points.
However, a low score (3.5 or lower) will raise questions
regarding a candidate’s writing ability. Although important, the
AWA has traditionally been the least scrutinized component of
the GMAT at most top business schools. This is changing
somewhat as schools concerned about inconsistencies between
applicants’ writing ability and their actual essays may opt to
compare writing style of essays from the AWA with the actual
admissions essays. Anyone who chooses to use an advisory firm
should maintain the integrity of their writing: never resort to
hiring writing professionals to write your admission essays. A
candidate with an AWA score of 3 whose essays read like that of
a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist will have a major problem
explaining the inconsistency.
BASIC GMAT TIPS
Start early. Plan to take the test at least a year before the deadline.
Take a couple of practice tests to see how you perform.
Invest in a GMAT prep course if the score is below the median
score of your target MBA programs.
Consider taking the GMAT while you are in college. It is easier
to take an exam while you are still in studying mode. The GMAT
score is active for five years.
Retake the exam if you are not satisfied with your score. The
majority of MBA programs accept your highest score. (Check
the specific programs to make sure their policy doesn’t change.)
GMAC reports that more than 20 percent of GMAT test takers
retake the exam in a given year.
The GMAT range of admitted students at the MBA program
should serve as a guide. Scoring below this range does not auto-
matically disqualify your application. The strength of the rest of
your application will be taken into account.
You can take the GMAT once every thirty-one days, so plan accord-
ingly to ensure that you don’t miss your application deadline.
Many test prep programs are available to help applicants
boost their scores. The most popular ones are Princeton
Review, Kaplan, Veritas, Bell Curve, and ManhattanGMAT.
I strongly recommend that candidates do their due diligence
to assess which one will best provide them with the support
and preparation they need in order to nail a strong score.
I encourage you to also check out my interview with Andrew
Yang, Managing Director of ManhattanGMAT, at the end of
ENGLISH LANGUAGE ASSESSMENT
(TOEFL AND IELTS)
International candidates who studied at institutions where
English isn’t the medium of communication are required to take
an English Assessment exam. There are two main language
exams that international students take for admission to busi-
ness school: the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
and/or the International English Language Testing System
(IELTS). TOEFL is the more common and accepted test,
although some MBA programs accept the IELTS in lieu of the
TOEFL. Both exams assess international candidates’ ability to
speak and comprehend Standard English at a college level.
Because the precise requirements for exempting from this exam
vary from school to school, international candidates should visit
each program’s website to confirm which test is required. For
instance, at Wharton, international candidates need to take the
TOEFL, whereas Chicago GSB and UCLA’s Anderson School
accept either the TOEFL or the IELTS.
The TOEFL, the older test, has its roots as far back as the mid-
1960s and is more widely accepted in the United States. The
test is offered both through a paper-based and computer-based
format. The TOEFL scores range from 0 to 300, with selective
MBA programs requiring scores north of 250.
The test is composed of four sections, namely, Listening
Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression, Reading
Comprehension, and Essay Writing. The result is valid for two
years. MBA programs do not accept expired scores, so make
sure your scores are valid when you apply to business school.
You can also arrange to have your scores sent directly to the
school by providing the program’s test code. For more infor-
mation on the TOEFL, visit www.toefl.org.
84 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
The IELTS is a relatively new exam started in 1980. Applicants
can register for a computer-based exam on its website
(www.ielts.org) or sign up to take the exam at a test center,
although only a limited number of locations are available. Test
scores range from 1 to 9, with scores north of 6.5 required at
top business schools that accept the IELTS.
The college transcript plays an important role in the MBA
admissions evaluation. The Admissions Board places great
weight on candidates’ academic track record because it reveals
their performance over a period of time. The cumulative GPA
isn’t the only thing that matters when assessing a candidate’s
transcript; the trends of the grades are examined for consis-
tency. So for instance, someone with an overall GPA of 3.5 who
has straight-A grades in the first three years and C and D grades
their last year can raise major flags for the MBA Board. Equally
problematic are situations where the candidate’s academic
performance is like a roller coaster where they perform well in
one year and poorly the second year. Transcripts with consis-
tently strong grades over the course of the entire academic
experience are ideal. If you are reading this book and are still in
college, then you should do everything you can to make sure
that your performance is in an upward trajectory. One thing is
for sure, finishing weak is one of the hardest issues to overcome
with the Admissions Board. Therefore, MBA candidates should
avoid having their weakest grades their last year of college. It is
easier to explain away a weak start than a weak finish.
The rigor of the academic experience is also taken into
account when evaluating candidates’ transcripts. No Admis-
sions Board wants to admit a candidate who would flunk out of
business school. Therefore, the college transcript is carefully
scrutinized to ensure that the candidate has taken a challenging
academic program and performed well. The GPA of each
candidate provides the MBA Board with a general sense of how
the applicant has handled academic challenges; this is then used
to extrapolate how the applicant will perform in business
school. A strong GPA enables the MBA Board to answer the
question, “Can this candidate cut it academically?”
But the Board goes beyond GPA. They review the major
academic strength of the school as well. For instance, the MBA
Board recognizes that some majors, such as physics or computer
engineering, may typically offer fewer 4.0 GPAs than less
rigorous majors. Also, the MBA Board is aware of the signifi-
cant differences that exist between schools when it comes to
grading. Some schools are known for grade inflation; others are
known for their tough grading policy. As a result, the Admis-
sions Board is sensitive when evaluating a 3.0 GPA from a
school with little grade inflation versus a 3.7 GPA from a school
where a significant population earns high grades.
You demonstrate commitment to your area of study when
you have taken challenging courses and even pursued inde-
pendent study or honors research. However, it is equally impor-
tant not to be too narrow. By taking courses outside of your
major, you can show that you are not just a physics or computer
geek. This will help differentiate you from other candidates with
similar majors. The Admissions Board can also see through
candidates who have taken easy classes just to pad their GPAs.
Applicants should educate the Admissions Boards when they
have pursued an unusual academic program, especially if it is
highly selective and rigorous. One way you can do this is to
include a short sentence in your resume to highlight that point.
An example is being the first in your department to complete a
dual degree in an unusually short time frame. If you are one of
the two people from your school to be inducted into an Honors
Society, you should also state that in your resume. Equally
86 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
interesting is taking the initiative to track down a professor
from another institution and convince her to oversee your
senior thesis if it is in an area that isn’t covered by faculty at
your school. Being willing to step beyond your academic
comfort zone can be a differentiator that can give you an edge
in the admissions process. To demonstrate how important
Admissions Boards view the academic college experience, take
a look at Harvard’s essay question, which was introduced in the
past couple of years: “What would you like the MBA Admis-
sions Board to know about your undergraduate academic expe-
rience?” In asking this question, the interest lies in academic
experience, not the social clubs and activities the student has been
involved in. MBA Boards at the end of the day want to go
beyond the letters and numbers of your transcript and aim to
understand the motivations that drive you to pursue knowledge,
your thought process behind your academic decisions, and the
insights that you have gleaned that have molded you into the
person you are today.
Many top business schools invest a lot of time in visiting
different countries during their marketing cycle. They use
these trips to learn about the schools and companies that
employ the applicants from that region, and as a result, they are
well-versed on the academic differences that exist among many
of the international universities. Internationals coming from
schools that do not give GPAs or class ranks do not need to
worry; the MBA Board will not penalize your application for
this. If in doubt, check with the MBA program to find out how
it wants you to handle this situation (whether to leave it blank
or provide an estimation). The Admissions Board is familiar
with the grading systems at non-U.S. schools. They under-
stand that a first class is rare and depicts exceptional academic
achievement while a third-class performance obviously raises
significant concerns about a candidate’s academic ability. They
also appreciate the academic rigor of a degree in engineering
from a school like Imperial College in the United Kingdom or
Indian Institute of Technology.
Explaining Transcript Inconsistencies
Health issues (on a personal level or involving a family member)
are often the reason for a candidate’s academic decline. A candi-
date I know had a tough two semesters when her mom was
struggling with a life-threatening illness. This resulted in a big
dip in her transcript her sophomore year. Luckily, she was able
to turn this trend around, and for the remaining two years of
college, her grades were consistently above a 3.5 GPA. Other
candidates have spotty transcripts because they worked full time
to support their education. Then there are situations where a
candidate has low grades as a result of not effectively balancing
academic studies and leadership involvement. Regardless of
what the scenario is, candidates need to address any gaps or
hiccups in their transcript. Using the optional essays to do so is
the ideal strategy. The way you describe the situation can be
telling. Demonstrate maturity by owning up to what happened
and avoid making excuses. But don’t go to the other extreme
by groveling and overemphasizing the issue, which could cause
the Admissions Board to fixate on it.
BASIC TRANSCRIPT TIPS
If your GPA is low, you should take two or more quantitative
courses and earn an A in each of them. Financial accounting,
economics, calculus, and statistics are good options. MBA
programs vary in terms of the courses they recommend, so
inquire directly to the programs to identify their preference.
This is most pertinent if your undergraduate degree is in a
88 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
Use the optional section of the application to address why your
grades were less than stellar in college. Make sure your
response reflects maturity and self-awareness. Whatever you
do, avoid blaming others and take responsibility for your weak
academic grades. Lower grades at the start of college are easier
to explain than consistently weak performance for four years.
Your recommendation is another great place to convince the
MBA Board that you have the intellectual horsepower and ability
to handle a challenging academic program. To offset a weak
transcript, recommenders can stress your exceptional analyt-
ical, quantitative, and technical skills as well as your ability to
grasp new information and come up the learning curve quickly.
The more specific and detailed these examples are, the more
successful you will be in reassuring the MBA Board that your
weak college academic performance will not dictate how you
will perform in their program. Equally important is allaying any
concerns that the MBA Board has about your maturity, and the
recommendation letters can be effective in doing this.
Retake the GMAT if you have low grades. This way, your GMAT
can mitigate the MBA Board’s concerns about your weak
academic record. It is fair to say that a combined weak academic
college performance and GMAT score presents a challenge that
is very difficult to overcome in the evaluation process. What this
means is that a candidate with a 540 GMAT and 2.9 GPA will
likely not be admitted to Columbia or any top business school
for that matter. On the other hand, getting that GMAT score
above 700 can often result in an admission offer at a top busi-
ness school, despite a 2.9 GPA.
Excellent performance in a graduate degree can sometimes help
offset the MBA Board’s negative perception of low undergrad-
uate academic performance. I don’t advocate taking a master’s
program solely to boost your academics. If there is a graduate
program that appeals to you and will provide you with tools that
fit with your long-term goals, then by all means pursue it.
However, be careful not to take a graduate program that then
calls into question whether you still need an MBA. You certainly
do not want to be pigeonholed as a degree collector. I’ve been
asked often by candidates if they could apply to a top MBA
program although they have an MBA already from a less-selec-
tive institution. The answer is no. Hoping to apply at a later date
after earning an MBA at another institution is not acceptable.
Similarly, candidates are not able to transfer from one top MBA
program to another. Unlike undergraduate admissions, where
transfer opportunities exist, MBA programs do not typically
accommodate transfer requests. Admissions Boards are sensi-
tive to this. A candidate who is admitted to Kellogg and then
decides she doesn’t like it will have to stick it out as opposed to
transferring to Columbia.
Addressing the academic component of the admission eval-
uation is a necessary part of the application. But once you have
scaled this academic hurdle you still need to address the
remaining two admission criteria: your leadership track record
and the uniqueness criteria.
LEADERSHIP IMPACT AND MANAGERIAL
You cannot read through the website of a top business school
without coming across the word “leadership.” Admissions
Boards are all looking for leaders with a track record of effecting
change and improving any environment where they are.
Leadership isn’t limited to formal titles such as vice presi-
dent or manager. Leadership is measured based on the level of
impact a candidate has. This is why admitted early career candi-
dates, those with less than two years of work experience, can
90 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
still show remarkable leadership despite very junior titles at
their job. The MBA Board wants to learn about situations
where you initiated something that didn’t exist, convinced your
superiors about an opportunity, created a tool or product that
improves the way business is done at your firm, or managed a
process, project, and person who had a fair share of challenges
and delivered a successful outcome at the end.
Leadership can also be seen in your knowledge arena. For
instance, becoming a resident expert at something (above and
beyond your job responsibilities) that creates value for your
group or firm shows leadership. Although many candidates may
not have had formal management experience, their exposure to
leading small teams can offer interesting insights about their
leadership potential. It is always important to show your self-
awareness of your strengths as a leader and the areas you could
further develop as you grow in your management responsibilities.
But equally important for a candidate is to show self-awareness
of why a particular leadership impact or experience is personally
meaningful. The “why” and “how” are as important, if not
more so, than the “what.”
The MBA Board evaluates leadership on three dimensions
that I call “The 3 Cs of Leadership,” namely:
1. College leadership
2. Community leadership
3. Career leadership
Although it may be a few years since you graduated from
college, your college leadership is an important variable when
assessing your candidacy. In the ideal admission world, candi-
dates should be strong across all three leadership areas. From
my experience, however, most admitted candidates are strong in
at least two out of three of these leadership dimensions. What
I’ve observed is that college leadership and career leadership
are often very strong, leaving a gap in the community leader-
ship. The main reason for this is limited time. Many candi-
dates are working eighty plus hours each week, making
committing to community service activities on a regular basis
impossible. This is where the college leadership comes into
play. Many candidates have an excellent track record of lead-
ership while they were in college. These candidates will have
to rely on their college leadership and career leadership track
record to impress the Admissions Board.
But what if your college leadership is weak? Some candidates
with weak college leadership track records may have a
compelling reason, such as having to self-fund their education.
For some, it could be a result of partying too much in college.
Regardless of why, candidates with a deficit in their college
leadership must focus on strengthening their community and
career leadership before applying to business school.
Do keep in mind that college leadership isn’t simply about
formal titles in student organizations. Although those are fine
and represent the bulk of college leadership examples candi-
dates have, there are many acceptable leadership examples at
the college level that are a result of someone taking initiative.
An example is the student who has to work to fund her educa-
tion and sees an underutilized system or a potential market that
her employer isn’t capitalizing on—by stepping up to present
this idea to her bosses and helping to implement it, she will
demonstrate a strong leadership track record.
For many candidates reading this book, college was a distant
experience, so you can’t do anything to change the college lead-
ership (but you can focus on community and career leadership).
However, for those of you who are still in college, it is never
too late to start creating leadership impact. Are you an athlete?
Could you serve in a leadership role on the team? How have
you helped your team become stronger and closer? You don’t
92 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
have to be the captain of the team to do this. Is there a problem
that exists that you can resolve even without a formal title? Is
there an interest you have that matters to you for which there
is no formal organization at your school? If so, don’t hesitate to
start this organization. If you enjoy teaching/tutoring, is there
a way to move beyond your typical tutoring role to one where
you can manage the other tutors? Perhaps the opportunity to
teach a class could present itself? My point here is that you need
to raise your game. Don’t be shy to step up and put your lead-
ership stake in the ground at your school. And don’t fixate
simply on title but on impact—that’s the true test of leadership!
COLLEGE LEADERSHIP EXAMPLES OF
SUCCESSFUL MBA CANDIDATES
Strategic director at a college credit union, where he instituted
new initiatives that led to expanded services for students
On-campus position that gave the student experience
managing student employees
Founder of an art organization that gave students opportunity
to showcase and express their creative talent
Teacher for a freshman seminar that pushed and stretched
her students to develop new ideas and explore alternative
Portfolio manager of student fund resulting in 20 percent return
Captain of varsity sports team
Instituting regular dinners for international students at parents’
home to help create a sense of community for classmates
To strengthen your community leadership, you can join a
nonprofit organization and assume a leadership role in it. Most
nonprofit organizations are in great need of human resources
and money. You can have a major impact as a volunteer. Be
careful that your involvement isn’t seen as trite. Simply partic-
ipating in an event once every few months does not qualify as
strong evidence of leadership. Opt for tangible contributions. A
concrete and significant leadership example could be applying
your marketing experience to write the marketing plan and
launching the marketing strategy for a nonprofit organization.
Another example could be using your business development
professional experience to help a community-based organiza-
tion establish strong relationships with partner firms as a way to
Do not underestimate the power of getting involved at your
alma mater. By initiating recruitment activities for your college,
you can demonstrate your leadership skills by establishing rela-
tionships, leading a team, and executing a plan. This is exactly
what Stacy, a candidate, did. She noticed that many students
from her alma mater did not pursue a career on Wall Street.
Graduating from a nonselective university, top banks did not
recruit at her school. Stacy created a career support program
that educates and mentors students and alumni from her
university on career opportunities on Wall Street. This experi-
ence stretched Stacy’s leadership abilities, as she had to attract
and manage disparate alumni from varied industries. She
learned how to sell her idea with conviction as she dealt with
her school’s administrators and career services personnel. She
also honed her negotiation and communication abilities
through this project. To crown her involvement, Stacy received
an alumni award for extraordinary service.
Applicants can also opt to serve on the board of a nonprofit
organization to help provide strategic leadership advice. A great
organization that places talented young professionals on the
boards of nonprofit organizations is BoardNetUSA
(www.boardnetusa.org). I don’t recommend joining a nonprofit
94 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
board simply to check the box. The Admissions Board can see
through this. You want to be authentic. So if you should decide
to pursue this option, make sure to select an organization that
ties to something you are passionate about. And while you are
on the board, it is key that you initiate activities that yield real
solutions to improve the organization.
If you don’t find an organization that appeals to you, then
consider creating one. Starting an organization, even a
nonprofit, can enable you to build an excellent leadership track
record. Juan returned to his home country, and after noticing
that there was no formal internship program to employ smart
college students during the summer, he set about creating one.
Not only did this experience provide interesting content for his
essays, but more importantly, it gave him an opportunity to give
back in a meaningful way. Juan had moved to America when he
was young and had benefited from many formal internship
programs. He wanted to give other students from his country
a similar opportunity. The passion with which he spoke of his
project was infectious, and it was easy to see how this was a
labor of love for him. This leadership experience influenced his
positive admission outcome.
I often hear candidates lament over their limited time for
community service. As a new mom, running a full-service
consulting practice, and writing this book, I recognize the time
constraints that most professionals face. However, it isn’t about
quantity, but quality. Pick something that really speaks to your
heart and find a way to make a meaningful contribution. An
applicant I know wanted to deepen his community involve-
ment and chose to partner with a group of internationals who
had a mission to commit $100 a month for one year, with a
goal of raising funds that would be disbursed to two selected
organizations in his home country. It worked. He fulfilled his
commitment, got his friends to join, and had the satisfaction of
seeing two nonprofit organizations expand and offer more services to the poor.
Regardless of which path you chose to take, it is more impor-
tant that you have one community involvement where you have
had significant impact and depth than to have a lot of activities
with no impact. It is not enough to be a member of an organi-
zation. MBA programs are looking for leaders and want to see
evidence that you have had an impact on people’s lives and on
an organization. Even if you are applying this year, it is never
too late to get involved in community leadership. What is
important is making sure that whatever you choose reflects your
passion and brand.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP EXAMPLES OF
SUCCESSFUL MBA CANDIDATES
Board leadership of a not-for-profit hospital
Business development and marketing volunteer for Street-
Squash (an inner-city sports nonprofit organization that builds
up the self-esteem of teenagers through squash)
Founder of tutoring program in an inner city
Board leadership of the Asian Task Force
Leader of Women’s Initiative for National Domestic Violence
Sunday school teacher and accountant for church
Executive leadership team of an international business forum
Publicity Chair of a national association
Founder of first-ever scholarship program and alumni fund at
President of the Nigerian Business Forum
Founder of philanthropic private equity enterprise
Raised significant money to help family member battling life-
96 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
The career leadership carries the most weight when evaluating
a candidate’s leadership experience. That is why most top MBA
programs request that students provide recommendations from
supervisors who can attest to their professional experience and
trajectory. (Early career [EC] candidates are an exception to
this. In EC situations, the college and community leadership
are elevated in the evaluation process.)
When considering career leadership, you should always
focus on the actual impact you have had, not simply on your
title. Go beyond your job description to demonstrate your
contribution and make sure to address why you chose to take
the leadership steps in the first place. If the leadership role
involves working with people, that’s great. Opportunities where
you managed a team allow you to clearly show your leadership
abilities. It isn’t just about how many people you have on the
team; the important thing is that you demonstrate your insights
into how people operate, how to motivate them, and what your
leadership strengths and developmental needs are.
The MBA Board wants to know that you have challenged your-
self and that you take initiative. They are interested in under-
standing your motivations and the type of leader you are. Team
dynamics are pivotal to leadership. How do you handle conflict?
How do you deal with disappointment and failures? Many of the
top business schools will demand that you address these questions.
At the heart of these types of questions is a desire on the part of the
MBA Board to make sure that you are mature enough to learn
from tough situations, have a healthy emotional intelligence, and
can work well with people regardless of the circumstance.
I often hear MBA candidates complain that their jobs make
it tough to show leadership. Investment banking analysts who
work in a hyper-hierarchical environment are a good example.
Let’s look at a few ways an investment banking analyst can
demonstrate career leadership.
• An investment banker who sees an opportunity to create
a new training program can stand out in the applicant pool
based on her commitment to others and her ability to
transfer her knowledge to improve the experience of her
peers. If the program is already established, she can seek
ways to improve it and could be selected to lead training
• Another example is the investment banker who sees
opportunities where others see obstacle. For example, by
using his Spanish language skills and knowledge of Latino
culture, he can add value when working on projects in
Latin America, an area that the company may not have
much exposure to.
• Then there is the investment banker who raises her hand
to work on that tough project that seems mired in chal-
lenges or to work with the difficult managing director that
everyone avoids and is able to successfully “manage up.” A
commitment to excellence and a strong track record of
delivering impeccable results can capture the attention of
the Admissions Board, as seen in the investment banker
whose work experience is significantly accelerated because
he is hand picked, as a result of having developed a repu-
tation of excellence, to work on high-profile deals with
• Equally interesting and differentiating is the investment
banker who steps up and operates as an associate and
manages her peers and new analysts to greater success.
I think you get the point. In each of these instances, the focus
is on how the person used her particular situation to achieve, as
opposed to the circumstance itself. The preceding leadership
examples are not just for investment bankers but are applicable
to candidates from any industry. It is important to figure out the
unique experiences you bring to the table and then capitalize on
98 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
them to differentiate yourself from the pack. The following are
a few examples of the types of leadership track records one can
have to stand apart in the application process.
CAREER LEADERSHIP EXAMPLES OF SUCCESSFUL
Initiating and leading the business development that landed the
firm a client that increased revenue by 20 percent
Conducting the entire valuation of the highest profile trans-
action at firm worth EUR 1.1 billion due to strong analytical
Operating in the role of an associate while still an analyst
Building a training program, hiring a team of international
analysts, and creating a formal analyst culture at firm
Co-establishing the leveraged finance practice in another country
Managing the consulting team that introduced and imple-
mented an automated management tool for clients worldwide
Investing in a struggling employee and helping that person
develop into a confident and successful leader
Creating a utility tool to improve the tracking system of a ship-
Managing employees on an assembly line and improving effi-
ciency by 25 percent
Reducing human product errors from 10 to 4 percent at phar-
maceutical firm by introducing a new tracking system and
training employees to use it
So with the academic and leadership criteria out of the way,
candidates are left to tackle the last of the admissions variables:
their uniqueness. Unlike the other two admissions criteria, the
uniqueness admissions criterion allows the greatest flexibility
for candidates to market themselves in a powerful way.
UNIQUENESS (DIVERSE EXPERIENCES/
PERSPECTIVES AND DIFFERENTIATED
The third admissions category that MBA Boards use in evalu-
ating candidates is the uniqueness of your brand. Business
schools are looking for individuals who are a fit with their
brand. And nowhere is this more evident than through your
personal characteristics and unique perspectives.
This aspect of the evaluation is by far where applicants have
the most flexibility and influence. To a large extent, applicants’
academic history has already been formed. Their leadership
track record and management experience have been established.
The insights that applicants offer into who they are and why
they have made the choices they have made to date can land
them a coveted admission spot in a top business school.
A good way to illustrate this point is by looking at invest-
ment bankers, a group of candidates who are overly repre-
sented in the application pool. The following fictional example
speaks to the power of the unique perspective applicants bring
to their application.
Five hundred investment bankers apply to an MBA
program. Ten percent are accepted. That means that 450
investment bankers will be rejected. What is unique and inter-
esting about the fifty who are admitted? It is the personal
characteristics and unique perspective that they offer that
often sets them apart from their competition. All candidates,
regardless of their industry background, should ask themselves
how they are different compared with other candidates from
The personal characteristics and unique perspective is
different for each candidate. For some applicants, they are inter-
esting in the fact that they are the first in their family to get a
college education. Their initiative, vision, and “bootstrapper”
100 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
background differentiates them from their competitors who have
had a lot of opportunities given to them. For other applicants, it
is the innovative nature in which they approach their work that
is distinctive. Even candidates with the more unusual examples of
having been raised on a farm in Iowa or growing up in Alaska or
Chechnya can offer interesting and different viewpoints to the
class based on their diverse personal life experiences.
This is an application to business school, so you should
highlight the different perspective and experience that you
bring in the context of how it can add value to the class discus-
sions and student community. Uniqueness for its own sake isn’t
what MBA programs are after. Rather, what is attention-
worthy is how growing up in Mongolia and working in the
United States in the pharmaceutical industry has influenced
your desire to return to Mongolia to open the country’s first
health- and nutrition-focused business (like GNC). The
unique vantage point you have of the economic landscape of
Mongolia and the subtle cultural obstacles that you will need
to overcome are the types of stories that will allow you to
present convincing and differentiated essays.
But the reality is that most candidates do not come from
exotic backgrounds and do not have profound experiences such
as experiencing combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Bosnia. If you
happen to fall in one of these unusual backgrounds, great.
Leverage it to show how you will offer a different viewpoint to
the MBA program. However, if you find that your background
is more along the beaten path, there are tangible things you can
do to stand out in the pool as well.
For instance, have you traveled abroad or lived in different
countries? You can capitalize on your international experiences
and lessons learned and insights drawn from working in diverse
environments. Are you an avid sports person and enjoy chal-
lenging yourself? You can describe your experience training
for the marathon or the process of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
and the team dynamics from that experience. How did this
situation change or shape you? Drawing lessons from these
types of experiences and connecting them to what you will
bring to the particular business school can be appealing to the
If you come from a privileged background, it is important to
know how to present your experience. Be careful not to sound
spoilt or entitled. Also, when recounting experiences, you are
better off choosing things that do not play into a stereotype.
For instance, if asked about a mistake you made, you are better
off selecting an example that shows personal awareness (real-
izing you are fallible), instead of one that simply shows bad
judgment (crashing your parents’ Bentley after a night out).
Here are some additional examples from candidates who have
succeeded in branding their way to their dream business schools:
• Raising five siblings without parents allowed a candidate
to demonstrate his initiative, management skills, and
• Health problems led a candidate to develop his knowledge
of Parma industry/health policy issues. As a result, he
became passionate about the business side of drug devel-
opment and transferred this interest into thought leader-
ship at his firm.
• Being raised by entrepreneurial parents gave a candidate
exposure to running businesses and an appreciation for the
discipline, creativity, and innovation required to start a
business in the future.
• Witnessing her mother’s domestic abuse fueled one candi-
date’s commitment to empowering women.
• A hunger for a global education led a candidate to leave
her home country, attend college in the United States, and
convince her firm to send her to Europe to gain international work experience.
Successful candidates do not fall within prescribed categories or profiles. Rather, they have understood the admissions criteria and have successfully presented their own unique experiences to show how they will create value to the MBA program. The good news is that most of your competition is not perfect. They have gaps or weaknesses that they have to address as well. It could be weaker GMAT scores or GPAs, lack of exemplary leadership, or a vague sense of their brand (what is distinct or unique about them). Investing time in assessing and addressing any gaps that exist in your application will strengthen your MBA candidacy. And in no place is the brand more telling than in the essays. The next chapter explores the MBA application essays in detail and offers insights on how to tackle them effectively.