Hi, I’m Stacey C., an MBA and Management Consulting coach on Leland. My background in psychology and decision-making from Cornell University, coupled with my experience in management consulting, allows me to effectively articulate and shape compelling stories for MBA applications. Having gone through the MBA application process myself with over $500,000 in scholarships from programs like Columbia Business School, UChicago Booth, MIT Sloan, and Yale SOM, I am passionate about helping others achieve their goals. If you’d like to work with me, go to my profile and book an intro call!
With COVID-19 rates beginning to lower and schools moving toward in-person classes again, business school applications are likely to become even more competitive in the upcoming cycles. How do your upbringing, academic background, work experiences, passions, and other pieces weave together to paint a picture for your target programs as to why you’re the ideal MBA candidate? What gaps exist in your overall application package, and how can you mitigate them to get into the program of your dreams?
The majority of MBA applicants have at least one perceived weakness, and the “perfect” candidate is incredibly rare. In thinking about your overall application strategy, you want to be proactive about addressing and limiting any potential weaknesses.
Here are some of the most common MBA application weaknesses that I’ve seen and advice on how you can address them.
Most Common MBA Application Weaknesses
Weakness #1: You have less professional experience than other candidates.
For most programs, the average MBA candidate has five or six years of full-time work experience. Many deferred and early career MBA applicants will have less than this. However, there are a few students every year who are admitted directly from their undergraduate degree or with less than two years of experience. When considering these applicants, the Admissions Committee is less worried about the lack of experience and more worried that this comes with fewer leadership opportunities and less professional growth in comparison to the other candidates.
So, to address this in your application, make sure to highlight experiences where you have made a special impact, such as campus activities, internships, extracurriculars, or volunteering. Show that you have held leadership positions and that you are growing your skill set and professional value. Have you started or led an initiative at work? Did you go above and beyond your role and take proactive steps to improve the company? These kinds of stories will help alleviate any concerns that the AdCom may hold over fewer years in the workforce.
Weakness #2: Your work experience is less quantitative and/or is in a less common pre-MBA industry.
When looking at MBA class profiles, it may seem that almost everyone comes from consulting, banking, or a similar field. Perhaps you come from a more unconventional background for business school–like teaching or film-making–and are worried that the AdCom will not see how you fit into the program. While it could be viewed as a weakness, it is also a strength if you are able to clearly articulate two things: first, that you will benefit from getting an MBA, and second, that you will contribute to the program with your diverse perspective.
To address this weakness, prove to the admissions program that you’d be a great fit for the program. Find overlaps and draw parallels between your work experience and business, highlighting any quantitative experiences. For example, your teaching experience may have taught you how to adapt quickly. With the responsibility of over 30 children in a classroom, you’ve had to work with many different personalities and be quick on your feet in order to respond to constant changes.
Demonstrating quantitative and analytical skills will show the AdCom that you’ll be able to handle the business school’s curriculum. Maybe your film-making experiences taught you how to carefully manage a tight budget. In showing this, you can also lean on your GMAT score or any relevant undergraduate coursework. Be as creative as you want, and don’t sell yourself short!
Weakness #3: You have a low GMAT/GRE score or GPA.
This is a common, straightforward weakness and it can be addressed in different ways. Remember that admissions officers look at standardized test scores and undergraduate coursework to get a sense of how you will fare on the academic side of the MBA program. With so many competing priorities in business school, they want to know that you’ll be able to keep up with difficult finance or analytics courses.
For a low GMAT/GRE score, make sure to dedicate enough time to take the test and verify that you have all the right resources to study. Give yourself a buffer for retakes, as they are often needed. Spend some time looking at the differences between the GRE and GMAT so you can determine which is better suited to you. The goal is to get within the range of your target programs. Also, some programs allow updates to GMAT submissions after the deadline, so stay up-to-date on the policies of your schools.
If you can’t retake the GMAT/GRE, or if you’ve already taken it a few times and do not think that your score will increase, it may be worth focusing your efforts on strengthening other aspects of your application, such as your essays. Another way to alleviate potential doubts about a low GMAT score is to articulate your quantitative ability in other areas, such as undergraduate coursework, work experience, or optional essays.
To address a low GPA, take a look at your transcript. What is the trend of your grades? For example, did you struggle freshman year with study habits and improve year over year? Or was there a reason for lower grades like a death in the family or a busy work schedule? A low GPA can be addressed in the optional essay or woven into a standard essay. Another option that many MBA applicants choose is to take an additional course (finance, accounting, statistics, etc.) through their local community college or online to show that they can handle the academic rigor.
Weakness #4: You have employment gaps.
With COVID-19 and other life challenges, some MBA applicants may have three or more months of employment gaps. Don’t panic – remember that admissions committees understand how difficult the economy is. A brief work gap in the grand scheme of your career typically is not a deal-breaker. In fact, small gaps are pretty common and often out of the applicant’s control.
To alleviate this, show how you reacted to losing your role. It may not have been easy to find another job quickly, but did you take the opportunity to improve yourself or stay productive? Perhaps you took a business analytics online course or spent the time in a leadership role in volunteer work. Highlight different things you worked on during the employment gap, whether it be an unpaid internship, traveling to broaden your worldview, building a business, taking classes or obtaining certifications, or making an impact in volunteering. This can be addressed either in the optional essay or woven into a standard essay if it fits naturally.
Weakness #5: You are not confident in your letters of recommendation.
Sometimes, MBA applicants are not able to ask their current supervisor to write a recommendation, due to concerns about workplace politics or doubts about the recommendation strength, or a number of other factors.
If this is the case for you, you can instead ask a client, a former supervisor, or someone else who you’ve worked with to write your recommendation. Ideally, this is someone at – or above – the same level as your current supervisor. Admissions teams are aware that this is a common challenge and it can also be addressed in the optional essay.
For recommenders that you are not optimistic about, you can also ask to write the recommendation in person, rather than over the phone or email. This way, you’ll be able to read body cues to see how interested/supportive they are. Another option is to provide an outline to make the recommendation easier to write. Include key examples of your work and strengths that you would like them to highlight. Remember, you should not be writing your own recommendations, but rather guiding the recommender’s hand and making it easier for them.
Where Can I Start?
If you’re interested in personal MBA admissions coaching for one-on-one advice on the application process – including resume, essays, interviews, and overall application strategy – you can view my profile here. I’ve helped many other candidates get into their dream MBA programs, and would love to support you through your journey.
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