Ten Reasons MBA Candidates Get Rejected from Top Ranked Business Schools
Application Lacks Balance, Profile is One Dimensional
You have a great GPA, aced the GMAT, received two promotions along with some mighty hefty bonuses and have well-defined career goals that you communicate effectively. So what’s the problem?
Looking good on paper is not as easy as it appears and your problems may be many.
All too often, business school applicants rely solely on professional accomplishments, GMAT scores and prior academic performance to tell their stories. While each of these attributes plays a role in the MBA admissions process, they need to be blended with other parts of your life to provide a well balanced overview of who you are.
What does your application say about you that is not related to stellar academics and professional success?
Does your application reflect your passion, and have you illustrated how you apply this passion in all you do? Admission committees are looking for candidates who have balanced lives that can add value to their MBA programs inside and out of the classrooms, both now and in the future.
As cliche as it might sound, “all work and no play” makes for boring students – and boring students eventually lead to boring programs. You do the math, or in this case, don’t.
Top MBA Application Mistakes to Avoid:
- Essays focused only on professional initiatives.
- Inability to illustrate zest for life, outside the classroom or boardroom
- Application provides no insight into how candidate can, or will contribute to the MBA community
- Applicant fails to convey passion during interview
Essays Do Not Directly Answer the Questions
Whether reading a new applicant’s first-draft or reviewing the business school essays submitted by someone considering re-applying, we find the most glaring mistake MBA applicants make is not directly answering the essay question.
Business schools put effort into the questions they ask because they want to provide MBA applicants with opportunities to illustrate qualities that make them great fits with their programs and community.
While it can be difficult to exhibit that level of creativity you know will make business schools fall in love with you, your primary responsibility to yourself and to the integrity of the MBA program you are applying to, is to directly answer the question they ask- not the one you think they want to hear.
And while it does appear that most business schools follow the same line of questioning in terms of goals, accomplishments, challenges and/or failures, each school composes and compiles their questions in a way that affords you opportunities to stand out from the crowd. You just need to know how.
The truth is, there are no trick business school essay questions just an abundance of ineffective answers.
- Answering “WHAT” when the question asks “HOW”
- Not explaining “WHY” even when the question is asking “WHAT”
- Copy & Paste essays from different schools (believe us, it’s more obvious and damaging than you think!)
Unrealistic Goals/Unrealistic Plan to Achieve Goals
“Having spent the last five-years working on the tech-side at an investment bank, I would now like to transition to the business side. In the short-term, my goal is to head up the international trading desk at Goldman-Sachs before pursuing my true passion of starting an NGO that will improve the quality of life in developing countries by changing the way people eat.”*
“My bone-deep belief that education holds the key to nurturing sustainable economic growth in emerging markets has been validated through my academic pursuits in attaining my Law Degree, and Phd. in Public Health, in addition to my extensive independent research in Gaming Theory. Now is the time for me to build a solid foundation in business management through an MBA to make my vision a reality.”*
*First-Draft Goals Essays used with the kind permission of applicants who were admitted to their business schools of choice, after working with Admit Success.
- Poorly defined reasons for career transition
- Ambitious career goal with no plan on how to achieve it
- Short-term goal = getting an MBA
- Inability to illustrate specifically how school will help achieve goals.
- Career objectives lack impact
Lack of Self-Awareness, Failure, Mistakes, Challenge Essays Not Presented Honestly
It never ceases to amaze us that business school applicants have an abundant supply of accomplishments but just can’t think of a single time they failed or made a mistake. Remember that there are no trick questions in the MBA application process. When a business school asks about a failure or mistake, what they really want to know is the thought process that led to the mistake, the impact the mistake had on you or your organization, how you dealt with the results and how you applied (or will apply) the lessons learned. That said, the bigger the mistake, the bigger the lessons learned and the greater the opportunity to illustrate a healthy sense of self-awareness. In the eyes of the admission committee, failures and mistakes play as important a role in your overall application as your accomplishment and goals essays. Great failure/mistake essays illustrate self-awareness and an ability to accept risk, responsibility and affect change. You’ve made them, now it’s time to put them to work for you.
What Never Works:
- Failures with no negative professional or personal impact.
- Realizing a mistake before it becomes a failure and saving the day at the last minute.
- Mistakes made during childhood
What Rarely Works:
- Mistakes made by others/Group failures
- Failure due to circumstances outside your control
What Always Works:
- Owning the mistake
- Moving on
Accomplishment Essays Lack Substance
Your company, (PE firm, Investment Bank, Brokerage House, etc.) had been working on a deal for months, but one of the parties wasn’t comfortable with some of the terms. So, you create a new financial model that clearly illustrates the illusive long-term benefits and everyone is finally satisfied enough to move the deal forward. Great accomplishment, yes?
Unless you are the janitor, arriving at this “save the day” solution is part of your job and should not be considered an accomplishment; it is what you get paid to do. Also, and only if you make it this far, be prepared with an answer for when your interviewer asks “Why did it take you so long to find a workable solution?”
The same applies to finding an “innovative technical solution” to a long-standing problem that has plagued your company for generations. If you work in a technical capacity, this is part of your job and should not be used as an accomplishment essay. That said, within each of these examples exists a true accomplishment that most business school candidates are neither aware of, nor able to effectively communicate.
- Failure to illustrate ability to go “above and beyond” your assigned responsibilities
- Inability to communicate accomplishment’s impact on yourself or others
- Basic acts of human kindness
- Not realizing the difference between “being” unpopular and championing an unpopular idea
Poor Interview Skills
What are MBA Admission Interviewers looking for?
- How does the applicant present him or herself?
- Is the applicant someone the school would be proud to have as a future ambassador of their MBA program?
- Does the applicant demonstrate specific knowledge of the business school’s offerings, including non-academic resources?
- Does the applicant illustrate how will they will contribute to the MBA community?
- Does the applicant present, either in person or on the phone/Skype, in a way that cohesively reflects their written application?
- What made the admission interview memorable?
These are just a few of the characteristics that always need to be on display during a brief interview where HOW you say something can be as important as WHAT you say.. All this information needs to be conveyed in a way that is compelling, precise, informative AND……interesting to listen to!
- Not directly answering the question asked
- Body language/not appearing engaged
- Long answers that drift onto tangents
- Inability to speak about extra-curriculars with conviction/passion
- Blaming others when asked about a failure
Application Not Cohesive; Contradictions in Essays and Letters of Recommendation
Each part of a business school application needs to stand-alone and work in conjunction with the other elements to present candidates in their best possible light. However, many aspiring MBA candidates suffer from tunnel-vision when putting together their business school applications and don’t realize they have control over the entire process. We find one of the biggest culprits of disjointed applications being submitted to business schools is a lack of focus. It’s not easy to balance a career, family obligations and put together a cohesive application to your MBA program of choice- but it’s what you need to do, and we’re here to help.
- What’s the value of a great leadership essay if one your recommenders mentions a need to improve your team-working skills when working with large groups?
- How does your “life-to-date” blend with your career objectives and how does business school fit with each?
- Why should an MBA program take you seriously if you want a career in media when your writing and verbal abilities are called into question?
When it comes to MBA applications – the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Bland Letters of Recommendation that Do Not Reflect a Knowledge of the Applicant
Building a global empire from the ground up, leading troops into battle and being Head of State are undeniably wonderful accomplishments, but are they requisites for writing a great MBA letter of recommendation?
Truth is, regardless of your MBA recommender’s station in life, if they can’t provide business schools with insights to your character or specifically address areas that highlight your accomplishments and leadership potential – they will not help you gain entrance to the MBA program of your choice.
An ideal MBA letter of recommendation strengthens business school applications by providing a qualified assessment that mirrors what you’ve expressed in your essays and illustrated through the accomplishments listed on your resume. While you have (little) control of what someone is going write about you, you do have control in choosing recommenders who will help, not hinder your chances of business school admissions success.
- Bland or generic comments
- Writing a “to whom it may concern” letter instead of answering a school’s specific list of questions.
- Not providing examples to support superlatives
- Contradictions to your essay content
- No knowledge of applicant’s career aspirations
Those writing your MBA letters of recommendation should provide specific examples that clearly communicate what you are capable of, and what you will bring not only to the classroom, but to the business school community at large. These examples should highlight instances where you went above and beyond the scope of your responsibilities. Your responsibilities in management consulting, investment banking, operations or any other role, are common knowledge at business schools. Admissions committees don’t want to hear that you do your job well, because it’s what you are paid to do. Instead, any examples where you demonstrated leadership by convincing others to buy into your idea, shook up the status quo, or took a project beyond its original scope will serve your MBA admissions goals better.
When discussing the strengths and weaknesses of an MBA candidate, we recommend as a guideline that those writing your MBA letters of recommendation use three strengths and one weakness. That said, the weakness has to be real; not mastering the violin is not what we are looking for here! It has to be an actual weakness. For INSEAD, MBA letters of recommendation need to be extremely consistent simply because INSEAD not only asks recommenders about strengths and weaknesses, but the candidate as well. So be mindful that you do not want to illustrate a strength in one of your essays that a recommender could potentially illustrate as a weakness or an area where you could improve.
When writing MBA letters of recommendation most people miss out on the opportunity to end with a powerful statement. Instead of a few perfunctory closing sentences that essentially say you’re a great guy/gal, they should again illustrate your worth as an ideal addition an MBA program with a specific example.
Finally, IF they are aware of your post-MBA goals they should absolutely let the admissions committee know by mentioning it in their MBA letter of recommendation, making it clear that they have had numerous discussions with you about your post MBA goals and for XYZ, reasons you will be no doubt be successful.
Expressing a desire to hire you back post MBA doesn’t hurt either.
With a great GMAT under your belt, why bother to work hard on the other aspects of your business school application when you can just sit back and let your scores do all the work? If only that were true.
We often hear from re-applicants that come to us with near perfect GPA’s and GMAT’s who received rejections from their business schools of choice.
Make no mistake about it, GMATs and GPAs play a role in the decision making process, but they only represent a small part of the picture that makes someone an ideal candidate in the eyes of business school admissions committees.
Great test scores are indicative of two sometimes opposing traits: a candidate’s ability to handle the coursework of an MBA program, and the candidates ability to test well. What they don’t tell admissions committees is whether or not the applicant will thrive, contribute to, or engage with their MBA community. Test scores are not indicative of an applicant’s ability to function in team settings, nor do they illustrate a capacity for innovative thinking, leadership, empathy or self-awareness.
There is more to presenting yourself as the complete package than simply relying on the numbers, good or bad, to tell your story.
Application Fails to Illustrate a Fit with School
Even applicants with great GPAs, through-the-roof GMAT scores, and significant professional and/or personal experiences receive rejection letters from business schools.
They just don’t “fit-in”. Business school selection is an extremely important component of the application process and one that is often not taken as seriously by applicants, as it is with admissions committees at top MBA programs.
Simply communicating how your future success hinges on the knowledge you will gain at that brand-name school of your choosing is not enough. Aspiring MBA candidates need to illustrate how their goals align with a business school’s academic offerings, in addition to convincing admissions committee’s that their values and professional objectives mirror the program’s strengths and the school’s culture, both now, and throughout their career.
- Little effort given to researching the business school’s non-academic resources and why they are important to you
- Inability to adequately align career goals with MBA program offerings
- Generic one-size fits all admission essays
- Inability to communicate passion for the school, and why you belong there
- Lack-luster interview skills that fail to leave a positive impression on interviewer
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