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Graduate degrees in business and management (MBA) continue to be the most common master’s-level degrees awarded in the United States. Why? First, the return on investment is compelling; according to a recent Graduate Management Admission's Council Alumni Perspective's Survey Report:

  • Earnings: Graduates of management education programs can expect to earn $2.5 million in cumulative base salary 20 years after graduation, although earnings may vary based on your age.
  • Repayment: Graduates recoup their educational investment in four years or less after graduation.
  • Employment: 92% of surveyed graduates are employed.
  • Career Growth: 75% of surveyed graduates report that the degree accelerated their careers.
  • Satisfaction: 93% and 89% of graduates note that their degree was, respectively, personally and professionally rewarding and 90% would pursue the degree again.

An MBA is also a structured, rigorous, and comprehensive program through which you can build the skills to lead. The future of work will demand leaders who are fluent in social and emotional intelligence and competent in collaborating across borders, cultures, disciplines, and technologies; an MBA can help you get there. 

TOC: Below are frameworks and advice to help you prepare, select, and apply to the right business school program.

Preparing: Is an MBA right for you?

Common motivations for obtaining an MBA

  1. Brand: The MBA degree provides a strong signal to future employers of your intelligence, ability, and business acumen.
  2. Salary: A Financial Times report found that MBA alumni who were 24 or under when they started their degree reported that their salary increased by nearly $69,000, up 145% over their pre-MBA pay. Alums who started MBA programs when they were 27 and 28 reported salary increases of $67,000, roughly doubling their pre-MBA pay. Older students who enrolled at the age of 31 or above had a pay increase of $56,000, or a 70% rise over pre-degree salary.
  3. Industry or Functional Skill Pivot: Data from Transparent MBA, an MBA career platform, found that 87% of MBAs switch either functions or industries in their jobs directly before and after B-school. Some 69% switch both functions and industries. Individuals using a full-time MBA from an elite business school to accelerate their current career paths are in the significant minority.
  4. Network: An MBA expands, enriches, and deepens your global network. According to multiple, peer-reviewed studies, simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success. In fact, one study shows that half of the predicted difference in career success (i.e., promotion, compensation, industry recognition) is due to this one variable.
  5. Learn: Not to be forgotten, an MBA allows students an opportunity to learn hard quantitative skills and subjects, to practice managing and leading diverse, multicultural teams, to open their minds to new ideas, business models, and leadership styles, and, perhaps most importantly, to step back from the daily grind and think big about themselves, their careers, and their purpose.

Your career goals and purpose

Across every MBA application there is a variation on the question, “What are your career goals?” According to MBA Prep School, when schools ask “What are your career goals?” they are really trying to learn much more – they are asking:

  • Is this applicant passionately interested in the field he or she plans to work in?
  • Do the applicant’s career goals address a significant problem?
  • Is solving this problem personally meaningful to the applicant?
  • Will solving this problem benefit others in a meaningful way?
  • Does the applicant have the leadership capabilities needed to help solve this problem?
  • Is the applicant’s career action plan sound?
  • Does the applicant present evidence that he or she understands his or her future industry?
  • Is the applicant connecting the dots between prior skills/experiences and post-MBA career goals?

Most importantly, your career goals and purpose are deeply tied to your motivations for pursuing an MBA.  How do you identify your career goals and purpose? Start by answering these four questions:

  1. What industry/field are you passionate about working in?
  2. If you were a leader in that field, what is a significant problem that you would want to tackle?
  3. What motivates you? Why does this problem matter to you personally?
  4. What leadership role can you play given your unique set of capabilities, skills, and knowledge?

Once you answer those four questions, your objective is to:

  • Identify your ‘dream’ role (not the role you want (or are qualified for) now but the role you want to hold to solve the significant problem you identified);
  • Inventory the capabilities, skills, and knowledge you’ll need to acquire or strengthen in order to secure that role;
  • Develop your career action plan to secure that role!

Once you develop your career action plan, you may realize that the value (and cost) of a business school is not necessary. That’s okay! If you do need an MBA, continue reading.

MBA degree requirements

At this point, you know the common motivations for an MBA and whether you are interested in receiving one. But are you a competitive applicant? According to MBA Prep School, the common MBA selection criteria includes:

FAQ: Academic Profile

  • High cumulative GPA and GPA in major
  • Above average performance in quantitative or business-oriented courses
  • GMAT score above the school’s median
  • TOEFL score above the school’s median (if applicable)
  • Undergraduate degree from a school with an excellent academic reputation

FAQ: Career Progress

  • Extensive evidence of career progress
  • Visible progress made in the direction of career goals
  • Employer is known to have very high standards for hiring
  • Excellent references/recommendation letters
  • Plenty of evidence of managerial potential

FAQ: Leadership Portfolio

  • Evidence of leadership at work
  • Evidence of leadership outside of work
  • Self-awareness of leadership capabilities and development needs
  • “Servant-Leader” leadership style as opposed to autocratic or self-serving

FAQ: Career Goals

  • Defined career goals
  • Career goals reflect a sense of purpose: passion, meaning, and significance
  • Admissions committee can connect the dots between prior skills/experiences and post-MBA career goals
  • Convincing motivations for pursuing an MBA
  • Rock solid case for pursuing an MBA from the school(s) you are applying to
  • Career goals reflect a global perspective

FAQ: Other Qualities

  • Evidence of self-awareness
  • Evidence of maturity/life-experience
  • Dimension (e.g., not too much of a “poet” nor too much of a “suit”)
  • International/cross-cultural experience
  • A great fit with the school’s culture

FAQ: Common Reasons for Rejection

Of these criterion, according to MBA Prep School, the five common reasons applicants are rejected are:

  1. Generic Reasons for Applying
  2. Vague or Unconvincing Career Goals
  3. Limited Career Progress
  4. GMAT Score 30+ Points Below Target School Median
  5. Low Grade Point Average (usually below 3.25)

The majority of these criteria are manageable. Awareness, planning, and clarity of purpose are key. But what if you have a low GPA? Take an online math class and build a supplemental academic transcript. There are typically creative solutions to address each of the above criteria. Whether you are still a student, just landed your first job, or have a few years of work experience, the key is to start now!

Selecting & Financing: Which MBA Program Is Right For You?

There are over 6,000 graduate business programs at approximately 1,700 universities and organizations around the world. You can find a full list of programs and schools at the Graduate Management Admission Council’s website.

Most students, however, gravitate to school rankings. You can spend hours perusing the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, Bloomberg, Forbes, The Financial Times, and The Economist, or visit Poets & Quants, which aggregates the above five rankings to create a weighted average rankings. Needless to say, there is a lot of noise, mismatch, and change. These rankings are fundamentally models, which exposes them to subjectivity as each model uses and weights different inputs. As a consequence, rankings tell you which schools are “best” along a prescribed set of criteria, but do not take into account which schools are the best fit for you!

If there are too many programs to thoroughly review and current rankings only provide a partial picture of school fit, what are your options to select the best fit for you? Your north star in this process is your career goals and purpose. Never lose sight of what you seek to achieve, how you plan to do so, and why you are deeply motivated to affect change.

With your career goals and purpose in mind, start by answering these three questions from MBA Prep School (a visit to a school’s website, presentations by admissions officers, the dean, or professors, and coffee chats with students and alumni will allow you to confidently answer these questions):

  1. Which schools have the most extensive offerings in your field of interest?
  2. Which schools have the strongest reputation in your field?
  3. Which schools have alumni strength in your chosen industry/occupation?

Industry fit is only one dimension of fit.

Each school holds unique views and weights on other measures of fit that guide that school’s admission criteria: the meaning of leadership and the value of analytical and emotional intelligence, entrepreneurial drive, or global experience, to name a few.

Yale School of Management, for example, has a mission to educate leaders for business and society. Yale’s belief that business and society are deeply and intrinsically linked influences how the school thinks, the focus and nature of its teaching and curriculum, the resources it provides students, and the student experience as a whole. Your experience at Yale, surrounded by 330 students, will then be vastly different than you experience at Wharton in a class of 851 or Kellogg in a class of 474.

Your goal to select the right business school for you should involve three steps:

  1. Identify the fit qualities that each school favors;
  2. Define those fit qualities;
  3. Rank the importance to you of those fit qualities.

For practice, try answering the questions with Yale. Yale School of Management provides leadership education for broad-minded, rigorous, and intellectually curious students with diverse backgrounds; a distinctive integrated curriculum; connections to one of the great research universities in the world; and the broad reach of an innovative and expanding global network of top business schools.

Financing your MBA

A critical component of evaluating your fit with an MBA program is financing. An MBA is an investment. Students spend between $170,00 to $200,000 for tuition and living for a two-year, Top 10 MBA program, to say nothing of forgoing a salary. Each school has a Financial Aid Office that is dedicated to assisting students with the process of obtaining the right financial resources to finance their education.

The Graduate Management Search Service allows you to discover scholarship and financial aid opportunities that you haven’t heard of before and learn about programs that will highlight your background and match your interests.

Beyond those two resources, you should familiarize yourself with the MBA financing options available at each school. The below examples link to Yale School of Management financial aid; however, every school will have a similar section.

Once you have identified which schools are best suited to help you realize your career goals and purpose, it is time to begin the application process.

Applying: MBA Application Components

There are four important components to consider when applying for your MBA:

FAQ: Application Timeline

While each program will have unique deadlines, timelines, and enrollment periods, the general timeline for two-year programs (the most popular MBA program) includes three rounds in which students can apply:

  • Round 1: September-October (Deadline); December (Decision)
  • Round 2: January-February (Deadline); March (Decision)
  • Round 3: March-April (Deadline); April (Decision)

There is lots of conjecture about which round is the ‘best’ round in which to apply. Does Round 1 have the highest acceptance rate? If everyone believes this, won’t the round attract the most competitive candidates?

Round speculation is counterproductive, apply in the round in which you are most prepared. Applying in Round 2 vs Round 1 to increase your GMAT score from 710 to 730 is a better strategy than appling in Round 1 when yield is highest and there are the most number of class seats available.

FAQ: Application Requirements

Most MBA programs require the following components for your application:

• GMAT or GRE score
• Undergraduate academic transcript
• TOEFL, IELTS or Pearson Test of English (PTE) (if you did not attend an undergraduate institution where the sole language of instruction is English)
• Essays (watch our three-minute personal statement video for tips!)
• Letters of Recommendation
• Resume
• Application forms (demographic information, short-answer questions, honors/awards, etc)
• Application fee
• Interview (typically upon request)

FAQ: Application Strategy

A simple Google search reveals that there is an entire cottage industry for application strategy: books, blogs, GMAT coaches, GMAT practice software, and admission consultants. Understanding the what, hows, and whys of each piece of your application is time-intensive, bewildering, overwhelming, exhausting, and nuanced. To start, consider the following:

FAQ: Application Requirements Timeline

Business school, unlike Law or Medical school, sees a wide distribution in terms of applicant age and work experience. Each school will have a different average student age and years of work experience. There is no ‘right’ age at which to apply for an MBA; the older you become, however, the higher the opportunity cost of applying. The best time for you to apply for an MBA is when you have clarity on your career leadership goals and purpose and how an MBA can help you realize them. For some applicants that may be straight out of undergraduate, for others it may be two years after graduation, and for others it may be seven years after graduation.

When should you start preparing your MBA application? To answer that question, let’s review the main application requirements: GMAT/GRE, School research, Essays, Letters of Recommendation, and Resume:

  • GMAT/GRE: On average, students spend three months studying for the GMAT/GRE. If you take the exam more than once, add a month for each additional exam;
  • School Research: Depending on the number of schools to which you apply and the depth of your research (online, presentations, alumni interviews, school visits, and student interviews), school research can last for two to three months;
  • Essays: Writing essays involves a series of rewriting (think seven or eight, not two). On average, students spend two months researching, outlining, writing, and revising their essays; the time, however, will increase based on the number and type of school to which you apply as you will need to write a unique essay for each school;
  • Letters of Recommendation: Selecting, preparing, and finalizing letters of recommendations, student spend, on average, two months;
  • Resume: Similar to essays, a good resume will require several rounds of edits. Students spend, on average, two weeks to finalize their resumes.

Your essays, letters of recommendation, and resume will require rich stories, relationships, and impact metrics, all of which require time. While you will be able to do several requirements simultaneously, rigorous planning is essential.

Tip: Pursuing an MBA is a constant balancing act of time, cost, relationships, and motivation. The experience will fundamentally challenge, change, and strengthen you personally and professionally.