By Matt Miner
Your application success comes down to convincing the admissions committee of the answer to two questions:
1. Qualifications: Are you good enough to go to this school (and, do you make sense as a part of the class we’re building)?
2. Fit: Will you fit in well here (and therefore love your time at school, find huge success after graduation, and be a generous donor in the future)? For example, do you relate more easily to the kids in the picture on the left, or the picture on the right? This matters for fit.
The first question is answered by three pieces of (somewhat) objective data: Your GMAT score, your work experience, and your undergrad GPA.
The second question is answered through your essays, interviews, and the interactions you have with students, alumni, and the admissions office throughout the application process.
There are three ways to get into a school (ignoring “development admits”):
1. Being objectively way better than everyone else applying. This is also the way to get scholarships. This may mean being significantly better in every dimension, or being phenomenally better on one dimension – some type of very special work experience (founded and sold a company), volunteer experience (raised $1M and started an orphanage in eastern Europe), etc., and on par with other dimensions.
2. Being on par with the school’s desired admit profile and demonstrating very strong commitment to and fit with the school (this was my route).
3. Being below par for the school’s desired admit profile, but having that singular achievement referenced in number 1 above, and demonstrating very strong commitment to and fit with the school.
Your school research will let you asses the statistics for the school. For example, Fuqua’s website currently shows undergraduate GPA of 3.0 to 3.83, GMAT score of 640 – 750, and an average 5 years of work experience.
The first two stats are the “middle 80%”, which means that 10% of admitted students had scores either higher or lower than the published range. The website doesn’t say, but the average years of work experience is likely either a median or mode. In any case, it is typical for Fuqua.
The next thing you need to be aware of is that the school is building a diverse class. They have a certain makeup of experiences and demographics they want in their class, and you are being compared to the people like you in the admissions pool.
What that means is that in some cases, your stats may have to be considerably higher than the published stats in order to have a realistic chance of admission, and in other cases you may get in with all statistics that are below average. It just depends on what the admission committee wants in the class.
There is no gain to be had by going into a dissection of the merits of the admission committee’s philosophy on this blog. For your purpose as an aspiring student, it simply matters whether you get a place in the class or not.
Here’s an obvious and I hope relatively inoffensive fact: Schools strive for a diversity of pre-business school work experience in their class. And this is a good thing. It will add considerably to the quality of your b-school experience.
In the school’s thinking, this includes admits with consulting, banking, traditional corporate, non-profit, entrepreneurial, non-managerial (e.g. teacher, social worker), and military experience. I probably left something out, but this list is illustrative.
If in the past, the school has had good experiences with its admits from the military, and historically incoming students with this type of experience make up 5% of the class, BUT in this year the school finds itself with a class that looks like it’s only going to be 2% military, and then along comes your application which is on par with their published stats (and therefore doesn’t hurt their published stats), and you have military experience, and you persuade the school you love them, then you’re probably going to be offered admission.
On the other hand, if through the early admission rounds the school has admitted a class that shapes up to be 9% post-military and your application comes along with the exact same stats as above, you will likely not be accepted. If you were to be accepted in this scenario, you’d need something jaw-dropping about some other aspect of your experience. For example, if your job in the military consisted of briefing the Joint Chiefs twice per month, you might still be accepted. On the other hand, if you were a supply management officer in Fayetteville, NC, you probably wouldn’t be accepted.
You can see it’s a multivariate analysis for the adcom, and you can form some hypotheses for yourself about your admission chances. The admit / deny decision, however, takes place in a black box.
Because there is an element of randomness to the application process, it is wise to give yourself at least a few applications to similar schools if your goal is to maximize your chance of getting in somewhere.
Fit is trickier to tackle, and while it is still critically important for your success, you first have to meet the school’s qualifications and make sense as a part of their goal for class composition. Then, having achieved those first two aims, you can convince the school of your fit.
First of all though, don’t try to fake it. Business schools are diverse, and there’s a school somewhere where you fit. Find that school, rather than trying to convince some other school that you’ll fit when you already know you won’t.
For example, my quantitative skills are adequate. But I suspect at a highly quantitatively driven program like MIT Sloan, I would have struggled much more and enjoyed my education much less than I did at the people-and-management focused Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Therefore, I didn’t apply to Sloan.
But what should you do? Here are the steps:
1. Know who you are and why you’re going
2. Consider the implications of those facts for your school selection
3. Follow the steps laid out here to learn about the schools
4. Assess which schools best fit you
5. Learn the language of the school’s culture and values and reflect that back to them at every opportunity: Your essays, your interviews, and your conversations with everyone at the school. Obviously don’t do this in a clunky or brown-nosing way. Just learn how they talk and think and truthfully demonstrate that you are in alignment with their way of talking and thinking.
6. Schedule a visit. Interview in person if at all possible. Have alumni and current students support your application in some way.
7. Tell them specific things you want to do to contribute at the school, and specific benefits of that school you will take advantage of while you’re there.
8. Listen for how the school thinks of fit, and how they like to see it demonstrated. I don’t have a specific example from the b-school application process, but here’s an example from the corporate world: My post-b-school employer, Deere & Co, loves to interact with the students who are recruiting. The more people within Deere who know about your application and support your candidacy, the better chance you have of receiving an offer. Recruiting with Deere is a high-interaction task. They want to really know that you see yourself in the company. This is because of their values, and because for the most part, Deere is trying to hire for life. Not just in the distant past, but still today. I just heard Chairman Sam Allen say that last week. On the other hand, if you’re recruiting at the management consulting firms, they want you to do an incredible and flawless job with the interactions they have with you, but they don’t want you to waste your time (really, their time) doing info meetings and networking extensively within the firm. Sure, you still need some degree of internal support, but they are not looking for a relationship with you, especially before you start work. They are looking for an efficient, professional, billable, smart, creative person who will probably work in their firm for two to six years, not thirty five. I’m sure there’s an analog in the b-school application process. You’ll have to figure it out. But you’re smart. That’s why you’re applying for school in the first place! =)
That’s it. Everything you need to be accepted at the school of your choice. Meet or exceed the qualifications of people you are competing against as the admissions committee builds the class, and demonstrate fit.