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The Top 5 MBA Admissions Myths

Posted in Test Prep on October 14, 2010 by

Anyone that’s applying to business school knows that there is a plethora of information about the admissions process floating around — some of it true, some false. MBA admissions expert Walter Hutchinson (founder of ApplicationAdvantage.com and MBAdashboard.com) was kind enough to speak with Knewton about the 5 most persistent myths about the b-school admissions process. Stay tuned next week for two myths specific to the 2010-11 admissions season!

Without further ado, the top 5 recurring MBA admissions myths:

1) A recommendation from a VIP, C-level executive or business school alum will make me stand out

Almost always false. Such assumptions about recommender rank or alumni status are undercut if the recommendation fails to provide the admissions committee with specific insight into your professional development, passions on the job, noted strengths, leadership potential, weaknesses, areas for improvement, situational team skills, ethical character and all-round unique contribution. There is no way that a committee is going to be swayed by a recommendation which relies on the writer’s job title or affiliation more than it does on substantive comments about your career development.

The most important criteria for selecting a recommender is that they know you well. The strongest recommendation comes from someone who seems knows you professionally almost better than you know yourself, because that observational perspective is what intrigues committees. It is a characterization of you that cannot be captured adequately by only a string of superlatives. That’s why recommendations which end up being little more than a collection of adjectives are essentially a wasted opportunity from the standpoint of building momentum for your application, because they betray the impression that your recommender does not really know you.

2) I need blue-chip company experience in order to get into a Top-10 program

False. Actually, a non-traditional, non-blue-chip background can make it easier for you to stand out, especially if you are not part of a heavily-represented admission demographic. By contrast, experience at famous or respected companies certainly helps in general, but can also turn into a liability if you rely too much on the company’s marquis name to somehow validate your application. From an admissions perspective, the best applicants are identified by the extent to which they have proactively leveraged their available career opportunities or created them. That’s why someone who worked at a startup that no one ever heard of, can appear more interesting than the veteran of a Fortune 500 company’s unit. In addition, non-traditional experience makes it necessary for you to go the extra mile highlighting the ways in which you have brought business savvy and leadership to your activities – which translates into a huge advantage to you. Fortune 500 applicants, on the other hand, need to work as hard to differentiate themselves in other ways – when they don’t, they cede the advantage to every applicant who does.

3) My essay angle is sure to be different from everyone else’s, so my chances will be higher

False. Trust me when I say that admissions committees have probably seen every angle – ideas for companies, other initiatives or whatever. But even if they haven’t, do you really want to gamble that your angle will be the one perceived as different from all the rest? Let’s put that gamble into context for a moment by looking at a school such as Wharton which received over 7000 applications in its recent admissions season. Wharton has 4 required essays, which means your single essay angle would have been one of over 28,000 reviewed. Now if we expand our field of vision to include previous years, the odds of having an essay angle that no one has ever seen, becomes imperceptibly small indeed. You are far better off investing time in showing why you are unique rather than in trying to develop “the perfect angle.” For example, if your angle is that you are planning to launch a company whose value is new to its market, that’s fine. But what will intrigue the committee is why you think you are right to lead this initiative, not the initiative itself. Regardless of what company, idea, vision, challenge or prop is used in an essay, your own potential must take the lead in differentiating you, which is exactly why your odds of standing out will increase.

4) The GMAT combined score is important, but the AWA doesn’t matter much

False. Both native and non-native English speaker need to pay attention to this one. The AWA (Analytical Writing Assessment) may be used by admissions committees as a helpful holistic benchmark for your communication skills or for your attitude toward academic excellence. If English is not your first language, the AWA is one of the tools a committee may use to comparatively evaluate your essays – underperformance may raise issues that call into question your readiness for business school. Now let’s assume that English is your native language, and you have done exceptionally well on the Math and Verbal sections of the GMAT, but you blew off the AWA and ended up with a score of 2 or 2.5. I actually advised someone who came to me after working hard to raise their GMAT combined score from 530 all the way to 760 by their 4th attempt. The first thing I noticed when evaluating their result, was a pattern of AWA scores in the 2 range. When I asked what happened there, they said they didn’t think it was important to try. Unfortunately, an admissions committee would have wondered whether this person would truly value and fully apply themselves to the totality of the MBA experience. Admissions teams are not trying to trip you up, but they certainly won’t give the benefit of the doubt to unexplained inconsistencies. Don’t give admissions committees a reason to doubt you.

5) Interview preparation is not a priority until after I submit my applications or receive invitations

False. This myth is one of the most insidious, because it always creeps up on unprepared applicants unnoticed…until it is almost too late. Likewise, applicants who insist that they do not need to practice far ahead of time, increase the odds that their overall admissions efforts will be undone. Considering that a single application represents untold hours, days and weeks of personal effort, why would anyone take an unnecessary chance like this one? Nonetheless, it happens every year. Not too long ago, for example, I advised someone who had applied to 7 top schools and won interview invitations at 5. Despite my urging, they thought interview prep was a formality even after receiving the first couple invitations. The outcome of the first interview was predictable: disaster. He then enlisted my help on a crash program of mock interview practice, which unfortunately overlapped with scheduled interviews. He managed to win acceptance from a Top 10 school, but not before making a series of avoidable mistakes that cost him during the first 3 interviews. He was very lucky. Not everyone secures 5 chances to overcome a strategic vulnerability like this one. So I would suggest that if you are waiting for an interview invitation before beginning serious preparation, you are effectively putting your chances and all your invested time in jeopardy.

Walter Hutchinson is the founder of ApplicationAdvantage.com, the boutique international admissions advisory, and also founder of MBAdashboard.com, the admissions supersite powered by proprietary technology tools designed specifically for global business school applicants. Walter holds degrees from Columbia University and has lived in North America, Asia and Europe while advising professionals and students representing more than 20 countries.