We posed questions to admissions officials at the Penn State University Smeal College of Business regarding the application process, what they look for in applicants and what sets their school apart. These are their responses:
1. What can applicants do to set themselves apart from their peers?
The first thing you can do as a savvy applicant is look at yourself in context, assessing strengths and weaknesses—not in a vacuum, but compared to other likely M.B.A. applicants. That will help frame and strengthen the application. The next best thing is to consider what makes you unique. When schools receive hundreds or thousands of applications, you want to be the one the admissions reviewer remembers. You want them to grab your file, take it across the hall and say, "You've got to see this."
2. What do you look for in the application essays? What do the essays tell you about a candidate?
Great communication skills are a baseline. What we really want out of essays is for you to tell us who you are. Help us get to know you as a future student and alum. Make yourself more than a paper (or electronic) application file. We want to know not that you know exactly what job you want in two or 10 years, but that you really know yourself and you will be able to jump on great opportunities as they come your way.
3. How important is the applicant's GMAT score? How do you weigh it against undergraduate GPA and work experience? Which of these carry the most weight? The least?
Undergraduate GPA tells us what you were capable of then, in an undergraduate class format. GMAT tells us what you are capable of now, in graduate-level work. Do you have the academic horsepower to perform academically? Work experience is certainly key in helping contextualize your M.B.A. and helping you get the most out of it. But we look at the career versus academic elements of the program as complements rather than substitutions.
4.How much does prior work/internship experience weigh into your decision making? What's the typical or expected amount of work experience from an applicant?
With the "youthening" of the applicant pool, quality work experience becomes even more important. Many programs used to have five years average work, and that's creeping down to about four years. So that time needs to be packed with learning. Have you had leadership or management experience, either on the job or in civic or volunteer roles? Have you navigated organizational politics? Have you worked both on project and functional roles? Have you had steady and logical progression? We look for not only the time spent, but how much you learned about organizations and yourself in the process.
5. What sets you apart from other schools? What can students gain from your school that they might not be able to find anywhere else?
A student pointed out that nearly every one of our student videos mentions the word "family"—in a good way. With about 100 students per class, that means a maximum core class size of 50, and concentration classes of under 20. Your classmates will become friends for life—our Facebook albums full of weddings and vacations and get-togethers are living proof. You have first-name access to professors who came from the Ivys to live and teach at a school nationally ranked for faculty, research, and quality of life. You have access to the nation's largest alumni network—and it's not just the size, it's the passion. I've never seen alumni so dedicated to helping their fellow Penn Staters. You simply won't find access to a greater career network. And don't go anywhere wearing Penn State gear if you want to be anonymous. No matter where in the world you are, you'll be sure to hear "We are…Penn State!"
6. What do you look for in recommendation letters? How important is it that the letter's writer has worked regularly with the candidate in an office or school setting? Do you put much weight on letters from prominent public figures who may not know the applicant well?
The "cool" factor in letters from public figures wears off quickly because these are usually form letters with names replaced, written by staffers. What's most impressive isn't the name, it's the quality of the relationship. Choose recommenders who know you and can speak clearly to your strengths and your development areas. Go for relationship, not title. Here's a tip:make sure you choose someone busy enough to be a high performer but not so busy that they give you one-line answers with typos. Make sure you choose people who will appropriately represent the image you want to display.