The Do’s and Don’ts of Applying to Business School

Find out what to do and what to avoid during the admissions process.

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Preparing for a b-school interview by practicing in front of a mirror, or friends, is one tip for MBA applicants.
Preparing for a b-school interview by practicing in front of a mirror, or friends, is one tip for MBA applicants.

We're coming up on MBA application season again, with Round One deadlines just a few short months away. If you're applying to business school in the fall, now is the time to set your strategy. Here are some of my top tips to ease your journey as you navigate this challenging process.

Testing strategies:

In a sea of highly qualified candidates, the GMAT is an important screening tool, so take this element of your application seriously, as it's very much within your control.

[Read about how test takers say the new GMAT isn't 'scary.'

• DO take a class in order to prepare rigorously. Establish and adhere to a study schedule and practice exams in a realistic environment. One basic key to success is familiarity—both with question type and the computer-adapted format.

• DON'T wait until the last minute to sit for your GMAT. Take care of it early in the season, before you have to hone your focus on other aspects of the application.

• DO plan to take the exam more than once. Calmer nerves and more experience often lead to a higher score the second time around.

• DON'T cancel a score, no matter how badly you think you have done. Schools will evaluate only your highest score. In any case, it will provide valuable information about your testing strengths and weaknesses. And you may be surprised that a score is not as low as you expected.

• DO consider sitting for the GRE. Because the GRE isn't reported in class profiles and isn't a factor in b-school rankings, if you struggle with the GMAT but have good grades and other strong credentials, submitting a GRE may make it easier for a school to take a chance on you. If you do well on the GMAT, though, submit it.

[Check out tips for taking the revised GMAT.]

Narrowing your school list:

• DO apply to your dream school, even if it's a stretch. This is your only chance, so don't leave yourself open for regrets later.

• DO apply to at least four schools of varying levels of competitiveness to maximize your chances of success.

• DON'T apply to more than six schools. This is an intense and time-consuming process. Applying to too many schools leads to burnout and diminishing returns.

• DON'T rely solely on rankings when deciding where to apply. Only you can decide which program is the right fit for your personality and goals, so engage in first-hand research by visiting schools and speaking with current students and alumni.

[Learn how applicants connect with students and alumni via social media.] 

Recommendation letters:

Letters of recommendation are an essential part of the admissions process—some top schools have said they are the most important part—so choose your recommenders carefully! 

• DO use references from your current and most recent jobs. An academic reference won't be able to answer the most common recommendation questions. Insights from your supervisors help create a picture of you now. The admissions committee isn't as concerned with how you behaved eight years ago.

• DON'T be tempted to seek a letter of recommendation from the CEO of your company, or another high ranking person, if he or she hardly knows you. The admissions committee always prefers placement over prestige, so make sure your recommender knows you well enough to comment in a thoughtful way, with supportive examples that help flesh out the candidate they see on paper.

• DO prepare your recommenders and manage them closely. These references are a small but crucial test of your management abilities. If you can't ensure that your recommenders submit on time or follow other directions, what does this say about your skills as a manager?

[Learn more about letters of recommendation to business school.]

The interview:

As with all aspects of this process, it's important to prep for the interviews. The subject matter of the interview will be you, and you will be expected to be the polished expert.

• DO practice out loud, rather than just mentally preparing answers. Conduct mock interviews with a friend, or speak to yourself in the mirror.

• DON'T opt to interview on campus if you would perform better off campus. Set yourself up for success by choosing the environment where you'll feel most relaxed.

• DO follow up with a thank you note, via E-mail or regular mail.

Reapplying:

Many schools welcome reapplicants; it shows you are seriously interested in the program. If you approach the process correctly as a reapplicant, you can feel cautiously optimistic.

• DO be sure to highlight how you have progressed since your previous application. Demonstrate professional and personal advancements. Help the admissions committee understand how you've evolved and become a better applicant since your last attempt.

• DON'T completely overhaul your application. Some schools ask you to submit an entirely new application, but too much change can signal that you're not being honest.

• DO apply to new schools in addition to the old ones. If you were unsuccessful the first time, it may be because you applied to the wrong set of schools.