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Navigating the MBA Research Process, Part 2

Navigating the MBA Research Process, Part 2

By Dr. Don Martin, Former Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth

Hello to our prospective students around the world!  It is a pleasure to meet you.  I have spent my entire career in the admissions space, including 11 years as Associate Dean for the Full-time MBA Program at Chicago Booth.  During that time I personally made the final admission decision on over 80,000 applications.  I have also published a book on the graduate school research and application process (2008 and 2018).  So what you will be reading below is based 28 years as an enrollment management professional.  

As was suggested in Blog One, taking time to research your MBA options is critical.  Now that you are getting ready to submit your applications, there is also much to consider.  In this blog I am going to discuss seven important MBA application tips. 

 Seven important application tips.

1. Relax. Do your best to relax as you work on your applications.  Worrying and obsessing, while tempting, will not help.  In fact, worrying and obsessing could hinder your ability to think clearly and focus on doing your best. In truth, going through the graduate school application process can result in a major learning experience.  As you complete each application you will engage in personal reflection and self discovery. This can prove to be very rewarding, whatever the decisions you receive from the admissions committee.  As they move through the process, some applicants end up deciding not to pursue graduate study, or to wait a while.  Others decide to pursue an entirely different area of study than they originally had in mind. Use the application process to your benefit; consider it a positive learning experience in and of itself.  Be calm.  Be reflective.  Be thoughtful.  Relax. 

2. Allow time. Allowing plenty of time during the MBA research process, which then allows you plenty of time to complete your applications, automatically helps you to relax.  Knowing you have adequate time is very calming and allows you to focus on the task at hand – doing your best on your applications. 

3. Follow directions. This seems like such a “no-brainer” that you may wonder why I even mention it.  I do so because over the years I have truly been amazed at the number of applicants who do not follow directions.  If you become one of those applicants, it raises some questions about how well you will follow policies and procedures once admitted and enrolled.  Some requirements may not make sense to you, but they have been provided for a reason, and you need to comply.  If you are unable or unwilling to do so, you send a clear signal about yourself to the admissions committee.  It is a red flag, not a green light.     

4. Be professional at all times/in all dealings. Remember, as an applicant you are at the part of the process where you are no longer in the driver’s seat.  You are one of many applicants being evaluated and compared with each other.  Always present yourself in a calm, assertive and sincere manner.  It is appropriate to be inquisitive about your application, but it is never to your advantage to be argumentative.  Be confident but not arrogant; be kind and patient, not abrasive and demanding. 

Some of the best applications on paper have been completely devalued due to the behavior of the individual who prepared them. 

5. Content and presentation are both important. While what you say in your application is obviously very important, so is the “look and feel” of your application.  This is especially true when the business school to which you are applying is extremely selective and has the luxury of admitting students from a very large applicant pool.  Occasionally essay questions are not sent to the right institution, and often it is clear that they were not proofread for correct grammar or spelling.  Pages are out of order.  Some information is not provided, or contradicts similar information provided elsewhere in the application.  Applications with these kinds of presentation errors quickly become less competitive.  The admissions committee tends to assume that the applicant is not really serious about their program, and they tend to respond in a similar manner. 

6. Be yourself/human/honest. Resist the temptation to lie, embellish or make excuses.  Resist the temptation to be someone you’re not.  At times, applicants try to make themselves look perfect.  As we all know, no one is perfect.  Trying to look that way can often cause application evaluators to be more suspicious than impressed.  I am not suggesting that you discuss all of your weaknesses and past mistakes, but rather, that you simply be yourself.  The best applications I have read are from those who were, in effect, communicating the following between the lines:  “This is me.  I hope you will appreciate who I am, and also appreciate the level of interest I’ve demonstrated in your institution by completing this application.  If you choose to admit me, I’ll be thrilled.  If you don’t, I will be okay.” 

Above all, do not lie or embellish.  This can have disastrous effects.  In my years as an application evaluator and decision maker, I have seen individuals with great talent and potential be denied admission, have their admission revoked, or be expelled after enrolling because they lied and/or embellished.  If you earned a 3.2 overall GPA, do not say it was a 3.5.  If you did not serve as a class officer or student leader, do not say you did.  If you were not in an organization, the military, and/or the Peace Corps, do not put it on your resume.  Do not write your own letters of recommendation and falsify the names of their authors.  

7. Dishonesty is such a waste – there is absolutely no need for it.  Many admissions evaluators randomly screen applicants and verify information they have provided.  While it is human to be tempted, do not allow yourself to yield.  There is nothing to be gained, whether you are found out or not. 

Finally, do not make excuses.  You may decide that you need to explain a lower overall GPA, a less than stellar academic record during one of the years you were in college, a break in your employment record, holding several jobs in a short period of time, etc.  If there are legitimate reasons for what might seem like a blemish in your application, by all means let the admissions committee know.  Perhaps you had a serious illness, lost a loved one, experienced a sudden financial crisis, etc.  That should definitely be mentioned.  Bottom line, make explanations, not excuses.  The admissions committee will know the difference and your application will either be helped or hindered. 

8. Make contingency plans in case you are not admitted. In the end, things happen for a reason.  In my years as an admissions dean I met applicants who were so convinced that a particular institution was for them, or that this was the year they were going to attend graduate school that they did not make plans for what to do if things did not go as they hoped.  Some would go so far as to inform employers and loved ones of their plans before it was advisable to do so.  In some very extreme cases they moved to where their number one graduate option was located before they received a decision on their application! Being confident and positive is one thing.  Throwing caution to the wind is another.  Be prepared to be denied, perhaps to every one of your options, or to be placed on the waiting list by several of your options. Also, be prepared for what you will do if you end up not attending graduate school in the year you thought, planned, prepared and hoped to.  Being prepared for all outcomes is not a sign of lack of belief in yourself or your ability to do graduate work.  Rather, it is a sign that you realize life does not always go the way we plan, and making alternative plans is often required. 

Stay tuned for my next blog in July, which covers what “to do” and what “not to do” as an applicant.  My best to you and I hope to see you on the road! 


Dr. Don Martin is an expert on the business/graduate school research and application process.  He spent 28 years as a Dean of Admissions/Dean of Students at three top U.S. universities – University of Chicago, Columbia and Northwestern.  In 2008 he founded Grad School Road Map, and has coached over 350 business/graduate school applicants, with a 97% acceptance rate.  The second edition of his book was released in July 2018.  Please check out for further information.   


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