Navigating the MBA Application Process, Part 4 of 4

Navigating the MBA Application Process, Part 4 of 4

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

Hello to our prospective students! 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. 

This is the final of a series of four blogs written for The MBA Tour. In the last two blogs I discussed some general tips and suggestions for preparing your MBA applications.

In this blog I am going to discuss some specific sections of the application:

  1. Resume;
  2. Recommendation letters;
  3. GPA and test scores;
  4. Essays;
  5. The interview.
  1. Resume.Your resume will most likely be the first part of your application to be evaluated.  So you need to do your best to create a positive first impression.  There is a plethora of resources available at your local bookstore and on the internet to help you.  You’ll see what I mean if you do an internet search under “Writing a Good Resume,” or “Preparing a Resume That Stands Out.”  Be sure to follow directions.  There may be a page limit, meaning, for example, that for one application you will submit a one-page resume, and for another, two pages, etc.  If you do not follow directions for the first part of your application that is evaluated, you have alrready started off with a negative first impression.
  1. Recommendation letters. It is critical that you choose individuals who know you well/long enough to write a thoughtful and accurate letter.  There seems to be a huge myth floating around the applicant world, and it is this:  “Having a well known and/or highly influential person/alumnus write a letter of recommendation will give me an advantage.”  If this person really knows you, no problem.  But if they do not, you are barking up the wrong tree.  Receiving a recommendation letter from someone who met you at a dinner party or who has a close personal/professional relationship with one of your family members, but who has never spent quality time with you, lowers credibility big time.  It begs the question: “Does this applicant not have close professional associations with anyone?”  I have denied many an applicant for whom some very famous individuals (politicians, entertainers, journalists, athletes) provided a recommendation, but who obviously did not know the applicant. The best recommendation letters include some of the applicant’s greatest strengths along with examples of those strengths. They also include at least one area in which the applicant needs to improve, which leads to my next point:  Ask your recommenders to assess you honestly.  No one is perfect, so do not try to come off that way.  If your recommender gives you a superior rating on every single dimension she/he is evaluating, you have just lost credibility with the admissions committee. Most institutions want real people in their student body, not Mr. and Ms. Perfect. Those who consider themselves this way are usually arrogant, self-absorbed, and look down their nose at everyone else. Do not knowingly allow yourself to be perceived that way. Secondly,  but equally important, make sure your recommenders write their own letters.  Unfortunately, as an admisisons dean I dealt with many cases where an applicant did ask someone to recommend her/him, but wrote the recommendation letter for that person.  Worse yet, I have encountered situations where the applicant did not ask anyone to do the recommendation.  She/he simply wrote the recommendation and put someone else’s name and signature on it.  If this is discovered (and it often is), so long applicant.  Lastly, send only the number of letters of recommendation requested.  If the limit is two, send two.  If you believe you cannot truly present yourself without an additional letter, go ahead and send an extra one (but no more).  And be sure to explain your rationale for the extra letter.  If you take it upon yourself to send extra letters with no explanation, the admissions committee will question your ability to read and/or follow directions.
  1. GPA and test scores. Your academic record is what it is.  If it is not what you believe will be a strong suit, explain what happened, but do not make excuses.  That will make things worse.  If you have taken a course or two since graduating from college, talk about that.  This is often a good idea if your undergraduate GPA was not as strong.  It indicates that you are willing to take some courses to show what you are capable of now.  In almost every case, applicants who do this do quite well on their coursework and make very a positive impression with the admissions committee.  Secondly, the longer you have been out of college, the less closely your academic record will be evaluated.  This is because there are more recent accomplishments or employment experiences that will be part of your application.  You may have even earned a graduate degree or completed a significant amount of graduate level coursework.  Let your more recent achievements shine.  They will help offset a less than competitive undergraduate record.  Lastly recommendation is that you take your respective standardized test no more than three times.  Submitting scores from multiple test completions can cause the admissions committee to perceive you as desperate, obsessive, or both.  You may simply be trying your level best to get the best score you can but, usually after three attempts, the results are not going to change that much.  What you have demonstrated by taking the test two or three times is that you are doing your best to get a good score.
  1. Essays. I would like to offer six important suggestions regarding essays: 

1)  Answer the question – please do this!  An applicant’s credibility goes down very quickly when he/she submits an essay that does not really address the issue(s) raised in the question.

2)  Stay within the word limit requested.  If you are asked for a 750-word essay, do not submt a 1,000-word document.  This does not impress.  In fact, it lowers credibility.  Application evaluators read thousands of essays.  There is a reason for the word limits they have set.

3)  Check and re-check for accuracy, proper grammar and correct spelling.  Do not obsess but, at the same time, do your best to ensure that your essays are the best they can be.  Have someone else read them for style and accuracy.

4)  Do not have someone else write your essays.  There are many forms of communication between an applicant and the admissions office during the application process.  If your essay writing style is vastly different from that of other of your written communication, a red flag immediately goes up.  If it is discovered that you did not write your own essays (and in today’s world of technonlogy, there is a 99% chance it will be), your appliation will be withdrawn immediately, with a notation in the file for future reference if you were to reapply.

5)  Be careful with optional essays.  Some graduate school admissions committees offer the opportunity to complete an optional essay.  If this is in the form of another question, by all means complete that essay question.  If the optional essay is open-ended, and you can write about anything you wish, be careful.  Do not repeat what has already been communicated elsewhere in the application.  If you do not have anything to add, leave the question unanswered. Including an optional, open-ended essay question in the application is usually done for one primary reason: to give the applicant an opportunity to provide additional information that she/he believes will provide helpful additional information.  If you believe something important has been missed, this is your opportunity to provide that information.  But remember, if you are going to use this question to discuss a part of your application you believe to be less competitive, do not make excuses – rather, provide explanations.

6)  Send your essays to the right admissions office.  This seems like a no-brainer, but so often essays for one program are sent with the application to a different program.  When this happens, your credibility immediately falls.  On many occasions I would read an essay that was prepared for another program and mistakenly sent with the application to the program for which I was making decisions.  The applicant would indicate that this other program was his/her first choice!  My unspoken response:  “I hope you are admitted the other program, because you have just been denied, or waitlisted at best.”

  1. The Interview. An interview provides an opportunity to “lift you off the page.”  This is your opportunity to let the admissions committee know who you are in person, not on paper.  If you can interview, by all means do so.  This shows that you really are interested in the institution/program.  Do some practice/mock interviews beforehand.  Make a list of possible questions you could be asked, but be careful that your responses do not sound overly memorized or scripted.

An interview can make or break an application.  So do all you can to put your best foot forward.  Arrive early.  Make sure you look your best.  Be professional and courteous. Most of all, be yourself.  Directly answer the questions asked of you and have some questions of your own ready.

In some cases, the interviewer may do a very poor job.  He/she may talk only about himself/herself, may not ask any meaningful questions, or arrive at your interview location late, thus shortening your time together.  In very extreme cases, the interviewer may behave inappropriately (ask personal questions, flirt, or engage in some sort of harassment).  If your interview does not go well and you believe that the cause has nothing whatsoever to do with you, contact the admissions office immediately. Do not be accusatory or argumentative, but straightforward.  Let the staff know what happened and ask if you can re-interview.  Immediately alerting the admissions office about an interview you believe did not go well allows for an immediate response before a final decision is made on your application.  If you wait to communicate your concerns until after you have been denied or waitlisted, it could appear that you are making excuses, or looking for something/someone else to blame.  Lastly, some applicants react negatively when they are told they will have their interview with a current student or recent graduate.  In many instances, a student or alumni interview is best.  The applicant can get a true sense of what it was/is like to be part of that particular academic community.  These are the individuals who can accurately speak about the institution/program.  From personal experience they can address your questions about student life, academics, housing, safety, finances, social life, and much more.  In addition, they may one day be part of your alumni network. Making a positive impression with your interviewer usually results in a very strong  endorsement of your application.


SPECIAL OFFER:  My book (paperback or e-version) is available to MBA Tour students at a reduced price. If you log on to our website, go to The Book page and click on the green “Order Now” icon.  When placing your order, use promo code MBA TOUR, and then click “Apply.”  

All the best with your MBA research/application process and I hope to see you soon!

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 www.gradschoolroadmap.comfor further information. 

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