How to Apply for an MBA: Your Guide to Getting In

by Genevieve Carlton
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Before signing up for the GMAT or drafting an essay, learn how to increase your chances of getting into an MBA program.

Competitive business school applicants spend months crafting the perfect MBA application. Between the GMAT, letters of recommendation, essays, and work experience, MBA admission requirements can overwhelm unprepared students.

Procrastination can lead to missing steps and rejection letters. When MBA applicants plan ahead, they face less stress and make fewer errors. Rather than cramming every requirement into the month before the deadline, work backwards to craft a compelling and persuasive application package. MBA students targeting the top business schools and therefore the top business careers often begin the application process more than a year before their prospective start date.

Our guide walks through the application requirements and process for applying to MBA programs. It also explores round 1 vs. round 2 applications, admission interviews, and the process for reapplying to MBA programs.

MBA Application Requirements

Before studying for the GMAT or drafting essays, applicants need a clear idea of the MBA admission requirements and deadlines for every one of their potential programs. By starting with deadlines, applicants can work backward to create a timeline for taking exams and prepping application materials. For example, applicants should schedule their GMAT test date several months before the deadline, leaving time to retake the exam if needed.

MBA requirements vary, so make sure to check the specific requirements for each program.

Typical MBA Requirements

Application fee Background information Essays College transcript
Letters of recommendation GMAT, GRE, or executive assessment test score TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE test score (for international students) Resume

Steps to Apply to an MBA Program

To make the process of applying to MBA programs less overwhelming, this section walks through the steps prospective students must take.

1. Research and Build a List of MBA Programs to Apply to

Prospective MBA students should start by researching programs. The process of choosing an MBA program takes time. Students must consider things like their desired MBA specialization, whether to enroll full or part time, and whether to apply to accelerated MBA programs. A growing number of top schools offer online MBA options as well.

Applicants must also consider prerequisites, specialization options, professional goals, and MBA admission requirements, as well as their likelihood of receiving an acceptance letter. It's bes to apply to both reach schools and a few programs that admit students with a similar GPA and test scores.

2. Take the GMAT, GRE, or Executive Assessment

A majority of MBA programs require standardized test scores as part of their MBA admission requirements. The GMAT, or Graduate Management Assessment Test, is the most common test, but many programs also accept GRE scores. A few others use the Executive Assessment test. Be sure to check which test is required for your desired programs.

Test-takers should spend several months prepping for exams before the test date. Schedule your test date early enough to retake the exam in case you receive a lower score than you need. Two-thirds of GMAT test-takers score 400-600, but many top programs expect a score of 700 or higher. Test scores are typically valid for five years.

3. International Students: Take the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE Exam

MBA admission requirements include a few extra steps for international students. Namely, most business schools require English language proficiency exams, such as the TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE Exam. These tests measure a test-taker's language proficiency. Schools may set a minimum score for admission, and some may waive the requirement for international students who have a degree from an English-language institution.

International students should schedule their exam dates far enough in advance to give themselves time for retakes, in case they need it. Scores remain valid for two years after the testing date, so international students may also need to retake the test if their scores expire before the application deadline.

4. Attend Info Sessions and/or Campus Visits

Finding the best MBA program for you is going to take some research. Attending info sessions or visiting campus helps applicants narrow their options and find the right program to help them reach their goals.

During an info session or campus visit, applicants can also demonstrate interest in the program and make a personal impression on faculty and staff. Campus visits can also help admitted students decide which offer to accept.

5. Write MBA Admissions Essays

Applicants often find writing admissions essays to be one of the most challenging steps when applying to business school. Each program sets its own requirements, so the prompts and essay lengths vary. Some schools even require multiple essays.

Common essay prompts include:

  • What are your career goals after earning an MBA?
  • Describe a leader you admire and explain why you admire them.
  • Describe a situation where you meaningfully contributed to a team.

When writing MBA essays, make sure to explain why a particular program will help you achieve your goals. MBA committees want to find applicants who will create a collaborative, innovative environment at the school and represent the school well in the professional world.

Set aside time to craft a strong essay, and start early to leave time for revisions and polishing. Ask friends or family members to read the essay. If possible, request feedback from a professor or supervisor. When it comes to writing a great essay, taking your time is key.

6. Prepare Resume of Prior Work Experience and Education

MBA programs usually want to know about applicants' prior work experience and education. In fact, some programs set a minimum number of required or recommended years of work experience, with a resume to showcase this information.

Applicants should prepare a resume for their MBA applications that highlights their educational and professional background. The resume should include their undergraduate institution, major, and GPA, along with professional experience, including internships. Keep it brief: A single page will do, unless you have more than 10 years of experience.

7. Collect Letters of Recommendation

Applicants typically need to submit 2-3 letters of recommendation as part of MBA admission requirements. These letters should speak to the applicant's strengths and preparation for business school. Former professors and supervisors make excellent letter-writers.

Reach out to potential letter writers early in the application process. Provide them with as much information as possible, including copies of your application materials, like your personal statement or essays. At a minimum, give letter-writers at least three weeks' notice before the deadline.

8. Prepare for MBA Admissions Interview

Many business schools conduct MBA admission interviews to assess whether a candidate fits with the program. During this interview, applicants are asked to explain their background and why they want to earn an MBA. Interviewers may ask about past work experience, academic background, and professional strengths and weaknesses.

Much like a job interview, applicants should prepare for an MBA interview by practicing answering common questions and strategizing about how best to present themselves. Applicants should also research the program to learn about its focus areas, such as leadership, creativity, or curiosity, so they can be sure to touch on those traits in their interviews. Finally, prepare questions to ask the interviewers. This demonstrates interest in the program.

When to Apply to an MBA Program

Business schools typically admit MBA applicants in several rounds. The first round, often called the early decision round, begins reviewing applications during the fall before students join the program. This early deadline works in the favor of prepared applicants.

Round 1 admission decisions come out in December, giving applicants time to reconsider their options and submit round 2 applications around January. Some schools also offer a third round in the spring, when they consider new applications and make decisions about waitlisted applicants. In general, round 1 has the most open spots and the highest competition, while round 3 offers a higher chance of admission at Tier 2 programs.

MBA Application Rounds
Round Timeline Advantages
Round 1 Sept.-Nov.
  • Most business schools have the greatest number of spots available for round 1, which is also called early decision by some programs.
  • Admission decisions typically arrive by December. Applicants who do not receive an offer from their top choice program can apply to other programs in round 2.
Round 2 Dec.-Feb.
  • Applying in round 2 gives applicants more time to work on their admission essay, GMAT scores, and other applicatoin components.
  • The strongest applicants typically submit in round 1, so round 2 applicants may face less competition.
Round 3 Mar.-Apr.
  • Round 3 gives applicants the most time to work on application materials and raise their GMAT scores.
  • Tier 2 business schools often report higher admission rates for round 3, meaning that applicants are more likely to receive an acceptance letter.

Reapplying to an MBA Program

Business schools admit MBA applicants over the course of several rounds to give students multiple chances to receive an acceptance letter. But what about students who do not get into an MBA program? Is it worth reapplying next year?

In general, if applicants can raise their GMAT score, improve their essay, and make their MBA application stand out, it makes sense to reapply. Waiting a year also gives them time to build professional experience, either through a job or an internship.

However, applicants should make sure to invest time and energy into improving their applications. Submitting the same application will likely result in the same outcome.

Interview: MBA Application Overview

James Edge is the founder of Crush the USMLE, an online resource that helps students find the best preparatory courses. He's also the director of operations and marketing at Crush Empire. He has an MBA in business administration and internet marketing from Southern New Hampshire University.

Where did you get your MBA?

Southern New Hampshire University

At what point in your career did you get your MBA, and why then?

In 2013, about four or five years after getting my bachelor's. To me, it was the next logical next step to keep advancing within my career path and expand my skill set.

What did you specialize in, if anything?

I specialized in internet marketing

What do you do for your career now?

I'm the founder of Crush the USMLE, which is the child business of a larger company where I am the director of marketing and operations. I wear many hats in my day-to-day activities, from data analysis to the creation and optimization of all operational aspects of the company, including HR, communication, marketing, and procurement.

What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an MBA?

There comes a point in many professional careers where you hit a ceiling in terms of advancement, and I think an MBA is the perfect next step. You'll find many professionals telling you how they made it to where they are without an MBA, and therefore it's not necessary, but honestly they're a minority. MBA-holders advance to higher positions more often and have substantially better pay than those who don't [have MBAs].

What were your biggest considerations when selecting an MBA program? Does it fit your objectives? Are the skills you're going to learn scalable?

First, [make sure] that it fits your career path and the way you want to advance within your industry.

Another very important aspect is the network of professionals you'll be exposed to. Once you have an MBA, it's all about who you know. You can learn a lot from other people who started businesses and struggled themselves so you don't have to.

If you could apply all over again, what would you do differently?

I think I would focus more on expanding my network and learning from the seasoned professionals I met every day. As important as expanding your skillset is, it's very valuable to know how your peers have applied those skills in different situations where you may have the knowledge but not the experience.

Does it matter where people get their MBA?

It does to an extent. However, I believe that what you bring to the table in terms of demonstrable experience and your skillset is ultimately what will count the most in your career. You could have a very prestigious degree, but without the other two, it's very difficult to advance in your career.

What's most important when selecting an MBA program? Program prestige, location, cost, something else?

It depends on your resources, your needs, and your expectations. I don't think there's a completely perfect program. Just as with any other learning experience, there will be situations where practical experience will prevail.

The cost is a very important factor because it's also determined by the location. Not everyone is able to keep their current jobs while pursuing an MBA, so you need to account for that.

While I think that the program's prestige shouldn't be your number one concern, that doesn't mean you should just go to any school. It's important to weigh all the factors considering your personal situation.

Popular Questions About MBA Admission

true Who Can Apply for an MBA Degree?

Anybody can apply for an MBA degree. MBA programs most commonly admit students with a background in business, but they will also accept students from other fields. Most MBA programs require a bachelor's degree and GMAT scores, and some require previous work experience, too.

true Can I Do an MBA Without a Degree?

No. Business schools typically require a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution for admission to their MBA programs. Applicants who majored in a nonbusiness field may also need to complete prerequisite business courses.

true What Is a Good MBA GPA?

Top-ranking MBA programs typically require a 3.5 GPA or higher. However, many good programs have lower minimum GPAs or offer provisional admission for students with less than a 3.0 GPA.

true How Can I Make My MBA Application Stand Out

Strong GMAT scores, work experience, a compelling essay, and exceptional letters of recommendation can all help candidates stand out during the MBA admission process.

true How Can I Make an MBA Essay Stand Out?

Business schools look for MBA essays that explain the applicant's background and preparation for graduate school while relating their goals after earning an MBA and their fit with the program.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Delmaine Donson | Getty Images

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