Ask an Admissions Expert: Stacy Blackman

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. With her own MBA private consulting firm as well as experience on the admissions committees for both the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Stacy Blackman has helped thousands of students master the application process for the world’s most selective MBA programs.  Read on for the incredibly valuable advice she has to offer about the business school admissions process.

VT: How much time should be set aside to adequately prepare for and complete the application for an MBA program?

Stacy: I view the application process in two phases: candidacy and execution.  The candidacy phase is the time when you are working on your profile so that you are the strongest possible MBA candidate.  You are working on developing extra-curricular interests, you might take a Calculus or Accounting course.  You are lobbying for the promotion at work.  This initial phase starts as soon as you know you are applying to an MBA program, and it's an important time as it can take years to package yourself in the most effective way.  Ideally, you would take the GMAT or GRE during this time and get it out of the way, and you might even begin researching various programs. Once you are ready to begin working on your applications - writing essays, preparing recommenders and filling out data forms - you have entered the execution phase.  While some candidates work on their applications for up to a year, I feel that 3-6 months is appropriate, and the exact amount of time depends on your work style and how many schools you are applying to.  You can certainly conceive and create a high quality application in three months.

VT: What would you say is the single most important thing to focus on for this kind of application?

Stacy: Admissions is generally a holistic process, meaning that many factors go into the application and all are equally important.  However, I tend to emphasize the essays because they are an opportunity for an applicant to become more than a paper profile.  Through essays, you can play up strengths, explain weaknesses, differentiate yourself and show a sense of humor, humility, self awareness and more.  Low scores and grades can be overcome, but terrible essays cannot.

VT: What do MBA admissions officers look for most in the essay questions?

Stacy: Admissions officers want a diverse class full of the leaders of tomorrow.  They are seeking individuals who have ambitious visions and who have a track record of making things happen.  While ethics, creativity, responsibility and teamwork are all important, leadership is the number one value.  Be the best at whatever you are doing, inspire others and show that you have a track record of making an impact.  This is what will wow the admissions committee.

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on this application?

Stacy: I see many applicants that want to be "Joe Business School", and so hide their unique qualities in the process of trying to be like someone else.  Business schools really want unique individuals.  This is why I say "be the best".  You can be a teacher, doctor, philanthropist, athlete, investor...but whatever you do, do it well and shine.  Be true to yourself rather than trying to fill some mold that you believe will impress the committee.

VT: What aspects of the MBA admissions process makes it most different from undergraduate admissions process?

Stacy: Almost all business school students are expected to have substantial, full time work experience before applying.  This real world experience makes the application process different from that of undergrad, and that of most graduate schools as well.  You will write about your work experience in essays, your recommenders will most likely come from your workplace, and your experience will inform career goals as well as classroom discussion once you have enrolled.

VT: Is there anything that automatically disqualifies an applicant from being considered for an MBA program (i.e. low GPA, lack of particular work experience, etc.)?

Stacy: There are many programs that absolutely require some full time work experience.  Many schools have minimum GPA's and GMAT scores, though these are internal numbers that they do not make public.

VT: What kind of work experiences should be highlighted in the MBA application?

Stacy: Schools are not as interested in the generic job descriptions on your resume as they are in the ways that you have made an impact, thought outside the box and shown leadership.  Try to highlight stories where you really shine, rather than something that demonstrates your day to day responsibilities.  You also will want to show clear progression.  How have you grown and matured?  Have your responsibilities developed?  Have you been promoted?

VT: What advice do you have regarding GMAT test prep?

Stacy: a) Absolutely take some sort of a class or hire a tutor to structure your prep. 
b) Give yourself at least ten weeks to prepare and thoroughly study.  Taking practice exams is key as it is a unique format and environment. 
c) Plan to take the test at least twice and do not cancel a score, even if you felt that you did not perform well.  Schools will look at your highest score.

VT: What are the characteristics of a great MBA program?

Stacy: This is completely personal.  What makes a program great is what matters to the individual.  I recommend using the rankings as only an initial guide to identify programs of interest and then figuring out what matters to the individual applicant.  Some criteria to consider are:  location, size of program, international programs, teaching methods, culture of school, strength of alumni network and strength of career center.

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The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.