Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Dan Bauer

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Having founded his admissions consulting firm, The MBA Exchange, in 1996 after serving as an admissions interviewer for his alma mater Harvard Business School, Dan Bauer and his firm have helped over 3,000 individuals gain acceptance from the world’s most selective MBA programs. Read on for the valuable advice he 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?

Dan: Depending on the candidacy, this can take anywhere from several weeks to several months to prepare applications.  However, the start of the process is not writing essays, but rather optimizing the candidacy itself.  The professional, academic and personal aspects of the individual’s profile need to be analyzed so that the applicant can leverage strengths and mitigate vulnerabilities. If done properly, this front-end effort brings focus, momentum and efficiency to preparing the actual applications. A smart way to get started is with a free, expert evaluation of the candidacy from a knowledgeable admissions consulting firm.

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

Dan: Most importantly, a truly competitive application must present a combination of three elements: qualifications, motivation and contributions.  First, the candidate needs to convey an academic and professional background that ensures competence in the MBA classroom. Second, the applicant must illustrate a clear rationale and sincere passion for attending the targeted school as the bridge to post-MBA goals. And finally, he or she should make a compelling case for the value added that the candidacy will bring to the program and its participants, before and after graduation.

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

Dan: Relevance, initiative and authenticity.  Simply stated, the applicant needs to answer the essay questions as posed by the school. However, in doing so, the admissions staff is not satisfied with mere facts or boilerplate.  Rather, they want the candidate to grasp address the issues behind the question – just as a leader does in the business world -- so the essay is robust and distinctive. Finally, they want insight into the thoughts, feelings and values of the applicant in order to “know” the candidate even before they meet him or her in-person. 

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

Dan: The biggest error is presenting only what the applicant thinks the admissions committee wants to see.  Some individuals mistakenly believe that there is no need to go beneath the surface or beyond the resume.  However, developing a candidacy and crafting an application are intensely personal. Through this process, the candidate learns a great deal about himself or herself.  In fact, this may be the first and last time in their lives that they do such a thorough assessment of their past, present and future. It is only such a journey of self-discovery that ultimately produces MBA applications that are cathartic for the candidate and compelling for the adcom. There are no magic bullets, insider tips or expedient shortcuts to getting “there.”

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

Dan: The admissions process at top-tier business schools is more comprehensive and subjective than that at leading undergrad and other graduate schools.  When applying to non-MBA programs, it can be nearly impossible for someone to overcome a sub-par GPA and/or standardized admissions test.  In contrast, graduate business schools carefully consider the 2+ years of full-time work experience that most applicants have completed.  Furthermore, most non-MBA programs ask only one essay question with a broad topic (e.g., a personal statement) and have no required interview.  With the business school application process, there are typically several essays and a mandatory interview before admission is granted. So, by comparison, the MBA applicant has a significantly greater opportunity to define the candidacy and convince the school to grant acceptance.

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.)?

Dan: No. Having helped hundreds of MBA applicants to gain admission to their targeted b-schools despite significant academic, personal or professional constraints, it is clear that admissions committees evaluate each candidacy in totality.  A weakness in one area can be neutralized by strength in another. Never say never! For instance, my firm has guided five past clients to acceptance at top-10 business schools even though these individuals did not have undergraduate degrees!

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

Dan: Published statistics confirm that top business schools favor applicants from the leading financial and management consulting firms.  However, the admissions committees also want professional diversity in their incoming class.  What is most important is not the specific industry or job function of the MBA applicant, but rather the growth, learning and impact that the applicant has acquired and will share with classmates.  Being an overachiever with a passion for advancing the knowledge of others can transcend any specific employment profile.

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

Dan: Be very thoughtful in choosing the tutoring resources that you engage for test prep.  One size does not fit all.  That is why my firm The MBA Exchange does not offer GMAT tutoring directly but rather provides a free evaluation of prep needs and introduces several specialists to each client.  To determine the best resource, consider which components of the test require the most study and support, and confirm the tutor’s qualifications in that area.  Then, think about how you learn most effectively (e.g. in-person vs. remote; individual vs. group, etc.)  and make sure the tutor’s services are a match.  Finally, allow yourself abundant time to learn and practice before you take the actual test; only when you and your tutor agree that your practice scores have reached an acceptable peak should you schedule the real GMAT.

VT: Is it absolutely necessary to have work experience prior to starting an MBA degree?

Dan: There are some exceptions, but for the vast majority of applicants having 2 more years of full-time work experience prior to applying is a must.  Not only is this an expectation of the admissions committee, but this background also ensures that the candidate will gain more from and contribute more to the MBA education.  The “currency” of business school classrooms – especially those where the “case study” method is king -- is the professional background that each student brings.  Both faculty and peers assume that on day one everyone has a solid grasp of the nomenclature, culture and nuances of the business world. This provides a shared platform for learning, growing and bonding.

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

Dan: Believing that there are several excellent business schools for every applicant to consider, I am going to answer with a list of selection criteria.  A great MBA program offers knowledge and perspective that align seamlessly with the applicant’s vision.  Professors who are recognized inside and outside the school as thought leaders in their respective disciplines.  A dynamic culture where students are the program “owners” and “customers.”  Loyal, global alumni actively involved with the school and dedicated to helping each other succeed. A productive and responsive career services staff. Recruitment by industry-leading companies that offer real jobs, even during tough economic times.  And finally, a respected and recognized brand, transcending time and borders, that graduates can count on as a lifetime asset.

Visit to learn more about The MBA Exchange and request a free evaluation of your MBA candidacy.

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