Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: David Petersam

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. A graduate of The University of Chicago MBA program, David Petersam is well-known for his knowledge of MBA admissions. His expertise is drawn from his experience in The University of Chicago MBA admissions office, where he contributed to numerous admissions committee decisions. David is now the founder and President of AdmissionsConsultants, Inc., a service he started back in 1996 directed toward helping MBA applicants gain acceptance into the world’s top business schools.

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

David: We’ve conducted numerous polls of our clients over the years and have never found any type of consensus for the number of hours needed. Some applicants don’t come from work backgrounds that require a lot of writing and even many that do are surprised when they find it is harder to write about themselves than whatever topics they are generally used to writing.

The important things to remember, however, are that (1) an early start is critical for the brainstorming and introspection phases and (2) it is generally better to apply in a later round with an application that reflects 100% of your best effort than rush an application into an early round that is full of incoherencies.

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

David: Be true to yourself. Have genuine reasons for why you want an MBA and why you want to attend that particular school. Any attempt to “cheat” the school with insincere reasons is equally an attempt to cheat yourself as you will be spending a lot of time and money pursuing a graduate business education.

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

David: Fit. While the term is often interpreted as elitist, exclusionist or just plain mean, applicants need to understand that it has a much different meaning to organizations. It has to do with how well an individual’s abilities, ambitions and values complement those of the organization. When individuals and organizations are in synch, both benefit. The organization receives productive workers, committed members or enthusiastic students. The individual receives a supportive and appreciative home for his or her efforts and growth.

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

David: The one that most surprises new admissions officers is the percentage of applicants who forget which school they are applying to. It happens more often than you probably think!

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

David: The first difference is that MBA programs expect you to have a clear vision of your career goals. The second biggest difference involves the admissions interview. It is not only far more evaluative, but it is generally by invitation only which means the goal of the essays is to secure an interview invitation.

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.)?

David: Failing to prove that you can clear the academic qualifications hurdle (GPA and GMAT/GRE) is an automatic disqualifier. Everything else could be stellar, but if the school believes you can’t handle the rigor of its program, you will be receiving a ding letter.

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

David: A well thought out test prep strategy is just as important as a well thought out application strategy. You need to dedicate a segment of time to your preparations and if you run into any issues, seek out help. Chances are you are not the only one with that issue and competent help is available if you look hard enough.

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

David: The key is to ensure your MBA will help you achieve your career goals. For most applicants, the pre-MBA work experience is an essential component in achieving those goals. However, since this is not always the case, the answer is no.

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

David: All of the top MBA programs are well differentiated and different applicants will put different relative weights on different criteria. The only universal characteristic across all applicants is fit.

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