Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Jeremy C. Wilson

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Jeremy C. Wilson received his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management as well as his JD from the Northwestern Law School. He currently runs his own MBA blog which has been noted to be one of the top-ranked blogs in the MBA world. Jeremy recently kicked off a segment on his blog called #AskJeremy, where readers can submit questions on anything related to education/admissions. The insights Jeremy shares are rooted from his experience on the admissions boards for Northwestern University’s JD and MBA programs, where he interviewed numerous applicants.

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

Jeremy: Philosophically speaking, a lot more time than you think. For most applicants the GMAT takes more than one attempt. And many people spend a lot more time writing essays than they planned. This is a stark contrast to law school and other programs where statistics may play a larger role and where some applicants spend much less time on the rest of the application.  In the end, the better application you submit, the better odds you have at getting into your dream school.  So if going to business school is one of your Wildly Important Goals you should spend as much time as you can to be sure you get in.

Practically speaking the entire process tends to take from 3 to 6 months, on average. But it also depends on your background and the schools you apply to. I’ve seen some candidates spend as much as a year and others spend just a few weeks to get into the same programs. If you take a GMAT class, that will take you 10 weeks, and you’ll probably spend another week or two going over what your learned. Many people also allocate a couple of weeks for each application they are submitting. Also, there are great career development programs like Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), which have pre-MBA career seminars that run nearly a year before applying. I am an alum of MLT and would highly recommend it if you qualify.  Feel free to contact me personally for more details.  

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

Jeremy: The most important thing you can do is tell a strong story. Like an entrepreneur pitching investors for funding, a lawyer making her final case to the jury, or a marketing team hoping to win over its most valuable customers. Telling a clear compelling story about what you stand for and the value you add is critical.

So you should leverage the different parts of the application to do that. Show the committee what your passions are and what motivates you to be successful. And tell them the stories about the hurdles you’ve overcome and what you will bring to the table. The essays generally tend to be the best place to tell your story, but recommendation letters, resumes and short answers are also great places to make your story even more authentic.  Specifically, I’d suggest spending more time picking the recommenders to help tell your professional story. Some schools rely heavily on references to give context not only about your competence but also your character and whether yours will make you a good fit for their program.  

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

Jeremy: At the end of the day, schools want to see if you have what it takes to be a leader, and the essays give you a great chance to showcase that.  A lot of candidates like to drum up dramatic essays, like military stories about wartime or companies that were saved only because the applicant was there to lead the team.  While many of those stories can be good, the best stories tend to be the ones that are natural and often involve failure rather than success.  That’s because just about everyone who has any degree of success in America today has received help and most of us have also failed somewhere along the line. So instead of trying to conjure up a homerun story, instead focus on your authentic story. You do that by contemplating your major life experiences and decisions and by talking in detail about what you learned not only when you succeeded but also when you failed.

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

Jeremy: The most common mistake applicants make is spending too time on the "what" question and not enough time describing the most important question of “why”.  The why questions are critical because they are the guiding forces that shape your life’s behavior. They help to demonstrate your highest aspirations and illustrate fundamental motivations to not only succeed in business but also to change the world. And those are the things that drive the best leaders. 

The "how" questions are also important.  Answering the question of how you did something will give schools proof that you have what it takes to make it to the top. That you have the secret sauce to not only to succeed at the highest level but also to preserver when the going gets tough.  

In many cases, the “what” question will not make a very big difference.

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

Jeremy: Almost all business school students are expected to have substantial, full time work experience before applying.  This real world experience makes the application pool very different and it makes the content of your essays and stories unique compared to the typical undergraduate applicant.  

To better understand your work experience, school will look to your professional references, which applicants would not submit for undergrad admission. So ensure that you've chosen your recommenders carefully. Schools will also get a glimpse through your essays and will use your resume to see what kind of impact have you had. Finally, to get into business school you’ll also have to get through the interview.  All elements that are unique to MBA application process.  

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.)?

Jeremy: There aren’t generally any minimum scores or work experiences required for admission. At the top schools, admitted candidates tend perform well in most areas, but I’ve seen many instances where an applicant is below average in one area (sometimes well below average) and still gets accepted.  On the other hand, in one case, I did see a situation where two schools suggested they would not be willing to admit at a candidate for reasons related to professional misconduct. But that is more of a case-by-case situation, and in the end, the applicant still got into multiple top 5 ranked MBA programs.  

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

Jeremy: Candidates should discuss leadership, how they have dealt with adverse circumstances and evidence of recovery from failures.  The best way to think of it is like a 3 Act play: background, turning point and resolution. First you have to demonstrate your background—the places you’ve worked, the roles you’ve had, and the responsibilities you took on.  Next, you’ll also have to discuss the turning points in your career—challenges and adverse circumstances that you faced, the mistakes you made and what you did in those moments.  And you’ll want to spend the most time focusing on the resolution. So you’ll describe in detail how you responded. Discuss things turned out and quantify your results. Convey how you not only that you learned new skills but also that you arrived at a higher sense of awareness as a leader and how that will help you succeed in the business world.

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

Jeremy: Take it again if you have to. Put in a few more weeks of work to do well in the process. Because while there are no minimum scores for admission, most admits to top school do perform quite well.  I might also recommend taking a GMAT class if you have the resources. Good classes are invaluable resources to structure your studying, especially when you have limited time.

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

Jeremy: Generally, there is no set age that schools look for in applicants. At many programs, students will join directly from undergrad, while other students in the same class will have over 10 years of experience.  In recent years, the age and years of experience has been trending down and more students are starting MBA programs at a younger age. On the other hand, some programs do still think it is valuable to have more work experience prior to starting and won’t have as many younger candidates.

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

Jeremy: This is a very personal question. In general, a great program is one that you would be thrilled to attend. One that knows that your Education Matters as much as the job you land after school. And one that will give you access to the professional opportunities you plan to pursue after graduation.

My one piece of advice is think about this question long before getting accepted and before schools start offering you money.  Understand what is important to you---whether location, ranking, companies that recruit on campus, and scholarships offered-- and hold on to it throughout the process.  And in the end let your final decision be guided by those things, not simply by prestige or by the desire for money. The ability to make decisions based on your values rather than external factors will serve you well not just in business school but also beyond as leader.

Visit JeremyCWilson.com to learn more about Jeremy and his projects.


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