Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Linda Abraham

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Linda Abraham is the president and founder of, an admissions advising and editing service for MBA applicants. She is also the co-founder and former president of the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants as well as the co-author of MBA Admissions for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Linda has been featured in many prestigious media outlets such as The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and more.


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

Linda: I recommend applicants start their preparation one year before they intend to submit their application. This allows time to study for and take the GMAT (and even retake it), clarify goals, research schools, strengthen areas of weakness, and then of course draft compelling, articulate, revealing essays. If an applicant is confident that they don’t have to take all these steps, they can start the process later. 

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

Linda: That will vary from person to person, but the foundation of an effective application effort is a clear goal and competitive qualifications.  

A post-MBA goal including function and industry and hopefully also a greater vision or purpose serves so many functions in the application process! It guides applicants in school choice, animates the response to any kind of ‘Why MBA’ question, makes it easy for applicant to show fit with the program, and allows them to hit the ground running when they are thrown into the internship-recruiting vortex soon after arriving on campus.

However, it makes little sense for applicants to apply exclusively to programs where the likelihood of acceptance is poor. Applicants must assess their qualifications and compare their profile to the profiles of typical accepted applicants. They don’t have to be above average for every metric or criterion, but they shouldn’t be below average across the board. Applicants also need to realize that there is a qualitative aspect to admissions. It isn’t just about stats.  Schools are going to seek students with leadership, impact, and above average progression at work as well as a host of personal qualities that they value.

Finally, since schools value diversity, it is very possible to be qualified, competitive, submit a good application, and still be rejected. This happens, especially for applicants coming from over-represented groups in the applicant pool and applying to the most intensely competitive programs.

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

Linda: They look most for the answer to their questions written in an individual and authentic way. That may sound elementary, but I read so many essays where applicants don’t answer the question. Or they write on such a general and superficial plane, that the essay essentially hides them instead of introducing them. 

Applicants need to make sure they answer the specific question in a way that also reveals something specific to them, both in terms of their experience and thought processes.

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


  1. Write what they think the reader wants to read. They don’t know. However, they do know the real answers, and those answers can be far more compelling than something contrived.
  2. Not answering the question.
  3. Write in generalities and clichés so that they sound like many other applicants who are superficially very similar.
  4. Fail to proof.

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

Linda: Undergrads are not expected to know what they want to do in the future. Most MBA programs do expect their applicants to have a clear reason for wanting to go to business school. 

College applicants are not expected to have any work experience. Full-time work experience is a requirement at many if not most MBA programs. And even where not required, there are very few MBA students without work experience.

And naturally, MBA programs expect more maturity from MBA applicants than colleges expect from their applicants. MBA admissions offices also are used to little or no direct parental involvement in the 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.)?

Linda: “Automatic disqualification” is probably too strong, but here are major red flags:

  • Legal lapses like convictions for insider training, fraud, or breaches of fiduciary duty would fall into that category. 
  • For most MBA programs, zero full-time work experience is a significant hurdle.
  • A GMAT or GRE score below the 20% for that school is a big hurdle. Same with the GPA.

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

Linda: Applicants should highlight any experiences that demonstrate leadership, organizational ability, initiative, and innovation. Applicants can reveal these qualities through their resume, essays, letters of recommendation, and interviews.

The best way to reveal those qualities is to tell stories and give examples that reveal those characteristics while answering the question. Another way is to provide stats in the resume that show impact. Finally, recommenders who tell specific stories of a candidate’s initiative, innovation, contribution, and ability to motivate others are worth their weight in MBA application gold.

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

Linda: I’m in favor! However I know that candidates’ needs vary widely. Some, usually those with strong quantitative and communications ability who have previously done well on standardized tests, do fine independently going through a prep book. Others need a course and hours of practice, practice, practice. Some feel a private tutor makes the difference. Each applicant needs to evaluate which approach will work best for him or her.

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

Linda: There are a few schools that accept a handful of students straight from undergrad, but those applicants have to be stellar and usually have had impressive internships in college. Most full-time MBA programs want to see at least two years of full-time work experience before the MBA and three is preferred. The reason is simple: recruiters want it. Furthermore, many in graduate management education believe that experience enables the student to gain more from and contribute more to the MBA experience. 

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


  1. A Career Management Center that has a track record of launching MBA students on the trajectory you want to pursue.
  2. A curriculum that you would be excited to study taught in the way you want to learn it.
  3. Extra-curricular activities that support your goals and that you would be thrilled to throw yourself into.
  4. A community and environment where you will feel comfortable.


If you’re thinking these characteristics imply that “great MBA programs” will be different for different people, you’re right!


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