Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Chioma Isiadinso

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Chioma Isiadinso is a former Harvard Business School Admissions Board member as well as the former Director of Admissions at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the CEO of EXPARTUS, a worldwide MBA admissions consulting service, and has also written a book of insights on the MBA admissions process called The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets.

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

Chioma: Ideally you want to start to seriously think of the MBA a couple of years before you actually apply. By having such a long lead time you can invest time identifying any weaknesses in your profile and can address them long before you apply. An early start in preparing for your MBA will enable you to be strategic in the types of projects you pursue and will allow you to cultivate the strong relationships with your superiors who will eventually write recommendation letters for you. When it comes to applying, you should budget about five months.  Two months to prepare and take the GMAT or GRE and three months to work on the application.

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

Chioma: While each part of the application is important, not having a strong academic profile will ensure that the application will be rejected. For the highly selective MBA programs, candidates who have very low test scores will be eliminated early in the evaluation process. It is important to adequately prepare for the GMAT/GRE to ensure that you have a strong test score. While a strong test score alone does not guarantee admission to a top school, not having them will make it easy for the admissions board to deny you admission.

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

Chioma: They look for depth of character. The essays provide a canvass through which a candidate can showcase their strengths, accomplishments and motivations. They explain what is driving you and why you have made the choices you have made in your life. Because of the variations in MBA essay questions, they offer a chance for candidates to speak about their personal and professional lives and achievements.

The essays, when written well, can be the main differentiator and can endear you to the admissions board. There are so many talented candidates applying and it is hard to separate strong candidates who have similar work profile, test scores etc. However, the essays can be the deal breaker when they are poorly written or the deal maker when they reveal really insightful things about you that makes you come alive to the admissions board.

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

Chioma: The biggest mistake applicants make is to underestimate how much work is involved in putting together a successful application. This often leads them to submit application essays that are weak and riddled with errors.

Another mistake that applicants make is selecting the wrong people to write recommendations for them. Recommendations are quite important in the evaluation of MBA applicants and it is critical to select recommenders who know you very well. Avoid choosing recommenders based on simply their seniority at your firm (eg. The CEO of your firm who barely knows your name); you are better off choosing a recommender with a less impressive title who knows your work very well and can provide detailed examples to support your candidacy.

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

Chioma: The main difference between college and MBA applications is that the latter group of applicants are older and have more years working in the real world. The average MBA candidate has worked for 3 or more years before applying to business school. Therefore, the quality of work experience and impact in a professional setting is weighed quite highly in the business school application assessment.

Outside of the work experience difference there are a lot of similarities between the college and MBA admissions (both programs are looking for smart, accomplished individuals who will add to the diversity/richness of their schools).

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.)?

Chioma: This varies from school to school and is important for applicants to understand the nuances of different MBA programs. For instance, while international experience is important to all top MBA programs, it is particularly of high importance for a MBA program like INSEAD. Failure to show international experience or exposure will relegate your INSEAD application to the reject pile. The same applies to language fluency: not having another language under the belt disqualifies a candidate from being admitted to a program like INSEAD.

Work experience is valued at most top MBA programs. Yet there are some programs that are more open to candidates who are early in their career and have less work experience. A program such as Stanford GSB admits a few exceptional candidates with little to no work experience. Very low GPA or GMAT can undermine a candidate’s application as well. The further away your score is from the average score of admitted students, the more of an issue it will be. Academic infractions such as suspensions, plagiarism, as well as criminal records are sure ways of disqualifying a candidate.

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

Chioma: One of the things candidates should do when showcasing their work experience is to cut out jargon from their CVs and focus on the impact and contributions they have had in each of their jobs. Since many programs like to see short CVs of not more than 2 pages (one page resumes for most of the US MBA programs), candidates have to think carefully about all the details of their responsibilities within each role and at each firm. Anything that doesn’t help reinforce their brand (how they are positioning themselves) should be cut out allowing them to connect the dots of their experiences in their resume/CV.

Internships that are in the industry you are looking to enter are worth including in your MBA application especially when you have limited work experience.

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

Chioma: My advice on test prep is to make the investment upfront before taking the GMAT. So many applicants take the GMAT without fully being prepared resulting in mediocre scores. Ideally it is best to take the GMAT once. So before embarking on the exam there are some practical things to do to give you the best chance of success:

-Take a practice test to see what your benchmark score is. If it is lower than 700 you will be better off doing additional preparation before taking the test. Practice tests can be found on
-Identify where you are weak in (verbal versus quantitative) and focus your efforts in strengthening this area. This may involve self-study or a class. Some applicants can get away with a few sessions with a tutor instead of an entire class.
-There are many test prep companies out there so you should do your homework before deciding on the best one.

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

Chioma: It isn’t absolutely necessary to have work experience and there are several accelerated MBA programs that allow college seniors to go directly from undergraduate study to the MBA. However, I recommend getting some experience prior to the MBA. You can better contribute to the classroom by drawing on real experiences instead of relying solely on theoretical lessons from a previous course.

If you are choosing to do a Master’s degree in Management, you don’t need to have work experience.

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

Chioma: One of the main characteristics of a great MBA program is that it attracts a truly diverse set of candidates across industries, sectors, countries, etc. This diversity creates a stimulating environment where students can grow and learn from one another.

Secondly, a successful MBA program must have committed faculty who are invested in teaching and developing their students. It is also important that the faculty have expertise across a wide variety of business subjects (finance, marketing, operations, management, etc.) to give students a firm foundation in business education.  

Finally, on the career side, a great MBA program has to have a track record of success preparing students to attain employment when they graduate. It is vital to look at employment statistics as well as the industries and companies that recruit at the school to ensure that there is a fit between you and the schools you are interested in applying to.

Visit EXPARTUS for more information or follow Chioma on Twitter @EXPARTUS.

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