Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Graham Richmond

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. As he pursued his MBA at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Graham Richmond participated as a student admissions officer where he read hundreds of applications. After graduating from the program, Graham returned to the Wharton Admissions Committee and contributed to the redesigning of the school’s admissions process while representing the program at conferences internationally as well. Graham eventually left and co-founded Clear Admit, an MBA Admissions Consulting service, where he has assisted thousands of students with their application processes and has earned an impressive reputation as a leading expert in the field.

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

Graham: Preparation time in terms of hours or months definitely varies per applicant and based on the application season as a whole, e.g., someone applying to one school in Round 2 (January deadlines) would have a very different application timeline than someone applying to six programs across the first two rounds (October and January deadlines).  Applicants also need to account for factors outside the process of drafting the application materials themselves—GMAT or GRE preparation, for instance, varies broadly by applicant and could tack on months of intensive study before an online application form is even made.  It would also be worthwhile to account for the time needed to, say, visit a class or tour a school’s campus depending on applicants’ schedules and transportation options.

Generally though, since most schools release their application deadlines and essay topics in the spring or summer before the admissions season begins, I’d advise applicants to start organizing their application calendars then. Knowing when each application will be due and what it entails is first way to see how much time you’ll need to prepare. We estimate that our hourly clients work with their Clear Admit counselors for an average of 12 to 15 hours per school, and prospective MBA students should also tack on the time it will take them to initially draft their essays and other materials and complete other requirements, like standardized test scores as noted above.

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

Graham: There’s no “right answer” to how to ace an application, and I’d say the most important thing for an applicant is to create an honest application that is both error-free, attentive to detail and that really lets the admissions committee get to know who you are (while ideally conveying your excitement for the MBA program in question). Admissions committees are looking to find out a lot about who applicants really are so as to determine how they might fit into a carefully balanced MBA class, and submitting applications that are vague or sloppy won’t give the admissions committee much to work with or convince them that you’re worth admitting.

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

Graham: Admissions officers are definitely looking to get you know you from the essays but also for a few other things. They are looking to see if you’ve done research on the program and can envision yourself on their campus, and they want to see that you have a good sense of your strengths, weaknesses, and preparedness for an MBA. More basically, they are looking to confirm that applicants can follow directions in the essays and write clear and compelling answers to the essay prompts within the guidelines specified. 

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

Graham: There are quite a few ways that applicants can send up red flags on their application, and I would say that reusing application materials across multiple applications is the main way candidates get themselves in trouble. Most notorious of course is the mistake of actually leaving in the name of “School X” when writing an application for “School Y,” which from my own admissions experience signals a definitely lack of respect for the school that receives the wrong name. In relation to my answer to the question above, not answering the question asked in your essay is another big mistake, and this might indicate to the admissions officer that you were either reusing an essay from another school or just not paying attention when you were drafting quickly. Another common mistake, and one that an admissions consultant could certainly help applicants avoid, would be simple grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors that also convey that applicants have put relatively little effort into their files or do not have the communication skills needed for an MBA.  Finally, the use of excessive industry jargon can signal to the admissions committee that the applicant is unable to communicate their experiences in terms that are going to be easily understood by their future classmates.

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

Graham: I like to describe MBA admissions as a mix of “art” and “science” given the fluid nature of schools’ selection criteria, and this quality actually makes the process more similar to undergraduate admissions than to say law or medical school applications.  One important difference between undergraduate and business school admissions is that most applicants will be drawing heavily from their professional experiences when creating their MBA applications, which obviously doesn’t come into play in such a way in undergraduate admissions.

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.)?

Graham: I would say no, unless for instance an applicant is applying to a program whose stated requirements he or she doesn’t meet, e.g., a dual degree program that specifies an undergraduate focus an applicant does not have.  Some challenging factors of an applicant’s profile, however, are easier to resolve than others either before or during the application process, but only direct violations of admission policies are ‘automatic’ disqualifiers.

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

Graham: This is also something that varies really applicant by applicant. Some schools will state what kind of experience they want to see from prospective students, which is wise to take into account before preparing your application, but there is no single right answer.  Generally, for example, leadership experiences are great to highlight, but an applicant who doesn’t have an obvious record of quantitative achievements might need to focus more on those experiences instead.  The balance of different kinds of experience really varies on an individual basis.

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

Graham: There are a lot of different test prep services out there that tailor to a range of learning styles, and applicants’ test prep range from books to free GMAT tips from various online sources to paid one-on-one tutoring.  While certainly not all applicants “need” to use a GMAT prep service, any applicant who wants to raise his or her score should look into the many different services out there to find one that matches their needs in terms of time commitments, teaching approach, etc.

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

Graham: In a word, “no,” though this kind of requirement varies across different programs and the vast majority of candidates would definitely be well served to have at least two years of experience at the time they apply. I’ve also known some programs to conditionally accept applicants provided they gained a certain amount of professional experience before matriculating, and of course Harvard has formalized this through the HBS 2+2 Program.  Business schools really range on this issue, though, and applicants who find they are qualified to apply to their target programs without work experience still face somewhat higher stakes than others in the pool—it’s very important that these applicants can clearly explain how an MBA is the only viable next step in their career despite their lack of work experience.

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

Graham: I encourage applicants looking for a great business school experience to start by examining their own professional and academic needs, as well as their preferred lifestyle and location, to find out what program will be great for them.  An MBA program isn’t great because of ranking alone, and different applicants will have great “fits” with different programs.  An applicant who wants to design his or her first-year curriculum, for instance, won’t fit with the Harvard MBA while an applicant who doesn’t like an urban environment isn’t going to be happy at Columbia.  In the end, a great MBA program has the right combination of curriculum offerings, extracurricular and leadership opportunities, campus experiences and career resources to suit its students, be it an aspiring leader in investment banking or a budding global entrepreneur.

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