Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Paul Bodine

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. One of the most experienced admissions consultants in the country, Paul Bodine has been helping students with their university applications since 1997. Specifically an expert in the MBA admissions process, Paul has led applicants to many prestigious programs such as the Wharton School, Kellogg School of Management, New York University, and more. He is the author of the best-selling admissions guide, Great Applications for Business School, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

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

Paul: You should start the application process, including taking the GMAT, at least a year before the school deadlines you're targeting and ideally much earlier than that. Because your GMAT score will tell you how ambitious you can be in your school selection, you take the GMAT first. Give yourself time to develop your goals, reflect on your narrative about your career and life, and to begin to research schools in a personal way. The first school application you work on will take the most time. Including everything from essay work (from brainstorming/self-reflection to writing and editing) and lining up recommenders, creating an application-specific resume, and filling out the data section, you should devote 20 hours or more to the first school. Working with a consultant like myself will reduce your time to some extent, but you should take your time on the first school so you do it right. If you do, your subsequent schools will not be so time-intensive.

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

Paul: There's no single most important criterion but three: you will need to effectively demonstrate your intellectual ability, your leadership/teamwork skills and your uniqueness. Your grades and GMAT scores will tell the schools whether you have the intellectual strength to handle their program. You should use the essays, reco letters and interview to highlight your ability to work effectively with and lead teams both at and outside of work. Uniqueness simply means the set of experiences, personal qualities, and passions that differentiate you from other applicants. They can include your specific international experience or cultural background, your career/industry focus, your personal or family story/challenges, even your hobbies. These three criteria will largely determine whether your application succeeds or fails.

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

Paul: Admissions officers use the essay questions to find out who you are professionally and personally, how you think, and whether you have the emotional intelligence, career and social savvy, orientation toward impact and growth, and personal qualities (e.g., professional and personal maturity, focus on larger vision beyond yourself etc.) to succeed in their program and in your post-MBA career. The essays not only tell them whether you can think clearly in words, but whether you 'get' their culture, can speak concretely about the value of an MBA, and can deliver a compelling 'elevator pitch' on your own behalf.

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

Paul: Aside from lying and showing antisocial tendencies, telling the schools what you think they want to hear is the biggest mistake, for example, that business schools only want to admit people who intend to 'save the world' by pursuing social impact goals after business school. It's one thing to be able to show the schools that you are savvy about the social and team skills that MBA employers value--you should. But it's quite another to try to adopt a generic tone/persona in your essays in order to fit some preconceived ideas you have about the profile business school admissions officers seek. Business schools are open to a broad range of applicant profiles (within limits: you must be a team player with evidence of effective action in the world). Have confidence to authentically share who you are and what you've done in the essays.

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

Paul: To some extent, all undergraduate programs expect applicants to demonstrate smarts and interpersonal skills. If there's one ability that can be said to define business schools more than other programs, it's leadership. Of course, they seek intelligence and people skills like every other program. But they place special value on your ability to drive people to positive results: leadership. The other major difference is that whereas your potential counts for a lot in the undergraduate admissions process, at the business school level (average applicant age in the U.S.: 27 years) you must show evidence that you have already begun actualizing your potential in significant ways.     

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.)?

Paul: There are no formal or "automatic" ding triggers--at most schools, rejection is more of question of degree on a continuum from weak to good. That is, the more negatives you have in your application, the greater the likelihood that you will not get the past the first readers. It is possible to get into a top business school if you have a significant application weakness but you will need to offset that weakness with the overwhelming strength or unusualness of the other parts of your application. For example, a super-high GMAT score can offset a sub-median GPA particularly if your transcript was affected by extenuating circumstances (such as the need to work full-time in college) and you have other differentiators such as applying from a country that doesn't send a lot of applicants to business school or your record of professional impact or leadership is outstanding. But a combination of weaknesses (such as a sub-median GMAT score and sub-median GPA or a sub-median GMAT score and shay career focus or evidence of leadership) will seal your fate at most selective schools. Usually, not having a particular type of work experience (e.g., consulting or banking experience) is actually an asset in that business schools seek to admit well-rounded classes (in every sense), which means they do not want classes full of people with the same or narrow range of industry or functional experiences.

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

Paul: Recent work experiences should be highlighted. Emphasizing ancient accomplishments, such as achievements in university (for applicants who've been in the workforce for a while) will suggest that your glory days are behind you.  Above all, however, highlight work experiences that showcase your leadership and teamwork (human dynamics) skills or related soft skills such as integrity/ethics, emotional intelligence, creativity etc. Work experiences that demonstrate your analytical or intellectual skills should be reflected in your resume, recommendation letters and application data section. If you overemphasize them in your essays you may risk painting yourself as a techie or a loner. The best work experiences for essays are those that show your working effectively with others to achieve impact.  

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

Paul: Get it out of the way as early in the application process as you can so you can focus on the other elements of the application. For example, most applicants underestimate how much time they'll need to herd their recommenders toward meeting the deadline, developing effective essays, etc. Don't assume that a super-high score assures you of anything in terms of admission (at top schools). By the same token don't assume that differences of 20 points or so will matter very much to the schools. Aim for an 80th percentile score in the quant and verbal sections. Try to avoid taking the test more than three times.

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

Paul: A lack of work experience is not an automatic deal-breaker at most schools, which want to remain open to exceptional candidates who have already shown the maturity and impact to start business school directly out of college. However, in the U.S., the average MBA matriculant is about 27 years old (European schools generally skew even older) and many schools state they prefer to admit only applicants with 2 or more years of experience. Business schools know that most fresh college graduates with little full-time work experience will have a hard fitting into and contributing to classes where their peers have 3-4 years of work experience to draw on and share.

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

Paul: Outstanding faculty, a large and accomplished alumni network, a culture of excellence and innovation, and a diverse, international, and collaborative student body.

Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting for further information on Paul’s background and services.

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