Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Tony Shan

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. Tony Shan earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management and has had a strong passion for MBA admissions ever since. During his time at Kellogg, Tony was given the role of Student Liaison to the Office of Admissions, where he spent a great deal of time managing student involvement in admissions and helping students successfully pursue their MBA’s. He is now an admissions consultant for Admissionado, working with business school applicants all over the world.


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

Tony: It really depends on several factors. First, how many and which schools you are applying to will affect the time you will need to set aside. Some schools have longer applications than others, as the number of essay questions varies across schools. (INSEAD’s 7 essays could take a lot longer than HBS’s 2!). Second, I am a big proponent of writing each essay for every school that you are applying to, instead of using one essay and try to fit it in with similar questions from multiple schools (to be more tailored to each school and avoid mistakes). Trust me, Admissions can tell if you are using another essay from a different school for their questions.

In addition to writing the essays (which will probably be the biggest chunk), you will also need time to prep for GMAT, select and reach out to recommenders, and the time it takes to fill out the online applications. I would caution against starting the process with only weeks to go. In fact, I hiiighly suggest giving yourself 3 months to do everything… and do it all well. You need to really do research on schools that you are applying to, know what they want/what they stand for, visit, etc. The time and energy you will spend to get to know the school would definitely show through in your application and be appreciated by Adcom. 

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

Tony: Authenticity. This can be interpreted in a couple of ways. First, it really means providing accurate information in your application. You want to stand out, but you don't need to make things up to do so. Integrity is very important to business schools. Second, something that a lot of admissions officers would probably agree with is being true to yourself. This means writing about things that you truly care about and not what you think admissions wound want to hear from you. Applying to business school is usually a time when you can really self reflect and think about what you want to do with your life and career. So take the time to think about it and figure out how a MBA degree fits YOUR goals. When you are true to yourself in your essays, the stories you tell will be refreshing and unique, and the goals will be genuine. 

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

Tony: Authenticity (noticing a pattern here yet?). They read through thousands of applications every year, and most of them have been in their role for many years. They know if you are just writing what you think they want to hear. So again, I can't stress enough that you should make them your own, dig deep into who you are and what you want, and answer the questions from there. 

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

Tony: It seems so simple and avoidable… and that is the reason why this is so egregious and important: mistakenly writing another school's name in your essays. Yes, it happens. And I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen it! I once read an essay where someone was gushing about how Wharton is the school for him and all the reasons Wharton was going to help him in his career…

But he was applying to Kellogg.

That's a big no-no. This is why I mentioned earlier that you should write each essay separately for each school. I understand that MBA applications can be lengthy, but copying and pasting can lead to these mistakes. If you are going to do that (which again I don't recommend), have a friend proof-read your essays before you submit them!

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

Tony: Experience - professional, extracurricular and personal. Hopefully by the time you are applying to business school, you've matured, have more clarity on your life goals and have actual work experience you can discuss in your application. You're also competing for positions against people who are highly motivated and have resources to learn about how the process works. Many people assume they will get a bachelor's degree - expectations from parents, cultural expectations, etc - but that's not the case with business school. So those who do apply tend to put a lot more time into their application.

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.)?

Tony: The simple answer is no. There really aren't any "automatic" disqualifiers (unless they find out that you weren't being truthful in your application). For those other perceived weaknesses such as low GPA or lack of leadership experience, you can address them in the additional essay question. The beauty of the MBA application is that you can overcome nearly any obstacle with a well-thought out essay. So if you have something that you think might hinder your chances, write about it. Keep it brief - take responsibility for that weakness and talk about how you have improved or will improve – but for sure address it. If you play your cards right, you can make that weakness work for you and see yourself sitting pretty in an MBA program next year.

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

Tony: The most important parts to highlight are the impact that you made to the organization and your accomplishments. Some people fall into that trap where they talk more about the company or team performance rather than their own. Don’t do it. Instead, talk about your contributions, and why you were integral to the success of your team or projects. The Adcom isn’t accepting your team or company to their program, they are accepting YOU.

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

Tony: Practice, practice and more practice. The more you practice, the more types of questions you will become familiar with.  And the more familiar you get with those questions, the easier it’ll be to tackle them on test day. You can't know the answers to every question on the GMAT, but you will know how to approach them and at least make an educated guess on the questions you don't know the answers to. 

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

Tony: I would say yes both for your benefit and your classmates'. One of the biggest values that I got out of my MBA was learning from my classmates. People came from all kinds of professional industries and functions. I learned just as much from their stories and experiences as from my professors, if not more at times. On the flip side, I was also able to contribute relevant information from my own background in classroom discussions and group projects. You want to add value in the classroom especially when discussing real world cases. You can only do that when you actually had real world experiences. I would suggest at least 2.5-3 years of professional work experience to really get the most out of the MBA, though I do know some schools that are accepting younger applicants with less work experience. 

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

Tony: Great culture and student-friendly professors. Let's face it, you'll probably get a great MBA education from any of the top programs out there. The curriculum is very similar across most of them, and major companies will probably recruit in all of them. Business school is a huge time and financial commitment, so at the end of the day, it all comes down to who you want to spend the next year or two years with. That's where the culture of the school comes in. In addition, you want to have professors who care not only about research but also teaching. You want them to be approachable and interact with you to add value to your education. The people and the intangibles really will decide if you are going to enjoy your MBA. 

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