Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: Jeremy Shinewald

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. He gave us some brilliant Law School admissions advice, but now he is back with information on his primary area of expertise. Founder of the elite mbaMission consulting service, Jeremy Shinewald is one of the most highly recognized experts on the MBA admissions process.  A graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he also served as an admissions interviewer, Jeremy has provided his services to MBA applicants all over the world. He has been quoted in major media outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post and is now offering you some of his most thoughtful insights on the business school admissions process.

VT: How much time should one expect to devote to adequately preparing for and completing an application for an MBA program?

Jeremy: From start to finish—if you include class visits and GMAT prep (which typically takes three months) and assuming that you would be applying to four or five schools across two application rounds (which is a common approach)—the entire MBA application process might take a well-organized and diligent individual six to ten months. Of course, some applicants will study for the GMAT and prepare applications at the same time, so this schedule could be shortened to three or four months total.

In terms of working on an individual application, if the candidate is disciplined and has completed the GMAT, it might take him or her, working a few evenings per week, a month to complete a single well thought-out and polished application. Each MBA application is different, with different essay questions in particular. So, you will not be working with one application that can just be tweaked from school to school—each application involves its own process. You will likely become a little more efficient with each application you complete, but you should be ready for a very time-consuming process!

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

Jeremy: The MBA application process is “holistic,” meaning that it encompasses a variety of important components, none of which is given special weight. When you apply to a business school, you will need to submit a GMAT score, your GPA, several essays, roughly three recommendations, a resume and other materials. Each of these components—along with an interview, which could follow—is a piece of the puzzle the admissions committees evaluate to determine whether you have what it takes to succeed both in the future and in their academic and social environment. 

This is not to say that any of these pieces are unimportant—on the contrary, all of them are very important. But you should not assume that if you have a 4.0 GPA or worked at Goldman Sachs, for example, you are destined to get into every school to which you apply. No one element of your candidacy will define you as an applicant or convince the admissions committees to admit you.

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

Jeremy: MBA admissions officers are looking for sincerity and personality, not a Pulitzer Prize–level essay or some wild card in your profile that will force them to pay attention. So, there is no recipe for writing a guaranteed successful essay. The first step in creating a great essay is brainstorming thoroughly to identify the stories from your life that will make you stand out. You do not need to have been on the biggest deal at J.P. Morgan or founded Facebook to get into a top MBA program. You just need to demonstrate that you have done the everyday things in your life and career remarkably well. We encourage our clients to think about those moments when they did something impactful—whether it was standing up for a principle or motivating someone who felt defeated or envisioning a creative solution to a problem or accomplishing some other notable feat—and then help them write about those experiences in narrative form and in detail, because the story is where the power lies, not the language. If you have a truly great story, it will largely tell itself, and your actions will stand out. That is when admissions officers take notice. Avoid bragging, but make sure to highlight your accomplishments and your pivotal role in them.  

VT: What are the biggest mistakes one can make on a business school application?

Jeremy: Almost every school asks candidates to discuss their post-MBA goals, and many applicants make the mistake of being vague in response to that question, offering a bland, blanket statement such as “I want to work in marketing.” What kind of marketing? Why would you be good at such a job? How has your career to date prepared you for a role in this industry? Applicants need to clearly show that they have done their homework, really understand the types of jobs they are proposing and have the skills, interest and, in many cases, experience to get where they want to go—particularly with the addition of an MBA to their qualifications. Admissions committees can love all that you have done in the past, but if they are not convinced that you have a legitimate plan for your future, they will not choose to invest in you—you can rest assured that someone else will have a more compelling plan.  

VT: In what ways does the MBA admissions process differ the most from the undergraduate admissions process?

Jeremy: Of course, the required standardized tests are different, and the availability of help is likewise dissimilar. You will not have a guidance counselor on hand to help you out, though you can choose to seek out professional consultants, like mbaMission’s, to guide you along the way. In addition, a common application can sometimes be used for several undergraduate programs, but that really does not exist at the MBA level. You will also need to prepare a resume as part of your application materials for business school, and the required recommendations are often more complex than those submitted for undergraduate programs. There are actually many small differences, and they add up!

VT: Can anything in a person’s application automatically disqualify him or her from being considered for an MBA program (e.g., low GPA, lack of particular work experience, etc.)?

Jeremy: Although no business schools have GPA or GMAT “cutoffs,” seeing anyone with a sub-500 GMAT score get into a top 15 school is exceedingly rare (averages at top schools are approximately 710, or 92nd percentile and higher).  A few candidates get into prestigious schools each year with sub-600 scores, but this is also rare. The MBA admissions process is holistic, as we explained earlier, but some limitations do exist. If your GMAT scores are very low, you will need to have a very strong GPA to compensate for them, and you will also need to be remarkably accomplished in your work experience, community endeavors and other facets of your life. If your GPA is low (under a 3.0), the other components will need to be strong for balance purposes as well.

Scores alone will never get a candidate into school. If you have perfect scores, but you have a weak and jumbled work history, there is very little chance that you will succeed. Weak professional history is as close as you can come to an automatic disqualifier.

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

Jeremy: Admissions committees are not seeking applicants who have held a specific professional position or role. Candidates who are bankers frequently complain that they are “just another banker” and those with careers in industries other than banking often worry that admissions committees love bankers and so they will be left on the outside looking in. The truth is that the MBA programs want to see impact, and every applicant—regardless of industry—can reveal impact through his or her essays, resume, interview and recommendations. You do not need to be a rousing, Churchillian leader to get into Harvard Business School—you just need to convince the admissions officers that, again, you have done the everyday things in your life remarkably well. You might be a great mentor, an accomplished synergist or a creative problem solver—or even that Churchillian orator/motivator. In short, you might have different styles or personas in different environments, but no single “type” should be highlighted. The experiences you share in your application should convey your character for you, and having a diversity of them is great!

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

Jeremy: I think that taking a GMAT preparatory class is a smart idea—it brings a very beneficial, and often necessary, discipline to most people’s study.  We at mbaMission recommend Manhattan GMAT and Kaplan GMAT and have elected to partner with them because of the profoundly positive feedback we have consistently received about them from our clients. My only advice—because I am not the GMAT guy—would be to give yourself enough time to succeed. As I noted earlier, studying for the GMAT can take several months; classes alone are nine weeks long, and then you need to absorb all that information and work on mitigating your weaknesses. Moreover, the schools actually encourage candidates to take the GMAT more than once, because they only count an applicant’s highest score, which is then used to calculate their averages—and because these averages are considered in the various business school rankings, they want them as high as possible. You can only take the test once per month, so if you need a few months to study and to take the test multiple times, you will need the luxury of time!

VT: Is having work experience before starting an MBA degree absolutely necessary?

Jeremy: No, for the top schools, having formal work experience is not absolutely necessary, but you will need to have some proxy for this kind of experience if you are to be successful. So, perhaps you started a small business in your dorm or were president of student government at your undergraduate institution or had a series of unpaid internships in which you made a notable impact or held a leadership role on a sports team—all of these examples represent valid proxies that could reveal your potential going forward and your maturity, both of which the schools want to see in your application.

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

Jeremy: The top 15 to 20 programs are all playing a game of cat and mouse—one school opens a new building, and the rest soon follow suit. One establishes an incubator on campus, and soon after, the others have incubators, too. The leading MBA programs have large endowments and the ability to direct funds to attract great professors and promising students. Sure, brand strength might attract more candidates to Harvard Business School or the Wharton School, but the top 15 programs will all provide you with an excellent education.

In short, there is no single characteristic that applicants should look for. Candidates need to identify what exactly they need and want from an MBA program and what kind of environment will be most conducive to their success. The environment differs greatly between Wharton’s 850-student class and Dartmouth-Tuck’s 240-person class, between Chicago Booth’s flexible curriculum (in which  you independently choose all your classes from day one) and Harvard Business School’s preset, required core curriculum that spans the entire first year. Neither of these options is “better” than the other, but one is likely a better fit for you personally. So, we encourage all candidates to do their homework (and consultants such as mbaMission’s can certainly help with this step) and critically evaluate their options, because an MBA is a huge and enduring investment.

Check out mbaMission’s website for further information about Jeremy and his consulting services.

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