Ask an MBA Admissions Expert: JoAnne Goldberg

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6 min read

Varsity Tutors brings you insider tips and advice straight from nationally recognized admissions experts. JoAnne Goldberg is the former Assistant Director of Admissions at Stanford Graduate School of Business, as well as a former admissions officer with InGenius Prep. While at Stanford GSB, she read and evaluated thousands of MBA applications over five years, earning the title of “reader warrior” along the way. She received her MBA from Stanford as well.

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

Joanne: Ideally, your MBA application process should begin about 15 months before you plan to start the program. The schools publish their application requirements in mid-summer, and at that point you can take a look at the essay prompts for the programs that interest you. Writing your essays will consume the most time and energy so keep those prompts on a back-burner in your brain, with your responses percolating before you start your first drafts. As ideas hit you, make a note of them.

Most of the schools send admissions representatives traveling around the world in the summer; make sure you sign up for school mailing lists so you can receive event notifications. Seek out students or alums of your target programs so you can ask them about their experiences. 

Of course, you will need to prepare for the GMAT or GRE, plus the TOEFL if you are an international student from a non-English-speaking country. And you will want to consider whom to ask for letters for recommendation, or LOR as we call them.

The admissions process has lots of moving parts, each of which demands your attention. Much introspection and self-examination will occur, but if you give the process the attention it deserves, you will be in the right frame of mind to start your MBA program with clear expectations and a sense of direction.

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

Joanne: Be your best and most authentic self. If you try to second-guess what adcoms want to read or model your essay on one you find online, your application will not be as effective. Experienced adcoms have seen the same canned stories 1,000 times, but this is the first time they’ve met you.

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

Joanne: In addition to the aforementioned authenticity, admissions officers want to see you answer the questions that have been asked. And make sure to start off fresh with each school. You’ll notice when you read the essay prompts that schools all phrase their questions a little differently. If you try to modify your Harvard essay for a Yale application, your patchwork will be obvious to adcoms, who will ask themselves “if this applicant can’t be bothered to write an essay that responds to our prompt, why should we offer admission?”

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

Joanne: In addition to the problems mentioned already, there are two big mistakes I’ve seen a few times. First, the applicant has obtained a little too much assistance from a friend and submits an essay with change bars or parenthetical comments that are visible to any reader. Second, a letter of recommendation that has been written by someone who doesn’t really know the applicant.

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

Joanne: The process isn’t so different, but it’s on an elevated level compared to undergrad. The MBA essays require you to take a deep and hard look at yourself, whereas for undergrad admissions, you can often get by with a decently written personal statement. And your LOR will have to convey more substance than “great student!” My high school senior acquaintances are applying to around 15-20 undergrad institutions. That’s viable for undergrad. I would not recommend applying to more than eight MBA programs because of the effort required to complete each application.

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.)?

Joanne: Lying or cheating in any way, violating the school’s code of ethics, and yes, this includes writing your own recommendation letter.

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

Joanne: Tasks and achievements that you can quantify. Experiences that illustrate your taking charge, overcoming challenges, or playing a leadership role. Schools are trying to gauge your impact in your current job (or undergrad pursuits and internships, if you are still in college). If you’ve been working for more than a couple of years, they like to see that your responsibilities have continued to grow.

What advice do you have regarding GMAT prep?

Joanne: There’s no one-size-fits-all, so be honest with yourself about your own learning and review style. Some people can borrow a GMAT prep book from the library and work with it every night for a couple of weeks before the test. Other people need to sign up for a class or private tutor and get the extra motivation an instructor or a coach provides. As with everything else in MBA admissions, give yourself plenty of time. “I’ll review my old math notes the night before the test” is unlikely to prove a winning strategy.

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

Joanne: Absolutely not. Stanford has always been open to new graduates. Harvard and Yale offer special programs for undergraduates who apply. And other schools welcome applicants without extensive post-graduate work experience. There are quite a few programs, however, that remain adamant about requiring at least a couple of years of experience. So although recent graduates have options, if you have at least two post-graduate years of experience, the whole MBA universe is open to you. Without that experience, your choices are more limited.

What are the characteristics of a great MBA program?

Joanne: From an academic and a career perspective, there are dozens of great MBA programs. I would cite the following as an incomplete list of characteristics:

  • Everyone involved in the program, from the admissions officers to the behind-the-scenes administrators to professors, wants to help you learn and achieve your personal and professional goals.
  • Students are enthusiastically engaged—in class discussions, in study groups, in student organizations. Whether you’re attending a student gathering or visiting a classroom, you can feel the energy and excitement.
  • The curriculum is a mix of required courses and electives, carefully designed to give you the breadth of knowledge that you expect from an MBA and the freedom to dive deeply into the areas that interest you.
  • Professors insist that they have the best job on the planet, and praise their students’ intellectual curiosity, persistence, and willingness to push themselves to the max.
  • Students and alums tell you how much they love their school, and how they cannot imagine enjoying a greater level of satisfaction, better preparation, or a superior experience anywhere else.

Check out InGenius Prep for more information.

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