Are Business Schools looking for you? MBA admissions criteria

Business schools look for candidates who will be successful corporate, small-business and non-profit executives, civic leaders, change agents, and entrepreneurs. They cannot discover all they need to know about candidates from grades or test scores — these are simply insufficient for determining leadership, team working, creativity, and other critical abilities —so they have candidates submit a great deal of additional information and material to help them make their decisions. 

What they examine

The schools start by examining your basic credentials, including your undergraduate performance; your GMAT or GRE score; your work experience to date; and your community contributions and other activities outside of work.  On top of that, however, they evaluate your essays, the recommendations submitted on your behalf and the results of your interviews, to determine whether you will be successful in the business school environment and in your post-MBA career.

Broadly speaking, business schools use this information to rate candidates in four general categories: intellectual ability, managerial and leadership potential, personal attributes (such as integrity, determination, and creativity), and career awareness and planning. 


The question inevitably arises: how do admissions officers determine who gets in, given that some applicants have outstanding job records, but unimpressive grades and GMAT scores, whereas others have the reverse set of strengths and weaknesses?  There is no set answer, but bear in mind:

  • The top business schools do not need to make substantial trade-offs. INSEAD, London Business School, Harvard, and Wharton, for example, have many applicants with sterling undergraduate records, high GMAT scores, and impressive work experience, which eliminates the need to accept applicants with any substantial weaknesses.
  • Schools value specific criteria differently, depending upon the applicant. For example, if you have worked for fewer than two to three years, your undergraduate record, extracurricular activities, and GMAT score will count very heavily because your work experience is too slight to provide definitive information.  By contrast, if you have ten years of work experience, you can expect that less weight will be place on academic measures.
  • Each programme is looking to shape an interesting and diverse class. This means that you may be valued particularly highly (or lowly), depending upon how you compare with others in terms of nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, family background, gender, career, and functional background.  (Part of the desire for diversity is based on the need to have a sprinkling of experts—in accounting, technology, etc.—able to teach fellow classmates their specialty beyond what is taught in class.)

Experience counts

MBA programmes value work experience in their students. Experienced students can contribute real-world experience to class and caseteam discussions. They know enough about how organizations function, the role of technology in their industry, what is required to succeed in a given job, the prerequisites to move up in their industry, and so on, that they provide a major career resource for their classmates. Similarly, experienced students have learned a great deal about their own strengths and weaknesses, values and interests. They are likely to know what sort of career path makes sense for them. As a result, they know what classes to choose, projects to undertake, and student groups to join. In other words, they are ready to get the most out of their MBA programmes.

Students without practical work experience, in contrast, have a number of substantial weaknesses from the perspective of a serious MBA programme.  They:

  • Cannot teach other students about their own jobs/organisations/industries
  • Are not effective participants in class, especially in case-oriented courses, where real-world experience is particularly valued
  • Are generally regarded as adding time inefficiency to student-learning teams and are therefore often avoided by those with practical experience
  • Lack sufficient self-understanding and career perspective to know which elective courses to select and student organisations to join
  • May not fit the profile traditional recruiters seek from MBA graduates, making it hard to find a successful job.

The new realities

Does this mean young applicants are without hope? Hardly. Many MBA programmes, including some of the very top ones, have long taken at least a handful of applicants directly from university.  These have traditionally been students with substantial experience in a family business or in large student organizations with some of the characteristics of a business or nonprofit enterprise. 

Business schools have changed their admissions policies dramatically in recent years and now admit substantial numbers of applicants who have limited experience.  This change is the result of two related factors:

  • The growth of the tech sector, and its interest in hiring knowledgeable candidates still in their (early) twenties.
  • Many talented people of the sort who formerly maneuvered to work for traditional MBA employers (investment banks, consulting firms, etc.) now seek careers offering personal fulfillment, not just money. Thus, they want to work in nonprofits, socially-oriented enterprises, and startups. 

MBA programmes have responded by admitting substantially more young applicants (especially those who are tech-oriented) and those who aim to work in nonprofits and the like. 



Timing your MBA programme can be a tricky business.  The discussion above rehearses the arguments for waiting until you have substantial work experience before doing an MBA.  And for candidates able to make good use of their time post-bachelor’s degree this is very good advice.  This is particularly true for those who are able to get good work experience and thereby develop their skills (including skills such as handling office politics, satisfying a demanding boss, working on teams, rather than just “hard” skills), learn what their most important needs are, understand the job market, and develop a professional network.

So who should consider heading to business school shortly after earning their bachelor’s degree?  The following factors suggest that it might make sense to do an MBA sooner rather than later:

  • You are having trouble getting early career traction, and risk being relegated to mindless jobs
  • You know with reasonable certainty what you want to get from an MBA
  • You have had sufficient work experience—or internship or other organizational experience—to profit from an MBA (and to be taken seriously by your classmates)
  • Your (probably high tech) skill set will make you a valuable contributor on the programme
  • You have a sufficient combination of experience, skills, and self-awareness that you will be attractive to employers post-MBA, or able to start your own business

The Association of MBAs (AMBA) criteria stipulates business schools must require three years of management experience from MBA applicants. Although you may be an exception to this suggested rule of thumb, you will probably be glad if your MBA class is loaded with people who do have substantial experience.  They’ll be fonts of learning, advice, and contacts for you.

Key criteria

The lack of career data for applicants forces admissions offices to give extra weight to the data they do have: undergraduate performance, GMAT score, and so on.  So do what you can to improve these basic elements of your profile. 

Note, however, that you can do more than that to improve your chances of admission.  Although business schools are increasingly willing to admit young applicants, they still want to avoid the negative points associated with youth: immaturity, inability to work with older people, lack of self-knowledge, and lack of career focus.  You therefore should do what you can to acquire useful experience and demonstrate qualities valued by MBA programmes. 

In addition to (or as a substitute for) working in a ‘proper’ job, you can join a student organisation, work part-time for a local business, or volunteer for a nonprofit or civic organisation. Whatever activities you choose, keep in mind that the following will help you to maximize the value of your outside activities:

  • Depth of involvement: The longer you have been seriously committed to an activity, the better.
  • Leadership: Show that you have taken an active leadership role (and have motivated others around you to contribute their best efforts).
  • Avoid reinforcing doubts: If your profile features little team involvement, for example, be wary of activities that are essentially solo pursuits.
  • Recruit referees: Recommendations from those who have seen you perform outside classrooms are particularly valued by MBA programmes.

Marketing yourself

Consult the companion article, ‘Application Success’, for help in marketing yourself to MBA programmes.  Keep in mind that as a young applicant you face issues specific to your circumstances that you should address throughout your application.

For more in-depth advice, consult my book, How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs  (6th ed., Prentice Hall), or contact me directly ( for individual consulting.

Richard Montauk is the author of How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs, currently in its sixth edition. The book, a bestseller in multiple countries, is generally regarded as the most analytical and comprehensive guide to the business school application process.  It is based in part on his 25+ years of consulting to applicants and in part on his in-depth interviews with the admissions and career service deans at the world’s top business schools. 

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