Berkeley Haas EMBA students

Secrets to crafting your best MBA application

By Susan Petty

Not to scare you off, but applying to an MBA program is a big deal. It takes a lot of planning, rigor, and yes, self-reflection. But, if you were easily intimidated by those things, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, and you certainly wouldn’t be ready for an MBA.

The application is actually more than a way to present your best self to an admissions committee, it is an opportunity for you to dig deep into your motivation, readiness, and ability to commit to an MBA program at this particular time in your career.

In a microcosm, the application process calls on many of the skills you’ll need to succeed as an MBA student, including the ability to organize paperwork and your thoughts, manage timelines, juggle priorities, and collaborate with others toward a common goal.

We look at every aspect of someone's candidacy to evaluate how that candidate would contribute."

It helps to think of your application as a story with you as the principal character. Here’s a breakdown of the components of what will become your best MBA application:

The MBA application form

This is the frame for the story. It sounds elementary, but you might start by reading through the application and making a list of all the information you’ll need to complete it; some items may require reaching out to others and will take time. For example, you may remember your undergrad GPA, but you’ll still need to request and submit transcripts, and you should ideally allow for 2-4 weeks for people to write your letters of recommendation.

Your resume: often the first thing the admissions committee reviews

The resume is an item applicants are likely to give less consideration, according to Morgan Bernstein, executive director of admissions for the Full-time MBA Program Berkeley Haas. Yet, she says, “It is often one of the first documents we review to give us a snapshot of a candidate. A well-crafted resume has the potential to set the course for the initial application review.”

Berkeley Haas Evening & Weekend MBA students

This is where you can highlight the impact you’ve had at your company and in professional and community organizations, how you’ve demonstrated leadership, and the progression of your career. This showcasing of your experience helps an admissions committee understand what you can contribute to an MBA program.

MBA application essays: from favorite songs to six-words stories—off the wall for a reason

The essay questions are where you really get to color outside the lines instead of filling in the blanks. The most important thing to remember is that the only “right” answers are the answers that are true for you. This is your chance to show a business school a different dimension of yourself, one that your resume or transcripts may not even hint at.

To that end, MBA essay questions can sometimes seem a bit off the wall. Berkeley Haas, for example, has asked applicants to write about the song they most identify with or to write a six-word story and then explain what it means to them. 

The goal is to encourage you to think deeply about why you want your MBA and to speak from the heart and reveal your authentic self. In our MBA essay tips podcast, Brad Shervheim, a student in the Evening & Weekend Berkeley Haas MBA Program, sits down with Admissions Director Eileen Jacob to talk about why he dug deep and chose to make himself vulnerable with his essays, his way of tackling and “taming” the Berkeley Haas MBA application.

Even if you think you nailed the essays, it’s a good idea to socialize them with friends, family, and peers to get another perspective, verify that they read true to you, and to identify where they can be strengthened.

Academic transcripts: how admissions gets to see you as a student

Crafting a solid class of MBA students, one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, is not just about the numbers—though numbers do play a role. That starts with your academic transcripts. While the grades you earned are one factor, so is the array of courses you chose.

Looking at previous academic transcripts tells admissions committees something about your intellectual curiosity, about your willingness to challenge yourself, and about what ignited your passion the last time you were a student.

Berkeley Haas Full-time MBA students

MBA entrance exams: the GMAT, GRE, and Executive Assessment

If you’re like most MBA applicants, one number that looms large is your score on the GMAT, GRE or Executive Assessment. We know it can be daunting to face these tests, especially if you’ve been out of school for awhile. That’s why we offer tips and advice on everything from what to do the night before the test to retaking the GMAT, to improving your GMAT quant score.

For a general overview and a study timeline, our ebook Avoiding the GMAT/GRE Blues is a good place to start minimizing the pain of test prep. You also can hear Berkeley MBA for Executives student Manoj Thomas discuss the GMAT with EMBA Admissions Director Susan Petty.

The exams help us understand that you have the academic, the quantitative capabilities to handle the rigor of the program."

Keep in mind when you look at class profiles and their mean or median GMAT scores that students admitted to these programs have scores both higher and lower than those numbers. No matter what your score, remember it is only one data point among many considered in your application.

Download our Free GMAT Tips

MBA letters of recommendation: ask early!

In addition to telling your first-person story, your application reflects how others perceive you in the form of letters of recommendation. It’s not that an Admissions Committee won’t trust your own evaluation of your abilities and experiences—applicants are often their own worst critics. It’s that others often see us more clearly than we see ourselves, especially when it comes to leadership potential.

Your letters of recommendation should come from people who have had significant professional interaction with you. Choose your recommenders carefully, and give them plenty of time to write a thoughtful letter (ideally 4-8 weeks ahead of the deadline).

Also, be sure to look at what the school wants recommenders to comment on. This may guide your choice of whom to ask and gives you another window into what the school values in its students.

The MBA admissions interview

This is the best place for everyone—you and the admissions committee—to experience and connect with each other. These sessions often take place on campus or with an alum of the program, so they also afford an opportunity for you to experience campus, the classroom, or some of the people who may become part of your MBA community.

Remember, the interview is also about you getting to know the business school better, and to help you determine if this really is the place and the program to bring out the best in you. That means admissions representatives welcome your questions at any point in the application process.

The finishing touches

Once you have everything crossed off your MBA application to-do list, it’s time to make sure you're truly ready to click the submit button.

1. Double check that the application is complete—that all attachments are indeed attached and that all other documents have been sent.

2. Read through the entire application to make sure it tells your complete story.

3. Ask someone else to proofread after you’ve already proofread. The more eyes, the better.

4. Submit on time or even a bit early; if the application is due before midnight, don’t wait until 11:59.

Start writing your next chapter

Taken as a whole, your story, told through your application, gives the admissions committee a well-rounded introduction to who you are. Your resume tracks where you’ve been professionally, while the essays give the committee insights into who you are as a person and where you want your life to lead. Your transcripts and test scores demonstrate what you’re capable of intellectually. The letters of recommendation let the committee see you—any your potential—through the eyes of others who know you. Finally, the interview gives them a firsthand look at the real you.

When you submit your best MBA application, the story will have a happy ending, with admission to the MBA program that is right for you. And if you have your eye on Berkeley Haas, check out application tips and insights from Berkeley Haas MBA admissions directors, and check your MBA readiness with our ebook Five Signs You’re Ready for an MBA.

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Posted on January 24, 2018
Themes: Applying
Susan Petty
Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.