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How to get into top business schools

The Telegraph

Top-tier business schools go to extraordinary lengths to attract the right kind of student on their MBA programmes. London Business School (LBS) has been known to wait until an applicant’s military submarine has surfaced in order to arrange a meeting in some distant part of the world. Like many of the UK’s highest ranking schools, LBS won’t admit anyone without an interview and offers places to just half of its interviewees.

Trying to get into business school is gruelling, and there are books, websites and consultancies devoted to helping professionals breach the top institutions. Above all, says Paul Bodine, author of Great Applications for Business School, applicants should be themselves and not try to second-guess what admissions committees want. “Yes, market yourself, but not as some phony personal brand,” he advises.

Every top-school application contains common elements: the GMAT test for business school, personal essays, and the interview. But nothing annoys admissions committees more than generic applications that ignore the individual “flavour” of a school. Obvious gaffes, such as getting the name of the school wrong, are relatively rare but admissions staff can spot a scatter-gun approach to applications a mile off.

“We want proof that they’ve done their research, even down to knowing what clubs or conferences they plan to attend, and what they can offer,” says David Simpson, admissions director at LBS.

While no school selects candidates solely on the basis of GMAT scores, they often rule out applicants with lower marks or, in the case of exceptional candidates, ask them to retake if their scores are too low. Over the years, scores at top international schools have crept higher — possibly a reflection on how many hours of test preparation prospective candidates are putting in.

GMAT assesses a candidate’s verbal and quantitative skills, and employers do pay attention to scores when it comes to hiring MBA graduates, says Dana Brown, MBA director at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. “We wouldn’t accept GMAT under 600; we look for people around our average of 690, and we look at the breakdown.”

Scores among MBA students at Manchester Business School range from 570 to 700, says Helen Dowd, director of MBA admissions, and the school might receive up to 600 applications for around 110 places. “But we have a very holistic view of how we assess — we don’t focus on test scores but put more emphasis on professional experience.”

This year Warwick Business School has a student who scored as high as 770, and an average of 680. With 60 nationalities on board in any one year, LBS also values the right “mix” of backgrounds and cultures. “I’ve seen LBS be more forgiving of lower GMAT scores in English oriented sections to admit the personalities and global backgrounds they seek,” says Rachel Korn, a US-based admissions consultant. However, a school will want to know how MBA students will cope with finance and accounting modules.

All top UK schools require a mix of essays — dreaded by many, but an opportunity to make an impression. Questions typically range from what you learned from your most spectacular failure to what your professional goals are. “The essays offer the candidate a chance to give an insight into their motivations and personality,” says James Barker, MBA admissions Coordinator at Cambridge Judge Business School, an institution that looks for strong academic background combined with solid career progress.

Two years ago Manchester Business School began asking applicants to provide a Powerpoint presentation. “We asked them to tell us more about themselves as people,” says Dowd. “This could cover motivations or personal achievements, including running a marathon, for example. It’s a blank canvas that allows us to learn a lot about someone.”

Bodine suggests a variety of techniques to get the ball rolling on essay writing, but urges candidates to look closely at what individual schools actually want, as all questions vary slightly. Warwick, for instance, sets four essay questions, on topics such as accomplishments and setbacks or key issues facing an organisation.

“The ones who tend to do better not only spot the challenges but also offer potential solutions,” says Sotirios Paroutis, assistant dean of the Warwick full time MBA. LBS has reduced the number of essays it requires but wants applicants to cut to the chase. “Over a third of essay space is given over to what applicants think is important, but their interpretation is just as crucial as the context it sits in,” says Simpson.

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