Be yourself for the best result

Personal integrity is vital to success when interviewing for a place at business school

If a book was written about you, what would the title be and why? If that one has you tripping over your tongue, it's meant to. "Part of the idea behind these questions is to throw you something you are not prepared for and see what you come up with," says Michael Forde, who successfully applied to a handful of business schools before choosing McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management in Canada.

A personal statement, computer-based assessment and an interview every bit as demanding as a job application – getting into business school can be a full-time effort. Management experience aside, Forde was successful because he knew why he wanted an MBA and didn't attempt to second-guess what schools wanted. "I didn't do a lot of preparation," he explains. "I knew the interview would be the most important part. I focused on what were genuinely my motivations and how best to communicate them. Having worked for 10 years, I had a lot of experiences I could draw from."

Top-tier schools only interview about half or less of all who apply, offering places to roughly half after meeting them in person. Applications – now open for next year – follow an apply-interview-evaluate-offer cycle, and once accepted, candidates are required to commit by paying a deposit. "There are many common mistakes, but the most frequent is most simply rectified," says Professor Amir Sharif, director of MBAs at Brunel Business School. "Tell the truth, explain any career gaps and have a solid story and reason for wanting to do an MBA."

The steps to actually getting face-to-face with an admissions officer are largely within the applicant's control yet sometimes neglected. "More often than not, individuals spend too little time on the application form – [it's] an opportunity to promote yourself, and show you can learn," says Ashley Arnold, director of MBA recruitment at Henley Business School. Prospective candidates sometimes leave their CV to speak for itself, failing to spot gaps and missing a chance to promote strengths. And the personal statement is a handy place to underline this, says Steve Cousins, MBA admissions manager at Cass Business School, which last year interviewed just 40 per cent of applicants. Statements should be jargon-free, clear and concise – Cass expects around two sides of A4, while some schools specify just 500 words – it's not an essay-writing competition. "It's to give a deeper understanding of you as an individual," says Cousins. Get a trusted second opinion, he recommends, and keep clear of irrelevant details, such as unrelated hobbies. "We are looking for people who can engage with abstraction and who write clearly," says Stephan Chambers, MBA director at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. "Candidates should have read a lot, written a lot and thought a lot."

Business schools are adept at spotting a generic essay sent out with multiple applications – and they also don't want an impersonal repetition of their own website blurb. "My advice is to write the personal statement not as a history of your past, but as a history of the future – with the MBA as the starting point for what you could potentially become," says Sharif.

Throughout the entire application process, emphasise your achievements to prove you will eventually make an impressive ambassador, says Heather Baker, managing director of TopLine Communications, who's just graduated with an MBA from London Business School – business schools need respected alumni in a competitive market. "You need to show them that you will become one of those [ambassador] graduates," she says. "Did you get promoted quickly at work? Has your blog attracted a large following? Were you instrumental in helping your company win a major contract?" It pays to play up your strengths rather than project what you think the school is after.

And if you have a spare 50-plus hours or more, then devote them to practising the Graduate Management Admissions Test (Gmat), a computer assessment required by most schools and a source of stress for many applicants. Knowing how it's put together and where your own weaknesses are is crucial – practice improves results. "I did 70 hours prep and practice, but once I'd mastered the time-management aspect, I found I didn't improve beyond about 50 hours," says Forde. An adaptive test, the Gmat comprises four main sections; analytical writing assessment, quantitative, verbal and a new section added this June called integrated reasoning, designed to test candidates' ability to evaluate information in different formats from different sources – in other words, coping with large and varied amounts of data.

Pacing yourself is everything, says Jane Delbene, director of marketing at the Graduate Management Admissions Council (Gmac), which administers the test. On average, allow 1.75 minutes for each verbal question and about two minutes for each quantitative question, she says. Completing the test is one key to a better score, she says; the penalty is severe if you don't. Visit to schedule a test at a local centre.

Once invited to interview, admissions staff advise that you afford it the same respect as a professional encounter, even though it might come across as an informal chat in a relaxed setting. "I didn't have the sense that I was being interviewed; it was more of a conversation, them getting to know me," remembers Forde. At this stage you will probably have visited the school and ascertained this is where you want to spend your time and money.

Schools such as Saïd in Oxford place more weight on the interview than other portions of the application and will examine thoroughly the areas you are supposed to know about rather than expose weaknesses. "If you work in risk in a large institution, you should expect to be asked to develop an argument about risk – not about leadership," says Chambers. "[It's] to test how you think and argue, how you link large-scale trends to your own experience, how you might engage in class and with your classmates." And – sin of sins – don't ever pretend to know things you don't.

Business schools depend on a dynamic mix of students to appeal to prospective candidates – so second-guessing what they want to hear is largely pointless, as they declare they have no "blueprint" candidate. "Don't worry about all the things you don't yet know," says Chambers. "That's what the course is for."