Put your best form forward

The application process is about matching your ambitions to a school and making them see you'll flourish. Diana Hinds offers timely tips
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The Independent Online

Making a success of your MBA application means more than merely securing a place at a business school. It means matching your needs, ambitions and talents to a school, and a programme, that is best suited to you, and where you are most likely to flourish. Knowing exactly what you want from your MBA is therefore a crucial part of the application process.

Making a success of your MBA application means more than merely securing a place at a business school. It means matching your needs, ambitions and talents to a school, and a programme, that is best suited to you, and where you are most likely to flourish. Knowing exactly what you want from your MBA is therefore a crucial part of the application process.

Consider yourself, first of all, in the round. Business schools generally look for a mix of ability and experience, and you will need to match yourself in terms of age, background and achievement to the culture of the school you choose. The emphasis will vary from one school to another. As Professor Ian Turner at Henley Management College says: "The key to a successful application is finding out what the school wants, and making sure you match the criteria. At Henley, we look for a good basic level of education, normally a degree, but what is much more important is the relevant work experience that you can bring to the learning process."

Some business schools, including most of the American schools, give considerable weight to the score an applicant has achieved in the GMAT test, which is designed to asses numeracy and verbal reasoning. Practising these tests in advance can help to improve your score, either on the internet (see www.mba.com) or at test centres around the country.

Julia Tyler is director of the MBA programme at the London Business School, which likes to see GMAT scores in the region of 680 to 690. "The test is a valid predictor of a student's performance in the first year of an MBA course," she says. "But GMAT is not a measure of personality, team-working ability, cultural awareness, or self-presentation, and these things matter hugely. These come out through essays that applicants write, and through interview."

A majority of MBA hopefuls are far too sloppy about the quality of their written applications, says Peter Calladine, accreditation services manager for the Association of MBAs. "Some applications can be appalling - even from good candidates, who have just dashed them off in an hour," he says.

The application form often requires you to produce four short essays, ranging from why you want to do an MBA and why you have chosen a particular school, to more academic questions about, for instance, 21st-century challenges to the business world. These essays must be cogent and well written.

Referees, too, need to be carefully chosen, and given plenty of time in which to produce what is needed. Ideally, recommends Calladine, you need to begin the process of making your application up to a year in advance.

If your written application passes muster, some - but not all - business schools will want to interview you. If you are applying from overseas, the interview could be by phone, or be conducted by local alumni of the school. If you are applying closer to home, you could find yourself faced with a panel of two or more academics.

Approach the interview much as a job interview, making sure you have done the relevant research about the school and its staff. Here your self-presentation skills rather than your academic ability will be to the fore, and you need to come across as someone with leadership potential. But use the interview, too, to find out if this is a school where you will feel comfortable. As Calladine puts it: "This is a two-way beauty contest."

Maggie Preddy, MBA admissions manager at the University of Bath business school, says a high percentage of written applications fail to meet the school's rigorous entry requirements, but all those that do are called for interview.

"We are looking, at interview, for intelligent argument, depth and breadth of argument, clear thinking, and that the individual recognises the amount of effort they will have to put in. We need to make sure that when a person joins the programme, they are right for it, and that they will engage with our academics."

And, however keen you are to know how your application is progressing, don't be tempted to use your superior IT skills to find out. Harvard Business School recently rejected applicants who entered a website containing confidential information about their admittance status. The school claimed this constituted hacking - an activity which raised doubts about the applicants' integrity.

'I had 18 months to prepare my application; I saved like crazy'

Sean Buckland gained a place at his first choice business school, Warwick, and began a one-year MBA last autumn.

"I was working in health and social services on organisation development and change, and I decided an MBA would enable me to apply for jobs at a more senior level.

I recognised I wasn't ready to get into a top school in the six months before the start of the next programme. So in the end I had about 18 months to prepare my application ­ and I saved like crazy.

I drew up a list of about 100 schools which I researched at the MBA fair, and came out with seven schools to look at more closely.

Then I decided to get the GMAT out of the way. I bought some books and a CD, and sat down and took some practice tests at home. The GMAT is a hugely predictable product: I set myself a target score to work towards to get into Warwick, and in the end this is the score I got, on the button.

After putting more detailed questions to the schools on my list, the choice came down to two, and Warwick was my preference. I left my job to get some experience in the commercial sector before starting the MBA. I got hold of the application forms the day they came out on the internet, booked up to see my referees, and knuckled down to the essays, getting some friends in the business world to comment on them.

I was in the first round of interviews at Warwick. I had found out in advance that we would be doing a group exercise, and I was able to demonstrate my strengths as a member of a team, getting everybody to focus in one direction. They offered me a place on the spot. I started in September, and everything is working out very well ­ just as I had expected."

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