What would you do to improve your shot at the MBA program of your dreams? Start a small business? Or a nonprofit, perhaps? Travel the world to bulk up your personal narrative? Maybe even drop $10,000 on a prep course?

If you’re aiming for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, you may well be tempted to do all of the above.

“From the classmate who climbed Mount Everest to the one who started a microfinance organization for individual entrepreneurs, these are the people who are your classmates and will ultimately become your friends — for life,” says a prerecorded message from Stefan, a Stanford MBA student from Belgium who keeps you company while you’re on hold with the admissions office.

If you’re not like Stefan and didn’t grow up in Hong Kong, study in Britain and work on four continents before applying for an MBA, you may feel, well, ordinary. And out of luck.

Which is why a growing number of prospective MBAs map out a win-at-all-costs strategy one, two or three years before applying. They are, after all, trying to stand out among nearly 200,000 MBA applicants across the nation.

“I wanted to show I could bring more to the school,” said Radha Rai, who started a company that develops smartphone apps for the GMAT, a bear of a test that’s the first hurdle for MBA hopefuls. “I show it from my start-up because in my regular job, you don’t get opportunity for taking risk.”

The bet paid off: The 28-year old Indian IT professional was accepted to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, despite scoring below the school’s average on the GMAT. Of 4,299 applicants to Booth’s full-time MBA program in 2010, 22 percent were accepted, according to the school. The full cost is about $85,000 a year, not including foregone wages. A full-time MBA program typically takes two years.

Experts say the sacrifice is well worth it. Attending a top-ranked MBA program, such as one in the top 15 of Bloomberg Businessweek’s survey, can pay off handsomely over a career.

“It’s the promise of the golden ticket,” says Shawn Berry, president of PerfectGMAT, a test-prep company.

To help candidates get into those top schools, which include Stanford, Booth, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Harvard, Northwestern’s Kellogg School and Duke, Berry promises to maximize their GMAT scores — for a modest fee.

“My GMAT service costs $10,000, and it long has,” he says, “and it’s well worth it.”

‘Opportunity for access’

Indeed, a study commissioned by Bloomberg Businessweek found that graduates from the top MBA programs make about $1 million more over the course of their careers than those from lesser-ranked programs.

Berry’s pitch has a very basic appeal. An MBA, he says, is an “opportunity for access” to top-paying jobs. It’s a degree, he says, that largely caters to “people who want to succeed and go to Wall Street and make a lot of money.”

So why not spend $10,000, or 1 percent of that additional $1 million in expected lifetime earnings, to secure a spot at a school where you’ll maximize that access?

Mark Ein, for example, finished the Wharton undergraduate program in 1986 and landed jobs at Goldman Sachs, the prestigious investment bank, and Brentwood Associates, a private equity firm. In 1990, he left Brentwood to get his MBA at Harvard Business School. That opened the door to the Carlyle Group, an even more prestigious and well-paying private equity firm.

Ein, who today manages his own District-based investment firm, says it wasn’t all about the money. “I wanted to spend two years immersing myself and thinking about business,” he says.

But he quickly realized he was in the minority. “My first week at Harvard Business School, I got a call from one of the second-year students who said he wanted to work at Brentwood Associates and was asking me if I could help him,” he recalls. Five minutes into the conversation, the student asked him: “Why the hell did you leave, anyway? Everyone here wants to leave and go to work there.”

Small wonder, then, that GMAT tutors like Berry can charge $10,000 a pop to help applicants land at a school like Wharton or Harvard, schools that regularly attract 7,000 or more applicants and admit fewer than 20 percent.

With dozens of clients each year, Berry said, “I’m as busy as I can be.”

So are the at least 25 MBA graduate admissions consultancies around the world that coach students on other parts of their applications, such as essays, interviews and letters of recommendation. With names like Clear Admit, AdmissionsConsultants and Stacy Blackman Consulting, many of them help applicants rethink how they market themselves to business schools. Their guidance can often make the difference between an admission slip and a rejection letter.

Graham Richmond, founder of Clear Admit, helped one client get into Wharton by persuading her to scrap her essay about an energy deal she worked on and focus on something else: shooting guns. The Texas-based private-equity firm she worked at was a male-dominated environment where the senior executives liked to talk business at the shooting range. So the Asian American learned to fit in by joining them for target shooting.

“I was all about getting her to understand who’s reading the file,” Richmond said. “The people reading the file are more like your high school English teacher than the colleague sitting next to you at an investment bank,” he said; they’re more interested in getting a good sense of who you are than your business experience.

Kathryn Bezella, senior associate director of admissions at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, declines to pass judgment on whether hiring a consultant or a $10,000 test prep tutor is a worthwhile investment.

“Students are grown-ups,” she says. “We rely on them to make a whole host of decisions on their own.”

The intangibles

An excellent GMAT score, usually in the 700-to-800 range, is not enough to get into a top program. Applicants must also demonstrate “intangible” qualities, such as managerial, entrepreneurial or social skills that make them stand out from the crowd.

“The intangibles are in­cred­ibly important,” says George Andrews, associate dean at University of Chicago’s Booth School, because they help separate the high-scoring GMAT candidates from each other and build a diverse class.

This is the real chance to shine.

Rai’s GMAT prep app company gave her plenty to talk about during her interview at Booth.

“I told them I was in the process of filing a patent,” she said.

What matters most, Andrews said, is that applicants are genuine about their pursuits. “You’ll find that people like her who are passionate about it can talk all day,” he said.

Next month, Rai will start Booth’s program part time so she can devote more time to launching her app, GMAT FatPig.

Eric Bell took a slightly different approach. Like Rai, whose IT background put her in a well-represented segment of the MBA applicant pool, Bell was applying to business school as a financial analyst at Citi Private Bank. In the year before he applied to Georgetown, he started a D.C. branch of a nonprofit devoted to teaching children financial literacy. The experience helped show the admissions committee his seriousness about his goal of starting a business in the field.

“It gave me a story to talk about,” said Bell, who is still involved with the nonprofit, Greater Washington Jump$tart Coalition, and is launching a personal finance advisory firm, YoBucko.com.

Elaine Romanelli, associate dean at Georgetown, said she looks for students like Bell who can “make connections between what experiences they’ve had and what they want to get out of the MBA.”

Others applicants look to the world. Carrie Perdue spent three years working as a consultant with Deloitte in McLean, Va., before she quit in February 2010 to move to Honduras. From her base in the country’s westernmost province, she teaches business skills to local residents as part of “Mi Vida Empresarial,” an entre­pre­neur­ship program she developed for the Peace Corps.

“At Deloitte, I was never the boss,” she says. “I really wanted an experience that would make me a better leader and a better business person.”

The 26-year old Virginia native will feature that Peace Corps experience in her applications to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Booth and Kellogg. “I hope I will be a more attractive business school applicant,” she says.

But that wasn’t her top reason for joining the Peace Corp. “I wanted to have international experience,” she says. “I wanted to learn a foreign language. And I wanted to challenge myself.”

Volunteering is another route, but here sincerity and commitment are especially important. Richmond, the consultant, shares the story of a prospect who jumped into tutoring inner-city kids and volunteering at a soup kitchen two months before a key application deadline. He was rejected by Chicago, Kellogg and Wharton. Now he’s regrouping to apply again.

“The candidate who starts doing something right before application can look fishy,” Richmond said.

‘Not Mother Teresa’

But do you really need to go to extremes to get into a top school?

Lisa Giannangeli was wondering about that when she attended an information session for top MBA programs in the mid-1990s when she was a consultant at Deloitte. She didn’t have the guts to ask the question of Stanford’s director of admissions that day.

But a colleague did.

He stood up and said, “I’m not Mother Teresa, and I haven’t cured cancer, nor have I recovered from it . . . and on top of it all, I had a really happy childhood and I love my parents,” Giannangeli recalls. He finished by asking,“‘Help! What am I going to write about to differentiate myself from every other person in this room?”

Today, Giannangeli heads up Stanford’s business school admissions, and a ballroom filled with about 400 prospective MBAs at Washington’s Capitol Hilton burst into laughter last month when she shared the anecdote. At least one person felt some relief.

“That was the moment where I felt like she was speaking to me, because I feel very ordinary,” said Schinria Islam, a 21-year-old from the University of Nevada who is swinging for Stanford.

Giannangeli gave the same advice she heard from the Stanford admissions director some years ago: “The majority of people who go to our institution have done ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

So what about that prerecorded phone message where a Belgian who grew up in Asia tells you about his classmate who climbed Mount Everest?

“Think about the hard work and the determination and the initiative that are found in that person,” Giannangeli says when she picks up the line. “It’s more those qualities that we’re looking for than an actual crazy story.”

Stacy Blackman, who works with MBA candidates, concurs. One of her clients wrote an application essay about revamping a spreadsheet that everybody used at the investment bank where she worked.

A spreadsheet. Sort of ordinary, no?

“She got into Harvard,” Blackman said.