MBA applicants must successfully navigate five major hurdles
to gain admission into the school of their choice: application essays,
letters of recommendation, academic credentials, work experience and and an entrance interview.

Here are tips that admissions officers from five top-ranked MBA programs shared on each of these
application components at a recent admissions panel sponsored by Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. (Kaplan is owned by The Washington Post Co., publisher of The Washington Post.)

Pauline Jennett
Harvard Business School

●Applicants: 9,524

●Acceptance rate: 12 percent

●Annual cost of attendance: $84,000

Jennett, who serves as associate director of MBA admissions, advised candidates to use their essays to paint a “mosaic” of what makes them who they are. The essay is the one part of the application process, she said, that can really distinguish candidates from one another: “It’s a way for us to see beyond the pieces of paper that we read in your application and see what are your drives, what are your goals, what are your motivations?” Jennett said. But she also advised candidates to stand out for the right reasons. One essay she read this year began, “As I lay in my own vomit after I had been arrested for drunk driving. . . .” The essay, she said, was memorable. “But you sometimes don’t want to be that person.”

Lisa Giannangeli
Stanford Graduate School of Business

●Applicants: 7,204

●Acceptance rate: 8 percent

●Annual cost of attendance: $87,081

Whereas your essays are stories about you written by you, the letters of reference are stories about you written by others, said Giannangeli, Stanford’s director of MBA admissions. That means it’s important to find someone who knows you well and can give the admissions committee “vivid and specific” examples of what you have accomplished and why you excelled at it. A recent direct supervisor or manager is preferable, but “we also care a lot more about the quality and content of your letters of reference versus necessarily who you chose.” So you shouldn’t stress out over picking the CEO of your firm if he or she won’t have anything insightful to say about you. And never, ever write your own letter — even if your recommender suggests it.

Tiffany Gooden
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

●Applicants: 6,442

●Acceptance rate: 16 percent

●Annual cost of attendance: $89,200

Academic credentials are “ways for us to get a better sense of how prepared you are for our program,” said Gooden, a senior associate director on the Wharton School’s admissions committee. And because 80 percent of candidates to top MBA programs generally are prepared to handle them, she advised students not to stress out too much. A transcript, for example, is not just about the GPA, she said: “We’re looking to see that you’ve challenged yourself, shown some intellectual curiosity” and taken some quantitative course work.

As for admissions exams such as the GMAT, don’t be afraid to re-take them if you didn’t do well the first time. And definitely tell the school if you’ve earned professional designations such as the Chartered Financial Analyst — that counts as well.

Angel Navedo
MIT Sloan School of Management

●Applicants: 4,490

●Acceptance rate: 10 percent

●Annual cost of attendance: $82,632

Work experience is a relative metric. “When we are doing our evaluation, we are going to be looking at where you stand in comparison to folks who are at your level in your industries and in your job functions,” said Navedo, Sloan’s associate director of admissions.

So what matters is not how much work experience you have — the average tends to be four to five years — but recognizing the right time for you to apply for an MBA. And that depends on where you stand in your career. The same applies to the kind of work experience you apply with. “Really what we’re looking for is not so much what you did. What we want to see is that you did it with excellence,” Navedo said. And, as always, people who demonstrate passion tend to stand out.

Jessica Seymour
Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern

●Applicants: 5,826

●Acceptance rate: 19 percent

●Annual cost of attendance: $81,229

The foundations of a good interview rest on knowing your story extremely well and knowing the school and why you’re applying to it, said Jessica Seymour, associate director of admissions. But beyond that, there are several things candidates can do to make a good impression.

First, check your agenda at the door. “Don’t go in with specific examples for specific questions that you have read on some blog online,” Seymour said. Instead, go in with an open mind because “the person on the other side of the interview is going to have their own agenda.” So listen closely and answer their questions. But don’t sound too scripted, because the interviewers want to get a sense of who you are as a person — not your memorization skills. A mock interview with a friend might be good practice.

— Cezary Podkul

Source: Number of applicants and annual cost of attendance per latest figures published on each school’s Web site. Acceptance rate as published in “Top MBA Programs” by David Petersam. Cost of attendance reflects total annual student budget for single attendee.