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Meeting the criteria To get into the best program, you need to know what the schools are looking for. Basic credentials/qualifications, such as your GMAT score and undergraduate grades, are important, but internship experience, extracurricular involvement, and personal attributes are vital to success.

Business masters programs look for candidates who will become successful in a wide range of careers – whether as corporate, small-business and non-profit/not-for-profit executives, civic leaders, change agents, or entrepreneurs. Because of the youth of typical applicants, they rely somewhat on undergraduate grades and test scores (GMAT, TOEFL et al) in the absence of lengthy career histories. Yet grades and test scores are plainly insufficient for projecting future career trajectories. Schools therefore look carefully at a wide range of hard and soft data to determine applicants’ intellectual ability, professional and leadership potential, personal attributes (such as integrity and determination), and fit with the program.

What they will look at?

Schools start by examining your basic credentials/qualifications, including your grades as an undergraduate (as well as the university you attended and the difficulty of the classes/courses you took); your GMAT or GRE score; your work and internship experience to date; and your community contributions and other activities outside study and work. On top of that, however, they evaluate all the other information they receive – including your essays, the recommendations/references submitted on your behalf, and the results of your interview – to determine whether you will be successful in the business school environment and in your future career.

In presenting your candidacy, you will want to be sure that you maximise your strengths while minimising your weaknesses. Offer plenty of stories and hard evidence to support your strengths. Do whatever you can to minimise your limitations or show that they do not adversely affect you.

Fitting in and standing out

Schools generally look for candidates who will both fit comfortably into their programs and simultaneously stand out. Fitting in means having the basic qualities needed to participate in the program and be accepted by one’s class/course mates. If you can do the coursework, subscribe to the program’s goals, and get on well with the other students, then you will fit in. Standing out means bringing something unique to the program, something that distinguishes you from other students.

If applying for a masters degree in marketing, for instance, someone who had done an undergraduate degree in economics and had several internships in sales and marketing would readily fit in, but would be wise to focus on demonstrating how she would stand out. A commercial photographer, on the other hand, will have little problem showing how he stands out – he’ll probably be the only commercial photographer in the applicant pool – but should focus on demonstrating how he fits in.

Balancing act

The question inevitably arises: how do admissions staff determine who gets in, given that some applicants have outstanding internship and/or job records, but unimpressive grades and GMAT scores, whereas other applicants have the reverse set of strengths and weaknesses.

Similarly, how do they decide between an applicant who fits in but doesn’t stand out, and one who stands out but doesn’t fit in? There is no set answer, but bear in mind:
• The top programs do not need to make substantial trade-offs. HEC (Paris) and the London School of Economics, for instance, have many applicants with sterling undergraduate records, high GMAT scores, and impressive internship experience, which eliminates the need to accept applicants with any substantial weaknesses. Similarly, the top programs attract plenty of applicants who can show both how they fit in and how they stand out.
• Schools value specific criteria differently, depending upon the applicant. For example, if you are applying while still an undergraduate, your undergraduate record, extracurricular activities, and GMAT score will count very heavily because you lack full-time work experience (and may lack significant internship experience as well). By contrast, if you have two years of work experience, you can expect that less weight will be placed on academic measures.

Shaping a class/study group

An additional consideration is that each program is looking to shape an interesting and diverse class/study group. This means that you may be valued highly or lowly depending upon how you compare with others in terms of nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, family background, international experience, gender, and so on.

Your ability to contribute to the class/study group is also important. As Professor Leo Murray, long-time Dean of the Cranfield School of Management, notes: "It’s important to have people who will gain from the program and contribute to it. We don’t want people who’ll just go through the motions in order tack three little letters after their names."


Sourcing Your Strengths 

Criteria Primary Sources Secondary Sources
Intellectual Ability Undergraduate record Internship/
work experience
  GMAT/GRE scores Additional coursework
Professional/leadership potential Internship/work experience Extracurricular/
community activities
  Recommendations/references Essays
Personal attributes Essays Extracurricular/
community activities
  Interview Recommendations/references
Fit with program Essays Internship/work experience
  Interview Recommendations/references



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