How to get into a top MBA program

Are you wondering how to get into a top MBA program? Test scores and GPAs are important, but so is demonstrating that you both fit in and stand out.
Written by Maura Deering, Contributor

Getting into a top MBA program requires the right mix of numerical and non-numerical data. The numbers — including your GPA, GMAT/GRE scores, and class rank — show the admissions committee that you are likely to succeed in their program. The non-numerical data consists of information about your other accomplishments and qualities, gleaned from things like letters of recommendation, work experience, academic accolades, and interviews.

MBA programs consider numbers as a starting point but also seek to assemble a class of diverse personalities, backgrounds, and interests. Schools want to know why you chose to apply to their program and that you've done your research on the institution's culture, available specializations, and faculty members.

What are the top-tier MBA programs?

The top-tier MBA programs, known as the Magnificent 7 due to their competitive admission rates, are: Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Northwestern's Kellogg, Chicago's Booth, MIT, and Columbia.

But a "top" school may not work if you are looking for a specialization it doesn't offer, want to keep working full-time, or don't want to relocate. In this case, an online MBA program, one that offers the MBA concentration you're interested in, or your local state university might belong on your list.

How do you get into a top-tier MBA program?

In 2020, Harvard Business School admitted only 11.5% of its applicants. Stanford was even more selective, offering admission to just 9% of its candidate pool. The tips listed below are intended to increase your odds of making the cut.

  1. Create a schedule

Nothing is worse than missing a key deadline or forgetting to include something on your application. So, make a schedule. Whether on a spreadsheet, legal pad, or a whiteboard, list tasks, testing dates, and timeframes for preparing your submission materials. As you research schools, add admission dates and requirements.

  1. Do your research

Start your research online with articles about what to expect from an MBA program and school rankings lists. Once you've identified the schools that interest you, plan to visit as many as possible. Ask to sit in on a class or two and arrange to talk to current students and professors. 

1. Find out who you know

See if you know anyone currently at any of the schools you're planning to apply to or who has a connection (e.g., alum, parent, boss, former teacher). The goal here is to identify people who you can talk to about the program and also find the most appropriate people who can write your recommendation letters.

2. Maximize your testing success

If you plan to take the GRE or GMAT, start the process early. Allow at least 2-3 months for concentrated study, and schedule the test with enough time to meet submission deadlines and retake the exam if needed. Top-tier schools want to see GMAT scores in the 720s, so give yourself every advantage.

3. Keep your grades up

You will be busy. Applying to MBA programs can feel like a full-time job, and you may have one of those already. If you are still completing your undergraduate degree, do your best to prevent your grades from slipping during the final stretch. Top-tier schools look for GPAs averaging 3.5-3.8.

4. Make a master list

Similar to an outline for a paper, this serves as the framework for updating your resume, writing your admission essay, and preparing for your interview. You can even forward it (or relevant portions) to your recommendation letter writers. On it, you'll list your professional history, leadership roles, skills, and career goals.

5. Prepare your written submission materials

Using the information on your master list, make sure your resume thoroughly but concisely provides a picture of your professional and academic background. Highlight achievements and leadership experience, along with relevant skills. In your essay, focus on attributes that make you unique but also qualified for likely success as an MBA student.  

6. Check and re-check your application

Before sending out your applications and submission materials, avoid looking at them for a day or so, then check and recheck them with fresh eyes to ensure you haven't missed anything or overlooked any typos and errors. If possible, have an advisor or colleague read them for additional assurance. 

7. Know when to stop

Although it's tempting to apply to as many schools as possible, many experts advise limiting yourself to six programs. As you are no doubt aware, application preparation is time-consuming and mentally draining. Limiting yourself to six schools can help you avoid mistakes and target programs that really interest you.

8. Practice interviewing

You may be invited to interview on campus or by phone or videoconferencing. The best way to prepare for an interview is to practice. Ask someone to review your master list and ask questions you may encounter. Also formulate questions to ask the interviewers, especially those that show you've researched the program.

What skills do I need to succeed in an MBA program?

MBA programs build on skills and knowledge acquired through undergraduate business and management programs and take them to the next level. Honing the hard and soft skills listed below prior to entering an MBA program can help you succeed.

People skills

  • Communication
  • Creative thinking
  • Cultural intelligence
  • Leadership 
  • Public speaking

Hard skills

  • Data analysis
  • Logistics
  • Project management
  • Quantitative decision-making
  • Strategic thinking

In conclusion

Is an MBA is worth it? The answer to this question is largely personal and depends on your career goals, time and money resources, and tolerance for attending graduate school during uncertain times. If you decide that the answer is "yes," creating a plan to increase your chances of attending your top school is the first step.

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