How to apply for an MBA: voices of experience

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How do I know an MBA is for me?

First, understand your purposes and aspirations, says Raissa Zumaran Bardalez, a Peruvian MBA student at Belgium’s Vlerick Business School. “I had a vague desire to pursue an MBA but lacked a clear understanding of why. It wasn’t until an eye-opening experience during a short course abroad that I grasped the significant importance of international exposure and thinking beyond conventional boundaries.”

Money will, inevitably, be a consideration. “The cost of an MBA can be daunting, like buying a house, so I explored various financial options, and the availability of a 50 per cent scholarship at Vlerick made its programme financially viable for me,” says Zumaran Bardalez. “The right MBA for you might be the one with the best financial aid.”

And help is always at hand for those grappling with whether to study for an MBA. Students and alumni can empathise and are often happy to chat, says Ramiro Montiel, an MBA student at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “I connected with current students and alumni through LinkedIn, via . . . direct messages,” he recalls.

How do I find the right school?

Shortlist schools that align with your personal and professional goals, advises Zumaran Bardalez. “Instead of fixating on rankings, I sought schools that offered not only academic excellence but also global perspective. The school with the most globally recognised reputation will not necessarily be the right fit for your journey.”

Professional basketball player Mouphtaou Yarou chose HEC Paris because its marketing and recruitment managers took time to listen and offered guidance on his application. “They gave me feedback on my application and helped me through the process to ensure it was done correctly and in the most complete way possible,” he says. “People were so warm. At other schools, recruiters only saw the basketball player, but HEC saw more than that.”

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Michelle Zhu, MBA administration director at China Europe International Business School (Ceibs) in Shanghai, stresses the importance of being open to new and challenging experiences. “If you’re already choosing to change your life with an MBA, then why not make the most of it? Choosing a different country and culture can expand your understanding, broaden your perspectives, and open up new career paths that align perfectly with your goals — or maybe even shift your goals entirely,” she says.

That was the case for Ann-Kathrin Tulies, a German MBA alumna from Sasin School of Management in Thailand who now works for Boston Consulting Group. “I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone,” she says. “Studying at Sasin provided huge value in discovering new cultures, backgrounds, values, and languages. There was a focus on consulting at Sasin too, with a three-month project [completed] with MIT and Harvard’s Kennedy School which has helped me a lot for my role now.”

What do admissions tutors look for?

The applicants who stand out are those who understand how they can best benefit from the specific MBA to which they are applying, advises Steve Togneri, head of admissions at Imperial College Business School in London.

“Think deeply about what you want to achieve from an MBA in terms of career and personal development and align this to detailed knowledge of the programme you apply for,” he says. “Think about what knowledge and skills you want to develop, and which core courses or electives provide that. Also, think about the likely cohort on your programme — what do you want to learn from them and what can you share?”

SDA Bocconi in Milan looks for applicants who care about making a positive impact on communities and society at large, says MBA director Stefano Pogutz. “Grades or test scores alone are insufficient for determining leadership, teamwork skills, creativity, sense of responsibility, and other critical abilities,” he says. “Business schools are looking for outstanding candidates with work experience that includes international exposure, excellent communication and soft skills, a strong aspiration for change, ambition for excellence and significant social awareness.”

How do I win a place on an MBA?

Whether applying for MBA programmes this year or next, it is never too early to begin your application, says Dawna Clarke, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Start early by researching programmes, attending school events, and networking with both current students and alumni,” she recommends.

“Also give yourself time to prepare for a standardised test — there’s a direct correlation between the amount of time spent preparing and the test score. And, with regard to essays and interviews, be authentic. We love stories and anecdotes that give colour to your application,” she says.

Authenticity and passion are crucial, agrees Virginie Fougea, director of admissions at Insead, near Paris. “Revealing your true self is pivotal in unravelling the individual behind the application,” says Fougea, who warns against submitting generic essays that could apply to any business school. “We want to grasp your essence, understand your experiences and discern your core values. There are no right or wrong answers, so trust your instinct.”

Online help

A free FT webinar, Future of Business Education: Spotlight on the MBA, will be held on February 21. Presented in partnership with leading business schools and chaired by FT journalists, the half-day event will explore the impact of an MBA degree on career advancement and trends in the sector. Participants will include admissions faculty and programme academics. Sign up at businesseducation.live.ft.com

Sign up for the free FT email course MBA 101: your Guide to Getting into Business School at rankings.ft.com/newsletter

Find more coverage at ft.com/business-school and all of our business programme rankings at rankings.ft.com

This post was originally published on Financial Times

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