An MBA continues to be the most in-demand and recognised degree in today's competitive world. The financial crisis saw demand for business education experience several peaks and troughs; however, its value and direction have since seen a major shift with the world's leading business schools acknowledging the need to rework their curricula to focus on developing leaders who believe business has more to it than just shareholder value.
To measure up to the way the world will do business in the future, B-schools are refocusing their energies on attracting and developing the best talent. As several schools encourage younger applicants straight out of college to apply, the application process has become tougher, more selective and demands rigorous preparation and financial preparedness than before.
So how does one get in? Despite the high stakes, applicants do have a fighting chance. Carl Henric Holmberg, Executive Director Recruiting and Marketing for Africa, Middle East and South Asia at Hult International Business School, explains, "The biggest mistake potential candidates make is underestimating the amount of work involved in the application process. The applicant's MBA starts before the admission process, where painstaking preparation, self-planning, and securing the right aids such as scholarships or financial aid can give him/her a higher chance of being accepted."
Business school isn't for the clueless. While there is only one MBA degree, no two programmes are the same. If you're planning on an MBA, then make sure you know it will help you achieve your career goals and objectives. Good business schools look for people with a career plan with a legitimate need for an MBA. Research and narrow down school options that best fit your requirement; then meet with them in advance. Individual assessments and reviews help ascertain how and where you fit in and identifies if you're better suited for another business programme than the one you had originally planned for.
"Student recruitment offices offer invaluable guidance and insight to applicants," says Raymi van der Spek, Executive Director, Strategic Development and Administration at University of Wollongong in Dubai. "We have many students who apply for an MBA and then discover that they're better suited for a business degree in engineering management or quality management instead; proactive students thoroughly research their options and directly interact with the schools of their choice, this significantly contributes to their chances of getting in."
Early bird gets the worm
Timing is integral to a successful application. The B-school application process is conducted in a series of rounds, typically in October, January and March for the September intake. Schools collect all the interesting files they've received to decide whether candidates are in, out or placed on a waiting list. Applying early also helps get your foot in the door for possible scholarships and gives you three full months to consider your options and make a final choice. "A typical admission process takes an average of four weeks per candidate, so the earlier you send in your application the better. Applicants grossly underestimate the time it takes to source school and university transcripts, or even secure worthy referrals, which takes considerable effort and time," says Holmberg.
To ensure you're well in time, work backwards. For a September start, aim to have all your paperwork in by April or start of May; for a January intake look at September or start of October.
"The application process gives us insight into the applicant's personality, profile, achievements and future personal and career goals — incomplete applications, a lack of attention to detail and not providing strong referees reflect badly," says Ehsan Razavizadeh, Regional Director for Mena and Head of Dubai Centre at Cass Business School. "So, building an impressive application is certainly essential for candidates if they want to gain admission to a leading business school."
Quality over quantity
A quality application is half the battle won. Business schools always aim to select a well-rounded class that reflects the talent, leadership, diversity, and global outlook to which the school aspires. Remember, there is no set definition of business talent; each school assembles its class one person at a time.
"An applicant is essentially demonstrating his/her ability to prepare, invest and deliver right from the start. Recruitment teams comprise experts in their field, so they can tell if someone is just looking to hide from a dismal job market or looking for a ‘salary raise', which won't help your application at all," says Christopher Hein, Global Director of MBA, Hult.
In addition to a well-crafted personal essay and a flair for personal interviews, business schools are always looking for that something extra. "The applications that stand out demonstrate core strengths such as creativity, leadership, problem-solving and communication skills, as well as those who possess a strong academic background, good university degree and a minimum of four to five years of work experience. A well-crafted personal statement and being well prepared for the formal interview also usually stand out," says Razavizadeh.
The checklist for applications
Application package: Take your time and fill out the application in its entirety. If something does not apply to you, fill in n/a. Re-scan for errors. A sloppy application leads to instant rejection. "Apply early to avoid last-minute hassles and regrettable mistakes such as cut-and-paste essay statements or submitting incomplete applications where credentials like transcripts or Toefl/IELTS scores are missing," says Hanan Khamis, Director of Student Admissions and Recruitment, Rochester Institute of Technology Dubai.
Résumé: Stick to a clean and simple layout. List professional and education credentials clearly, highlighting career bests and achievements. No tom-tomming, please.
Admissions essay: Keep it simple and professional. The idea is to demonstrate why the school should consider you for their programme. "This is where applicants tell us what they intend to achieve with their MBA, and how they will use it to tap into the next growth area or future product or service. It must showcase a core motive," says Christopher Hein, Global Director of MBA, Hult International Business School.
Letters of recommendation: Things such as letters of recommendation help set you apart. You should have a few in hand from a variety of people, including employers, prominent members of community who know you personally, and professors. The more diverse your letters, the better your application looks.
Common entrance and language proficiency tests: Always include the most recent test transcripts. Common entrance tests such as Gmat are usually a prerequisite for most schools with scores in the 90th percentile finding favour. Language proficiency tests such as IELTS/Toefl help the school identify applicants who need English-language preparation courses before the start of the programme.