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Tips on How to Get Into Business School

Interview with Jen Smith, Director of Admissions for the MBA and Evening MBA Programs at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado – Boulder

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with a Director of MBA Admissions, Jen Smith, and pick her brain about the business school application process. We think you’ll benefit from the perspective, tips, and advice she offers in this interview. Feel free to read the entire interview or just click on the questions that most interest you. Enjoy!

Q1: What was your background prior to joining the admissions department at the Leeds School of Business?
Q2: What should a prospective business school applicant expect in terms of the MBA admissions process?
Q3: How much time should a student expect to spend on the application process? When are the deadlines and when should students begin preparing their application?
Q4: What would you stay to someone who doesn’t have extensive work experience?
Q5: Is there anything that would be a negative in an applicant, or anything you’re trying to weed out in the application process?
Q6: Of the major components of a business school application, are there one or two that you view as most important?
Q7: How important is the GMAT in your eyes? How predictive is it of success in business school?
Q8: Do high GMAT scores factor in to whether a student will receive a scholarship?
Q9: What are your thoughts on the “Next Generation” GMAT coming in June? How much weight do you think admissions officers are going to put on the new Integrated Reasoning score?
Q10: Is the MBA degree still the best business degree to get? Are there benefits to getting a more specialized business degrees (e.g. Masters of Finance or Masters of Marketing)?
Q11: What tips would you give to an applicant to really set himself/herself apart from his peers in the application process?
Q12: What are some good resources for students to learn more about the business school application process?
Q13: Do you have any final thoughts or suggestions for our readers?

Question: What was your background prior to joining the admissions department at the Leeds School of Business?
Jen: I went as an undergraduate student to the University of Maryland. My career in admissions actually started as a student at the University of Maryland. I worked in the undergraduate admissions office as a work study employee and upon graduating I applied for a full-time position in their admissions office and got it. I have been in college admissions now for 10 years and worked for three universities — The University of Maryland at College Park, New York University, and now CU Boulder at the Leeds School.
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Question: What should a prospective business school applicant expect in terms of the MBA admissions process?
Jen: In any competitive admissions process, you’re trying to emphasize the best qualities about your application in order to make yourself the most desirable candidate for that university. The biggest difference for an MBA applicant, for us anyway, is the fact that we look very closely at your professional, post-baccalaureate work experience. That’s one of the main factors in our evaluation process because it determines so much of how you connect with the material that you’re learning and also how you’ll contribute in the classroom and as a team member. We want students who will not only benefit from the MBA program and learn a great deal themselves but who will also contribute to the program and to the community and who will benefit other students in the program and will share their work experience and life experience.
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Question: How much time should a student expect to spend on the application process? When are the deadlines and when should students begin preparing their application?
Jen: For full-time MBA programs, many schools have two or three rounds of MBA admissions so the deadlines will vary from school to school. Generally speaking, the earliest deadlines are in the fall of the prior year and additional deadlines are kind of spaced out throughout the Winter and Spring of the following year. So we have a November 15th, a January 15th, and an April 1st application deadline. Applying early is always encouraged. The earlier you can get your application submitted and be part of the early application round, I think the better consideration you will receive for both admission and scholarship consideration. That’s another important part of the process to think about is not only do you want to get admitted to the school, but you also want to put yourself up for a scholarship award as well. In terms of how much time to spend on the application process, it really varies from student to student, but I think overall in terms of pulling together essays, letters of recommendation, studying for the GMAT — the process can easily take a few months. So, it’s something you should start as early as possible so you have enough time to really do a thorough job on the application.
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Question: What would you stay to someone who doesn’t have extensive work experience?
Jen: There are different programs for different types of students. There are some programs that are specifically for students who are coming directly out of an undergrad degree and wanting to continue on into graduate business education. You know there are some one-year MBA programs that are a great dovetail to an undergraduate business degree and may give you an advantage in terms of your career search post-graduation. I think for the more traditional MBA programs, and for our program in particular, most MBAs are looking for full-time post-baccalaureate work experience. For us the average is about 5 years of post-baccalaureate work experience among our first year students. Work experience is the way that you contribute to the program and also the way that you really create connections to what you’re learning so I think it does make the MBA degree more valuable to you to have some full-time work experience prior to enrolling in the program. It also helps you to refine your professional goals and while your first job out of college may not be exactly what you want to do for the duration of your career, it certainly allows you to figure out what you like and what you don’t like in your career path and then how you want to tailor your career path with an MBA degree.
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Question: Is there anything that would be a negative in an applicant, or anything you’re trying to weed out in the application process?
Jen: First and foremost, we’re looking for applicants who will be successful in the classroom, and then also successful in their careers post-graduation. So we obviously want to see students who have demonstrated classroom success in the past, student with good undergraduate GPAs, students who have done well in the classroom regardless of what their major is. Because the MBA program is also highly quantitative, we’re in particular looking for students who do have some background with quant based courses — math, statistics, science, engineering — all of those types of classes help to provide evidence of your quantitative skill, which is an important skill for success in the MBA program itself. Also, for the same reason, we look at the GMAT or GRE exam as an indicator or your potential proficiency in the classroom, so standardized test scores can also provide us with a lot of information about your potential to be a successful student and on the math section in particular about your quantitative ability which is a really important part of success in the MBA classroom.
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Question: Of the major components of a business school application — essays, resume, interview, GMAT, recommendations, work experience, etc. — are there one or two that you view as most important?
Jen: All of those things help to round out the applicant as an individual rather than just a paper application for us. Your essays, letters of recommendation, and interview especially really help to bring to life your application and help us see the nuances that don’t always translate in your undergraduate academic record or just on your resume. You know, a big part of our evaluation of an applicant, beyond academic record and work experience, is your fit for the MBA program. Different MBA programs are known for different strengths and help students achieve different professional goals so we want to be sure that the students that we’re choosing have goals that align with what Leeds can help them accomplish in terms of skill sets so a lot of those types of questions are answered by your essays or your interview. The letters of recommendation really help to highlight your work ethic, your professionalism, all of the qualities we want of students in our classroom. Because it’s a competitive application process, because there are more applicants than there are seats available, it’s important to have elements of your application that really stand out amongst other applicants. So, those pieces of your application — your essay, your interview, your letters of recommendation — are pieces of the application that you really have a lot of control over and can really exert some influence on, as opposed to things like your undergraduate academic record which, at this point in the process, you can’t go back and change. I think you have to focus on the parts of the application that you can control.
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Question: How important is the GMAT in your eyes, and how predictive is it of success in business school?
Jen: It is an important factor. It’s not the only factor we consider but it is the one probably most objective measure of applicants when compared to other applicants. It’s the only standardized piece of the process. Even with undergraduate GPA, two people could have a 3.5 GPA but could look very different on paper when you compare what their major was, what university they attended, what types of grades they received across the span of four years, so it can be hard to compare applicants when so many of the criteria are so subjective. And so the GMAT is that one kind of standardized piece that every applicant in the pool submits and so again in the competitive process it allows us to really line up applicants in the pool and when we have more applicants than space available it’s definitely a tool that we use to select students who present the best overall package. In terms of how predictive it is of success in business school, it can be an incredibly predictive tool especially when combined with your undergraduate academic record. Those two numbers, GPA and GMAT, provide a very high correlation to the MBA GPA that our students have so we do track over time GMAT scores as compared to MBA GPA and we’ve found that GMAT is a reasonable predictor of success in the program.
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Question: Do high GMAT scores factor in to whether a student will receive a scholarship?
Jen: GMAT scores are one of many factors we consider for both admission and scholarship or fellowship consideration. Often times we’re looking for a student with the complete package. Especially when we’re talking about a scholarship award, now you’ve narrowed this competitive application process down even further. Beyond just the students who have been admitted to the program, we’re looking for the very best in our applicant pool to award scholarship money to and those are the students who tend to have the complete package — excellent undergraduate grades, they have outstanding professional experience, and they also generally speaking have very strong GMAT scores.
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Question: What are your thoughts on the “Next Generation” GMAT that is coming out in June? How much weight do you think admissions officers are going to be putting on the new Integrated Reasoning score?
Jen: I think that all of the MBA programs and admission officers around the country are really kind of waiting to see what this new integrated reasoning section will be like. It’s always hard for us to say how much weight we’ll place on a new section until we have enough corollary data again talking about how does your score on that section of the test correlate to your GPA in the MBA program. Is it a predictor of success in business school? And so it will take us a few years to establish that data. Until we have that data, we’re definitely going to be following those scores pretty closely as well as how students compare to each other on that section of the test.
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Question: Is the MBA degree still the best business degree to get, or are there benefits to getting a more specialized business degrees (e.g. Masters of Finance or Masters of Marketing)?
Jen: It really depends on the student and their goals. For us, the MBA degree is still the core. I think also remains the most widely recognizable degree among employers because of its history, because it’s been around so long, employers definitely recognize the value that an MBA provides, and they’re only just starting to see the value that these other masters programs can provide. I think for someone without any business experience whatsoever, or without an undergraduate degree in business, the MBA is still probably the way to go because it’s the most broad degree and will provide you with a great foundation of core business fundamentals. But, should you already have an undergraduate degree in business or a great deal of corporate experience prior to enrolling in a graduate business program, maybe one of the more specific masters degree in, say, finance, would be the way to go. So there are pros and cons to both programs.
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Question: What are some tips that you would give to an applicant to really set himself/herself apart from his peers in the application process?
Jen: A couple of tips. In the application process itself, you need to really focus on the pieces of the application that you have control over. At this point in time, unfortunately, you really can’t control your undergraduate GPA. People spend a lot of time and anxiety thinking about, ‘How is my undergraduate GPA going to play out in this application process,’ when you need to really focus your energy on the parts of the application that you still have control over, like the GMAT. Have you really prepared for that test, have you taken it as seriously as you need to to do well. I would also say that a well-written essay speaks volumes about an applicant and how well you’re able to communicate your ideas. It’s not just about what you tell us, but also you you tell it to us that’s evidence of your ability to communicate in writing in the classroom, which is a very important skill for an MBA student. So, spending some time on your essays, having people review and edit your essays over, say, a month’s time rather than waiting until the night before the application is due is all a part of creating the best application possible. The same with the interview — approach the MBA interview the same way you would a job interview. It’s a professional, serious environment and so we want our students to approach that accordingly: Wear appropriate dress, confirm the interview time beforehand, send a thank-you note afterwards, all the same things you’d do in a business interview you want to do with your MBA interview as well. As they say, the devil is in the details, and the same is true of the MBA application process.
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Question: What are some good resources for students to learn more about the business school application process?
Jen: There are a ton of resources to learn more about the MBA admissions process, from websites to the schools themselves, even individual counseling with a private or independent MBA admissions consultant. I think in terms of information specific to the schools you’re applying to, the best resource has and always will be that individual school. So, scour their website — they’re generally speaking going to have a lot of information about their program and application process on their website. And then follow up with questions directly to the admission office. Most schools are willing to correspond with you by phone or e-mail, but most times they’re also willing to make individual appointments with applicants so that you can ask your questions in a one-on-one in-person setting. So I would say reach out to the schools you’re considering and talk about their requirements, their application process, and the program itself. Another great resource is www.mba.com. It’s where you’ll register for the GMAT, and there are a lot of school profiles and tips on there as well.
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Question: Do you have any final thoughts or suggestions for our readers?
Jen: Start early, be thorough, ask a lot of questions during the process, and always make sure that you’re following up with your applications.

Dominate the GMAT: Thank you.

Jen Smith: Thank you as well, and good luck to everyone!

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