Competition with Key Application Components

Application components overview

First, let’s repeat what those components are:

GMAT
Academic degrees & record
Essays
Work experience
References
Interviews (if used/offered)

What we have found is that the more competitive the business school is, the more the competitiveness tends to magnetise around the GMAT and essays.

Why is this?

For sure, the typical graduate of a top MBA will have been able to boast more impressive work experience in his/her application than the typical graduate of a less well-regarded MBA. However, as most applicants do not plan their applications several years in advance, they can no longer influence literally half the key application components (i.e., work experience, academic record, and to a large extent references).

What this means is that applicants’ efforts can only focus on the items they are still able to influence, namely:

GMAT
Essays
Interviews (but of course, interviews are gated by how well you do on the GMAT and your essays, so initial focus is limited to GMAT and essays)

Let’s take a look at the nature and level of competition around each in turn.

GMAT deep-dive

Whether they like it or not, the test that business schools began using as an “objective” expedient in filtering an overwhelming number of otherwise heterogeneous applications has in some ways now become an Achilles heel. Given that the media rankings of business schools religiously track the average GMAT scores of each incoming class, it’s now almost a marketing imperative for the top ranked schools to have an average GMAT starting “7_ _”. See below just how clustered around 700 the average GMAT scores of some of the top schools are for some recent incoming classes (source: Economist or school web site):

716 Stanford; 713 Wharton; 707 Harvard; 706 Columbia
706 UCLA; 704 Dartmouth; 701 Chicago; 700 Kellogg
702 INSEAD; 687 IESE; 682 LBS; 680 IMD

Many could argue the point, but a lot of relatively recently established business schools seem to focus heavily — at least for a period — of ensuring high average GMAT scores as the quickest way of establishing their competitiveness credentials.

But while it’s true that a high score does not guarantee you entry at any school, it’s safe to say that a low score must be compensated for. After all, for every person a school accepts with a score 50 points below its average, they must attract someone who scored 50 points above the average (compounded by the fact that there are at least an order of magnitude more of the former than the latter)

Essays deep-dive

Competition within the essay component of the application turns on one key admissions principle that many applicants are not aware of:

Your competition is NOT the entire applicant pool — rather, it is all the other applicants possessing a profile similar to yours.

In practice, this means you will be grouped according to where you have gained the majority of your professional experience. Thus, investment bankers, consultants (both coming from the traditional business school ‘feeder’ industries) and engineers will be evaluated among their peer group.

While the idea of competing against a smaller group for admission may seem reassuring, it actually makes writing outstanding application essays harder, because:

Many of the qualities (e.g. “hard worker”) and strengths (“very analytical”) with which you might hope to impress the Admissions Committee may also legitimately claimed by your peers — making it more difficult to “stand out”
Applicants within the same peer group often claim similar types of career successes and achievements
As the primary guide of your career goals, personal qualities, and outside interests that the Admissions Committee has, your essays are certainly key, and are the single most effective way to distinguish yourself from other applicants. But given who the true competition is, you may have to think harder about how you can do this.

Another factor to mention regarding essays is the number of applicants who are using admissions consultants to help craft them. Much as most applicants now attend a GMAT preparation course to help them achieve the best possible test score, applicants are increasingly seeking outside help with their essays to ensure their application is competitive.

Interviews deep-dive

By the time you are invited to interview, you are already well on your way to being accepted. For many schools, your average chance at this stage may be 50%.

While you obviously must still prepare very well to maximize your chances, a lot will come down to your interviewing skills (which can certainly be improved, but likely not by an enormous amount) and some inevitably may come down to the chemistry between you and your interviewer.

However — you still will need to have ensured that you gave your best chance of success before the interview. Just because you were invited to interview, and the average chance of success at this stage may be 50%, doesn’t mean your chance of success going in is 50%. This is because you have no way of knowing how high up on the Admissions Committee’s list of “invited to interview” you were. To manage this risk — and still give yourself a decent chance of admission even if the interview doesn’t go perfectly — you need to have put in your very best effort on the rest of the application.