Your Competition

Overview

Acceptance rates hover around 10% for the top US schools, and 15-25% for the top European schools. So-called “second tier” schools — say the top 50 worldwide — are less selective with an acceptance rate range of 25-50%.

While acceptance rates can never tell the whole story (crucially, they don’t tell us anything about the caliber of the applicant pool, which can exhibit self-selection), they are a decent proxy for admissions competitiveness, at least for schools of a similar rank.

There are a some key implications of the above that should inform your MBA admissions strategy:

Of the rejected applicants, while some may clearly not have been qualified, many likely were qualified. Obviously, it isn’t enough simply to clear all the (nonetheless considerable) application hurdles: i.e., take the GMAT, pay the application fee, write passable essays, get decent references, and have an OK interview. Something more must be required.
Given the amount of work involved in applying, and the apparently low starting chances of success, you should: 1) count on applying to more than one school and 2) think hard before applying to a top MBA, especially if you haven’t budgeted enough time to do a proper job on all the application components. It may not be worth it — and if you are still committed to going to business school in a year or two after a rejection at your school(s) of choice, re-applying is neither trivial nor assured of success.

What about competing “by the numbers”?

Given these low acceptance rates, would it be enough to compete “by the numbers”, i.e., by relying on a strong undergraduate performance and pushing the GMAT well above 700?

This is a very common question fielded by admissions representatives on internet fora. The short answer is no — and the most common reply admissions representatives from top schools give includes a comment about looking for applicant well-roundedness, accompanied by something along the lines of:

“Last year we rejected half of the applicants who scored 800″
“If we wanted to, we could fill the entire class with 750+ scorers”

The above is probably true (if a bit arrogant). But the point is nonetheless clear — unlike the admissions process at many graduate and law schools, you can have an outstanding undergraduate record and a top standardized test score and still not get into your top choice schools.

Something more must be required.

But what exactly? How does one stand out among the applicant pool in a way that impresses Admissions Committees?

To make a start at an answer, we need to take a closer look at the different application components.

Competition with Key Application Components

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.