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Is a question you can almost hear Admissions Officers ask themselves as they silently review your application package. The months of December to March/April are very stressful for the Admissions Committee as they make some of the most important decisions about whom to ultimately accept into their programs. While the number of applications B-Schools receive is shooting up every year, Admission Officers collectively concur that the quality of the application is also improving considerably, making the final decision process that much more difficult.

Given that the competition is so intense, the Admissions Team examines each component of your application package – GMAT and TOEFL scores, Transcripts, Essays, Recommendations, Resume and Interview – very carefully. Lets venture behind the scenes, and understand what they are trying to judge when using their microscope.

GMAT: Universities across the world have their own standards for undergraduate studies, and the GMAT irons out all these differences. It provides a common platform for the Admissions Committee to compare your performance with that of the other applicants. However, a common fallacy among B-School aspirants is that a high GMAT score will guarantee them admission to a leading B-School; or conversely, a low GMAT score means they are doomed. Admission Officers stress time and again, that they do not look at the GMAT score in solitude. They consider it together with your undergraduate transcripts and TOEFL scores in order to predict your ability to succeed in their academic setting. So, while a lower GMAT score could be partially offset by an exceptional undergrad performance, a high GMAT score might add to your kitty of winning a scholarship!

TOEFL: Your TOEFL score reveals your proficiency with the English language. Since the medium of instruction at the B-School is primarily English, the Admissions Committee uses the TOEFL score to ensure that you are capable of following the lecture with ease, and can participate in classroom discussions without any inhibitions.

Some schools allow you to waive the TOEFL if you can prove that your undergrad education was in English. In this event, the Verbal section of your GMAT score helps to assess your language fluency.

TRANSCRIPTS: As mentioned earlier, your transcripts together with your GMAT and TOEFL scores, determine your academic preparation for B-School. Apart from looking at your grades during your undergraduate years, the Admissions Team also evaluates the level of difficulty of the courses you opted for, and your academic progress over the years. Based on the above, they might recommend you to take certain preparatory courses before you finally start with B-School.

ESSAYS: Who are you? What are your short and long term goals? What are your strengths and weaknesses? How motivated are you? All these are aspects that the Admissions Team wants to learn about you. Most importantly they are trying to determine the value that you can add to their class. They are also trying to ascertain if there is a right ‘fit’ between your objectives and what the school can offer you. It is therefore crucial that before short listing your schools, you research the programs extensively to ensure that it matches your requirements.

Things to keep in mind while writing your essay:

  • Answer the question. One of the most common complaints by the Admissions Committee is that applicants sometimes miss the point of the question, or fail to answer the question.

  • Customize your essay responses to the particular school that you are applying to. Agreed that essay questions overlap between schools, but if you want to prove to the Admissions Team that there is a perfect ‘fit’ between you and the school, you have to make the extra effort. Committee members can usually tell if the essay is a cut and paste job.

  • Write the essay yourself and be as honest as possible. They want to get to know you and not a third person.

  • Stick to the prescribed word limit. The Admissions Committee is testing your ability to communicate clearly and concisely. Joseph Stephens, Assistant Director of MBA Admissions from the Olin School of Business advises, “Check with us first before you go too far outside the word limits. The 10% rule is a good rule of thumb. If the word limit is 300, then 330 is fine, but not more.”

  • Stay clear of spelling errors. Says Archana Mohan from the Yale School of Management, “After I hit the ‘send’ button on my Harvard application, I noticed that I had made a spelling error in one of my essays. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get accepted.” Read and re-read your essays over to ensure that it is grammatically correct and that there are no spelling errors. Get it proof read by someone else if necessary.

  • Make use of the optional essay if you think that the application package is not representing you adequately. The optional essay can also be used to perhaps explain a low GMAT score, unsatisfactory undergrad performance or gaps in your employment history.

RECOMMENDATIONS: The recommendations are one of the most important aspects of an application package as they substantiate everything that you claim about yourself. The Admissions Team is looking for consistency. For e.g. consistency between what you say your strengths are, and what your recommenders say your strengths are. Derrick Bolton, Director of MBA Admissions Stanford Graduate School of Business adds in his admissions newsletter, “Letters of reference not only enhance the themes of your essays, but also create new dimensions to your profile. Your recommenders' detailed descriptions of you in a broad range of situations give us a good sense of who you are. The insights about your past actions help us predict how you will behave in the future.”

A common misconception about recommendation letters is that an applicant must try to receive a recommendation from the senior most executive of the company. Ritvik Gupta, an alumnus from Case Western Reserve University remarks, “I initially thought that a recommendation letter from the CEO of my company would carry more weight than a letter from my direct senior. But I soon learned that since I had not directly worked with my CEO, he could not do justice to the recommendation.”

The rule of thumb is to get a recommendation from a person who can judge your capabilities well – if that is your CEO, supervisor, professor, colleague, so be it. Ideally, your recommendation should complement the rest of your application package.

RESUME: The resume is a powerful tool that the Admissions Team uses to judge your potential as a leader, manager, team player and initiator. To that extent, it is essential to highlight your accomplishments along with your responsibilities. One of the most common questions put forth by prospective applicants is: How many years of work experience are required prior to a US MBA? Initially the answer used to be ‘a minimum of two years if you want to get into a good B-School’, but recently there have been a few B-Schools that have admitted students without any work experience. For e.g. the Yale School of Management admitted for the first time in 2002 a few students straight out of undergrad. Even Harvard Business School claims to have no minimum work ex requirement. Of course, these students have to be exceptional.

While drafting the resume, it is important to honor the recommended page limit – which is not such an easy task as pointed out by Lavin Daryani, a current Wharton student. He recounts, “I found it very difficult to stick to the prescribed page limit for the resume. I eventually over shot the limit, but now realize what a negative impact it has here.”

Needless to say, irrelevant stuff should be avoided from the resume. I was once interviewing a prospective applicant, and under the section of ‘Other Interests’ in his resume, he had stated that he enjoyed spending time with his girlfriend. That had taken up a whole valuable line in his resume, which could probably have been put to better use. Joseph Stephens from the Olin School of Business reinforces, “While writing your resume, be succinct. Address the MOST important aspects of the experience you're describing, and avoid unnecessary verbage.”

And as we already discussed earlier, be wary of spelling errors. We were very categorically told at Yale that when recruiters see spelling errors, or even blatant punctuation errors in our resume, they send it straight to the trash can. They assume the worst in this scenario: that you don’t think their company/school is worth your time. Don’t make that mistake.

INTERVIEW: Admission interviews are held for three primary reasons: 1) Depending on the school that you are applying to - to either substantiate your application, or to add a new dimension to your application package; 2) To determine first-hand your English language proficiency; and 3) To put a face to a paper-based or web-based application. Let me explain the first and most important point further. Different B-Schools handle the interviewing process differently. In some schools, it is mandatory that the Interviewer be familiar with your essays, recommendations and transcripts before he interviews you. In this case, the purpose of the interview is usually to substantiate your application or get further clarifications. At other schools however, the Interviewer has no access to your application material before the interview. This way, he can provide an unbiased, independent assessment of your capabilities, which will add a fresh perspective to your package.

One of the key factors to remember as you prepare for your interview is to do your homework well. Be confident about why that particular school is the perfect match for you. Make an attempt to interact with alumni, and be thorough with the information available on the school’s website. Says Arunkumar Uppuswamy as he was being interviewed by a prominent US B-School, “At the end of the interview when it was my turn to ask the Interviewer a question, the question I put forth had apparently already been addressed in the FAQ’s on the school’s website (which I had overlooked). And my Interviewer made no qualms about telling me to re-visit the website. When I asked for feedback later, I was told that it seemed as though I had been unprepared for the interview.”

Derrick Bolton of Stanford Graduate School of Business compares a student’s application to a jigsaw puzzle. In his newsletter he continues to explain, “Through the application, we are trying to bring to life an individual. The academic profile and work history form the border of the puzzle. The border is an important and necessary part of the puzzle, but typically does not provide enough to build a picture. Your essays, letters of reference, and interviews provide the definition and texture required to fill in the picture itself.”

In general, students often find it difficult to demonstrate excellence in each of the factors outlined above. But don’t kill yourself over it. Your application is assessed in its entirety, so even if you can distinguish yourself in most of the above factors, you are on the right track. Then just sit back and wait for the acceptance letters to start pouring in!

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