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What do top M.B.A. schools such as Harvard and Stanford look for in a student’s application?

Each year hundreds of thousands of students aspire to gain admission to one of the top M.B.A. colleges in the world, such as Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Yale, Brown etc., and each one of them wonders how they can successfully apply to these colleges.

So how do these colleges decide on who to admit to their M.B.A. programs?

As the top universities such as Harvard and Stanford build each class, including their MBA programs, they seek the most promising students in terms of

1)   Intellectual vitality

2)   Demonstrated potential (can be leadership for a M.B.A. candidate or can be a engineering innovator for a technical graduate)

3)   Personal qualities and contributions (who they are as in individual, what they are passionate about, what have they contributed so far and what do they desire to contribute to the society in future)

They base their evaluation on the totality of information available. No single factor — whether a student’s school or college performance (for MBA admissions), essays, test scores, interview, letters of reference, or work experience (for MBA students) — is decisive. The admission teams consider each application holistically, and take into account factors such as your background, experiences, perspectives, fit with its school and program, aspirations, values, and accomplishments.

This is one of the common mistakes made by thousands of International students aspiring to come to the top Ivy MBA programs. They think just getting a high GMAT score will help them gain an admission to these schools. Without sound advice and guidance, they do not realize that no single factor is decisive and the admission team will make a determination on their application by looking at overall profile, achievements, scores, background, aspirations etc.

If you think about it, the overall approach is simple and has depth. They look at each candidate just like any corporation would look at hiring a new employee or as any parents would look for in their children overall development.

So, lets take this one level down to help an applicant understand better what each area means for them and how can they show the school their achievements to fit into these three categories.

Intellectual Vitality

Stanford M.B.A. admission team says the following on how they assess an applicants intellectual vitality.

“In assessing intellectual vitality, we believe that your attitude toward learning is as important as your aptitude. We hope that your application will convey your passion, dedication, and genuine interest in expanding your intellectual horizons.

We also consider the initiative with which you seek out opportunities that enhance your knowledge. We want to understand your willingness to master concepts that may not be immediately relevant to your intended career, to carve your path in ambiguous environments, and to support the school’s goal of developing knowledge that deepens and advances the practice of management.

So to summarize, they are primarily looking if you take initiate to learn, initiative to push yourself and go beyond what is given to you. Hence, it is less about what you achieved but more about how you went about your learning path.

Demonstrated Leadership Potential

This is what Stanford M.B.A. admission team says about demonstrated leadership potential for an applicant.

As we review your application, we are considering your leadership potential as demonstrated through your personal character and professional competence.

Your personal character matters not only because integrity is the cornerstone of any academic community, but also because of the vast responsibility our society places on leaders of businesses and social-sector organizations. As a result, we look for evidence of behaviors consistent with your ideals, even under difficult circumstances — a sort of directed idealism.

We want to understand your personal motivation and convictions, and your ability to confront complex, unfamiliar issues with good judgment. We also try to uncover the ways in which challenges to your beliefs may have changed some of your perspectives and reinforced others.

In understanding your professional competence, we look for both leadership experience and potential. In doing so, we don’t limit ourselves to your professional life. Neither should you. We look at your background for evidence of the ways you have influenced the people and organizations around you, and the way those experiences have shaped you.

We look for evidence of your desire to make a lasting impact in the organizations you serve throughout your career, inspiring and motivating your colleagues.”

What this means for an applicant is you need to show the admission team examples of how you have demonstrated leadership at work, on your projects, in the community or in your life. Leadership does not need to be just managing a team, but leadership can come in various forms. For example, in my class at Harvard Business School, there were number of classmates who had demonstrated leadership experience in Armed Forces or in areas such as Non-Profit etc.

Personal Qualities & Contributions

The strongest applications we see are those in which your thoughts and voice remain intact. The Stanford MBA experience relies on authenticity among students. To understand how you will contribute to and benefit from the University community, we need to know who you are, not simply what you have done. Your experiences, beliefs, passions, dreams, and ambitions will help form the Stanford community.

Take time to reflect on who you are, and have confidence in yourself. We always remember that there is neither an “ideal” candidate nor a “typical” Stanford MBA student. You should remember this, too.

While the Stanford GSB community does include students who have pursued incomparable opportunities, most Stanford MBA students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. What you make of an experience matters to us, not simply the experience itself.”

Simply explained by the admission teams on personal qualities…..be authentic and share who you are. Don’t try to be someone else because it will not help. You don’t need to be someone special, just an ordinary applicant who has done special things in your personal and professional life.

In addition to the above criteria, the admission teams also look at number of other factors during the evaluation process.

·       No two applicants are the same, so we must pay careful attention to each applicant.

·       Past actions usually are the best predictor of future behavior.

·       How you’ve developed your talents is as important as what you have accomplished.

·       While there is no single academic or professional background most suitable for the MBA Program, admitted candidates tend to have sound analytical skills, creative instincts, and strong performance in managing programs, processes, or people.

·       Look for diversity in the MBA class because collaborative educational process leverages the breadth of students’ backgrounds to deliver a range of perspectives and approaches to real-world problems.

Anyone interested in learning more about how to apply to the top M.B.A. programs can send us an email at customer.support@stoodnt.com

About Author Ajay Singh

I graduated from I.I.T India and came to U.S. for higher studies in Engineering 20 years back. After working for a few years in Austin, Texas as a design engineer, I went back for a M.B.A at Harvard Business School. I have worked for number of global companies in senior leadership and management positions. Over the years I have advised number of students on college admission.

Author: Ajay Singh

Ajay is the co-founder of Stoodnt and spent 20+ years in senior leadership roles with companies such as American Express, Cendant and Intel prior to starting Stoodnt. He has a M.B.A. from Harvard, M.S. in Computer Engineering from U.T. Austin and B.Tech from I.I.T Roorkee (India).

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