by Lindsay Johnson

Applying to MBA programs is an exciting yet time-consuming process — often requiring more research and storytelling than an applicant might initially expect. While there are numerous factors that make a candidate attractive to an MBA program, many applicants can’t help but agonize over their undergraduate GPA and GMAT (or GRE) score and the amount of quantitative experience they have under their belt.

While the combination of an impressive undergraduate GPA and a stellar test score is ideal, by the time you consider applying to business school — normally 3-5 years after college — your GPA is long set in stone. Similarly, while striving to earn the best test score possible, not everyone excels at standardized test taking.

The great news is this: there is a great deal more to standing out to an MBA admissions team than a 4.0 GPA, a stellar standardized test score, or a college major in Business or Economics. 

4 Factors (Beyond Your Stats) That Make You A Great MBA Applicant:

1. Unique Experience (Educational & Work)
Many would-be MBA applicants worry that if they lack an undergraduate major in Business, they are a less desirable candidate. Fortunately, this is not the case at all. In fact, MBA programs intentionally seek out students with unique backgrounds — whether in the form of their undergraduate major or pre-MBA work experience. Because of the interactive, collaborative nature of MBA programs, diversity of background and experience is essential to a well-rounded MBA class. While students with a background in engineering or math bring a unique quantitative expertise and problem-solving skill set to the classroom, students with a liberal arts or creative background come to the table with expertise in communication, storytelling, and out-of-the box ideation. If nothing else, a unique major and background is a great way to stand out among other applicants and catch the attention of an admissions committee!

2. Outstanding Essays
Crafting outstanding essays is a key part of your business school application, and provides candidates a valuable opportunity to stand out from the crowd. The majority of top MBA programs will pose some variation of the “Why an MBA?” question: “What do you hope to gain from an MBA?” or “What are your short and long-term career goals?” This type of question offers candidates an opportunity to tell a thoughtful, concise story of where they are now, where they want to be in the future, and how and why an MBA is a critical stop on that journey.

Many top MBA programs also ask candidates to answer a “Why Us?” question: “Why do you want to attend this program at our school, in particular?” This question asks a candidate to do thorough research about the program, have a clear idea of what unique value that specific program offers, and understand why and how this school, in particular, will help them meet their specific career goals.

Essay Tip: Make an effort to really understand what you bring to the table, what your goals are, and how earning an MBA from each school to which you apply can help you to achieve those goals. The clearer you are about how you see an MBA fitting into your journey and the more sense your personal story makes to an admissions team, the more likely they will be to believe that you will be a successful addition to their program. 

3. Glowing Recommendations 
Many top MBA programs require 1-2 recommendations, which schools hope will give admissions an idea of how you show up in a work setting. These recommendations are normally written by current, or very recent, work supervisors and should focus on the impact that a candidate has had on their company in their current role. 

Recommendation Tip: If you’re planning to apply to business school in the near future, it might be advantageous to identify 1-2 “mentors” at work with whom you can develop a more substantial relationship than you might have with your average coworker. When it comes time to ask for recommendations, you will be glad to know exactly who you are going to ask and that they know you well enough to write a personal, heartfelt recommendation for you.

4. Impactful Leadership Experience
In order to wow an MBA admissions team, you need to show that you’ve taken initiative during your career to gain valuable leadership and management experience. You can demonstrate this experience whether you directly manage a whole team, one person, or no one at all. If you haven’t gained people management experience in your pre-MBA role, create your own leadership opportunities: volunteer to manage a summer intern or ask to take the lead on independently managing a client relationship. Often, something that seems like a small undertaking can make you stand out.

Leadership Tip: Many business school students have very little concrete people management experience. Despite this fact, candidates need to find ways to gain and demonstrate leadership experience. Whether taking a role in organizing alumni activities for your college, managing an Employee Resource Group at work, or finding a way to make an impact as a nonprofit volunteer or a board member, there are a variety of ways to show that you have developed these valuable skills prior to applying to MBA programs.

Remember, MBA programs want to ensure that each candidate they admit is set up for success. Business schools want to feel that you will be a valuable addition to your class, will contribute to the school community, and will be able to achieve your short and long-term career goals as a result, at least in part, of their program. If you are able to make a clear, personalized case to each admissions team with whom you interact, you might just find yourself with more options than you know what to do with!