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What Do Admissions Officers Look for in MBA Candidates? (It Has Everything to Do with How You Tell Your Story)

Whether you are finalizing your MBA application or considering an MBA in the future, you may be wondering, “What are MBA admissions officers looking for?” With so many factors affecting what makes someone a good candidate and the diversity of experiences, skill sets and qualities that candidates bring to the table, it’s easy to feel left in the dark.

But, in reality, what admissions officers seek in candidates is often straightforward. 

“Our goal is to make sure we admit candidates who have high IQ and EQ who are also the right fit for [our school],” says Danielle Richie, director of full-time MBA admissions & student recruitment at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, a Consortium member school. 

Danielle Richie
Danielle Richie

Using its holistic admissions process, the school takes into consideration each MBA candidate’s strengths individually but also considers the overall pool of applicants. While the program seeks candidates who can demonstrate leadership skills, are capable of collaborating, understand the importance of diversity and push others to succeed, applicants do not have to come from a business background.

“Our students come from many different backgrounds and bring a wide range of experiences, interests and career aspirations,” Richie says. “Approximately 54 percent of our students come from a non-business discipline. You do not have to have a quantitative background to be successful in the program or during your internship and job search.”

Kenan-Flagler, like many MBA programs, does prefer candidates who have at least two years of professional work experience, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. “We do admit a small number of applicants with less experience,” says Richie. “These individuals have demonstrated strong leadership — in clubs and organizations, as student-athletes, through volunteer work, etc.; outstanding academics; and internship experience during their time in undergrad.”

For prospective MBAs hoping to use the degree to switch careers, essays provide a great opportunity for demonstrating how the knowledge and skills you gained in your previous role will aid you in your new one. 

mba application“If you are a career switcher, highlight your transferable skills. An MBA is a great way to pivot your career into a different functional area,” says Betsy Kacizak, director of MBA admissions and recruitment at Consortium member school Wisconsin School of Business.

A clear idea of — not to mention clearly articulated — career goals are also important for gaining the attention of admissions teams, and the essays are the place to do this. According to Richie, clear career goals is one of the first things admissions officers at Kenan-Flagler assess candidates on. “We need to make sure that we have the resources available for you to be successful,” she notes.

Kacizak agrees, noting that having a passion and career focus is good — but conveying where an MBA aligns with that is another thing.

“Understanding why you should get an MBA is important [as well as] how the school’s program can help you reach your goals,” she says. “We want to get to know you as a person and why you have an interest in earning your MBA.”

This is where essays also play another key role. 

Betsy Kacizak
Betsy Kacizak

Kacizak encourages people to complete all essays, even optional ones, as they provide a great way to share more information about you as a candidate. Essays also allow applicants to tell their story, enabling admissions officers to get to know you on a more personal level. 

“They are a gateway to starting a relationship with the applicant by learning about their career interests and why they are interested in receiving an MBA from [our school],” says Richie. “Applicants are the storyteller and can guide the reader down multiple paths, depending on what they want to share.” However, it’s essential that students write from the heart. “It is important for candidates to write what they want to tell us, not what they think we want to hear,” she notes.

Both Richie’s and Kacizak’s number one recommendation: Be authentic. 

“Make sure that you are using your own words and experiences. By sharing personal experiences and goals, candidates who tell their story effectively make a huge impact on the admissions committee in a positive way,” Richie says. “I appreciate when an applicant brings their story to life in an essay.”

Part of applicants telling their story involves addressing any gaps or perceived weaknesses — as opposed to leaving the committee guessing, Richie notes. 

“No one is perfect, and life happens. It is important to be self-aware and address situations like a bad grade but also tell us how you learned from it or what you did after,” she explains. “Self-awareness is a key skill set that leaders should have, and this shows the admissions committee that you are not afraid to hide what you may think is a weakness in your application.”

Overall, when it comes to completing your MBA application, it is important to take your time and, as Kacizak advises, “use each aspect of it to help you tell your story.” Although the process and requirements and perceived expectations may seem daunting, fortunately, she says, “There is no right or wrong way to tell your story.”

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