BusinessWeek Interview

Admission Tips from a Pro

Transcript from BusinessWeek Online

Sally P. Lannin, president of MBA Strategies, has lots of suggestions for applicants to MBA programs. Her company has advised over 1,000 prospective MBAs, and she herself has focused on MBA admissions since 1987.

Q. Sally, the word on the street is that applications to B-schools are surging. What’s your view, and what does that mean for current applicants?

A. Applications are going up this year. Kaplan GMAT prep courses nationwide saw a 24% increase in enrollment between September and December. This indicates that it will be more difficult than last year and the year before to gain acceptance, and it is all the more important that applicants submit a focused application. There will be no tolerance on the part of the admissions committee for the “Hail Mary/last-minute” applications tossed into the pool at the last minute.

Q. What do you suggest to the people considering applying right now — should they wait until next year?

A. The applicants who have the best chance this year will be the people who are not applying because they have been recently laid off from a dot-com job, but rather those who have given their applications a lot of thought. [They] have GMAT scores and GPAs that meet or beat the average for the school to which they are applying.

Q. I can’t seem to get above 550 on the GMAT, despite taking a prep class. I will be taking graduate-level business classes. Will that push me over the edge when I reapply next year, if I can’t improve my GMAT score?

A. One should always take the GMAT more than once if their only score is 50 points or more below the average for that school. If you have one 550, you should retake it, if nothing else to show humility. Yes, doing well in a couple of graduate-level classes will help. We recommend statistics and calculus. Get an A in both classes, not pass or fail [marks].

Q. I am from the People’s Republic of China. How can I get into a top U.S. B-school? Is financial support most important?

A. Top U.S. business schools have accepted a number of people from China. Financial support is definitely important, as financial aid will be difficult to secure. Other than that, your candidacy will be based on the same criteria that will apply to U.S. citizens, [such as] academic ability, analytical problem-solving skills, your proven ability to manage people, your proven ability to lead, your interpersonal skills, your educational and career focus, and your extracurricular involvement.

Q. And if you don’t at first succeed: What is the chance for reapplicants? Is it a good idea to apply the year following a ding?

A. It depends on why you were rejected the first time. If you were rejected because of a weak academic profile, you need to retake the GMAT, and get above their average — especially on the quant side. Also take a couple of classes. If you were rejected because of your professional profile or lack of outside activities, you may need more than one year to fix it.

Q. Sally, surely you’ve seen some interesting, if not daring, attempts by applicants to win the hearts of an admissions committee. What’s the funniest one you’ve come across?

A. I have heard of an individual dressing up in a Kellogg Corn Flakes box and knocking on the door of the admissions director of Kellogg. I have also seen an applicant with a letter of recommendation from the Pope [written] in Italian. Neither of these applicants was accepted!

Q. Should I apply for MBA or EMBA? I am 36 years old with five years in a big-five consulting firm (from trainee to audit manager). I also have two years as controller at a small company, among other experience. I’ve just started an international experience at Nortel in the U.S. My GMAT is 650. I really want to go to a top B-school. Any advice?

A. Executive MBA applicants are almost always sponsored by their company. With your work experience, I would go to your employer first to see if they are willing to sponsor you. Thirty-six years old is not extraordinarily old. Most of the top schools have students who are up to 40. Your GMAT may need to go up a bit. Most importantly, tell the school in your career essay that you do not need any help from their placement office. This is important, because older students are far more difficult to place.

Q. What is the most common mistake you’ve observed your clients make in the application process, before you have advised them?

A. First, the applicants are not nearly as personal and open about who they are in their essays. Their tone is too businesslike, and schools want you to “peel back your breastplate” and tell them who you really are. Second, applicants fail to write clear and concise career objectives that are based on real experiences that they have had.

Q. Should one emphasize skin color on their application? And how about those with disabilities?

A. If you represent a minority group, I would certainly mention it somewhere, as schools are always seeking to increase diversity. We have not found, however, that admissions standards vary by ethnic group. For the disabled applicant: If your disability somehow relates to and enhances a topic you are addressing in your essays, go ahead and utilize it. [But] I wouldn’t write an entire essay about your disability without [answering the question] “So what?”

Q. What are your thoughts on choosing between a Wharton MBA with debt, vs. a full fellowship in Cornell’s MBA program?

A. Great question. Both schools are well regarded. But if you feel that Wharton is where you really want to be, I have a bias toward taking on the debt. Remarkably, after 5 or 10 years it becomes a moot point.

Q. Sally, if you could choose the most important piece of an application (the one to catch the collective eye of the AdCom) would it be the GMAT score, the essays, the recommendations, or the resume?

A. The essays. If these are not compelling, nothing else matters.

Q. How important is it to attend Top 10 business schools? What makes a huge difference between Top 10 and Top 25?

A. Two factors primarily. First, the caliber of the people you are going to school with. Second, the caliber of the job opportunities available upon graduation. If you are going back to work for your family’s company after you graduate, then the placement at a Top 10 is irrelevant. But if you are expecting a job at a top investment bank or consulting firm, they only recruit at top 10 schools.

Q. One of the reasons I would like to go to B-school is to determine a specific career path in finance, but I’m concerned about sounding unsure about my goals in my essays — any advice?

A. Great question. We differentiate between industry and function when talking about career objectives. It’s fine, especially if you have already worked in finance, to say that you know that the function of finance is right for you, but you aren’t able to articulate the exact job at this time. Likewise, I may have a client with a background in health care. She knows she wants [to work in] the health-care industry, but can’t articulate the exact function in the industry.

Q. Any final words of advice, Sally?

A. Take a good look at why you want to return to business school. I have a real bias, especially if you only have one or two years of work experience. Seek out another job for another two years, then apply when you have a clearer idea of what you want to do. Approach the application as you would any targeted proposal. Think long and hard about your career objectives, why you’re interested in B-school, and why you are particularly interested in THEIR business school.

Originally published on Business Week Online, 2001
“Applicants are not nearly as personal and open about who they are in their essays. Their tone is too businesslike, and schools want you to ‘peel back your breastplate’ and tell them who you really are.”