Let’s get to the answer fast: there’s no formula. I know people who have gotten in who have D’s on the college transcript and gotten in, and those who have every blue chip on their resume (Harvard, Goldman, McK) and gotten rejected. The best advice I can give you is to pursue your passions, learn to be self-aware and to understand and develop your personal story.
Now with that said, there are things that I’ve noticed as trends of those that are admitted. These are not guarantees to get into a top tier school, these are just guidelines that I’ve noticed.
- Have a track record of being a top performer – Everyone I know at a top tier business school, has been a top performer. Personally, I think this is essential to get into a top tier Business School – it provides the admission committee knowledge that you will likely be successful after business school as well. If you’re at a top tier company (think Google/Facebook, Goldman/MS, McK/BCG/Bain), you need to be at a level where your managers feel you’re performing similarly to folks they’ve worked with who have gotten into the school you want to get into. If you’re working at another company that’s even a slight tier below (e.g. Twitter, UBS, Deloitte/Accenture), you need to be one of the best analysts your manager has ever worked with. If you’re working for a family business or startup that doesn’t have a deep track record with the business school admissions committees you need to find other forums for a comparison to show your performance (Board member (who know you) recommendations, awards/press/recognition, Managers who have been to a top tier school). These aren’t the only ways to show that you’re a top performer, but guidelines on what I’ve seen worked for peers of mine.
- Be multi-dimensional – If you are passionate about the industry you’re in and don’t have any other pursuits, you may want to evaluate if an MBA is right for you. An MBA will expose you to many different industries, functions, and business situations all of which may not be exactly relevant to your industry and function of choice. If you are still interested in that, it means you have to be pursuing your passions (notice the plural), both at work and outside. Some jobs don’t provide you the bandwidth to pursue many things outside of work – if so, you should still show that you’ve thought a lot about it, or in some way have proven that passion.
- Be empathetic – This is a soft skill. It will not show up on your resume or your application, but it will show up in your essays and more importantly in your recommendations. Empathy pays dividends. Understanding how the people you work with, the people you design your strategies for, or the companies you help finance is absolutely important to provide the foundation of being a great leader. Spending the time to understand how people are affected by the decisions you make or the state they are in will help guide your decisions. As a result, you will have stronger recommendations and better essays – and more importantly a better leader.
- Master a few things, don’t be a jack of all trades – Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you spend more of your time on the things you’re passionate about – your work and 1-2 extracurriculars instead of 10 different things – you will deliver better results, and really exemplify your passion areas. The more time you spend on specific passions the more rewarded you will feel and the better the results will be.
- Execute towards excellence – Take on execution oriented roles. Don’t just advise and analyze – take the initiative to lead an endeavor either at the office or in your extracurriculars. Knowing how to deliver results will help you understand the world beyond just excel and power point, and what the effort level required is to increase EBIT by 1%. Early in your career, you will be an individual contributor – focusing on delivering excellence while you are an individual contributor will help you be a better leader in the long-term.
In the end, all of these areas are not only required to get into a top-tier business school but also to be a better leader, colleague, and friend. Pursue a career that you’re passionate about, work to be self-aware, and build lasting relationships.
If you’re planning thinking about attending business school, think about it with the mindset that if you had 2 years to do anything how would spend it. If you would spend those 2 years to develop yourself – learning about different industries and aspects of business, and building relationships with your peers in many other industries, then and only then would it make sense to attend business school. Yes, there is a finance part of an affording business school (and the financial outcomes it can have), in the end, it is mostly a wash – the amount you spend on business school (and potential salary + raises you’re missing out on) is about the same over the long term as the increase in salary you will receive from an MBA. I would suggest not to consider that as part of your decision process.