Not everyone can get into an MBA program. The barrier of entry is steep, and there are quite a few hoops to jump through just to get your application seriously reviewed. Aside from just being eligible, though, there’s even more you have to do to be competitive. Let’s take an in-depth look at MBA eligibility and how it relates to making your application competitive.
Being Eligible vs. Being Competitive
When applying for admission to an MBA program, you’ll likely encounter a variety of eligibility requirements. Many schools have their own standards for admission, and these can vary a lot from country to country, including between the U.S. and India.
You’ll want to make sure you meet these requirements before applying, and you’ll also want to do what you can to submit a competitive application.
What’s the difference being eligible and being competitive? Being eligible means you’ve met the minimum requirements for entry: for example, you’ve graduated from an accredited college or university and have an acceptable GMAT score.
Being competitive means you stand out from other students by going above and beyond the minimum requirements. For example, you have several years of work experience and your GMAT score is well above average.
In order to get into some of the top MBA programs, it isn’t enough enough to meet the eligibility requirement s– you need to submit a competitive application to get a spot.
Let’s look at the basic eligibility requirements in the U.S. and in India, as well as what you can do to make your application even more competitive.
Basic Eligibility Requirements U.S. / European MBA Programs
Most MBA programs in the U.S. or Europe have similar eligibility requirements, but you’ll want to look at each school’s admission process separately to make sure you qualify.
A typical application packet will include:
- a 4-year Bachelor’s degree, some accept 3-year Bachelor’s degree
- a GMAT score (of at least 600)
- a resume (including work experience)
- a set of essays and / or a personal statement
- letters of recommendation
- TOEFL score (English-language proficiency)
- interview with students, alumni, admissions team, or faculty
In general, an MBA applicant is required to have a 4-year degree (typically a Bachelor’s) from an accredited college.
Since some countries, such as India and Australia, offer three year degrees, you may have to enroll in post-graduate program to meet the four-year requirement. In some cases, an additional year or two studying for a master’s will be sufficient.
However, policies vary from school to school, so check with the school’s admissions department before applying. Some programs, such as those at Wharton and NYU Stern, explicitly welcome students from India who have a three-year degree.
Many MBA applicants have an undergraduate degree in business, but this isn’t a requirement: around 50% have degrees in other fields.
However, since an MBA is an advanced degree, not an entry level business course, you should have some experience in business basics. It’s a good idea to have taken courses in accounting, statistics, or other business-related topics as an undergraduate.
Quick side note: if you’ve been rejected from MBA programs, sign up for a free DING analysis here.
The vast majority of MBA programs in the U.S. require you to take the GMAT exam. Many schools now accept GRE, which was used mainly to gain admission to non-MBA graduate programs. An even smaller number don’t require an exam score at all, but offer a waiver to students with a sufficient amount of work experience or professional degrees like CFA.
Most schools don’t have a minimum required score, but you can figure out which score to aim for by looking at the average scores of recent students. In general, 720 is considered a “safe” score for some of the top U.S. schools, such as Stanford and Harvard, but each year, many students are accepted with scores in the mid-600s.
A score in the low to mid-600s puts you in the running for some of the second-tier schools in the U.S., such as the University of Pittsburgh, which has an average score of 647. The higher your score, the more competitive your application will be.
If you’re applying to a U.S. school as an international student, you may also be required to take a TOEFL or IELTS exam to show English language proficiency. Most business schools require an IELTS score of at least 6.5, but some of the top schools, such as Harvard Business School, require a 7.5 or higher.
Even if your school waives the GMAT or English language requirements, keep in mind that you may have to submit them with your student visa application.
Most business school applicants have several years of work experience after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree and before applying for an MBA. While a typical school may require three years of work experience, this can vary from program to program.
In general, the type of work experience you have is more important than the length. Business schools want to attract students from a variety of industries, and are particularly looking for students who have shown leadership skills and are good at working in a team.
Not all business schools require post-graduate work experience, but even if they don’t, your application will be more competitive if you have at least one year of experience.
When putting together your resume, include a description of what kind of work you did in each position, and any particular success stories or achievements you had. Explain any gaps in your resume or changes in career direction.
Basic Eligibility Requirements for Indian MBA Programs (e.g. ISB, IIM)
Requirements for business school admissions in India vary slightly. As with U.S. programs, your admissions packet will include a Bachelor’s degree, test scores, work experience, and supplementary materials. However, work and educational requirements are more in line with that of the Indian schooling and employment system.
The top business schools in India are the Indian School of Business (ISB) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), so let’s look at the requirements for both of those programs.
Both the ISB and IIMs require applicants to have a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent; however, unlike in the U.S., it doesn’t have to be from a four-year program. Most undergraduate degrees in India are only three years, and this will be sufficient for an Indian business program.
For example, the Post Graduate Program for Executives (PGPX) at IIM requires 15 years of schooling in all, which is a typical length of study in the Indian education system.
In India, many students take the Common Admission Test (CAT) to apply for postgraduate business programs. However, the GMAT is becoming more common in India.
Some programs, such as the Post Graduate Programme in Management at ISB require the GMAT and do not accept the CAT. The IIMs accept both the CAT and GMAT.
You may also be required to submit a TOEFL or IELTS score if you undertook your Bachelor’s degree in a language other than English.
The IIMs and ISB have slightly different work experience requirements. For the class of 2020, the ISB requires at least 2 years of working full time. However, for the Early Entry Program, recent graduates with less than 2 years of work experience are eligible.
To apply for the PGPX at an IIM, applicants are expected to have 4-7 years of work experience. This doesn’t apply to other programs at the IIMs, just the PGPX.
Beyond Eligibility: What Makes You Competitive?
Once you’ve met the minimum entry requirements for your chosen program, what makes you stand out from the crowd? How will you be noticed amongst thousands of other applicants? It’s not enough to simply assume that a good GPA and GMAT score will get you in.
Let’s look at some ways you can show off your strengths and improve your chances of getting into the program of your choice.
School Brand & Grades
Does where you’ve studied for your undergraduate degree make a difference? In some cases, it does. While having any Bachelor’s degree will generally meet the eligibility requirements for an MBA program, having a Bachelor’s degree from a brand name school shows the admissions team that you’ve already studied at a high-quality institution.
For example, many Indian colleges and universities are unknown outside of the country. But the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have a global reputation. It’s likely that the admissions team will be familiar with the program, as will other students and future employers.
In the same way, what you’ve studied can also make a difference. It’s becoming more common for students to go from the social sciences into business, and in fact, the IIMs are trying to draw more non-engineer applicants in order to have more academic diversity on campus.
Consider what sort of applicants your ideal program is seeking out. Do they prioritize students with a business background or do they want a wider variety of students? Depending on what you’ve studied, you may be a more competitive applicant at some schools than others.
You’ll also want to look into the average GPA at your preferred MBA program. A typical MBA student at the top schools in the U.S. has a GPA of 3.5, although it can be even higher at the most elite schools.
Of course, you can’t go back in time and improve your GPA. But knowing how your GPA compares to that of other applicants can help you decide where to focus your energy.
You can make up for a low GPA by getting a high GMAT score and emphasizing your work experience. Or, you can apply to a school where your GPA is more in line with the average application, instead of aiming for Stanford or Harvard.
After all, part of having a “competitive” application is knowing where to compete.
Entrance Exam Scores
One of the most important components of your application is your GMAT (or GRE) score. A high GMAT score alone won’t guarantee your admission, but it goes a long way toward getting your application noticed. Typically, prospective MBA students will aim for a 650 to get into a mid-range school and 700 or higher to get into an elite school.
That said, even a perfect score of 800 won’t make up for a low undergraduate GPA or a lack of work experience. It may simply demonstrate that you’re good at standardized tests but weaker in real-world education and work contexts.
To be competitive, aim for a GMAT score that is 10 or 20 points above the average score for applicants at your chosen school. If you don’t reach your GMAT goal, don’t worry: you may not be able to get into Harvard with a 650 on your GMAT, but you may still be a very competitive candidate at a lower-ranking school.
Ultimately, try to aim for a balance of test scores and supplementary materials. If your GPA or GMAT score is low, explain it in your admissions essay. Remember, at some schools, if you have 5 or more years of work experience, you can skip the exam altogether.
Strong Work Brand
In addition to a brand-name school, having work experience at a brand-name company can make your application more competitive. MBA programs often have close relationships with big-name consulting companies like McKinsey and Bain Capital, and around half of incoming MBA students at Stanford and Harvard come from the banking sector.
In India, McKinsey & Company works closely with Indian business schools, and often hires graduates from MBA programs. If you have work experience at McKinsey or another global brand already, be sure to highlight that in your application. Not only will it make you stand out, but it will show that you have a strong chance of being employed after graduation.
That said, working at a big-name company isn’t a requirement to get into an MBA program. If you chose to work for a non-profit or a socially-conscious enterprise, explain why. Maybe you turned down a job in venture capital to work for a small business in your hometown.
Whether you’re coming from a brand-name business or a lesser known one, show how your work experience makes sense as part of your overall career trajectory.
One of the most important things to highlight on your application is your leadership experience — in school, at work, and in extra-curricular activities. Since most applicants will have a similar amount of work experience, how do you make yours stand out? If you haven’t yet worked in a management position, you may not be sure how to demonstrate your leadership skills.
According to the Harvard Business Review, there are four elements of leadership that are most relevant to the admissions committee:
- ability to motivate
- ability to adapt
Remember, leadership is different from achievement. Just because you received an award or a promotion doesn’t mean you showed leadership. Try and think of a time when you helped inspire a team, made a big decision for your company, or adapted to a setback in your business.
While leadership experience in the workplace is most relevant, showing leadership outside of work is important too. Your leadership experience could include coaching a sports team, running a fundraiser for charity, or being a mentor or tutor for students in your field.
MBA programs want to select applicants who are good team players, so showing collaborative leaderships skills will make you stand out from more independent, top-down leaders.
Now that you know which factors are most important to the admissions committee, it’s time to take all of these elements — your work experience, your undergraduate education, your exam scores, and your GPA — and combine them into one compelling application.
One last thing before you go…
If you’ve been rejected by an MBA program, we specialize in helping people reapply. The first thing we do is a DING analysis to help you figure out what you can do better next time. If that’s you, start by accessing the self-assessment here.