Reach Business Schools: What to Know, How to Get In | Top Business Schools

If you’re self-conscious about any portion of your MBA application or nervous about how you will perform under pressure during an admissions interview, you’re not alone.

“First, there are no perfect candidates and you are in good company if you are worried about aspects of the application,” Melissa Rapp, associate dean of graduate admissions at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Georgia, wrote in an email. “If you have identified an area that may be of concern to the admissions committee, the best thing to do is to address it.”

MBA hopefuls can provide specifics about a problematic feature of their candidacy in an optional essay, or they can counteract a negative quality by emphasizing their virtues, Rapp says.

Nearly all business school applicants are concerned about one aspect of their candidacy missing the mark, according to MBA admissions officers. Many MBA hopefuls wonder whether their credentials are subpar at their dream schools, and some feel so intimidated by the selectivity of their ideal MBA programs that they opt out of applying to them.

“Wherever you’re coming from, it’s natural to worry about your chances of being admitted,” Chad Losee, managing director of MBA admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School in Massachusetts, wrote in an email. “But if you choose not to apply your chances are zero.”

Anxiety about the MBA admissions process is often greater for people whose grades, test scores or years of work experience don’t align with the average in the class profile for admitted students at their target B-schools. They may feel that their favorite academic institutions are out of reach.

However, these candidates should remember that B-schools routinely accept students with statistics below the averages or medians displayed in class profiles.

“It’s important to keep the class profile in mind, but don’t eliminate yourself (from consideration) if you’re on the lower side of some of those stats,” says Taya Sapp, senior associate director of admissions with the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. “You’ve got to give yourself a chance.”

What Qualifies as a Reach School and Common Myths

Reach MBA programs are usually B-schools where an MBA applicant has one or more qualifications – such as GPAs, test scores or years of work experience – that are under the average or median for admitted students in the most recently enrolled class. Prospective students may lack certain accomplishments and experiences, such as impressive extracurricular activities and a track record of leadership, that are typically necessary for acceptance at these institutions.

A reach school for one MBA hopeful may not be a reach for another.

It’s common for MBA applicants to misidentify programs as reach schools based on inaccurate assumptions about admissions criteria. Sometimes a personal feature that a candidate perceives as a disadvantage in the admissions process is not viewed as such by admissions officers, who may describe that trait as a plus.

For instance, prospective MBA students often wrongly assume that a liberal arts major will be viewed as a weakness by an MBA admissions committee. But that is untrue, since advanced knowledge in a nonbusiness domain is valued by business schools, says Bruce DelMonico, assistant dean for admissions with the Yale School of Management in Connecticut.

Similarly, applicants often mistakenly believe that the prestige associated with their undergraduate institution is important to selective B-schools. But that’s usually only a minor consideration – if a consideration at all, DelMonico says.

A frequent mistake among MBA hopefuls who view themselves as longshots at some MBA programs is to assume they need to have a specific academic, geographic, professional or socioeconomic pedigree to get into one of these programs, according to MBA admissions officers.

Individuals who come from demographics that are well-represented at MBA programs often worry that they won’t stand out from their peers. On the flip side, individuals who work in industries that don’t usually lead to B-school often fear they won’t fit into the B-school mold.

Applicants to US business schools who grew up in a low-income or middle class household, come from a rural area or are based in another country also sometimes feel out of place in the applicant pool at competitive MBA programs. So do some individuals who didn’t go to a prestigious college, work for a blue-chip company or hold a management position.

However, admissions officers at highly selective US MBA programs say that they don’t expect or seek perfection when they review application files and that they judge candidates as individuals regardless of their backgrounds.

Losee puts it this way: “There is no ‘traditional’ or ‘typical’ profile that we are looking for at Harvard Business School. Diverse experiences and perspectives are crucial to our case-method learning model, so we are looking for students from a wide range of backgrounds.”

How to Counteract Deficits in Your MBA Candidacy

Lack of quantitative coursework, a low college GPA or an unimpressive GMAT or GRE score may cause MBA admissions officers to have misgivings about an applicant’s academic preparedness. But certain proactive measures can remedy these problems, according to MBA admissions officers.

For instance, someone who had a personal crisis during college that made it hard to focus on school can provide context on this issue in an optional essay or application addendum. Similarly, someone who had an issue at a testing center while taking an entrance exam can explain this to admissions officers.

Individuals who didn’t take math or statistics courses in undergrad or who earned a low score on the quantitative section of a standardized test can compensate by taking empirically based or data-focused classes and performing well. They may also ask recommenders to emphasize strong performance in math-related academic or professional projects.

It’s possible to mitigate the bad impression made by a low college GPA or another demerit in your application file, according to MBA admissions officers.

“Think about why a challenge would concern the admission committee and provide evidence to overcome the concern,” Rapp of Emory University suggests. “For example, if you have a low undergraduate GPA the committee may worry about your academic ability or your commitment to learning. Provide examples of your mental abilities through your work experience and directly address a lack of focus when you were younger, what you learned , and ways you have shown commitment more recently.”

Sapp of the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor recommends that MBA applicants describe their unique personal accomplishments in their resumes and interviews, focusing less on job titles or responsibilities and more on individual projects and their impact on affiliated organizations.

“You may have the same job title as somebody, but that doesn’t mean that you have worked on the same projects, had the same impact, have the same extracurriculars or have the same passions in life,” she says.

MBA hopefuls shouldn’t hyperfocus on one segment of an MBA application, such as the resume, to the point that they neglect other parts of the application like the essays, because every part of the application matters, Sapp says.

According to DelMonico, it’s possible to get into a great MBA program without wowing admissions officers in every segment of the application. Further, a weakness in one area – such as undergraduate transcripts – can be “offset” by a strength in another area, such as a high test score or impressive resume, he says.

“Most students are not going to be above the bar on every dimension,” DelMonico says. “I think that, to some degree, there is a bit of undermatching among candidates, that they’re not self-selecting. They’re taking themselves out of the class preemptively, because they’re not achieving some fictional bar that really doesn it exists.”

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