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10 Mistakes To Avoid When Applying To Business Schools

In the most recent article in our series of tips for aspiring MBA candidates, we identified some of the most important factors to take into consideration when searching for the right business school. We discussed key variables like prestige, teaching quality, geography, and the availability of online degree options. You’ll want to weigh each of these factors as you choose the best business school for you. But of course, in order for you to have that power of choice, you’ll need to maximize your chances of admission. And this means rocking out your business school applications!

But of course, in order to do that, you’ll need to understand what MBA programs are looking for in an ideal candidate; you’ll need to identify the strengths that you bring to your intended MBA program; and you’ll need a firm grasp on what business school admission officers tend to prioritize when reviewing applications. And perhaps one of the best ways to do this is to first understand what not to do!

That’s right. There are certain mistakes you can make in your application that can eliminate you from consideration almost immediately. For instance, U.S. News & World Report warns that it’s absolutely critical that you don’t state the name of the wrong school on your application.

Honestly, we’re giving you more credit than that. 

We’re assuming that even in the middle of studying for GMATs, wrapping up your college responsibilities, holding down a job and shopping for MBAs, you can at least remain focused enough to know which school you’re applying to. But we bring it up because, it’s true…if you state the name of the wrong school on your application, you probably won’t get in.

So let’s dig a little deeper and consider some mistakes that do actually commonly occur.

But first, let’s take a quick look at the basic qualifications that you’ll need to meet before you get to work on your applications.

Basic Requirements for Getting a Master of Business Administration Degree

Bachelor’s Degree

In the vast majority of cases, the basic threshold for entering into an accredited MBA program will be a four-year degree from a regionally accredited undergraduate institution. While many students will advance into the MBA program with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, MBA programs commonly consider candidates from a wide array of background disciplines. For instance, majors in fields like accounting, marketing, and human resources will often advance into a master of business administration program. However, MBA programs also place a premium on candidates with unique educational backgrounds such as psychology, mathematics, and behavioral sciences majors. As long as this bachelor’s degree is conferred by a reputable and accredited institution, your exact major will be secondary.

Prerequisite Business Courses

That said, whatever you study as an undergraduate, it will likely be important that you have completed some of the foundational courses required by your MBA program. These requirements may vary from one MBA program to the next. And in all likelihood, if you have majored in business or in a related field in college, you will have already fulfilled these prerequisites. But if you’ve taken a unique educational pathway to your business school application, you may need to complete certain business theory and organizational management classes at the undergraduate level first. Be sure you understand the academic requirements for your desired MBA program and take steps to satisfy these requirements before sending out your applications.

Test Scores

Some business schools will require you to submit Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) scores. The GMAT is the primary standardized diagnostic tool used to measure readiness and fitness for entry into an MBA program. A number of business schools will weigh these scores both in determining your eligibility and in measuring you against other candidates. That said, a growing number of business school programs have moved to a testing optional policy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Be sure you understand the testing requirements of any programs on your list. If you believe you are likely to receive a competitive score on your GMAT, you may wish to take this exam in order to improve your candidacy for top schools. On the contrary, if standardized testing is not your strong suit, you may wish to instead pursue admission to a school that does not require the submission of GMAT scores.

Minimum GPA

There may be a minimum academic performance threshold for admission into most MBA programs. In most cases, you will be required to show a minimum 3.0 GPA to gain entry into a reputable business school. That said, elite schools may not necessarily carry minimum GPA requirements. But your GPA will have a major impact on your likelihood of admission. For instance, the average GPA for those admitted to a school like Stanford business is roughly 3.8. While there is no stated rule which says you must have a minimum GPA of 3.8, anything less would likely place you out of the running for admission.

10 Mistakes To Avoid On Your Business School Applications

Provided you’ve met the basic conditions above for business school eligibility and you’ve already narrowed your list down to your top selections, it’s time to start sending out applications. To state things lightly, this is an important step. Regardless of your academic performance and personal achievements, the perfectly framed application could be the difference maker as you do your best to stand out from a crowd of qualified applicants. On the other hand, one false move on your application could dash your hopes of getting into your dream MBA program.

That’s why we’ve compiled these tips, to help you avoid those costly errors on your way to the business education you envision.

1. Don’t Phone In The Goals Section

One of the cornerstone elements of your business school application is your goals section. This is your opportunity to tell admissions officers what you plan to achieve during your time in your MBA program and beyond. But this is more than just a cover letter for an imaginary job. This is a chance to get specific about your vision and what makes it unique.

Business schools want to know how your goals fold into the school’s broader mission, how you will channel your educational goals into advancing your career goals (and thus, continuing the school’s tradition of prestige), and why the unique community, resources, and faculty at the school in question are best suited to help you meet these goals.

It may be tempting to gloss over this section of your application as you prepare for the challenge of writing your personal essay. This would be a big mistake. According to Fortuna Admissions, “your goals are the foundation of your MBA candidacy. Please don’t listen to people who tell you that they don’t matter, since many people wind up shifting gears in business school. They still matter a lot.”

Indeed, you too may shift gears during your time in business school. However, top MBA programs are seeking candidates that know what they wish to achieve in business school and have a clear sense of how the school in question can help them get there. Keep this in mind as you outline your goals. The added bonus is that the better you can elaborate your goals today, the better your chances are of landing at a business school where you can actually achieve them.

2. Don’t Submit The Same Essay To Multiple Schools

The personal statement or essay section of your business school application is essential to distinguishing you from countless other applicants. Make sure you seize this opportunity. After all, a topflight institution like Harvard Business or the Wharton School will see countless applications with perfect GPAs, stellar GMAT scores, and strong references from local business leaders. Your personal essay is the one place where you can set yourself apart by demonstrating personality, creativity, and a strong understanding of how these qualities can be applied in your MBA program.

Be sure you take advantage of this opportunity. To this point, U.S. News & World Report quotes former MBA admissions officer and current corporate graduate recruiter Crystal Grant, who “says applicants should tailor each application they submit to the school receiving it.” Grant says that “We know that application forms can be lengthy, but every section is there for a reason. If you copy and paste your answers between schools, you’re missing a great opportunity to demonstrate how you fit with the culture and values of each institution.”

By doing so, you may be diminishing your own chances of getting into the school of your choice. Indeed, you won’t just be short changing yourself. You’ll also expose a level of relative indifference that will be self-apparent to admissions officers who review hundreds of essays a year or more. Write something distinctive. It shows you really care, and it gives you a chance to show your best self.

The takeaway here is that you should take the time to really consider what each application is really asking, and do your best to craft an original essay that meaningfully addresses this prompt.

3. Don’t Write What You Think They Want To Hear

We admit, this is a bit of a challenging needle to thread. On the one hand, it’s important to write based on certain conventions and expectations. You should have a clear understanding of what admissions officers are looking for in a candidate and you should do your best to deliver on that information.

But don’t mistake these expectations for a desire to read a pandering and disingenuous essay. While you should know what admissions officers are looking for, you should write what you want to write. You should deliver the sentiment that underlines your desire to enroll in this specific program.

If you’re not sure how to do this, or if essay writing in general is not your strong suit, you may benefit from the help of an MBA admissions consultant. These business school admission coaches can help you navigate the challenges of your application and even offer support as you develop your personal statement.

That said, it’s important to do the real bulk of the writing work yourself. As you enter into this next step in your higher education, you will be expected to demonstrate both written and verbal communication skills. Indeed, these skills will also be essential as you prepare for various organizational leadership opportunities. Start now by taking the time to write truly meaningful personal essays.

4. Don’t Offer The Same Old Generic Reasons For Choosing A Program

Poets & Quants warns that admissions officers are generally turned off by feigned interest in a school and that these efforts tend to be fairly transparent. In other words, if you come off as phony, admissions officers will see it from a mile away.

With that in mind, you want to avoid conveying the impression that you are merely applying to a program because of its prestige. As Poets & Quants notes, “Elite business schools want students who will thrive, and who are actually excited about their programs. Demonstrate fit and genuine passion by mentioning specific courses, clubs, and community interactions. Talk about how you will contribute and enhance the community, not just about what school x can do for you

In other words, do your due diligence before applying. Know what makes each program unique, and have a clear sense of how these distinctive features connect to your personal goals. Otherwise, you risk giving admissions officers the impression that you’re just sending off applications in an assembly line without much clear thought about what differentiates one program from the next. 

If you want admissions officers to view you as a unique candidate, make sure you demonstrate recognition of the qualities that make the program unique. This can significantly improve your chances of being seen as a match.

5. Don’t Apply To Too Many Schools

When it comes to college applications, the more the merrier! After all, the Common Application makes it extraordinarily easy to submit your information to dozens of schools all at once. That makes sense when you’re looking for colleges, especially if you’re undecided on your major and you’re looking to maximize your chances of admission to a top program.

But when it comes to MBA programs, things are a little different. U.S. News & World Report suggests that you’re actually a lot better off narrowing your focus to the schools that most closely match your goals, needs, and interests as opposed to casting a wide net. There are a few reasons for this.

First and foremost, the process of applying to business schools is time consuming and deeply involved. There is no Common Application for elite business schools. It’s up to you to craft a unique and compelling application package for each and every school to which you apply. 

Translation: don’t spread yourself thin. Narrow your list down to your top choices and put all of your effort into making these applications stellar.

Second, you won’t do yourself any favors by applying to schools that are out of your reach. As you narrow your choices down, now is the time to be realistic about the schools that are actually in striking distance for you. U.S. News & World Report notes that “The painful truth is that an MBA applicant is unlikely to be accepted to a highly ranked MBA program unless he or she has extraordinary credentials, and even then, acceptance is not guaranteed.”

Drill down your focus to those schools that really matter–the very best schools for your academic profile, your career goals, and your personal preferences. Once you’ve done this, put everything you have into these high priority applications.

6. Don’t Be Arrogant

There is a fine line between demonstrating confidence and coming off as boastful. It’s your job to find that line and walk it carefully when writing your personal essay and stating your program and career goals. Do your best to strike a respectful tone, one that displays your best qualities while showing the proper decorum. This is especially true when applying to prestigious institutions.

These schools field thousands of applications every year showcasing sterling academic records, distinctive achievements, and impressive references. Such is to say that you won’t dazzle admissions officers by boasting about your laundry list of accomplishments. They’ve seen it all before.

You’ll make a much greater impact by elaborating on the details of certain accomplishments, and why they are relevant to your personal goals as an MBA candidate. Instead of boasting about your excellence as an entrepreneur, offer some hard numbers illustrating that you’ve made an impact as a small business leader. Describe the ways this experience shaped you, taught you, and delivered you to where you are today.

Rather than focusing on the merit of your achievements, describe your achievements in the context of your own personal growth and development. A personal narrative is always more compelling than a bullet list of achievements.

7. Don’t Be All Business

I know. I know. This sounds totally counterintuitive. After all, you are applying to business schools. But here’s the thing. Admissions officers read applications all day long where applicants highlight their achievements as fledgling entrepreneurs, spotlight some of the highlights from their time in corporate internships, talk about how they started their own business in junior high, or otherwise elaborate on business driven extracurricular activities.

One of the best ways to set yourself apart is to spotlight some of your more personal achievements as well as some of your more distinctive extracurricular activities. As Fortuna Admissions suggests, “An engaging volunteer experience can say so much more about you than preparing a slide deck for a client presentation or negotiating another deal. Your extracurriculars should help you to speak from your core being, and reinforce what you want to do with your life, and why you want to do it.”

Write about how these unique activities made an impact on you, and how they have enhanced the qualities and priorities that you’ll carry into your MBA program with you. Business schools often place a premium on full time students who have the potential to make a positive impact on the broader educational community.

Demonstrate a colorful and varied student experience. Schools already understand that you’re interested in business. After all, you are applying for an MBA. Show them what else is important to you, and how these qualities can help to enhance an already rich learning environment.

8. Don’t Make Stuff Up

This one seems kind of obvious, but it really bears repeating. Lying, exaggerating or even appearing do fabricate elements of your personal essay, resume, or extracurricular record will significantly undermine your MBA candidacy. Because here’s the thing…admissions officers don’t owe you an explanation for rejecting your application. If there is even a suspicion that you’ve fudged the facts or embellished the details, an admissions officer reserves the right to throw your application on the trash heap.

U.S. News & World Report quotes Dan Bauer, founder of The MBA Exchange admissions consulting firm, who notes that most MBA admissions officers have a pretty strong sense of what to look for. Indeed, to reiterate an important point, these officers review hundreds of essays or more each year. You’ll want to think twice before attempting to put one over on somebody who reads student essays for a living.

As Dan Bauer warns, “Business schools want and need to believe they’re admitting someone who has done exactly what they say they’ve done…When in doubt, the application is discarded.”

Make sure you are entirely honest in how you present yourself. Avoid creating even a shadow of a doubt that you are who you claim to be.

9. Don’t Make Careless Mistakes

Now that you’ve gone to all the trouble of crafting a smart, compelling, and personal essay statement, a meaningful set of career goals, and a generally impressive application package, make sure you don’t undermine all of that hard work with careless mistakes. Review thoroughly for typos, for inaccurate information, for accidental keystrokes, and for all the little overlooked details that can completely torpedo your credibility. 

And yes, to reiterate the point offered by U.S. News & World Report, do not under any circumstance refer to the school in question by the wrong name!

Review your work thoroughly and repeatedly. Indeed, Fortuna Admissions observes that “It’s painful when sloppy mistakes undermine an impressive resume. It tells the reviewer you don’t care enough to pay attention to the details. Always proofread your resume. Proofread it again. Then, yes, proofread again.”

It also helps to have a trusted source like a parent, friend, colleague or professor review your work. A second and third set of eyes can always help to identify mistakes that you might have missed. 

Take your time with the editorial stage. Give your hard work the final polish it deserves.

10. Don’t Neglect to Speak With Current Students

Before you hit “submit” on your business school application, now is a great time to reach out to students who are currently enrolled in, or recently graduated from, the programs that you are now considering. You may be able to access contact information for current students by reaching out to the admissions office, or you may be able to tap into your prospective school’s alumni network.

Indeed, the alumni network has the potential to be a powerful channel for all kinds of personal connections as you proceed with your business education. But for now, your goal is to gather tips from current students as you complete your application. After all, these current students are clearly in a strong position to advise on what works and what doesn’t.

Gather insights from current students about their experience both as applicants and as students. Channel this insight into the essay and goals portions of your application.


If you’re still wrestling with questions over the value of an advanced business degree, jump to our look at MBA programs and whether or not they’re worth the money (because, of course, business schools are rarely cheap).