Pursuing an MBA: Notes from an Alumni Panel

In February, 2009, three representatives of four well-regarded MBA programs discussed their experiences as applicants and as staff in the admissions office for a mixed audience of students and alumni at Bucknell.   Here is a rather lengthy but informative summary of the useful and first-hand information they shared*:

Pursuing an MBA: Perspectives from Harvard, Wharton and Dartmouth

written by Jamie Leacock ’11

[Summarized from a panel program presented at Bucknell University on February 7, 2009;  includes information from a previous presentation by Sam Lundquist on 10.24.06. ]


  • Garry Thaniel ’04, Harvard 2+2 Program, 2nd Year Student
  • Sam Lundquist, Vice-President, Development & Alumni Relations, Bucknell and former Dean of Admissions of MBA Programs at Dartmouth and Wharton
  • Cali Yost ’87, President & CEO, Work + Life Fit, MBA – Columbia University

At first it may appear to be an exhausting struggle when applying to top-tier MBA programs, but with these pointers from panelists representing Harvard, Wharton, and Dartmouth, the application process can become quite simple.

What are MBA graduate programs looking for?

First, it is important to stray from just “fitting in” with other applicants; schools are seeking a diverse applicant pool. The reasons for being accepted into the program vary between each applicant; thus it is even more crucial that you stand out as an individual. One myth surrounding the MBA admissions process is that applicants are accepted based on their credentials (e.g., what undergraduate school they attended, an internship they completed). However, this rationale could not be any more false. Schools are not looking for what you have done; they are looking for why you have done it and how well you did it! The panelists urge prospective students to be able to explain the choices they made and why they excelled. Talking about the quality of your experience and why it was right for you is a surefire way to exude individuality. Dispel the thinking error that it is not okay to do what you want to do by adopting the notion that it matters why you chose your path. The best job is not what you think schools are looking for, it is what you are passionate about.

When should I apply?

Most people apply 2-4 years out of undergraduate school because MBA schools want their applicants to have solid experiences in addition to personal maturity.  With this being said, some students are accepted right after their undergraduate graduation if they have 2-3 years of work experience (whether through internships or other activities). Nevertheless, applying early in the process can help avoid competing for remaining slots.

Should I re-apply if I don’t get in the first time?

One panelist said 10% of Wharton applicants were re-applying. He advises re-applicants to be very careful not to look like the main goal is to get into that particular school. At schools where the application can be re-activated, he was very impressed when applicants started over, treating the re-application process as a blank state instead of reusing old essays. It can be a good idea to paint a new self-portrait of yourself based on the new experiences you gained during the past year.

How many times should I take the GMAT?

The panelists suggest that applicants take the GMAT a maximum of three times. Admissions officers are aware of different study aids that can coach you to score higher on standardized tests, so they place more weigh on your academic record. If you score a 750, it is recommended that you do not retake the test.

Who should write my letters of recommendation?

When compiling letters of reference, it is vital that you ask people who know you well.  It is also advised that you “coach” the reference as to highlight or touch upon certain features about you. Before leaving Bucknell, you can ask a few professors who know you well to be future references and write you a general letter of recommendation now. Ask them to hold on to the letter and alert them you may ask them to be future references, then stay in touch with them and send updates every few months. This may ensure that they would feel comfortable writing about you and strengthen your letter of recommendation.

What qualities do admissions officers look for in an applicant?

When reviewing applications, the panel asserts that admissions officers are thinking about the long-term – what kind of alumni are you going to be? The three main factors of your application that admissions committee members look at are your grades and academic record, your work experience, and your personal qualities. Admissions officers also want you to demonstrate your ability to do the work assigned as well as your work background. One panelist who has worked at Bucknell, Dartmouth, and Wharton says he seeks the following when making decisions: applicant’s integrity, their risk-taking ability, their leadership as expressed in the context of their own life, and (his highest weighted criteria) their initiative. One way to demonstrate these characteristics during an interview is by using the mirror technique. When asked to tell about a leadership experience, after answering, reframe the question and ask the interviewer about opportunities for leadership at that school. Utilizing these tips can certainly be beneficial to your application process.

What is the admissions process?

Obviously, the admissions committee members (which consist of admissions staff and sometimes students) read the application. The first member reads and summarizes, spending about 30 minutes with the application, setting the tone and picking out key points. Next, a second member spends about 15 minutes reading the summary and key points from the first member. A score is then provided by the first and second members. After, a third member reviews the summary and notes, either making a decision on the application or passing the application on to a fourth member if a consensus is not reached.  With this in mind, you might consider tailoring your application as to answer the question “If someone was going to summarize me, what would they say?” It is noteworthy to realize that your application will be reviewed multiple times. Therefore, networking with one person in the office isn’t stressed here.

When I am accepted into an MBA program, what will my schedule be like?

Well, there will definitely be very long, busy days. To be successful, consistency is needed. You must always be prepared to make decisions and to perform at high standards every day. The payoff, however, is limitless and applicable to your outside life as well; you will learn to prioritize, to exercise time management, to make tough decisions, and to work with and trust groups.  One priceless feature of MBA programs is the opportunity to learn from other students; something that on-line MBA programs lack.

All in all, it may be hard to pinpoint why you want an MBA, but answering why you desire an MBA based on what you know about yourself today exudes integrity.

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