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Getting Into a Top-Rated Business School

Updated on August 15, 2020
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A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

If you want to join the roughly 200,000 others who want to go for the MBA, this article provides advice, suggestions, and guidance that can help you prepare for applying to attend a top-rated or any high quality business school. In addition, you will find in this article information, advice, and suggestions that can help anyone who is planning to earn an MBA by attending a top-rated business school.

I have a doctorate in business specializing in marketing, and I've taught (as an adjunct professor) in the weekend MBA program of the highly regarded Cameron School of Business at University of St. Thomas, in Houston, TX. However, for my terminal degree, for many reasons, I chose non-traditional study through Walden University, a distance-education provider of higher education; a school I found to have an excellent graduate program in business.

For my master’s degree, I chose to study at the University of Illinois (Urbana campus) which, at the time I attended, had one of the top-rated programs in the nation for advertising, media and mass communications. Even though gaining admission to the UI graduate program was competitive, not only did I get in, I was one of the recipients of the highly sought-after James Webb Young fellowship.

Students in a Harvard Business School classroom.
Students in a Harvard Business School classroom. | Source

Want to Attend a Top-Rated B-School?

It can be intimidating just to think about applying to the MBA program at one of our nation's top-rated B-schools. For this reason, it might help to keep in mind that members of the admissions committees are simply human beings who want to see a whole picture of who you are, as an individual. No matter what school you apply to, admissions officials will have in mind both your best interest, and the best interest of their school. Therefore, they will want to know not just what you intend to get from attending their school, they'll also want to know what you are bringing with you that others can benefit from. They will expect you to show and tell them what you have in your background that will help ensure you’ll be a strong, contributing member of their particular B-school and its community.

 Graduate School of Business, as seen from Hoover Tower, Stanford University.
Graduate School of Business, as seen from Hoover Tower, Stanford University. | Source

Ingredients of the “Getting In” Mix

Five of the primary ingredients commonly included in the B-school admissions package, no matter what school you are trying to get into, are: The admissions essay (sometimes called “Statement of Purpose”), work experience, GMAT scores, letters of recommendation, and, past academic achievement.

Past Academic Achievement

You will be competing for admission with many qualified applicants, and one thing you will have to do is to stand out, for the right reasons. And, while undergraduate GPA is important, you might be surprised to learn that it is not usually the most important consideration. Know, however, that if your grades are not good, like most of the other “getting in” ingredients, they can be used to help weed out undesirable applicants. Still, having a less-than-stellar grade point average is not necessarily a “knock-out” punch, even when trying to get into a top B-School. Admissions officials are looking at a “total package,” not just one ingredient in the mix.

When an undergraduate GPA is less than excellent, or if some of the grades on your academic transcript are unimpressive, you will need to explain why you earned the low grades as an undergrad. In addition, you will need to convince admissions officials that you won’t be giving a “repeat performance,” grade wise, when you pursue graduate study.

Students studying in Stell Hall at the campus of the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.
Students studying in Stell Hall at the campus of the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. | Source

Work Experience

Top schools expect potential applicants to have from two to four years of solid work experience to be considered for their MBA programs. Many other schools require at least three years in a corporate environment.

In the big leagues of B-schools, it was once accepted as a “given” that applicants needed a strong history of work experience at a top Fortune 50 firm. Such experience was considered a primary and necessary element in the “getting in” mix. After all, admissions officials knew that after graduating many of the applicants would be competing for top-of-the-heap careers on Wall Street.

In more recent years, even top schools have started looking more for applicants that might have game-changing “entrepreneurial” experience and/or potential. The success of many start-ups (such as Facebook), in the tech field and beyond, has played a major role in shining a spotlight on innovators, those possessing the dreams, drive, passion, and determination to build something spectacular from an idea.

More than what you do or have done on a job, admissions officials want and expect to see who you are. They want to know you have the type of management decision-making abilities, entrepreneurial promise, and/or exemplary social skills that will set you apart from the crowd. You will need to convince them that you are mature enough and smart enough to “connect the dots.” That means you'll need to show them the connections you see between what you have learned from your career/work (whether it was at a Fortune 50 company or a spirited start-up), and how your knowledge will enhance your studies and contribute to what you want to achieve in the future, as a result of earning your MBA.

GMAT scores

It can help to get a high score on the Graduate Management Admissions Test. The GMAT is a standardized test consisting of three main parts: math, verbal and analytical writing. While test scores can range from 200 to 800, the average score is 500.

The more highly rated the school you want to attend, the higher your GMAT score will need to be. Schools rated among the top ten in the nation (discussed later in this article) will want to see applicant scores around 700 and above. Many applicants who gain admission into other top 50 business schools, on average, score in the mid to high 600s. Worldwide, the average GMAT score is around 570.

There are ways to prepare for the test, and ways to improve your score. A good place to begin finding more information on this topic is, the “official website of the GMAT.”

Letters of Recommendation

Contrary to the old adage that says success in business is linked to "Who you know," when it comes to getting letters of recommendation for B-school, even more important is, “Who knows you.” You might think it would look good to have people with prestigious or famous names, or even a prominent graduate of the school you want to attend, to write a letter of recommendation for you. But, unless the person recommending you knows you very well, a letter from them might possibly be the equivalent of some very nice stationery with an illustrious signature.

Those recommending you need to know about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as about your suitability as a prospective MBA student. They need to be associated with your career (consider asking current or past professional supervisors other managers knowledgeable of your professional performance, and perhaps an academic supervisor who knows you well). You should ask for letters of recommendation people who have known you long enough to be able to give good examples of your work performance, character, ethics, leadership qualities, and teamwork skills. They will need to be able to provide specific details to back up their claims about you, to help differentiate you from other applicants. | Source

The Admissions Essay

Before even thinking about writing your business school admissions essay, you will need to apply due diligence to finding and then narrowing down the list of B-school programs that are right for you. Why? Because in your admissions essay, you will need to convince officials of a particular school that what their school has to offer is a perfect fit for you and your goals. And your response must be personal and real, not a regurgitation of something you found on the school’s website, or from reading their marketing materials.

Communications skills matter. How well you communicate what you have to say will help to set your essay apart from those of other applicants. After many revisions, in the final draft of your essay be sure you’re communicating clearly while paying close attention to grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Discuss your interests and how they are linked to your purpose for pursuing an MBA. Research and career interests provide the foundation for graduate study. Connect yours to your preparation for graduate study by explaining how they will help to set you apart from other applicants. Point out experiences in school, work, or in your life that will enable you to excel in graduate study.

Make sure your essay is true to you, and that it allows your personality to shine through. Describe how your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses have shaped who you are today, helping you to discover who you are, who you want to become, and why attending this business school will help you accomplish your goals. For more on this topic, be sure to read my Hub “How to Write a Statement of Purpose for Business School” (link provided at the end of this article).

MBA Student Offers Advice for Getting Into Harvard Business School

MIT Sloan School of Management building.
MIT Sloan School of Management building. | Source

Which Business Schools Are Listed In The Top Ten?

Ranked in 2020, for best graduate schools of business for 2021, U.S. News & World Report, compared top business schools in the U.S. In the fall of 2019 and early 2020, all 477 MBA programs around the country that have been accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International were surveyed. With a total of 364 schools responding, U.S. News was able to rank 131 schools based on them providing enough data required to calculate rankings of their full-time MBA programs. I have listed below the schools included in the report in the order they were ranked:

1. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

2. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), Philadelphia, PA

3. Northwestern University (Kellogg), Evanston, IL

4. University of Chicago (Booth), Chicago, IL (tied for third place)

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan), Cambridge, MA

6. Harvard University, Boston, MA

7. University of California Berkeley (Haas), Berkeley, CA

8. Columbia University, New York, NY

9. Yale University, New Haven, CT

10. New York University (Stern), New York, NY

In 2020, the website rated graduate business programs (MBA) in order from highest to lowest, including the following universities as the top ten: University of Chicago (Booth), Chicago, IL; Stanford, Palo Alto, CA; Northwestern (Kellogg), Evanston, IL; Harvard, Boston, MA; University of Pennsylvania (Wharton), Philadelphia, PA; Dartmouth (Tuck), Hanover, NH; Columbia, New York, NY; MIT (Sloan), Cambridge, MA; Cornell (Johnson), Ithaca, NY, and University of Michigan (Ross), Ann Arbor, MI.

You can see by looking closely at these two lists that a school's place on the ratings list can change depending on who is doing the rating, and the year in which the rating is published. In recent years, many ratings guides have included the same six Ivy League schools appearing on one or both of the above lists (Harvard, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, and Dartmouth), along with other outstanding private and/or state-supported, public universities. Many Ivy League institutions are usually ranked within the top tier of a variety of print and online college and university rankings.


Why Choose a Top School?

According to an article on (“Why Study Business" by Laura Tucker, December, 2018), business and areas of business (such as finance, accounting, management, and economics), in addition to being among the most popular areas of study at universities, getting a business degree (with high grades) from a highly rated school, can facilitate career progression that can lead to higher-level management positions with higher salaries. So, if getting your financial investment back relatively quickly is among your primary considerations in choosing where to study, then perhaps attending a top school is the right thing for you to do. However, if you—like most Americans—have to include among your primary considerations the cost of attending a top school, you might need to add a wider range of schools to the list of those you are considering. And, it's always a good idea to find out if your employer might offer educational incentive programs, such as tuition reimbursement, or other programs designed to help employees pay for getting an advanced degree.

As you are considering schools, be sure to compare them, carefully. If possible, pay a visit to the campus of as many you can that you think you'd like to attend. If you can, sit in on one or several classes to get a feel for the “fit” between you and the school.

If you are willing to consider good business schools at colleges and universities other than those with premium price tags, you might benefit from reading an article titled “The 50 Best Value Graduate Schools 2020," published in 2020 by, or one titled, "50 Best Value Masters In Business Degrees 2017" published by Theses articles provide reviews of good business schools around the nation, and also include information about different B-school’s admissions requirements.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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