The Business SchoolAdmissions GuidebookExpert advice for nailing the application and getting accepted to your first-choice school
Michael Tarantino is the Director of Admissions & Recruiting at Lehigh University College of Business & Economics, where he oversees the admissions process for seven academic programs, including the MBA and PhD programs. Michael graduated from Sacred Heart University in 2008 with degree in Business & Marketing and has worked in higher education ever since. He also holds an MBA from Sacred Heart, which he completed in 2010.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, over twice as many bachelor’s degrees were awarded in business and its related fields than in any other area of study for the 2012-2013 academic year. Business degrees also held the top spot at the master’s level. The popularity of business degrees means that more students are competing for a limited number of spots at top business schools. Prospective students can increase their chances of getting into business school with practical tips and advice on choosing the right school for them and navigating the application process.
Five Tips for Getting Accepted to Business School
Some of the tips below may seem obvious, but there's a good reason for that: they work. The key is to start with these solid suggestions and use them as a foundational reference when tackling each step of the business school application process.
When it comes to the college application process, nothing stings worse than a missed opportunity, and most missed opportunities result from entering the process late. This includes your program search and the actual application process. So much depends on how well you understand the application process and how early you start on it.
While the level of importance colleges place on good grades and test scores varies from school to school, students can increase their chances of admission at a greater number of schools by working hard in high school or, for prospective master’s students, during their undergraduate studies. Colleges often prefer students who have taken the more rigorous college prep, advanced placement and honors courses in high school. For MBA applicants, grades for core business courses from undergraduate studies often carry the most weight.
Colleges prefer well-rounded students, ones that are involved in sports, clubs, school government, community organizations, and the like. It's more important to pick a few extracurricular activities and give them adequate time and attention rather than join a wide array of clubs with little involvement. Business-related activities, such as DECA clubs and business fraternities, can show a candidate’s passion for the field.
This is particularly important for business students applying to graduate school. Most top MBA programs, for example, consider students with substantial real-world experience in the business world to be a huge plus, if not a specific requirement for admissions. If a student plans to move directly from earning an undergraduate degree to graduate school, the best substitute for work experience is a summer internship (or two) with a reputable company.
This form of networking is a great tool for prospective master’s students. Students who develop strong relationships with their professors during their undergraduate programs have valuable allies who can provide recommendations and other guidance when it comes time to apply to graduate school.
Business School Application Timeline
Students can begin preparing for undergraduate business school as soon as they enter high school. Meanwhile, MBA candidates can make the most of their undergraduate and professional experiences to prepare for application time. Taking steps well in advance can help students adhere to deadlines and not feel overwhelmed or rushed when applying to schools. The timeline below details steps prospective business students can take to prepare for undergraduate and master’s degree programs.
Associate/Bachelor's Degree Applicants
Explore the wide variety of business careers and fields available.
Meet with your high school guidance counselor. Start a course plan.
Explore colleges and their business degree programs.
Get involved in extracurricular activities.
Take college prep courses, both specifically related to business and otherwise.
Keep up with extracurricular activities, both at school and in the community. Try for leadership positions in school clubs.
Take the PSAT in preparation for the SAT next year.
Continue to research colleges and business degree options. Make a preliminary potential college list.
Prepare for and take the SAT and/or ACT as early as possible. This gives you adequate time study, as well as wiggle room in case you plan to take the test(s) multiple times.
Meet with college reps, attend college and career fairs and take college on-campus tours.
Pursue job opportunities. It doesn't have to be anything special. The real-world experience is important.
Don't slack up on your coursework or grades.
Retake the SAT or ACT, if needed. If you haven't taken one of these tests yet, get on it.
Complete the FAFSA for October submission.
Apply for scholarships and grants. Look specifically for those targeted specifically to business students.
Create a final short list of colleges. Visit campuses if possible.
Ask for letters of recommendation and write a personal statement.
Submit college applications by their specified deadlines.
Master’s (MBA) Applicants
sophomore years (undergraduate) 1
Start exploring potential MBA programs and schools right away.
Focus on coursework that will benefit your business career field of choice.
Network. Join business student clubs and professional organizations and take part in their activities.
Find and complete one or more business-related summer internships (over the course of your four undergrad years).
Prepare for the GMAT exam. A good rule of thumb is to plan on three to six months of study prior to taking the GMAT.
starting MBA program 3
Prepare written deadline calendar for applications and other important events.
Take the GMAT. Plan to take it no later than six weeks to two months before the first round of MBA program applications. Consider taking it in June in case you need time to take it again in July.
Choose who you want to write your letters of recommendation and ask for them.
Start working on your admissions essay. Expect to go through several drafts and be sure to seek out expert help.
Prep for interviews. Interviews may start as little as two weeks after sending in applications.
Mid-October: Submit first round of applications.
Mid-January: Submit second round of applications.
March: Apply for institutional financial aid and seek out scholarship and grant opportunities.
End of March: Submit third round of applications, if needed.
End of April: Choose program, inform school chosen and make deposit.
Find the Right Business School for You
Here's a very important piece of information: Not all business schools are created equal. And there are plenty of sources out there willing to prove it with their "top business school" rankings. But picking the best business school for a particular student has little to do with a rankings list. It's much more about finding a school whose general teaching approach, specific academic programs, and learning environment offer the best chance at success for the individual. A great way to do that is to consider each of the following factors for every entry on one's potential business school list.
For many students, choosing a school whose location meets their lifestyle needs is just as important as making sure that school meets their academic needs. Business school students often prefer schools located in an area with ample job opportunities or industry growth in a sector that piques their interest. Geographic regions, urban versus rural settings and distance from friends, family and other established support systems should also be considered.
The size of an institution can have a significant impact on student success. Some may thrive at a large school with extensive campus resources and a variety of activities and degree options. Others prefer schools with smaller class sizes, easy access to faculty and more opportunities to form strong bonds with peers. When finding the right business school, students can look beyond the institution’s size and consider the school’s average class size and student-teacher ratio.
For many students, business school is not just the opportunity to earn a degree, but a place to gain specialized training in a business concentration that fits their interests and career goals. Many business schools offer a variety of specializations, like accounting, finance, international business or human resources. Specializations vary between schools, however, so students should make sure their college of choice has concentrations that interest them.
Extracurricular activities not only give students the chance to develop relationships with peers and explore both academic and non-academic interests, they can also get the attention of future employers and schools. Participating in business-related sororities, fraternities, clubs and organizations along with athletic, personal interest, community-based or other extracurriculars can make for a more positive college experience and build well-rounded students.
A school with a well-known name and good reputation may help students stand out to employers, but it’s important to keep in mind that employers are generally most interested in employees who are good at their jobs and can bring something unique and valuable to their organizations. With a competitive job landscape, students who excel in schools with the right connections and reputation may gain an extra edge.
When looking for business schools, students should consider whether they might prefer a public, private or special interest college. Some students find that schools with specific cultural or religious ties allow them to build stronger support systems with peers and provide a significant foundation for their studies. Private schools can be costly, but they often maintain close ties with alumni, who can be excellent professional connections. Public schools tend to be less expensive than private schools and offer academic and social variety.
Students should look for schools whose educational philosophies resonate with them. Teaching philosophy statements can sometimes be found on school websites, but students can get more detailed information about the practices and ideologies a school upholds by contacting a school representative, reaching out to individual teachers or attending campus tours.
Advice from a Business School Admissions Expert
What I like to see on a resume are what types of organizations applicants have worked for, what roles they've taken on within those organizations and if they've earned any honors or big accomplishments at work. What we're looking for is someone who has drive, someone who is passionate about pursuing their degree because they want to, not because they have to. And we also want people who are team players and will get along with others in the classroom.
One that really stands out is spelling errors. We do have an essay component, but it's just a one-page essay. So if they can't take time enough to compose a one-page essay about themselves without spelling errors, or if the writing is poor and doesn't flow well, that's definitely a red flag.
Our program is highly quantitative, so when we look at transcripts and see that an applicant has taken accounting and finance classes as an undergraduate and done poorly, that's a red flag, although it does not necessarily mean we throw that application out.
References can also be a red flag. We're looking for that team player, someone who is going to be a member of our community. Sometimes something in a reference may hint at a problem. Again, we would not reject that person outright, but it might give us a reason to request an interview to discuss our concerns.
The point is that we look at it like we are on the same team as the applicant. People have the misconception that those of us in admissions are these big gatekeepers and we don't want anybody in our programs, or we're constantly shutting the door on people. The reality is that we want to help students.
Students shouldn't hesitate to contact admissions people, especially those at the schools they are most interested in. And remember that there are no dumb questions. Many students out there think that they can't talk to the admissions staff until they've applied. We're more of a resource or like a customer service program than anything else. We're here to answer questions and provide honest responses so students know what they're getting into. We're not here to kick people out. We're trying to counsel, to help them and be a resource.
Also, look for a program that fits you, not one that fits the public. By that I mean it's easy to look up the rankings and see who's listed at the top. But that doesn't mean one of those programs will be the best in your individual case. And since so many schools now offer MBA programs, you can find that niche, that program that can give you what you're looking for.
Preparing the Perfect Business School Application
After compiling a list of potential business schools, students can begin the application process. Students should start as early as possible to ensure they have enough time to build a complete and compelling application package. An understanding of common application components can help students estimate how much time they need to complete the process.
Check the school’s website or call the admissions office to find out when its online application goes live. If filling out a paper application, ask when they become available and obtain a few copies as early as possible. Carefully follow all application instructions, and note the submission deadline along with any other related deadlines, like the last day to send in transcripts or test scores.
Students should contact their graduating high schools and have their final transcripts sent directly to any schools on their list. Unofficial transcripts or transcripts sent from the applicant are generally not accepted. Students who have taken any postsecondary classes or have completed an undergraduate degree must obtain transcripts from their postsecondary institutions.
Schools have varying requirements when it comes to test scores. Prospective students should note whether their school of choice has minimum score requirements or if they prefer a specific type of test. Undergraduate students may have to submit ACT, SAT or SAT Subject Test scores. Graduate students should look for requirements regarding the GRE or GMAT.
Letters of recommendation
Some schools, particularly at the graduate level, may require applicants to submit recommendation letters. Students should contact potential recommenders at least three weeks in advance and provide them with all necessary information, including what the letter should include and when and where it should be sent.
Personal statement or statement of intent
Potential business students at the undergraduate and graduate level may also have to write a short essay describing themselves, their experiences and what they hope to gain from the program if admitted. Some prompts are general, and others include specific questions that applicants should be sure to address. Students should take their time on these to make sure they submit something polished, original and engaging.
Financial aid includes scholarships, grants and loans. Along with applying for grants and scholarships from private organizations, students should make sure they complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early. Federal student aid is disbursed on a first come, first served basis, and schools typically base their financial aid packages off of the applicant’s FAFSA information. For details on obtaining federal student loans, visit the Federal Student Aid website.
Having a clear understanding of the many types of application deadlines and admissions tests can smooth the overall process of getting into business school. Prospective students can take a look at some important terms they may run into when applying to business school.
Early decision applications allow students to apply early and receive an early notice of acceptance. Early decision can be beneficial to students who have planned in advance and have a strong top choice for the program they wish to attend. Early decision admissions are binding and normally require students to sign a letter of intent and pay a matriculation fee as soon as they are accepted.
Like early decision, early action application allows students to apply and receive notice of acceptance earlier than regular applicants. Unlike early decision, however, early action applications are not binding, and students may opt to decline the school’s acceptance offer. Early action applicants typically have to accept or decline the school’s offer by May 1.
Most prospective business students apply during the regular enrollment period. While regular enrollment application deadlines vary from school to school, they typically fall sometime in early January, with admission offers sent out in late March or early April. As with early action admissions, students are normally required to accept an admission offer by May 1.
Rolling admissions allow students to submit their applications at any time between a large window. The school considers applications as they are received rather than reading and responding to applications at one time following a submission deadline.
Business School Application Tips for Adult Students
Many MBA programs prefer students who have some relevant work experience. For some programs, work experience is a requirement. Nevertheless, adults with more than a few years in the field may be reticent to return to college mid-career. These tips can help ease the stress of earning an MBA as a business professional.
Taking a prep course is a good idea for anyone preparing for the GMAT or GRE but is especially valuable to professionals who are no longer practiced in taking standardized tests. Professionals should make sure to plan ahead and start studying well in advance of the exam. Studying for shorter periods over a long stretch of time ensures that prospective students can learn the test material without cutting into work and other obligations.
Work experience is often an advantage when applying to business school. Prospective students should make sure to detail their experiences and skills on their business school applications and explain how their specific work experiences allow them to bring something unique to the classroom environment.
Professionals who have been out of school for an extended period of time typically don’t need to be as concerned about GPA as other prospective MBA students. Relevant work experience and high scores on either the GRE or GMAT can often make up for low or old GPAs. Professionals can get specific information about GPA requirements for mid-career students by calling the school’s admissions office.
Professionals can show their commitment to furthering their educations and the field by getting involved in professional associations. These organizations provide great opportunities to make connections with other professionals, and membership looks good on college applications.
When applying to school, mid-career students should include any work- or community-related awards they’ve earned in addition to outstanding achievements. These can benefit applicants by demonstrating excellence in their field and positive recognition from former employers or colleagues.
Professionals shouldn’t hesitate to contact programs to which they have applied and request an interview. Having a one-on-one conversation with an admissions representative can help prospective students make a positive impression and make up for past academic shortcomings.
Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
ACBSP is the main accrediting agency for business, accounting and business-related programs at the associate, bachelor, master and doctoral levels.
Delta Mu Delta
Delta Mu Delta is an international honor society for students attending ACBSP-accredited business administration programs at colleges and universities.
Department of Education - Types of Federal Student Aid
The DOE provides official information on the various programs and types of federal student aid, including, scholarships, grants and loans.
The Forté Foundation is a non-profit consortium of companies and business schools dedicated to helping women launch successful careers through access to business education, career opportunities and a strong community of female professionals.
Future Business Leaders of America-Phi Beta Lambda (FBLA-PBL)
The FBLA-PBL is a non-profit association of middle school, high school and college students, as well as business professionals whose goal is to support students through their educations and into their careers in the business world.
GMAT Official Website
Learn everything about preparing for and taking the GMAT. The site also provides a helpful tool to locate and compare business schools.
Sigma Beta Delta
Sigma Beta Delta is the honor society for business, management and administrative students attending schools that are regionally accredited but without specialized accreditation in business.