B-School: Don't Take "No" for an Answer

Here's how to improve your chances next year

So you got rejected for the Class of 2004. That doesn't mean you should set your MBA ambitions aside. With top B-schools reporting 30% to 50% more applications, many qualified applicants were disappointed this year.

But if you start now, you can improve your chances for the Class of 2005--and shoot for the first application deadline that comes in November or early December.

Start with your score on the Graduate Management Admissions Test. For BusinessWeek's Top 30 MBA programs, the average score of current enrolled students ranged from 635 to 720. If you fall short of that, retake the test. You've got to sign up about a month in advance, but the test is offered several times each month. And do some prepping with study guides or even a GMAT course.

If a school that rejected you offers "why deny" sessions, make an appointment. These one-on-one meetings can give you an idea of where your application was weak and tips on how to strengthen it. "Don't just disregard the feedback the school gives you," says Sharon Thompson, associate director of admissions at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

More important, think carefully about the schools you're targeting. Doing legwork on the schools is the most crucial step you can take to make your application stronger, say admissions officials. That means, if you haven't already, spend the money to visit the schools. Arrange with admissions to sit in on some classes, talk to students, and immerse yourself in the goings-on for a day or two. Such exposure can help you better decide which school is right for you. Remember, the GMAT report that's sent to admissions committees will show which other B-schools are getting your scores. A selection of drastically different institutions raises questions about how well you know the schools--and for that matter, your own goals, says Rosemarie Martinelli, admissions director at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Those direct experiences with the schools will also make for better essays, says Linda Baldwin, director of admissions at the Anderson School of Business at the University of California at Los Angeles. Applicants who've visited the schools "can express much more insightfully why they belong there," she says.

Speaking of essays, many unsuccessful applicants trip up on the most basic question: Why do you want an MBA from this school? If your essay spouts off a laundry list of reasons that make you a good candidate, dressed up by a few sentences taken from the school's own literature, chances are your application will be viewed with skepticism. Try focusing on one or two things that are important to you and link them to the characteristics of the MBA program. Says Martinelli: "We're interested in the life lessons you've learned." For example, if you're passionate about rock climbing, you might write about how the sport shaped who you are.

As for academics, you've got a few months to better demonstrate that you can handle MBA classes. If your college transcript is light on math or if your academic record is mediocre, take some courses in, say, calculus. And study hard. Admissions committees will be looking for grades that show how much you've improved since your college days, says UCLA's Baldwin. She adds that among the 30% of reapplicants who are eventually accepted at UCLA, many have done that extra course work. With most universities offering several summer sessions, you have time to take a class or two.

Finally, take on more responsibilities at work or in a nonprofit or social group you're involved with. Stepping up your involvement paints you as someone who takes initiative. As a much improved applicant, this time next year you could be getting good news in the mail.

For profiles of more than 200 MBA programs, exclusive articles, and Q&A's with school admissions directors, go to businessweek.com/bschools

By Jennifer Merritt

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