MBA application essays

GRE vs. GMAT, part V: look Ma, no MBA rankings!

  In four earlier GMAT blog posts highlighting the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exams (you might want to start at the beginning of the GRE vs. GMAT series), I held back on one big factor: if you’re not a great standardized test-taker, then you should probably consider taking the GRE instead of the GMAT. Why? Because the GRE still isn’t included in MBA rankings schemes.

So let’s take a step back: why do MBA programs care about the GMAT and GRE tests in the first place? I’d argue that there are two major reasons. First, the original intent of the GRE and GMAT was to help graduate schools figure out whether applicants can handle graduate-level coursework – after all, undergraduate GPAs can be hard to trust. But over the past couple of decades, the tail has begun to wag the dog: MBA rankings have forced MBA admissions committees to “play the GMAT game”, and GMAT score averages have inflated to ridiculous levels.

This little GMAT blog already contains plenty of whinging about rising GMAT scores, but to be fair, let’s think about it from an MBA program’s point of view. Imagine that you’re on an MBA admissions committee, and you’re choosing between two candidates. Candidate A has a 720 GMAT, while Candidate B has a 750 GMAT. The two are otherwise similar, except that Candidate A is qualitatively a bit more appealing than Candidate B – more interesting MBA application essays, a sharper interview, and more convincingly effusive recommendations, but nothing quantifiable.

Would you blame the admissions committee for worrying about their MBA rankings and selecting Candidate B? I certainly wouldn’t, even though the two candidates’ 30-point GMAT score difference may be nothing more than measurement error. MBA rankings matter – a lot – whether we like it or not. “Candidate A is cooler” also matters, but in practice, that argument is almost always trumped by hard numbers.

But the GRE isn’t factored into MBA rankings – at least not yet. So if you submit a GRE score instead of a GMAT score, you’re effectively removing yourself from the GMAT/MBA rankings game.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Unfortunately, it depends. That Candidate B fellow, with a 750 GMAT? I’d call that guy “GMAT-positive” – he’ll almost certainly help an MBA program increase its GMAT score average, so swapping the GMAT for the GRE would be a mistake. The same would be true if your GMAT score is simply high for your demographic: if, for example, most applicants from your country or industry have lower GMAT scores than you do, then stick with the GMAT.

But if your GMAT score might be a liability in your MBA applications, then maybe the GRE is a good idea. I’m convinced that there’s always a little voice inside the adcom’s head, nervously babbling about average GMAT scores and MBA rankings. By taking the GRE instead of the GMAT, you can hush those voices, at least a little bit – and then maybe the adcom might be more attentive to how qualitatively cool you are in your sassy MBA admissions essays.


Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try starting from the beginning of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT. And if you want some insights into what, exactly, a "good" GRE score might look like, check out GRE vs. GMAT, part VI.


maybe a nice, relaxed approach to the GMAT is a good idea?

Yeah, I know:  your GMAT test score is really important to your personal and professional goals, and your test date is written on your calendar in huge red letters.  Right now, you’re planning your entire life with that date in mind.  You’re taking it extremely seriously.  That makes perfect sense. But let me tell you a story anyway.  Once upon a time, there was a New Yorker named Mr. FP.  (In case you’re curious, “FP” stands for “fat pants,” because he used that term in one of the most entertaining MBA application essays I’ve ever read.)  At the time, Mr. FP worked in a demanding finance job, and he struggled to find time for his GMAT studies.  He scheduled his first GMAT test date for late December, but wasn’t able to do quite as much studying as he had hoped.

Still, Mr. FP took his two GMATPrep tests in the week leading up to his test date, despite the fact that he didn't feel 100% ready for the exam.  On his first GMATPrep test, he scored a 680.  Not bad, right?  The 680 was a pleasant surprise, considering Mr. FP’s difficulties with some of the homework.  A few days before his exam, Mr. FP took the second GMATPrep test, and only scored a 640.  Not spectacular, especially since his goal was a 700.

At that point, it was clear that Mr. FP didn’t have a very good shot at getting a 700.  He's a brilliant guy, but we agreed that he had specific GMAT weaknesses, and his practice tests weren’t going terribly well.  But Mr. FP is a pretty laid-back fellow, and he took the situation in stride.

“Whatever dude,” he said, in our final GMAT tutoring session before his exam, “It’s my first time taking the test, and it’s too late to get my money back.  So I’ll just take it as a practice test, and maybe I’ll learn something or whatever.”

Two days later, Mr. FP called me immediately after he left his GMAT exam, and he was laughing so hard that he couldn’t even tell me what happened.  Eventually, he spit out the news:  he got a 720.  And he thought it was absolutely hilarious.

The moral of the story?  I’m not certain that there is one.  Maybe Mr. FP is just a really, really lucky man.  Or maybe he performed incredibly well because he was relaxed, and didn’t take the GMAT overly seriously that day.  Whenever he got rough questions, he didn’t let them rattle him—he just shrugged, made his best guess, and calmly moved on.  Whatever Mr. FP did that day, it worked.

You know that I'm in awe of the work ethic of most of my GMAT students.  But maybe some of you try a little bit too hard sometimes.  Just some food for thought.

Are last-minute MBA applications hopeless?

It’s spring in New York, which means that the sun is shining, the pigeons are frisky, and New Yorkers are much less cranky than usual. Springtime also means that the GMAT and MBA crowds have thinned out a little bit. Everybody knows that peak MBA application season is in the fall and early winter; if you’re calling a GMAT tutor in April or May, you’re probably a forward-looking planner with an eye on first-round MBA deadlines in October. And your GMAT tutor loves you for that. But then there are the last-minute scramblers who defy conventional wisdom and take the GMAT in the spring. They then undergo a frenzied, abbreviated process of applying for MBA programs’ final deadlines in April or May. You would think that this approach is completely hopeless, right? An application sent within a few hours of a fourth-round deadline on May 15 couldn’t possibly succeed… right?

Here’s the odd thing: over the past few years, a certain subset of my last-second applicants have been extremely successful. Last year, I spent the morning of May 15 frantically helping two former GMAT students edit their MBA application essays--just in time for 5:00 pm deadlines on May 15. I thought that neither of them had much of a chance with last-second applications, but both students were admitted to their first-choice programs. This year, one of my favorite students submitted a third-round “express” application to a solid program, and managed to receive a substantial scholarship—after being waitlisted by a number of schools of comparable quality during the first two rounds.

And my all-time favorite procrastinator—Mr. L, a former actor who has been mentioned on this blog before—submitted an application last Monday for a one-year accelerated MBA program. Here’s the thing: he submitted the application two weeks AFTER the final deadline… and just one week before the start of classes in early May. And guess what? Of course, he was admitted. He was accepted to the MBA program on Friday, boarded a plane on Sunday, and started classes on Monday.

So how did these applicants do it? First of all, none of the aforementioned applicants were targeting top-10 programs. We’re talking about solid programs at the fringes of the top 30 or 50—think George Washington University or University of Florida or University of Iowa, not HBS or Columbia or MIT. MBA programs that are strong but not super-elite often face a great deal of unpredictability during the spring—they simply don't know how many admitted students will actually choose to attend their school, which means that these programs may (or may not) have a bunch of empty slots at the end of admissions season.

In some circumstances, MBA programs can get pretty desperate in May. MBA programs often have high fixed costs, and nobody wants to have an empty chair in the classroom. So if a particular program has several unexpected empty chairs, they might be forced into “warm body mode.” Basically, they’ll admit nearly any (reasonably qualified) warm body who can provide a tuition check—even if the very same applicant would have been rejected (or waitlisted) by the very same program during earlier application rounds.

So there’s reason to have some hope if you’re submitting a last-second application to a non-elite program. If the MBA program has already filled (or nearly filled) their class, you’re probably screwed. But if the program is in “warm body mode,” you might be in luck, even if your GMAT score is below the MBA program’s average—as was the case for all four of the MBA applicants mentioned above.

Once you decide to submit a late application, be friendly but persistent with your calls to the admissions office. Try to make a connection with the person who answers the phone, since he or she might able to quickly get your case in front of a key decision-maker, even if the application deadline has already passed.

Whatever you do, don’t let the adcom think that you applied on a whim. In your phone calls, emails, and essays, do everything you can to make it clear that the MBA program is actually a top choice for you; as with any MBA application, be sure to clearly explain why you've chosen that particular program, and make sure that your essays are polished and error-free. If you have to, hire an editor or an admissions consultant to ensure that your work looks professional and convincing.

If you get a little bit lucky and you play your cards right, you might be among the blessed few who receives an acceptance in the spring... giving you the right to gloat in the general direction of your friends who are just starting to study for the GMAT.

nobody reads your essays, part I

If you've ever attempted to write a really good essay for an MBA application (or for any other graduate or undergraduate program), you know how hard it is.  It's not like crapping out a financial report or a blog post or an essay on the use of soliloquys in Hamlet.  These essays take a whole lot of thought and effort, especially if you're trying to flatter yourself in 400 words without sounding like a raging egomaniac. And guess what?  Much of the time, nobody cares.

Imagine that you're the guy who gets to read every single application that rolls into, say, HBS.  You would read roughly 6700 applications, each of which contains at least four essays.  That's 26,800 essays, most of which come flooding in within 72 hours of one of the deadline dates.

For a little bit of perspective, here's a completely random story about essays...  once upon a time, I was part of a small team of "scorers" for an international academic competition.  Along with one other scorer, I was asked to rate 160 essays, giving each one a score from 1-100, and ranking the top three essays in each of two age groups.

And it was absolutely excruciating.  Not because the essays were bad, but because it took forever to read each one.  After about five essays, we figured out that it was best to just skim the introduction and the conclusion; if the essay looked good in the introduction, we would read the first sentence of each paragraph to determine whether the essay merited consideration for an award.  After skimming about 80 introductions and conclusions, we stopped even bothering with the conclusions, and started slapping on scores based on the introduction and (embarrassingly) the handwriting in each essay.

So no, we didn't really read anything.  And we only had 160 essays.  Imagine if we were asked to read 26,800 essays, as our poor, hypothetical HBS guy does.

My point is that even the most well-intentioned reader of MBA applications will inevitably skim most of your essays.  If you're unlucky, the reader won't even bother to read anything beyond your introduction.  No adcom member in their right minds would ever admit to it, but it's simply human nature to skim essays when you have a massive pile of them in front of you--especially when the essays don't exactly start with a bang.

So what can you do about this?  Write essays that start with a bang, and write essays that are easy to read.  If you write long, verbose paragraphs, virtually any human being will be inclined to start skimming... or put the essay down entirely.  No matter how wonderful your work experiences or extracurriculars are, there's always the risk that the reader won't actually read your carefully crafted comments if you don't make them seem interesting, gripping, and unique from the start.

We all know that MBA programs are looking for great potential business leaders, not great potential poets or novelists or journalists.  But they still love a good, well-written story, and a little bit of writing flair might be exactly what you need to have them notice your potential as a business leader.  If you keep your paragraphs short and write with at least a modicum of humor, it will help your essays to be worth the effort that you pour into them.