MBA Application Form Best Practices

Think of your MBA application form as your first impression on the adcom.

You’ve likely heard the phrase, ‘you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ Turns out it’s actually a real thing rooted in psychology – a phenomenon called the primacy effect. The initial impression someone gets of you tends to stick.  If you’re applying to business school, keep this in mind as you complete your MBA application form (you know, all the questions you have to answer about yourself that you may have left to the last minute?).

When the adcom sits down to read your submission, the MBA application form is likely the first thing they’ll see. Therefore, not only do you want to make sure it is accurate and error free (per another one of our favorite quotes, ‘how you do something is how you do everything’), you should also use it to your strategic advantage.

While many of the questions are cut and dry, a number of them allow for text-based answers and should be used to reinforce – or even supplement – the other components of your application. MBA application forms vary by school, of course, but here are some best practices that tend to apply to most programs.

Personal & Family Background

Most MBA application forms provide an opportunity to share additional information about how or where you grew up. Some include a straightforward ‘check the box’ question where you can indicate that you are a first-generation college student, were raised in a single parent home, etc. – of course answer these according to your personal circumstances.

Others, however, provide a text box and allow you to share anything you deem relevant. So what is relevant, exactly? In our experience, applicants who had fairly ‘typical’ upbringings with no significant hardships are hesitant to complete this answer. We’d encourage you to dig a little deeper!  Everyone has a story to tell and how you were raised can have a significant influence on the person you are today. Maybe you were raised in a military family and moved around a lot or are one of six siblings – these can all be relevant to include.

Whatever you choose to include, the ‘best practice’ is to describe the situation but then share how it impacted you and your choices in life. If you moved around a lot, maybe you grew into a person who makes new friends wherever they go and are always bringing people together for fun events. This would be a great contribution on a business school campus!

Employer & Role Descriptions

An important focus area of any MBA application form is the work history section. This is the area where you share the roles you’ve had, main responsibilities, and even salary information. Sometimes applicants are surprised or even annoyed because they feel like they are being asked to regurgitate their resume here, but that perspective overlooks the strategic opportunity.

If you’ve crafted an effective MBA resume, it should be more focused on the accomplishments you’ve achieved than a listing of your day-to-day job responsibilities (although 1-2 bullets covering the latter for each role is fine). The MBA application form allows you space to elaborate on how your role fits into your team and how your team contributes to the overall organization. Answer in a way someone who generally understands business but not your particular function or industry would grasp. Not only does this provide the adcom with important context, it also demonstrates you have strong audience-appropriate communication skills (very important in business school and beyond).

Other Work History Questions

Another question that is typically asked in the work history section of MBA application forms is your reason for leaving each company you’ve worked for in the past. As we shared last week, you definitely don’t want to badmouth your former employer – it’s just not a good look.

The best practice here, however, is to use these answers to demonstrate you are planful and rational with your career choices. Said more directly, tell the adcom why you accepted the next role instead of why you left the role in question. What skillset or experience were you looking to gain that was not available as part of the job you left?

And don’t forget about your current role – oftentimes you are asked to share your reason for leaving that too (even though you likely haven’t left yet). We often see people put ‘N/A’ or something along those lines. Accurate? Yes. Strategic? No. Instead, share that you are leaving to attend business school and learn ‘X, Y and Z skills’ or that you are leaving to attend business school to enable a pivot to your target field.

Post-MBA Goals (and a Broadly Applicable Note About Character Limits)

It’s safe to assume all MBA application forms will ask you about your post-MBA career goals and we’re sure you know this is an important answer to have nailed down. However, your answers to these questions are exponentially more important for applications where the essay question(s) don’t specifically ask you to talk about your goals.  For instance, did you know that the HBS adcom has said time and again that they don’t want to you spend the essay talking about ‘why MBA’ and ‘why HBS’? Kellogg is another school where the essays focus way more heavily on past experiences than future goals.   

So, how do you maximize the impact of your answers? Our first ‘pro tip’ is to utilize the character count you have available to you (which often seems limiting) thoughtfully. Instead of restating the prompt, think of the question as a fill in the blank. For instance, here are two responses to the question, ‘what is your immediate post-MBA career goal?’:

Option A: After business school I will obtain a role at a healthcare startup in strategy and business development where I can gain experience to, one day, found a company of my own in the space.

Option B: To work in strategy at a healthcare technology startup like Nourish or PatientPoint where I can apply my healthcare background and learn to scale a business, enabling my long-term entrepreneurial goals.  

Both options are roughly 200 characters, but option B comes across as a lot more thoughtful and informative.

Other tips for the career goals questions are to communicate the linkage between the short-term and the long-term to ensure the progression seems logical to the adcom. And, as you can see from the sample responses above, it’s a great touch to add the names of a few companies you might target working for and to be specific about the role and sector (even subsector) you are focused on.  

One Last Tip for When You Think You Are Done

Once you’ve nailed the content for each of your MBA application form responses, please please please proofread everything one more time. We’re all used to relying on spell check and the like in Word, it can be easy to forget that the application fields are not subject to these quality controls. You may even want to copy and paste your text answers into Word and let technology do the work. A careless error can do a lot of damage to an otherwise strong application.

We hope the MBA application form best practices we’ve shared today help you ‘wow’ the adcom with your submission. We also hope they demonstrate why you shouldn’t view this important piece of the application as an afterthought. Admissions committees truly want a holistic understanding of who you are and what you would bring to their class – don’t miss any opportunity to tell them!

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