Fortunately, while the MBA admissions process is competitive, it is also holistic. Most school’s will place a great emphasis on getting to know you as a person and a future professional. In particular, the essay portion of your application will allow you to elevate your story, share your most interesting qualities, and refute any weaknesses. Your mission will be to charmingly persuade a given business school that you have the right stuff.

To state the obvious, admissions standards do vary among programs. Your chances at an elite MBA institution may be different than at a lower-ranked school. But easier admissions does not mean that your education will be sub-par at a lower-ranked school — it just means that you are competing against fewer qualified candidates for slots. To ensure high curriculum standards, just make sure that any business program you seek is accredited by the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC).

Although admissions requirements may vary, most schools rely on the following criteria: GMAT score, college GPA, work experience, your essays, letters of recommendation (academic and/or professional), an interview with an admissions officer, and your outside activities. The first four metrics, GMAT, GPA, work experience, and essays, are typically the most heavily weighted. The more selective the school, the less room there will be for a weakness in any one area. Any component of your application that is out of sync, such as weak quantitative scores, could damage your chances of elite admissions.

But again, the process is generally holistic. All of the pieces of your application should come together to form one cohesive whole. While some factors are emphasized over others, it is the entire package that determines whether or not you win admission.

Here are some key tips on how to set yourself up for MBA admissions success:

Anticipate and Organize – It Takes a Supreme Force of Will to Complete Even One Application

The application process is time-consuming. Business school applicants are often overwhelmed by how much they have to do to complete not only one, but several applications. Since there are so many moving parts, smart management of the process is critical.

If you plan to apply to MBA programs, you will need to leave adequate time to prep for the GMAT, to actually take the test, and to receive your score report. Additionally, you will need to secure your recommenders with plenty of notice, making sure recommendations are submitted on time and offering any necessary support or guidance. You must have your college transcript sent, schedule and complete your interview, and write all those killer essays. This is a tough process for anyone, but especially difficult if you are working full-time. Applicants who end up cramming for the GMAT and squeezing their essay writing into a few all-nighters or one weekend seriously shortchange themselves. We can’t say it enough: anticipate and organize.

Avoid Embarrassing Mistakes

There are many common and embarrassing mistakes made by business school applicants — especially easy to make when they are overwhelmed. These include recommenders missing deadlines (because they weren’t given enough notice), applications submitted with typos and grammatical errors, and essays written for the wrong school, or uploaded with the name of a different school on them. It’s acceptable to reuse essays from one school to the next, but don’t forget to edit them and personalize them for each school.

Take a breath and proofread. If you are feeling overwhelmed, enlist a second pair of eyes to read over your materials before you hit submit.

Apply Early. Don’t Become a Last Minute Hopeful

We have some solid advice for you. Plan early. And, plan early. The former diminishes the likelihood of a missed deadline or mistake. The latter increases the likelihood of acceptance, especially when there are more spots open for early admissions.

Even the highly esteemed Wharton School of Business exhorts this point to its candidates: timing matters! At Wharton, there are several rounds in which to apply. While the school notes that there is not much difference between round 1 and 2, the very last round is insanely competitive — only golden candidates win admission. Think an Olympic medalist or the inventor of a life-saving device.

Early does not mean that you need to be the very first one in. Many admissions officers report that the very first batch of applicants come from candidates who are super qualified. So aim to be close to the front, but certainly not in the lost heap of last-minute hopefuls.

Understand the Impact of Your GMAT and GPA – And Your Math Score

The GMAT and GPA are used in two primary ways. First, these numbers are used as success indicators. They should signal that you have the brain-crunch power to make it through a rigorous curriculum. Second, they’re used as benchmarks against other applicants in the business school pool. This is why you will see a school post their average GMAT admit numbers. This is the hidden competition, and should help you assess your chances of acceptance.

Demonstrating strong quantitative aptitude is essential. A high score on the math section of the GMAT will help you do this. If you need to boost your score, consider taking a class at a reputable test prep company.

Increasingly, business schools are admitting students who come from a variety of backgrounds. But if finance, statistics, or accounting is not in your background or work experience, you may find the business school curriculum daunting. A strong math GMAT score will compensate for this and show the school that you can handle their numbers-driven curriculum.

Your college transcript and grades can be a major factor in your candidacy. Some schools prefer candidates coming from the sciences and math. Again, this is because they are looking for quantitative strength. However, most schools focus on the overall GPA.

A warning: ho-hum grades and a high GMAT score may present a problem. It can convey to the school that you are highly intelligent, but low-ambition when it comes to academics. That can make you a risky admit.

If this will be the case for you, make sure you address it in the written portion of your application. The essay can be the place to share how you have matured and state that you would now approach school work with a renewed commitment.

Tell a Tightly-Knit Story

Business schools don’t like long meandering paths. Although many MBA hopefuls use the degree to switch careers or industries, schools appreciate applicants who follow one solid track. Here is an example of an ideal applicant: a candidate who started in marketing straight out of college, is getting an MBA to advance to a higher managerial position, and will return to the same profession post-MBA.

Understandably, your narrative may have more dangly threads. Do your best to tell the story as simply as possible. Make it cohesive. Weave your past experiences into why you need an MBA, and share where the degree will take you.

Business schools care about how well their students do after graduation. They want their grads getting jobs, and great ones at that. So the story you tell should assure schools that you are on track for success.

Articulate Why You Need the Degree

An MBA requires a big investment of time and money. It’s not a cakewalk. So you can’t present half-baked reasons for wanting it. If you do, you will be seen as a risky admit who will squander opportunities while at school, or, worse, struggle with the coursework.

You need to present solid career objectives. It may be helpful to break them down into short and long term goals. Develop a realistic plan. The more specific you can be, the better.

Work for a Few Years – But Not Too Many

Business schools seek out applicants who have worked full-time for several years. There are three main reasons for this:

  1. With experience comes maturity.

  2. You’re more likely to know what you want out of the program if you already have some experience.

  3. Your work experience will allow you to bring real-world perspectives to the classroom.

Business school is designed for students to learn from their classmates. So your individual contribution is important. If you work for too many years, however, you might be too advanced to benefit from a traditional two year MBA. An Executive MBA may be more appropriate.

Present a Je Ne Sais Quoi about Yourself

Sure, you need to show admissions committees that you have solid skills and are an excellent candidate. But many applicants mistake solidness with being boring. Yawn. Others go into overdrive about their accomplishments. You need to present a well-rounded and interesting image of yourself.

One of the most important things you can do to rise above your peers is to be distinctive. A little different. We can’t tell you what that means. For each person it is unique.

Perhaps you have a social service bent to your experiences and passions. Maybe you enter cooking contests in your spare time, or have become a hot sauce aficionado. Whatever it is that makes you interesting, bring it. This includes illustrating soft skills like character and leadership.

Round out your application with something fun or interesting about yourself. The admissions committee is not seeking automatons in power suits. They want to build a dynamic, diverse, well-rounded class of students. Show them that you belong in that group.

Groom Your Recommenders

Managers who know you well can recommend you on both a professional and personal level. They can provide specific examples of your accomplishments, skills, and, importantly, character. They can speak to your maturity, especially if you are a younger candidate. Additionally, they can elevate your candidacy and convey a high level of confidence in you.

You will likely need to prep them on what to write. Left to their own devices, recommenders may leave out your best features or forget about some of your greatest accomplishments. Remind them of those activities and projects in which you achieved success. You should also discuss the total picture you are trying to create. Your recommendations should reinforce what you are saying about yourself in your essays. They can address weaknesses — for example a mediocre math GMAT score — by playing up the financial skills required for the work you do.

Get to Know What the Business School Values

You will likely need to write one essay about why you want to attend a specific school. Think of this as a love letter to the program. You will want to describe their glowing features, how they make you feel ,and how much you want to be part of their student body.

Make that essay swoon-worthy by demonstrating that you really get the school and all of their offerings. Try to uncover the qualities they value in their candidates, and emphasize the ways in which you possess those qualities.

The best way to do this is to research the program thoroughly. You can go beyond the brochure by attending campus events, speaking to staff and department heads, sitting in on classes, and asking to connect with some current students.

Write a love letter. Make it authentic. And make it clear that this is a match.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.