There are, however, several common factors that can boost your application at any school. Here are 8 key attributes that business schools are looking for in their applicants:

  1. Maturity, integrity and character. Business schools recognize that leading people and companies and engaging in ethical practices requires more than a calculator. It demands a moral compass. Gone are the days of newly-minted MBAs being encouraged to make money at any cost. These days, business schools and the industries into which they feed are adverse to controversy, scandal, and unethical conduct. Through your essays and recommendations, demonstrate that you can be counted on to do the right thing. Go one step further and showcase the personality traits that set you up for strong decision-making and managerial success. Admissions committees want these kinds of students in their programs.

  2. A track record of (or at least potential for) leadership. Managing productive, happy teams requires leadership skills and the ability to motivate. As you reflect on what kind of leadership experiences you might share on your MBA applications, do not overlook those you may have had in volunteer and extracurricular activities. The leadership story you tell doesn’t have to be monumental. Demonstrate your leadership as best you can, even if it means showcasing yourself as an everyday or quiet leader.

  3. Strong quantitative skills. From finance, to operations, to marketing, business school study is driven by numbers and data analysis. As maddening as this may be for an applicant who hails from a non-traditional or liberals arts background like the humanities or education, there is no way around this reality.

It is important to perform well or at least show some proficiency on the math section of the GMAT. One way to boost your score and get comfortable with the test is to prep for the exam with a tutor or a reputable test prep service. Leave plenty of time for this; it’s not the kind of exam you can cram for.

If your undergraduate record is weak on quant skills, you can compensate by taking a quantitative course such as finance or statistics at a local community college or through an online program (just be sure to earn an "A").

Whatever snapshot of your quant skills you provide, it must convince admissions committees that you can handle the rigor of business school.

  1. Some work experience. Generally speaking, it is best to have a few (but not too many) years of work experience under your belt before applying to business school. Admissions committees favor applicants who have worked full-time for a short period. There are several reasons for this. The first is that with experience comes a level of maturity. The second is that you are more likely to know what you want out of your MBA if you have already started your career. And the third is that your experiences on the job will allow you to bring real-world insights into the classroom. Business school is designed for candidates to learn from their classmates, so your contributions are important. If you have worked for too many years however, you may be too advanced to benefit from a traditional MBA.

  2. Strong communication and soft skills. While it is critical for you to demonstrate quant skills on your MBA applications, your soft skills are also considered invaluable to business success. Listening to others, valuing co-workers, and building a collaborative work environment are all demonstrations of soft skills. The more you can showcase these qualities, the more likely admissions committees will be to see you as the well-rounded student they want in their program.

  3. Excellent recommendations. How do you get great recommendations? While strong work experience is usually helpful for recommendations, asking the right people is equally important. Choose managers who know you well and can recommend you on both a professional and personal level, vouching for your character in action and providing specific examples of your accomplishments and skills. In addition, find recommenders who are likely to convey a high level of excitement about your candidacy to admissions committees.

Although many managers and applicants do work on MBA recommendations together, these are ultimately made in confidence – so you may not see what is written about you. Choose someone you can trust to deliver a powerful recommendation: someone who will put your application over the top. A ho-hum recommendation can be harmful to an application that is strong in all other areas. Lack of enthusiasm can represent an inconsistency that is hard to ignore. So manage this part of your application with attention to how it will impact the whole picture.

  1. Reasons for pursuing an MBA at this particular time (and at this particular school). Given the high cost of attending business school (not to mention forgoing a salary for two years), it is important for you to convince schools that you have carefully considered this investment of your time and money. Students who are unsure of their reasons for seeking an MBA — or heading to a particular school — may squander the opportunity. It is important to lay out a career plan with short and long term goals. You can shift gears once you are enrolled, but as an applicant you should have some solid goals.

  2. Thoughtful essays. Your essays do not just complete the picture of your candidacy; they are the picture. Most admissions committees consider essays to be the clincher – the swing vote into their "yes," “no,” or “maybe” pile. Essays offer the most substance about who you really are. They also tie all the pieces of your application together and create a cohesive narrative of your experiences, skills, background, and beliefs.

Remember that these written portions of your application do more than provide answers to a school’s questions. They create a thumbnail psychological profile. You might wittingly or unwittingly reveal yourself in a number of ways – creative, open-minded, articulate, mature – to name a few descriptors. On the other hand, if thoughtlessly composed your essays might reveal a negative side — sloppiness and the inability to think clearly. Compose your essays carefully. And get a second pair of eyes on them before you hit the submit button.

The Bottom Line

Any MBA hopeful can prepare to be a strong applicant. Business school admissions are not formulaic. But with a well-crafted application package, you can show committees that you have the right stuff and tip the scale in the "admit" direction.

Nedda
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.