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Going to Business School

By Karen Keller

In 2006, the average starting salary for business school grads was $96,000, according to The National Association of Colleges and Employers. Two-thirds of jobs offered to MBAs in the same year came with

signing bonuses that averaged $17,603. But before you start hitting up your parents for tuition money, remember that most applicants have at least two years worth of work experience. At Harvard, that number is closer to four. And then there’s the thorny issue of the GMAT. Either way, you’ll need to do a lot of work both inside the office and out before you even think about applying.

Scoring a Fat Chance Acceptance Package

Business school acceptance is based on the following five categories, with the GMAT score and work experience weighing heavier than the rest.

GMAT Score

A score of 650 is competitive for the Top 20 schools. A 700 is really competitive. Anywhere below a 600 and your uncle better be on the board of that top school. Check out this list of average GMAT scores for top Business schools, and be sure to take a prep course from a company such as Manhattan GMAT. (Full disclosure: Manhattan GMAT is the publisher of our book, but we were only willing to enter into a relationship with them because we think they provide best-in-class test prep services.) For more information on test prep, see our guide on studying for the GMAT, GRE, and LSAT.

On the GMAT, the math section is typically weighed more than the verbal section. Check out what the mid-80% range GMAT score is at your potential schools by checking their website or calling the admissions office. For example, the UPenn Wharton School of Business class of 2006 average GMAT score was 713, while UCLA’s Anderson School of Management average was a 661.

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Secret tip: Find out whether you have a medical condition that qualifies you to take the GMAT under non-standard accommodations. This gives you more time to take the test, which is known to raise test scores. Plus you get a trackball mouse.

Work Experience

Finance and consulting backgrounds are golden for potential candidates. Think “big 4” consulting firms (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, KPMG, Ernst & Young) or investment banks. However, since admissions people strive to assemble a diverse student body, those with less traditional work experiences can have a major competitive edge. Non-profits, in particular, seem to be a favorite of MBA admissions people. In turn, intriguing work experience can make up for a mediocre GMAT score. In rare circumstances, you may be able to get in with only a year or two of work experience, but all of the other aspects of the application must be immaculate.

Recommendation Letters (2-3)

Best to get them from current employers and clients. Ask a college professor only if you’re certain the letter will be stellar. If the person writing the rec isn’t a good writer, then write the letter yourself with input from good writer friends/family members. Use strong, vivid language—”extremely talented” over “very talented”—and make sure the letter says at some point what a great person you are on a social level (after all, that’s what B-school is all about). Check out these other letter writing tips.

Undergrad GPA

Math-related grades are the most important. If the GPA is low-ish, and life circumstances are partly to blame (i.e., you worked during college), then say so in the personal essay.

Personal Essay

Probably the most arduous part of the process. Business school applications tend to ask you to sum up exactly what you want to do with your life in a very concise manner. Needless to say, this challenge can lead to breakdowns and existential crises. The important thing is to show your passion and let them know what makes you a unique candidate. Take advantage of the forum and tell them something they can’t learn from your transcript. Here are some sample essays.


Interviews are sometimes optional, but certainly try to take that option if it’s available, as your winning personality won’t necessarily come out on paper. The interview could be with an admissions officer, or with an alumnus of the program. If you do meet with an alumnus rather than visiting the school for a formal interview, go with the flow (i.e., if the meeting is at a beachside cafe, don’t show up in a suit).

Get a Focus and Pick Schools to Match

Most B-schools have a forte. At Harvard, it’s management. At Wharton, it’s finance. At Stanford, it’s entrepreneurship, especially in the tech field. Do the research. Talk to admissions staff and current students. Those interested in working for specific companies should find out from which schools they've hired. For those who’ve gotten their best educations from TV, grab some nachos and watch these videos on the B-school low-down. Knowing what you want to do after graduation will also make it clearer at the beginning of the program whom to network with, and which textbook chapters to graze over.

How Much Does it Cost?

Annual tuition costs anywhere from $10,000 to $45,000 a year. Double that, plus maybe $20,000 a year living expenses and you’ve got $60,000 on the low side, and $130,000 on the high side. For example, here’s what Harvard costs a year. You might want to go nuts with this loan calculator, and read our article on funding that grad school degree.

Get scholarship/financial aid info early from schools you’re applying to. The odds aren’t as bleak as they may seem: Northwestern’s Kellogg says 70% of its students in 2006 got financial aid. Women and minorities, especially, should hunt scholarships at Sallie Mae’s Online Scholarship Service.

Full-Time or Part-Time?

Full-time (typically 2-year programs) is better for networking—the main benefit of B-school for many grads. According to the GMAC 2006 post-MBA survey, 33% of MBA grads got their first post-MBA job through networking. Unfortunately, finance is scant for full-time programs.

Part-time (typically 3-year programs) is better if a company is chipping in for the degree. Typically, large companies have set policies on how much they’ll pay toward an MBA for an employee. The policy will dictate the number of years of work required, which can range from one week to several years. The current trend is toward companies paying a portion, not the 100% coverage of years past. Some companies offer the specific amount of $5,250 per calendar year because of tax benefits. Click here for info on getting an MBA online.

What Will an MBA Get Me?


An MBA won’t instantly secure a job, but it sure will help. Here’s what recruiters look for. Still, for those interested in becoming entrepreneurs, working for small, innovative companies, or getting into non-profit work, snagging that job without an MBA will involve more effort.

An MBA can be extremely useful if you are trying to transition from one industry to another. Many a banker whose sole working experience was on Wall Street has been able to leapfrog a business degree into a new industry such as consulting or marketing. An MBA is thus in many ways a fresh start, a second college where you can intern over the summer in your chosen industry, then look for that perfect job when you graduate. It can also serve as a notable safety net, lest hard times fall on your particular specialization. When a whole industry full of rats is escaping a sinking ship, those with advanced degrees will certainly be the first ones to get pulled into a life raft. Lastly, an MBA program provides an incredible opportunity for networking—you will have the opportunity to meet incredibly talented people who will go on to become the leading lights of their industries.

Salary increases/promotions

May not be as dramatic as we’d like. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business grads earned on average 16-24% more after getting their MBA, though 73% of grads said they were promoted while at school or after they got their degree. Check out starting salaries categorized by career for Harvard grads.

When to Avoid Getting an MBA

  • When you’re trying to use B-school to delay confronting real life. It’s an expensive procrastination tool.
  • When you’re an entrepreneur and already have a business up and running. An MBA won’t necessarily make it easier to get funding, and the networking probably won’t be worth the price tag.
  • When you’re doing it as a career-enhancer. Unless the career is finance or consulting—where an MBA from a top school is practically a rite of passage to score promotions—concentrating on proving yourself at a current job could make more sense if your employer won‘t pay for the degree.
  • When you already have a undergrad BBA degree, since much of the material will be redundant.
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