Do you have a head for business, a knack for leadership, or an entrepreneurial streak? If so, an MBA program may be right for you. But before you start the application process, MBA specialist Judy Gruen has some pointers.

If so, you may be thinking about earning an MBA. This degree is almost always a career booster, and the current market for MBAs is robust. In April 2015, a study by the Graduate Management Admission Council—which administers the GMAT—showed that (globally) more than half of employers planned to boost starting salaries for new MBAs, with the expected median starting salary for MBA graduates in the United States rising to $100,000. This is up by $5,000 from 2014 salaries and is an eye-popping $45,000 advantage over what survey respondents pay candidates with only bachelor’s degrees.

Identify Your Goals

However, the first step in a successful MBA application is one many applicants gloss over or miss entirely: identifying your goals for earning the degree in the first place. Too many applicants state goals that are fuzzy at best, such as “wanting to have impact” or “making a contribution to the world.” (Really, people say this.) These are not goals. They’re not even good bumper stickers.

Carefully considered, logical, and specific goals remain front and center in a strong MBA application. Admissions committee members look for them and will ding you if you don’t state them clearly.

An MBA goal is something you want to do. Tell the admissions committee something they can visualize, for example, you plan to become a marketing manager in a consumer products company or a new products manager in the tech industry. Did you notice that these goals include not only job titles but also industries? Good. Sometimes geography is part of the goal. For example, many foreign applicants plan to return to their home countries and contribute to an industry still in development there.

Goals should be realistic and based on your real-life experiences, not vague fantasies based on books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen. Nor should well-meaning outsiders (such as parents) impose their goals on you. Your decision to earn this degree must be authentically yours and feel true to who you are and what you want to achieve professionally.

But, you protest, “I don’t know my specific goal. But I know I want an MBA! Isn’t the program supposed to help me define that goal anyway?”

Refine Your Goal

It’s true that many MBA students are unsure whether they really want to become the chief financial officer at a bank, or a health services manager in a hospital, even if that’s what they stated in their essays. Your MBA education and experiences, including networking opportunities, may change your career path. However, you need to state plausible goals that make sense given your experiences at the time you apply. You need to draw a direct link between where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Need more help in identifying your goals? Ask yourself the following:

  1. What do I enjoy doing professionally, and where do I excel? Which achievements and responsibilities have left me feeling most fulfilled? (These could also be from community service or other non-professional roles.)
  1. What are my strongest character traits (creativity, determination, etc.) and strengths (problem-solving, analytical abilities, leadership)?

Use your answers to research the paths where your unique blend of abilities and traits are valued. This will also help you target the right MBA programs for you.

Know Thyself

After identifying your goals, you’ll need to determine how qualified you are for a particular program.

Top MBA programs are fiercely competitive, with acceptance rates between 10 and 20 percent, and may require up to nine years of work experience, including steady and consistent career progression.

You also need a strong undergrad GPA and usually a GMAT north of 700. If you’re the type who tends to freeze up during standardized tests, you’ll have to prove you can handle the work through excellent grades in quant courses either from college or post-college courses (not massive open online courses, or MOOCs), and/or proven number-crunching abilities on the job. You can take the GMAT or GRE multiple times, submitting your best score. Solid testing preparation companies include Manhattan GMAT, Veritas Prep, Next Step Test Prep, and GMAT Prep Now.

MBA admissions committees also value personal character. The most highly prized personal characteristics are leadership, teamwork, integrity, analytical talent, initiative, organizational ability, and communication skills. Highlight specific examples of a few traits through your recent (within the last three years) professional or personal history.

B-schools also value diversity. Show how you have overcome particular challenges (but spare them the clichéd story about dealing with your grandparents’ passing, please), including your distinctive contributions at work. Revealing your personal interests, cultural or geographic roots, and define your values. In other words, what makes you you? How will your uniqueness add value to the class?

Many MBA applicants plan on changing either their industry and/or job function. If this is your situation, make a list of the skills you have that are readily transferable to your new field or function and find a way to mention them in your essays. For example, someone from the nonprofit sector who wants to become a business consultant may have developed strong sales, organizational, and people management skills. Applicants from the military almost always have leadership experience and often, operations management experience, both valued and sought after by B-schools and businesses.

Research Many Programs

You can get a good idea of your qualifications by checking the class stats online of each MBA program you’re checking out. Your GPA and GMAT/GRE scores should be in the 80th percentile of their averages. If yours are lower, don’t worry. There are dozens of MBA programs out there, including many gem programs that can offer you the education you need without the insane level of competition. There are many paths toward earning an MBA and boosting your career.

Judy Gruen is the author of four books,
including co-author of 
MBA Admissions for Smarties:
The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools
and an advisor with

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