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How to Apply to Business School: The Definitive Guide

March 20, 2024
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Business School Application DeadlinesHow to Apply to Business SchoolHow to Decide Which MBA Programs to Apply ToHow Many Business Schools to Apply ToHow to Apply for Scholarships for Your MBAHow to Apply for an Online MBAWhat Are Business Schools Looking For in Applicants?Tips for Making Your Business School Application Stand OutCommon Mistakes to Avoid When You Apply for an MBA

If you want to know how to apply to a business school, we’ve outlined a comprehensive guide. By reading this guide, you’ll be well-equipped to receive an admission letter.

Before we discuss each of these items in detail and how to apply to business school, let’s first discuss the graduate school application process in general. There are two main types of admissions: rolling admissions and round admissions. 

Rolling admissions is where candidates submit their applications before a single deadline. These applications are reviewed on an ongoing basis, depending on the order in which they are received. Check with your prospective schools to determine when they have their deadline set. Nonetheless, it is better to apply sooner rather than later. 

Business School Application Deadlines

Applying to business school is a significant milestone, and meeting the application deadlines is critical. Most top-tier MBA programs have multiple rounds of admissions, each with its own deadline. Submitting your application materials well before the final deadline can increase your chances of acceptance.

Round 1 deadlines typically fall between mid-September and early October. This is often considered the most competitive round, as applicants tend to be more experienced and have had more time to prepare their applications. However, applying in Round 1 allows you to receive an admissions decision earlier, giving you more time to plan for the upcoming academic year.

Round 2 deadlines are usually in early January. While still highly competitive, this round may have slightly fewer applicants than Round 1. It's essential to have all your materials ready to go by the deadline, as business schools will be looking for well-prepared candidates.

Some programs offer Round 3 deadlines in early April. This round is generally the least competitive, but it also comes with the risk of limited scholarship opportunities and potential waitlisting if the class is already filled.

In addition to the round deadlines, there may be separate deadlines for submitting test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other supporting materials. Be sure to check each school's requirements and mark all relevant dates on your calendar.

Though the deadline you apply for is ultimately up to you, we recommend applying in Round 1 or Round 2. Both of these rounds tend to have more spaces available, giving you a higher probability of acceptance. Now that you know about the different rounds of admission, we can explore how to apply to business school and how to apply for an MBA.  

How to Apply to Business School

The MBA admissions process is an intricate one that requires you to collect a range of documents and complete various tasks before you apply. To apply to business school, you need to acquire several things: 

  • Undergraduate degree
  • Transcripts
  • GMAT or GRE scores
  • Recommendation letters
  • MBA admissions essays 

Here’s a breakdown of some of the different elements you need to apply to business school:


One prerequisite for your MBA application is having an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. While some business schools focus primarily on your most recent grades, colleges still look at your overall GPA. 

While most business schools do not set a minimum GPA requirement, the average GPA of accepted students is 3.5 to 3.7. Having a high GPA isn’t the end-all-be-all; it won’t necessarily secure your acceptance into your desired MBA program. Likewise, if you have a lower GPA, you can still get into a top business school with a strong application. 

You have to sell your qualifications and professional experiences in the application and explain why the school is perfect for you and what you will contribute if accepted. Your transcript is an essential element of your application, as it indicates how you will perform in graduate school. 

In addition to your grades, business schools also look at how difficult your courses were in your undergraduate degree. Some even zero in on quantitative subjects like microeconomics, calculus, and statistics due to many MBA courses’ quantitative nature.

Standardized Tests: GMAT and GRE

Nearly all MBA programs in the United States require applicants to take either the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or the General Record Examination (GRE). Before discussing what scores you need to apply to business school, let’s first look at the difference between the two tests. 

Both tests are an essential tool that admissions committees use to narrow the vast pool of qualified candidates. Unlike the GMAT, which is used explicitly for MBA admissions, most graduate programs accept the GRE. So, it may be a good exam to take if you are still unsure about which program you want to pursue. The GRE consists of:

  • Two 30-minute essays in the Analytical Writing section
  • Two 30-minute Verbal Reasoning sections
  • Two 35-minute Quantitative Reasoning sections
  • One 30- to 35-minute Math or Verbal section

The GMAT, on the other hand, consists of: 

  • One 30-minute Analytical Writing section (including an essay)
  • One 30-minute Integrated Reasoning section
  • One 62-minute Quantitative section 
  • One 65-minute Verbal section 

The results of both tests are valid for up to five years after you receive them. To get into the M7 Business Schools or a top MBA program, you need to have a solid score in either exam. A general rule of thumb is the higher the score, the stronger the application. 

Although GRE and GMAT scores are important, having a high score won’t necessarily guarantee your acceptance when you apply to business school. Candidates with both high and low scores are rejected from business schools every year. What is more important than just putting all your energy into one aspect of the application process is ensuring that it is strong across the board.

The exam scores required for admission into business school depend on your prospective school. When preparing for the GMAT or GRE, it is important to do practice tests to get familiar with its format and structure. If you’re struggling to achieve high scores, consider working with an MBA admissions expert who can provide one-on-one GMAT or GRE prep

If you receive a GMAT/GRE score well below average, don’t feel as though you can only take it once; feel free to retake the exam.


Another important aspect of your application is making sure you have a resume that is clear, precise, and professional. Ideally, your resume will show how you added value to your professional experiences beyond doing a job well. 

Spend time crafting your resume and use it as another opportunity to represent yourself. While it should include information about your accomplishments, ensure it illustrates the quantifiable results of the projects you worked on, such as the amount of revenue earned. Doing so makes a more significant impact on the reviewer and adds specificity that improves your overall resume. 

It is also necessary to include experiences that highlight your ability to work on a team and lead others. When crafting your MBA resume, keep in mind that it should convey how well you understand your achievements and the impact you have made. Don’t forget to include any community service, volunteering, or notable endeavors you’ve taken on. 

MBA Admissions Essays

Like your resume, your MBA essays tell the story of who you are, who you hope to become, what you’ve accomplished, and what you have to offer. The admissions committee is looking for well-rounded applicants; they aren’t just interested in your grades and academic achievements. 

Most business schools ask applicants to answer between one and four essay questions. These essays are where you can include the experiences that wouldn’t necessarily fit in your resume. Don’t be afraid to show your personality or be vulnerable; this is what sets you apart from other applicants.

Though the exact essay questions depend on your prospective school, many of these questions cover similar topics. Some of these topics include:

  • Why you decide to apply to business school 
  • How you will be a good fit into your prospective school 
  • What your goals and career plans are
  • Your ability to demonstrate your leadership abilities. 

Think about how aspects of your identity — your gender, sexuality, race, or ethnicity — have impacted your perspective and your experiences. Include several real-life examples. These little details make your essays more vivid and impactful and can help support your claims. 

Recommendation Letters

One way to add credibility to your application is to have personal and specific professional or academic endorsements. Almost all, if not all, MBA programs require two professional letters of recommendation, and a few also request that you submit a personal letter. 

What is most important is that you are very selective when choosing your recommenders. They should know you well and be able to speak to your achievements and unique skill sets. Don’t shy away from suggesting that they include real-life examples of your performance to support the qualities you highlighted in your application. 

When asking for a recommendation, give your writer at least four to six weeks to write a thoughtful and detailed letter. Don’t just surprise them with deadlines; early preparation is crucial. 

Admissions Interview

Interviews are another tool that business schools use to find out more about who you are beyond your test scores and grades. A good interview could be the difference between being accepted and being denied. The average MBA interview can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. 

To prepare for your MBA interview, be sure to have a good grasp of why you have chosen to apply to a particular school. You may want to practice speaking about your career goals, interests, and accomplishments. Have a few examples on hand that you can draw from to help the interviewer remember you. 

You may have to answer a range of common MBA questions about leadership, entrepreneurship, and how you will fit into the university. Interviews are typically conducted by either admissions staff, faculty, alumni, or even current students. 

Student and Alumni interviews tend to be blind interviews, meaning that the only information an interviewer has about you is your resume. As a result of this, they will mostly spend time getting to know you and your aspirations. In non-blind interviews where an interviewer has seen your essays and application, it is best to discuss the information you have not already provided. 

Interviewers will likely be more concerned about the details behind and impact of what you accomplished rather than the accomplishments themselves. Additionally, ensure you prepare several questions for your MBA interviewer. This will show you are engaged and interested in learning more about their program. 

It’s best to select the date and time for your interview as soon as you receive word from your prospective school. If you delay scheduling your interview, it may cause your decision to be delayed by several months, thereby putting your application into a more competitive round.

How to Decide Which MBA Programs to Apply TO

When deciding where you want to apply to business school, it is crucial to base this decision on more than just ranking. It is not about finding the school with the most prestige but about finding one where you will thrive. Be thorough when researching where you are going to apply to business school. 

It’s a good idea to have a clear sense of what you want and need from an MBA program before you apply. Before you create your target list of business schools, define your priorities; ask yourself, do you want a small or large campus? Do you want to be based in a remote location or a large city? Do you value diverse learning environments? 

Consider reading student blogs that delve into the student population’s diversity, extracurricular activities, and internship opportunities. They can also provide insight into the pros and cons of the university’s location. Researching locations is crucial if you want to pursue an MBA program abroad, as it can be challenging to adapt to different cultures. 

You should have a clear career path in mind if you want to pursue an MBA. As such, examine your preferred school’s career services and post-graduation employment reports. This will help you understand how and why a specific MBA program will be the ideal stepping stone to help you achieve your goals.

For example, say you want to pursue a career in consulting. In that case, Dartmouth Tuck may be ideal for you, as it sent the highest percentage of students into consulting in the country at 41.8%. Columbia may be a good choice if you’re interested in Finance as 37% of its class went into the sector. 

While we recommend starting your research on business schools with their websites, remember that this is their opportunity to sell themselves to you; it is where they present themselves in the best way that they can. Forbes suggests looking into a third party’s detailed reports on your prospective school and its MBA program.  

Pay attention to the information provided by admissions directors through blogs on the school’s website, open forums, or other events. Harvard Business School, for example, has a “Direct from the Director” page on its website. 

It can also be worthwhile to get an idea of what a school’s MBA program is like from the perspective of current students or alumni. If you don’t know anyone personally, there are tons of students on social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook talking about their experiences.

Take our interactive quiz below to find out which MBA school is right for you!

How Many Business Schools to Apply To

There is no magic number of business schools to apply to that will guarantee you admission. Applying to more programs may increase your chances of admission. But if you submit too many applications, the quality of each may suffer. 

Rather than applying for too many or too few, go for a happy medium. A safe bet is to apply to one or two reach schools, several on-par schools, and at least one safety school. Of course, the number of MBA programs you should apply to depends on you.

For example, if your qualifications and test scores are competitive, you may choose to apply to several Ivy League or top-ranked business schools. If your application is less competitive, you may apply to several schools where your admissions prospects are good. 

How to Apply for Scholarships for Your MBA 

Some MBA hopefuls can attend business school and get an MBA without paying a cent. Many organizations and business schools offer scholarships that can partly or fully cover your tuition and fees. There are four broad categories of MBA scholarships

  • National scholarships and fellowships
  • University scholarships (for grad students) 
  • Full-tuition MBA scholarships
  • Small MBA scholarships

National Scholarships and Fellowships

Depending on the national scholarship or fellowship program you apply to, you may be obliged to attend a specific college. For example, the Forté Foundation offers a fellowship program that has helped secure $277 million for more than 9,600 MBA applicants. But you must attend a Forté partner school to receive this scholarship. 

However, you do not have to attend a specific institution with scholarships like the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. This program awards up to $90,000 to cover two years of graduate study to help immigrants and the children of immigrants attend college. 

University Scholarships 

Despite your desire to pursue an MBA, you are eligible for college-wide grad school scholarships. For example, Stanford’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which subsidizes three years of study, is available to every graduate student. 

Full-Tuition and Small MBA Scholarships

Many business schools offer part or full-tuition scholarships to select MBA hopefuls. Rice University offers numerous merit-based scholarships that provide varying amounts of financial aid per academic year. If you cannot secure a full-tuition scholarship, securing several smaller ones can cover all of your fees and maybe a coffee or two! 

How to Apply for an Online MBA

The online MBA is the perfect option for busy professionals who want to study for an MBA but can’t quit their day job. Some online MBAs can be finished in 18 months, and others can take up to three to five years to complete. While this is longer than a traditional MBA, online MBAs are designed to be flexible; you can usually log in and learn as you please. 

Knowing how to apply for an online MBA is easy — it’s usually the same as a full-time MBA. For example, the USC Marshall Online MBA’s admissions criteria include: 

  • An undergraduate degree from an accredited institution 
  • GMAT or GRE scores 
  • At least two years of work experience 
  • Two MBA admissions essays 
  • Professional resume
  • Three letters of recommendation 
  • Official transcript 
  • $155 application fee
  • Admissions interview (if you’re invited to one) 

So, is an online MBA worth it? 

Online MBA programs are often cheaper and more flexible than full-time equivalents. But, unless you choose a hybrid program, you will complete your learning virtually. So, if you prefer a more formal classroom environment, a traditional MBA may be better for you. 

What Are Business Schools Looking For in Applicants?

Top business schools seek well-rounded candidates with strong academic records, professional achievements, leadership potential, and a clear vision for their future. Here are some key qualities they look for.

  • Academic Excellence: A high GPA and strong performance on standardized tests like the GMAT or GRE demonstrate your intellectual aptitude and ability to handle a rigorous MBA curriculum.
  • Professional Experience: Most programs require four to five years of full-time work experience. They want to see career progression, quantifiable impact, and transferable skills you can bring to the classroom.
  • Leadership and Extracurriculars: Business schools value applicants who have taken initiative outside of work through community service, professional organizations, or personal projects. These showcase your teamwork, management abilities, and well-rounded interests.
  • Clear Goals: A compelling career vision that aligns with the program's offerings is essential. Admissions committees want to see how an MBA will help you achieve your short and long-term objectives.
  • Cultural Fit: Top MBA programs seek students who will be active participants and contributors to the overall community. Demonstrating fit through your essays, interviews, and interactions is key.

By highlighting your strengths and fit with the program, you can craft a standout application that checks all the boxes business schools are looking for. This is also relevant to students reapplying to business school after their first attempt.

Tips for Making Your Business School Application Stand Out

The best way to make yourself stand out when you apply to business school is by representing your authentic self. Don’t try to present or edit yourself in a way that you think the school wants you to be. Present not only who you are but also who you want to become. 

What makes you stand out from the other candidates? The answer to this question requires you to reflect on the different aspects of your life, what you have done, and what you want to achieve. Here are a few tips on how you can be yourself within your application to business school:

Write Compelling MBA Essays

As you are writing your essay and moving forward with your application, keep the admission reviewer’s perspective in mind. Ask yourself, what kind of application do you think they would like to read? Would they rather read an essay that is nonspecific, generic, and clipped? Or, would they prefer one that is honest, ambitious, and thought-provoking? 

If you want to appeal to the admissions committee, tell a story with your application. Using anecdotes as evidence for your claims will help bring your essays to life; they will leave a more significant impact than simply stating your achievements. It is best to focus on developing one or two examples in your responses.

Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and self-reflective in your essays. Highlight how particular experiences changed your perspective or revealed something about yourself that you hadn’t known before. Admissions officers prefer that candidates show that they are self-aware and have made moves toward conscious growth.

Present Your Post-MBA Goals Clearly 

Business schools want to admit ambitious, motivated, and driven candidates. Use your essays to demonstrate why a specific MBA program will be the ideal stepping stone to help you achieve your goals. Alternatively, you can outline them in your MBA interview. 

If you can, use detailed and school-specific examples to back up what you write. For example, Duke Fuqua is renowned for its excellence in marketing. If you want to pursue a career in this field, you can research its curriculum and discuss how it will equip you with the skills you need to succeed in that field. 

Be Consistent Throughout Your Business School Application

Though there are many different parts to your application, it is important not to think of them as separate entities. Each item you send in for review ultimately works together to paint a story about who you are in the minds of the admission committee. Thinking this way when you apply to business school will help you avoid inconsistencies in your application.

For example, your resume and letters of recommendation should illustrate what you have done and the skills you possess. Your essay should serve as the jumping board for your interview and explain who you are and what makes you unique. 

Highlight Your Pre-MBA Work Experience 

Business schools look at your work experience to determine your professional maturity and the quality of work you have undertaken. Use your resume to explain how your work experience makes you an ideal MBA candidate. The best MBA candidates are top performers who have been promoted quickly and can provide concrete examples of their impact on a company. 

MBA programs are not looking for a specific number of years of work experience. Graham Richmond, a former admission officer at Wharton, has seen “wonderful candidates with just one to two years of experience.” But you can check your preferred school’s class profile to understand how many years of work experience admitted students acquired. 

For example, most of the full-time MBA students Kellogg School of Management admits have five years of work experience. Similarly, London Business School’s students have five, Booth School of Business students have five on average, and Stanford GSB students have 4.7. 

If you have had any significant gaps in employment, explain your circumstances, what you learned, and how you have grown from the experience. Business schools will often provide an optional essay to allow you to explain these scenarios. 

FAQs: Applying to Business School

Applying to business school is difficult; you have to understand how to apply for MBA programs and complete their admissions requirements. To help ease the difficulty of this process, we’ve compiled several questions and answers to help you understand how to apply for an MBA. 

1) When should I apply? When is the application deadline?

There are three application rounds for most MBA programs, each of which has its own deadline. The deadline for the first round is in September/October. The second round is in December/January, and the third round’s deadline is in April/May. 

While it is possible to apply in any of the three rounds, we recommend submitting your application in round one or two. The probability of getting accepted decreases significantly as the rounds increase.

Business schools want the groups of students they admit to be as balanced and diverse as possible. So, there is a chance that applicants with similar professional and academic backgrounds may be chosen over you if you want until the later rounds. Make sure to check on your school’s website for their deadlines.

 2) How much does it cost to apply to business school?

MBA application fees vary, depending on the school you are applying to, though they don’t often exceed $300. 

It’s always best to overestimate how much you might need for application fees, especially when applying to several MBA programs. Remember that your school’s application fee is not the only cost you have to pay; the fees for taking the GMAT and GRE are around $250 and $205, respectively.

 3) How long does it typically take for an applicant to receive a decision after they have submitted their application?

Receiving your decision about your MBA application depends on which round you choose to submit your application. Most admissions decisions take up to two to three months.

4) Should I take the GMAT or the GRE?

Traditionally, the GMAT has been considered more important than the GRE, as it is designed specifically for business school applicants. In contrast, the GRE can be used to apply for various programs, which encompasses the MBA. With that said, more and more business schools are starting to accept both tests. 

The GRE is a test best suited for what they refer to as “creative/flexible thinkers,” as it comprises questions that focus on quantitative and text comparisons and sentence equivalence. The GMAT, however, is best suited for “number-crunching thinkers,” given its questions that center on data sufficiency, sentence correction, and critical reasoning. 

The test you decide to take will largely depend on your school’s requirements. If your school accepts both exams, play up to your strengths and choose the test you think you will perform the best. No matter which exam you decide to take, prepare for it. 

5) Who should I ask to provide my recommendation letters?

It is best to ask your current and past supervisors, employers, or business peers to write your professional recommendations. Alternatively, you can ask your professors or other reputable people who helped you during your studies. 

Whoever you choose to ask should have a good sense of who you are as a person and what you have achieved, either professionally or academically. Check your prospective school’s procedure and requirements for MBA rec letters for more information.

6) Can I submit an MBA application before completing my undergraduate degree?

Applying before completing your undergraduate degree largely depends on your prospective school. Still, if you are just a few months shy of completing your undergraduate degree, you can apply without a degree. 

If you are an international student and have to take the TOEFL exam, many schools will process your application but won’t offer you a place until you submit your results. If you are in this situation, include the date you expected your results within your application.

FAQs: Applying to Business School

Applying to business school is difficult; you have to understand how to apply for MBA programs and complete their admissions requirements. To help ease the difficulty of this process, we’ve compiled several questions and answers to help you understand how to apply for an MBA. 

1. When Should I Apply to Business School?

There are three application rounds for most MBA programs - round 1 (September/October deadline), round 2 (December/January deadline), and round 3 (April/May deadline). Apply in round 1 or 2 for the highest chances of acceptance.

2. How Much Does it Cost to Apply to Business School?

MBA application fees typically don't exceed $300 per school. However, factor in additional costs like GMAT/GRE fees around $250-$205. It's best to overestimate the total application expenses when applying to multiple programs.

3. How Long Does it Take For An MBA Application Decision?

Most MBA admissions decisions take two to three months after submitting your application materials. The specific timeline depends on which application round you applied in.

4. Should I Take the GMAT or the GRE?

The GMAT has traditionally been preferred for MBA programs, as it tests skills specific to business education. However, more schools now accept both the GMAT and GRE. Choose the test that better suits your strengths and prepare thoroughly. 

5. Who Should I Ask to Provide My Recommendation Letters?

The best recommendations come from current/former supervisors, employers, professors, or others who can speak to your professional/academic achievements. Check each school's specific recommendation requirement.

6. Can I Apply to MBA Programs Before Completing Undergrad?

Many schools allow you to apply before finishing your undergraduate degree, especially if you are just a few months away from completion. However, you may need to submit final transcripts/scores before receiving an admission offer.

If you are an international student and have to take the TOEFL exam, many schools will process your application but won’t offer you a place until you submit your results. If you are in this situation, include the date you expected your results within your application.

Applying to Business School Is Exciting. Make the Most of It

When you apply to business school for your MBA, it is essential to remember to be as authentic to yourself as possible. The various aspects of your application should tell the story of who you are and who you want to become to the admissions committee. When deciding which schools to submit your application to, be sure to do so with your best interest at heart. 

The application process is a long one, so it’s best to start as early as possible. Doing so will allow you to gather all the documents you need without stressing to meet deadlines, and it will also give you the highest chance of success. Applying for your MBA is a massive step in your personal and professional life, and it is one that you should take with the utmost care. 

About Inspira Futures

At Inspira Futures, our sole focus is to get you accepted at your dream business school. Our team of experts consists of former admission committee members and alums from Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, and other M7 schools. Our goal is to help you write great essays, ace interviews, and win scholarships. Without any stress or hassle. Our clients have gone on to secure admits at the world's top business schools while also being winners of some of the most prestigious scholarships like Stanford Knight Hennessy, HBS Baker Scholars, and many others.
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