With the Economy Down, MBA Applications Are Up

With competition for admission tightening, experts offer some tips on getting in for those seeking a mid-career boost.

The application deadline for most MBA programs commencing next fall is still a few months away, but business schools are already seeing a spike in interest and expect 2009 to be a record-setting year.

That means there also should be more applications from people who have already been in the work force for a few years and see a part-time or even full-time academic effort as an investment toward potential career advancement. The applicant pool always includes some of those, but with the economy reeling and more people out of work or in career transition, there may be more of them than ever, according to college admissions and career-center professionals.

“Certainly if someone in [finance] has been thinking about going for an MBA, this would be a great time to act on that impulse,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern College of Business Administration. “I don’t know any better than the next person what the job market will be in the next two years, but more education expands your qualifications.”

Agrees Joseph Baczko, dean of Pace University’s Lubin School of Business, “In the best of times people don’t have the time [to get an MBA]. Today there is an incredible opportunity to sharpen your skills and differentiate yourself in any market.”

Increases in business-school admissions have historically followed economic downturns. The current one began well before this fall’s extreme crisis, and so did the increased interest in MBAs. According to a study by the Graduate Management Admission Council, 77 percent of full-time MBA programs said their applicant pool grew 2008. And, the study notes, the number of applications for 2009 is expected to be the highest ever.

At Pace, in New York City, which offers a relatively unusual Spring MBA program, applications for the session are up 18 percent from a year ago, Baczko says. For next Fall’s program at Northeastern, Sarikas says most people haven’t completed their applications yet, but she’s getting far more than the normal number of calls from prospective students.

That means competition for admission will be tougher than ever. Some years of work experience may provide an advantage, but with a larger crop of talent to choose from, a smaller percentage of applicants will get in. At Northwestern University’s Kellog School of Management, for example, assistant dean Roxanne Hori says that while there was a 20 percent increase in applicants for its Fall 2008 program, the number of people admitted stayed the same.

To be competitive, applicants from the work force should not let their credentials make them complacent about having a well-crafted résumé. “It needs to look professional and be flawless,” says Sarikas, who sits on the admissions committee at Northeastern and reviews every résumé that comes in.

In both their résumé and personal essay, applicants should play up their work experience, especially any management experience or exposure to research, according to Scott Shrum, director of admission consulting research for Veritas Prep, a GMAT-preparation and MBA-admissions consulting firm.

In the essay, applicants should articulate the value they put on an MBA, but they should also admit what skills they lack and how those gaps are limiting their career development. “They want someone with limitless potential but who is also raw in some areas,” Shrum says. “They want you say that you’re open to being transformed, and you want a program that will help you open your eyes to what you don’t know.”

Sarikas says applicants should explain how their work experience will give them an advantage as a student. They should be armed with a personal development plan, “a heightened sense of self awareness and knowledge of what they’re good at and what they need to work on.”

Letters of recommendation are also important. It’s vital to tailor each letter to the specific MBA program, says Shrum. Many applicants automatically seek references from very well-known or high-ranking people in their departments, like the CFO. “Then what you get is a boilerplate response with very little information about you, and schools see right through that,” says Shrum. “An admissions person would always prefer to hear from your direct manager with specific examples.”

Shrum also recommends coaching letter-writers by giving them a list of examples of when you’ve excelled or overcome specific challenges. “Even though your recommenders may think highly of you,” he says, “they may not know how to write a good letter of recommendation. There’s no harm in helping or coaching them through it.”

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