MBA Application Strategy: Your 7-step Approach

by Fortuna Admissions | In Academic Advising | 3 July 2018 | Updated on: March 2nd, 2021

The world’s top business schools have announced their MBA admissions deadlines for the Class of 2021. First up is the R1 deadline for Harvard Business School on Wednesday, September 5, 2018. Round 1 deadlines for Stanford GSB and Wharton are both slated for Sept. 18. If you’re thinking to apply for an A-list MBA next fall, this gives you roughly two months to prepare.

Are you ready?

Eight focused weeks can make the difference between a solid application and stand-out one. Where can you get the best return on investment for your efforts? My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former senior admissions professionals and business school insiders, share their keen insights on how to best prioritize your time in the coming weeks. For maximum success, your emphasis should be laying a solid foundation before sitting down to write. To get there, consider this seven-step approach:

1. Introspection & self-assessment

Schools want to understand your motives. Their applications are designed to solicit thoughtful analysis of your future potential, personal growth, and how you intend to transition into the next stage in your career. Considered self-reflection is always the starting point. Ideally, take some time away from the office (and your devices) to get introspective about your ambitions and motivations for business school (and why now), as well as what makes you unique. Solicit outside perspectives on your strengths and weaknesses. You want to develop a narrative that’s persuasive, compelling and authentic for admissions committees.

2. Program research & networking

Go beyond the MBA rankings: Every business school has a distinctive culture, identity, and management curriculum. Prestige matters, but so does a school’s alumni network, community vibe, class size, faculty, recruitment opportunities, and location – especially when it comes to evaluating mutual fit. Admissions committees can discern if an applicant has a sincere affinity with their school and has scratched below the surface. Start following schools’ admissions blogs and social media, and network with the school communities through online research, campus visits, and alumni outreach. Your goal is to winnow down to a shortlist of programs that best match your personal goals.

3. Extracurricular & leadership development 

Admissions committees want to understand what you’ll offer their community, alumni network and, ultimately, the world. You’ll need to demonstrate a track record of leadership – in the workplace and beyond. Have you mentored others, led a team project, mobilized support around a community issue, go beyond yourself to have a positive impact? In this run-up to application time, seek ways to enhance your profile by taking more responsibility, both on the job and through community involvement or extracurriculars that sincerely reflect your interests. Learn more about effectively positioning extracurriculars on your MBA application.

4. GMAT score & academic strength

Your grades and GMAT score are fundamental, but don’t assume you can’t enhance your academic profile at this stage. If you’ve already taken the GMAT already but scored below the average for your target schools, prepare to retake it – but only if you think you can meaningfully boost your score. Given that GMAT prep can be a black hole of time and stress, consider the appropriate use of energy. If you’re worried your quant score isn’t going to budge, consider enrolling in an online course in stats, accounting or finance to demonstrate your academic abilities and commitment. If your undergrad degree lacks quant courses and your GMAT quant isn’t solid, you’ll need to prove you can handle the quant-heavy coursework.

5. Letters of recommendation

Your chosen recommenders should serve as your personal champions. Make sure they are individuals who can speak with detail and specificity to both your future potential and current excellence. Set your recommenders up for success and give them ample time to craft your letter by reaching out at least six weeks in advance. Prepare them by discussing your motivations, MBA plans and aspirations in detail, either in person or video chat – don’t just assume they know what they’re doing. Guide (don’t script) recommenders by supplying a briefing document and maintaining consistent communication. You want to ensure they’re prepared to bring effort and energy, along with thoughtful detail, to writing your letters.

6. Career vision

A critical part of your narrative as an MBA candidate is developing a powerful career vision. It’s about articulating a clear picture of where you’re going, where you’ve been and why an MBA is vital for achieving your highest aspirations. As mentioned, business schools also want to see you’ve given considered thought to why their program will make the difference in catalyzing the next big step in your career.

7. Final review

When you’ve completed all the elements of your MBA application, take a pause before conducting a final review – ideally two days without a single glance. With fresh eyes, you’re better poised to catch unintended repetition, errors or inconsistencies. It’s often in the final pass that a missing element becomes clear and things fall into place. Ideally, find a trusted friend or colleague to give it a final proofread for typos.


The time and effort required for each of these elements inevitably vary (whether you’re throwing more hours at GMAT prep or toward enhancing your leadership profile, for example), so you’ll want to craft a work plan that outlines the key milestones and interdependencies leading up to your deadlines. Laying this important groundwork sets up your actual application writing for maximum efficiency (drafting and rewriting your essays, re-tuning your resume, completing data forms with precision, etc.).

About three weeks from your deadline, give yourself an honest check-in by asking whether you’re prepared to submit your best work in Round 1. It’s much better to submit a thorough and polished application when you are ready, rather than one that’s rushed and poorly conceived. The most important thing: Optimize the return on investment of your time and energy between now and September.


The Fortuna Admissions team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Kellogg, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Johnson Cornell, Yale SOM and Berkeley Haas.

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