Applying for an MBA program can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be—if you know what the school wants. We asked admissions committees and recruiters at some of Canada’s top business schools to share what it really takes to get their seal of approval. Here’s what you need to know to survive—and conquer—your MBA application.
Most graduate business schools require completion of at least a bachelor’s degree before applying. To ensure that candidates can handle the academic rigour of an MBA program, the majority of schools want to see a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.0, which is about a B average. If you’ve completed additional schooling, like another master’s degree or a professional designation like your CPA, then admissions teams want to see your performance during those programs as well. “We’re, of course, going to expect them to have scores that are above average so they can demonstrate that they’ll be able to survive academically, because it is quite a demanding program,” says Keum-Yeo Brochet, associate director of recruitment and marketing at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.
But don’t panic if your GPA doesn’t meet the minimum requirement, say the experts. “Life happens during university,” says Melissa Judd, assistant dean of students at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “We recognize that students aren’t always at their best in those last two years [of their undergrad].” Instead, applicants should focus on aspects of their application they can still change; admissions officers look at an application holistically. “The main thing that people tend to think when they’re applying—to any grad school—is that it’s all about the grades, but it’s really not,” says Matthew Reesor, director of the full-time MBA program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.
Tip: Don’t stress out if your GPA doesn’t hit the minimum requirement. There are opportunities to help offset a low GPA and still make your application stand out, like earning a high score on your Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and highlighting your work experience.
The GMAT is the standardized exam often required when you’re applying to an MBA program. The test has four sections (analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning), and most schools require you to submit your total score before they decide whether to admit you. Canada’s top business schools, like Schulich and the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, want to see a minimum score between 550 and 600. However, if you want to be considered competitive, it’s best to aim for average or above on the test. The average GMAT score for Desautels last year was 680, and at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, the average is about 635. “Definitely try to do well. But it’s not the No. 1 thing to worry about in an application, at least from our point of view,” says Chris Lynch, senior director of recruitment, admissions and marketing at the University of Alberta School of Business, which requires a minimum score of 550.
Some schools, such as Desautels and Smith, will accept the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) instead of the GMAT, but they expect you to score relatively high on the exam’s three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Many schools that accept the GRE will also ask you to use the GRE Comparison Tool for Business Schools to calculate your predicted GMAT score.
If you’ve obtained your chartered financial analyst (CFA) designation, you won’t need to submit your GMAT score for the University of Toronto’s MBA program. The Rotman School of Management will waive the requirement if you’ve passed all three levels of the CFA.
Tip: Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to study and write the GMAT. Beth McKenna, graduate student recruitment officer at John Molson School of Business, recommends applicants take between six weeks and three months to prepare for the exam. “You don’t want to be cutting it too close to the deadline, where stress builds up and you just can’t think straight,” she says. McKenna recommends applicants take advantage of schools’ GMAT prep sessions, which are often offered for free. The GMAT’s official website also has free material and test-writing tips to help you prepare for the exam.
The majority of graduate business schools require you to have at least two years of full-time work experience on your resumé before you apply (part-time jobs, summer positions and internships typically don’t count toward the requirement). Schulich’s Judd says applicants, on average, have five years of work experience before applying for their MBA program. Schools are looking for candidates who can bring real-world experiences and add value to the classroom. “It’s a bit of a cliché, but we always say that you learn as much from your peers as your professors,” says Desautels’s Brochet. “So the type of work experience that the students bring into the cohort matters a lot to the class discussions they’re going to have, or what they’re going to be able to contribute to when they’re part of team projects or presentations.”
Tip: Don’t leave your resumé to the last minute. “I feel like candidates leave a lot on the table with respect to the resumé. They spend so much time and effort on the GMAT and the essay, then they sort of just throw together whatever they have for a resumé,” says Leigh Gauthier, assistant director of recruitment and admissions at the Rotman School of Management. “I feel like there’s a huge opportunity to really showcase what you’ve done at work by creating a professional, accomplishment-based resumé.” Many schools offer a template of what they want in a resumé, which Gauthier encourages applicants to use. “Do the due diligence to make sure your resumé accurately reflects the type of work you’re doing. Not the tasks, but what did I achieve, what are my accomplishments, why is this company better as a result of me being there? That’s the type of resumé we want to see,” she says.
As part of your application, you’ll be asked to include two to three professional reference letters. Make sure to choose referees who know you well and can speak to your abilities and accomplishments. “Don’t think of getting somebody who’s at a VP level, who may have seen you in a couple of meetings,” says J.D. Clarke, executive director of master’s programs, recruitment and admissions at Western University’s Ivey Business School. “You want to make sure you get people who have observed you and provide that depth.”
Tip: As much as referees are expected to discuss your accomplishments and skills, their reference letters should also be addressed to the relevant MBA program. “We often get reference letters that have the wrong school written on them or the wrong program written on them,” says John Molson’s McKenna.
The essay portion of an MBA application is a chance to tell the admissions committee more about yourself. Essay questions can vary year to year, and some programs may refer to it as a statement of intent or statement of purpose. Regardless of the specifics, schools usually want to know why you’re pursuing an MBA and why you want to do it at their institution. “We’re trying to get to know the candidate,” says Desautels’s Brochet. “There’s nothing really specific we’re looking for. We just want the candidate to be genuine, to tell us their story, and we want to get to know them through that.”
This year, Rotman included a “spike factor” essay, which asks prospective students to reflect on what they’ve done in their lives that demonstrates passion, grit, resilience, innovation, drive and ambition. Applicants include one to three of their “spikiest” pictures and describe in 1,000 words why they’ve chosen those particular images to illustrate their “spike factor.” “If you take a look at the very notion of spike factor, we’re trying to infer characteristics that would be valuable to the business school and to the cohort, but also our end game, which is students being successful in employment opportunities,” says Rotman’s Gauthier. “Students who write something really, really strong understand that it’s not just an opportunity to talk about a hobby—it’s actually an opportunity to convey an underlying characteristic of a person, which may not come out in the rest of your application.”
The essay is also your opportunity to explain any anomalies in your application, such as a low GPA or gaps in your career. “If there’s something in their application they feel requires some narrative—a candidate without a B average, for instance—this would be an important opportunity for them to explain what happened during university and what they’ve done to address or overcome those challenges,” says Schulich’s Judd.
Tip: Get a second opinion on your essay before submitting your application to ensure you’re actually answering the question. “Without necessarily asking someone to review it or correct it for them, but just to have an idea of [whether they’ve answered the question]. ‘Can you guess what’s the question just based on reading my essay?’ If someone completely external is able to say, ‘This is the question you’re answering,’ then the essay is well-crafted,” says Desautels’s Brochet.