Do’s and Don’ts When Applying for an Online MBA

Online MBA admissions officers share their thoughts on ideal candidates, motivation letters, and other tips for prospective students

There are innumerable paths in life that can lead someone to go for an Online MBA – but the mistakes made by prospective students are far less diverse.

The good news is they are easily averted, all it takes is a little care when applying.

DON’T use the same motivation letter when applying to different Online MBA programs

Admission departments want you to know – they’re on to you! When an applicant writes a one-size-fits-all essay “switching out institution names because you're applying to several different places, we can tell,” says Myranda Crist, the assistant director of recruitment and admissions at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Gies College of Business. “It’s very obvious always,” agrees Inka Diddens, a recruitment officer at Maastricht’s School of Management.

The less precise an applicant’s answer to the question of why they are applying to a particular program, the less likely their application will be considered. To admissions officers, it’s a sign that the applicant just didn’t care enough to put in the effort to research their school.

“Believe it or not, we’ve actually read essays that talk all about another school, so be sure to proofread your essay and make sure you’ve actually answered the essay question,” says Liz Wagoner, director of Online MBA admissions at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. She says the candidate who stands out is the one whose authenticity and commitment to their program of choice is clear.

Simply mentioning specific courses on offer at each institution or the professors that teach them will go a long way towards assuring the admissions department that the candidate hasn’t sent identical motivation letters to several institutions. “I had one the other day, which was really nice, which actually talks about the courses that we offer and the professors that teach those courses,” says Nicky de Bie, an admissions officer at Maastricht School of Management.

DO your research on Online MBA programs

This is the most important one. And the reason is twofold – it not only makes your application stand out, but it will help you best achieve your goals.

Each program is different, and what is a good fit for one person, won’t be for another. Crist says applicants should first figure out what their goals are and then find the program that will help them achieve those goals.

For instance, she says Gies’ Online MBA was designed for working professionals who need flexibility. There are five different intake periods, the average student is aged 37, with about 11-12 years of work experience and if they have to miss a class they can always catch up on a recorded session. “If you're in your early twenties, this is probably not the programme for you, because you're not going to have the work experience to contribute to the program,” says Crist.

Over at Questrom, which welcomed its inaugural online class in the fall of 2020, Wagoner suggest writing up a list of things that are important to you and then matching those with programs. She recommends looking into the culture of each program, access to support and services, who the teachers are, and past student profiles to assess the best fit.

For example, while the Online MBA at Questrom doesn’t require the GRE or GMAT, like their in-person MBA, it doesn’t mean that the workload is easier or doesn’t include quantitative elements. So if you choose to not take an admissions test, Wagoner suggests highlighting quantitative skills that you’ve used in the past in your essay.

While you’re taking the time to make your list, make sure you meet the school’s admission requirements. At Maastricht, Diddens and de Bie say they routinely receive applications from prospects who are not qualified to apply. Worse, candidates “sometimes also think we are based in Germany and not in the Netherlands,” says Diddens.

DON’T Get names wrong

Getting a university’s name right - like knowing what country the program is in - seems like a very low bar to clear, but Diddens says that applicants often just don’t pay attention. “They mention the wrong name, for example, Maastricht University, instead of Maastricht School of Management.”

At Gies, Crist says that candidates spell the school’s name – and hers - wrong all the time.

“And it is on all of our emails, it's on my signature, it's on our website, it's all over the place. So if you misspell it, especially multiple times within the essay, or while emailing us,” says Crist, “that is problematic.”

DO reach out before applying

De Bie says there is a big difference between candidates that have applied on their own and those that have reached out to alumni or the school. “They are much better prepared, and their applications are better,” says de Bie. She encourages candidates to get in contact with the schools they are interested in.

Most schools, especially post-pandemic, host a number of virtual events and information sessions, and Crist says these can be crucial in helping candidates understand whether a program is a good fit, while admissions officers appreciate putting a face to a name.

However, make sure to come with thoughtful questions, whose answers aren’t on the website. “We get emails where they're like, I want to know your application requirements, says Crist, “which are online.” And while those emails aren’t part of the actual application, she says they indicate the prospect is unable to do the work on their own. “So how are you going to work in groups? Are you going to expect other people just to do all the work for you and provide everything for you?”  

DON’T repeat your resume in your motivation letter

Schools can see your work and education history from your resume - they want something different from your motivation letter or personal essay. In fact, along with the interview, admission officers say the essay is the most important piece of the puzzle of who to accept.  

The best essays are clear, give a taste of your personality, answer the question posed, and respect the word count.

Also says Crist, it’s the place to own your past mistakes. For example, if you have a low undergraduate GPA, the essay is the place to acknowledge that it might make you less competitive, “but here's what I've done since then, and here's how I've changed and here's why I still think I'm a good fit for your program,” says Crist.  

DO Bring your best self

During all interactions with admissions staff, even inconsequential ones, every misstep is noted and can impact your application.

Crist also recommends that you test your internet connection, and make sure no pet or other distraction can interrupt the conversation before the interview time. And during the interview, show up early, and prepared with questions.

De Bie says the only reason they do interviews at Maastricht is to really understand whether that person will fit in. “Sometimes on paper, someone is excellent. And then you have an interview with them, and they're just maybe not motivated or not well prepared,” says de Bie. “The interview is really important to see who you are actually admitting.”

DON’T think online is easier

Wagoner says that there used to be a perception that an Online MBA was not as prestigious or rigorous as an in-person degree, “but that’s just not the case,” she says. “It was designed so that students gain the same core business skills they might in an in-person experience and the learning is done in an innovative and integrated virtual format that allows for some flexibility without sacrificing on the quality of the program.”

At Gies, the GMAT is not required, but for those who think that an Online MBA is easier than an in-person program, Crist says they are in for a rude awakening. “You have to have the self-discipline and the time management skills to be able to turn in your assignments on time and show up to your group meetings,” she says.

At Maastricht the requirements for the online MBA are the same as for the in-person MBA, including the option of taking the school’s own quantitative test instead of the GMAT.

DO have good references

Because MBA programs are professional programs, a glowing review from a college professor 15 years ago is not going to cut it. Schools want letters from recent supervisors who can truly speak to a candidate’s professional and managerial experience, says Crist.

DON’T be afraid to apply because you think you “don’t fit the profile”

Diversity is a plus for all schools and recruiters are always on the lookout to make their Online MBA classes as heterogenous as possible. “We love to see different profiles, different nationalities in one classroom,” says Diddens. “Group discussions that then will be taking place in the classroom are even more exciting and more challenging.”

The only line drawn is at language fluency – all admissions officers say that the candidate needs to be able to be at native-level fluency in order to be able to take part in the classes.

Aside from that, if you don’t misspell people’s names, take the time to see what school is the best fit for you, and have good references and a strong motivation letter, you’re way ahead of the pack. 

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