How to Secure a Competitive Online MBA Place

Because of coronavirus, business school applications are booming. However, that has made the 2021 admissions season one of the most competitive ever

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, business school applications are booming. Online MBA programs are flush with record high demand from executives who want to improve their credentials.

However, that has made the 2021 admissions season one of the most competitive ever. Prospective students will need to work even harder than normal to secure an MBA place this year.

Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received 3,272 applications for its iMBA this fall, a 75 percent increase on last year. “We know during an economic downturn, people turn to higher education,” says Aaricka Hellberg, coordinator of learner relations at the US school.  

“We have also added some flexibility in the admissions process, which is another contributing factor,” she says.

Indeed, beyond waiving admissions testing requirements, some business schools have extended MBA application deadlines, contributing to the surge in demand. That has raised the intensity of an already competitive MBA application process.

Hellberg advises prospective students to be thoughtful when applying. “Begin by applying to schools that are a good fit, and will help you meet your career goals,” she says. “Then, make show the admissions committee how you would make a positive contribution to the school.”

Most MBA programs are collaborative, so applicants with different experiences and perspectives enrich the learning experience, she says. “Make sure to highlight who you really are, not who you think the committee wants you to be.”

Distinguish yourself through personal stories

The pandemic has challenged everyone. This presents an opportunity for prospective students to show how they overcame adversity and grew as leaders, says Stephanie Kluth, head of admissions at ESMT Berlin in Germany.

“Overcoming hardships and challenges in a productive way can make an application more attractive,” she says. “Challenges and setbacks do more for the formation of a real leader than continuous success.”

ESMT launched its part-time, hybrid MBA in 2020. “The program was welcomed by [the market] due to its blended format in the pandemic year,” says Kluth. “It might provide assurance to applicants that they won’t lose a part of their investment, should we go into another lockdown.”

She says prospective students can stand out by having an above-average GMAT or GRE entrance exam score, good undergraduate grades and “interesting work experience”, such as managing international teams and budgets.

However, many business schools have waived entrance exams, to encourage executives navigating the crisis to apply for an MBA place. That makes it difficult to judge the academic abilities of a prospective student, especially if they have been out of education for several years, as is common with MBA candidates.

A candidate’s academic or professional background might be of help here, says Kluth. “Applicants who deal with numbers and data might prove their quant skills through relevant work experience.”

Although MBA admissions are about an applicant’s hard stats, they are also about personal stories, which is often a way to distinguish yourself from other applicants who have similar professional or academic profiles.

“Applicants who have experiences directly related to Covid-19 will be in high demand, since every MBA program will have classroom discussions about it,” says David White, founding partner of Menlo Coaching, an admissions agency in the Netherlands.

“This could include applicants who have helped their employers adapt to a dramatically different business environment. We have seen applicants who prove that they are knowledgeable about Covid-19 achieve admissions [offers].”

A good time to start an Online MBA

Another school enjoying a bump in applications is the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business. “Some people lost jobs or were furloughed, so they decided it was a good time to start an MBA,” says Paulo Prochno, assistant dean for online programs. “Others were looking at the future and thinking that two years from now, companies will be in growth mode. Also, working online has cancelled commuting, so people have more time available to do an MBA.”

In 2020, Smith launched a new Flex MBA program, enabling students to switch back and forth between online and on campus learning. “Those changes do make the program more attractive to new students, so the idea is to grow the whole pie,” says Prochno.

Technological developments are also making Online MBA formats more attractive because they enable greater interaction and collaboration between participants and faculty, says Amy Duckworth, director of admissions at Imperial College Business School in London.

She says would-be MBAs need to be prepared for the competition. “Make sure you check deadlines and work backwards to plan what you need to do and when,” she adds. “Start the process early, and leave sufficient time for well-crafted essay responses and personal statements.”

Duckworth also recommends that prospective students attend a virtual information session, speak to alumni and student ambassadors as well as the admissions team. “It’s so important to do your research,” she says.

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