The true secret to MBA application success

The key to MBA application success lies beyond GMAT scores or work experience. We spoke to Valerie D. James, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at UC Davis Graduate School of Management, to find out their most important reason for accepting MBA students.

In short

What does UC Davis look for in MBA candidates?

Are you thinking of applying for an MBA? If so, you’re probably wondering what the admissions teams are looking for in your application. Some of them are fairly obvious – a strong GMAT score, solid work experience, good academic results. But these things are a small section of a much bigger picture.

Valerie D. James is the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at UC Davis Graduate School of Management. She says that what they’re really hoping to understand from your application is what makes you tick – what your unique DNA looks like. And that’s often a combination of many things.

She says, “We’re looking for students that have five plus years’ experience, we’re looking for students that have professional leadership experience, we’re looking for students that have engaged in outside activities, certifications…a variety of different things that really give us the unique DNA of who that student is.” (05:25)

Differences and similarities between online and full-time MBAs

With the COVID-19 pandemic having accelerated the growth of online MBAs around the world, there’s more interest in online programs than ever before. According to Valerie, although the lecturers and course content are almost entirely the same between their in-person and online MBAs, the profile of students is where they differ.

“What you find is that you have a different type of candidate that is seeking the online MBA because it’s conducive to their work, it’s conducive to how they have a job that requires travel. They can do their studies anywhere they are by getting online,” she explains. (10:00)

Despite this difference, one thing remains the same. Any MBA applicant – whether they’re applying to the online or full-time program – must be a good fit for the business school. Valerie says it is the school’s duty to ensure you’re a good match for each other.

“I actually approve admissions on both sides (online and full-time) and it’s not easy [to get into the online MBA],” she tells us. “We deny quite a few people because they have to be that fit that we’re talking about – not just eligible but they have to be a fit. We also have a duty that if we bring you here…we’re providing you with the expectations that you have.” (10:29)

UC Davis also provides industry immersion areas for its full-time and part-time MBA students. Through the Industry Immersion program at UC Davis, students have the unique opportunity to explore business activity and access graduate-level courses in biotechnology, food and agriculture, sustainable energy, and technology finance. Students will also engage with and learn from top executives in these industries and be part of an interdisciplinary team working on real-world challenges taking place in these fields that are critical to the well-being of society. Are you ready to immerse yourself in solving these challenges?

What to expect from your MBA application interview

The interview is another part of the application that doesn’t differ greatly between online and full-time MBA programs. This is your chance to show off the intangible things that you can’t put into a written application – things like personality, ambition, and passion. As Valerie says, it’s about getting to the crux of who you are as a person.

“The interviews are maybe anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes,” she says. “They have set standard questions that they ask the students, and those students go through a Zoom or web interview. We’re trying to get to the crux of who they are because we’ve read their file – now we want to know about them.” (13:00)

The key to a successful interview? There’s no simple answer, but Valerie does cite the importance of research and preparation before your interview. Ultimately, the interview is about convincing the business school that you’re ready to take on the challenge of doing an MBA.

“When I’m talking to students about interviews I’m telling them to be themselves, to show the passion that they have for the degree, tell me how their career trajectory has been leading them to this path and why the MBA is a good fit, why UC Davis is a good fit. If you can tell me [why UC Davis is a good fit] then that means you’ve done your research, that means you’ve looked at us and you know exactly what we’re offering,” Valerie offers. (15:33)

“Don’t take it lightly, prepare, be thoughtful, be yourself,” she adds. “But also make sure you’re drawing connections for us so that we can say: ‘Okay, this person is ready.’” (18:11)

Why UC Davis remains a small business school

Business schools like UC Davis aren’t necessarily looking for the best applicants – they’re looking for the right applicants. Being a good fit for each other means you can enrich their MBA program, and they can provide you with the platform to advance your career. Valerie says this search for the right fit is why they limit their cohort sizes.

She says, “If we don’t provide them access to what they’re looking for, are they really a fit for our program? Are we doing them the best service? That’s why we’re a very small school.” (06:56)

“We’re trying to make sure that this person really wants to come to UC Davis for the right reasons, and that we’re able to help those students with their career goals,” she says. (13:54)

She adds that UC Davis is willing to reject candidates who meet their entry requirements if they don’t think they’re a good fit for the school.

“We have denied quite a few people that we thought were fabulous, but they weren’t a fit for our program,” she tells us. “We didn’t offer them what they needed, so instead of admitting them and them being dissatisfied, it makes sense for us not to admit them and to let them go to a program that really fits their needs.” (14:50)

That’s what a successful MBA application is really all about – being a good fit for the school you’re applying to. Find a school that matches your skills and mindset, and you’ve already increased your chances of being accepted.

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