Applying to Business School

Business School Admissions vs. College Admissions – What is the Same and What is Different?

November 19, 2021

Prior to launching my independent educational consulting practice, I worked “on the other side” as a Director of MBA Admissions. My experience on the admissions side has, without a doubt, given me a greater appreciation and understanding of the complexity of the admissions process when advising high school students who are applying to college.

The college and business school admissions processes certainly have some similarities, but there are also some important differences:

Holistic Review

Colleges often say they are trying to build a well-rounded class, rather than looking for well-rounded students. They have a certain number of seats to fill and they want to accommodate interests in different academic programs. They are looking for athletes and dancers, boy scouts and cellists, students interested in archeology and those interested in public policy. They are looking for geographic diversity, students from across the United States and students from around the world. They are looking for diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socio-economic status; diversity of thought and perspective; students from public high schools, private high schools, boarding schools and students who are home-schooled.

A holistic review for a college typically looks at the academic record, test scores, extra-curricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, and sometimes, additional elements like interviews, portfolios and/or auditions, to help determine whether a student would be a good fit for the school. This concept of evaluating the whole applicant and using multiple pieces of information to assess a student’s potential for success at a school is used at the graduate level as well as for college. 

The main difference in holistic review for business school vs. college comes not from the process of evaluating the applicant’s background, credentials or personal characteristics, but from considering the intended area of study. Yes, many applicants apply as “undecided” to college, but they are typically asked to identify a first choice major (and often a second or alternate choice) in the application. A university cannot enroll an entire class of undergraduate students who are planning to pursue the same major. Even students who are applying direct entry to an undergraduate business program are being selected from a much broader pool of applicants to the university overall. Furthermore, these students will select from a variety of majors within the business school – they aren’t all going to choose finance or marketing.

While many MBA programs do offer concentrations or majors, the curriculum in general is quite interdisciplinary and students will be exposed to a range of business courses. Individual specializations and career goals will certainly be different, but MBA students will all share a common interest in pursuing a graduate degree in business. So, as they are being evaluated, the nuances of what they want to study are less important than why they want to study it and what they might want to do with the degree upon completion.

Academic Record 

Colleges want to see that you have selected an appropriate amount of rigor given what is available to you in your high school, and that you have performed well in those courses, especially during sophomore and junior years. They will look at your grade trends and assess whether your academic performance in high school has prepared you well for the academic rigor that is expected at their institution. If students are applying to a major like engineering, they will look more closely at course selection for evidence of calculus and physics; if a student is applying to a business major, they may also look for more advanced math and a course like statistics.

Business schools will definitely be looking for evidence of strong quantitative and analytical skills in the college academic record. Regardless of intended concentration in business school, students have to take core business foundation courses like finance, accounting, and economics, so the admissions office will evaluate for aptitude in these areas through the undergraduate curriculum. Many students who choose to pursue a graduate business degree do not have experience working in a business-related field. It is not uncommon for students to pursue the MBA as a way to navigate a career change, so it is not expected that students have undergraduate coursework in business. If a student pursued a non-quantitative major and did not have to take many STEM courses in college, they would need to demonstrate their academic aptitude in another way – historically this has been through the GMAT or GRE.

Test Scores 

Just as the SAT and ACT have long been perceived as either the barrier or the door to entry to college, the GMAT has held that distinction for business school. The GMAT was designed to help admissions offices evaluate a student’s potential for success in core business courses that would be required in an MBA program’s curriculum. Historically, it was the only test that business schools accepted for admission consideration.

The GRE had long existed as the test students would take in college if they were thinking of attending graduate school. Students would prepare to take this test while still in college, as graduate school applications would be completed during senior year for those students pursuing graduate degrees immediately following college.

The GMAT, on the other hand, was not a test that was frequently taken during college, as most students were pursuing business school several years after graduating. Given the popularity and demand for graduate business education, many universities have introduced MBA programs that do not require post-baccalaureate work experience and/or accelerated programs like the 3+2 BSBA/MBA, giving younger students access to this desirable degree. Furthermore, the proliferation of specialized master’s degrees in business generated a need to expose undergraduate students to the GMAT as well.

As more and more universities launched MBA programs, competition for business school applications increased and business schools needed to get creative. Rather than just focus on the smaller population of prospective applicants who took the GMAT, why not market to students who were taking the GRE? Business schools slowly started to accept both the GMAT or the GRE and now, many schools are offering waivers of either test if the applicant has enough other information to help the school make a decision about their candidacy.

A student who did not have evidence of quantitative or analytical coursework in college and who did not work in a job that required the use of those skills would likely be asked to take the GMAT or GRE. In this case, the admissions office would certainly be looking more heavily at the Quantitative Reasoning and Integrative Reasoning sections of the GMAT or the Quantitative Reasoning section of the GRE alongside the academic record.

Work Experience  

graduate school
Courtesy of Unsplash

Professional work experience is a primary element of the evaluation process for traditional MBA programs that certainly is not a requirement for students applying to college. While a student’s peers in college are highly influential in their social and emotional well-being, in encouraging good (or bad) study habits, and in elevating their intellectual curiosity, they aren’t necessarily a primary source of educational growth.

In business school, however, the students are often just as critical as the professors in delivering an outstanding educational experience. Classes are primarily discussion-based and experiential, with very little emphasis placed on traditional lecturing. The contributions of the students are fundamental to creating meaningful dialogue. To ensure that the class is comprised of students who will be able to contribute effectively, admissions offices closely evaluate the kinds of professional experiences that students have had prior to enrolling. Ideally students will represent a variety of industries and job functions, as diverse work experiences allow for a much more compelling learning environment. Students will have worked as supervisors, as team members, as freelancers and as clients. Ask a chef and a financial analyst for their thoughts on a business case study and you are sure to get vastly different perspectives.

You might be thinking to yourself, “But I know of many colleges that offer the MBA without requiring work experience, or that offer BSBA/MBA programs.”  This is true, and not all MBA programs do require post-baccalaureate work experience. As you research programs that are a good fit, you will have to decide what kind of program makes sense for you. My experience has revealed that the strongest programs with the most successful career outcomes typically require some work experience prior to enrollment.

Personal Statement/Essay 

With the college application process, the purpose of the personal statement is to communicate something about yourself that the college would not know about you from the rest of your application materials; to share a story or piece of information that helps them understand who you are, what you value, and how you might contribute to the campus community.

If the business school asks for a personal statement, it is much more nuanced and focused. The goal here is primarily to help the admissions office understand why you have decided to pursue a graduate business degree. What experiences have you had to date that have prepared you to succeed in a graduate business program? What do you plan to do with the degree? A Full-Time MBA program is traditionally two years, although there are accelerated one-year or fifteen-month programs. This does not leave a lot of time for exploration. That process needs to happen before you decide to apply so that by the time you do apply, you know exactly where you are headed and what you need to do to get there.


While colleges and business schools are both trying to understand a student’s passions and motivation through their extra-curricular involvement, the resume will play a stronger role in business school admissions. Business schools are looking for evidence of future leaders and decision-makers, individuals with strong communication and interpersonal skills. Students who pursue the MBA degree are often looking to assume leadership roles in business administration across a wide variety of industries. Since past behavior can be a predictor of future success, schools want to understand what opportunities the applicant has explored in the past, how they have grown and developed in those roles, and whether they have taken on active roles in their workplace and in their community. 


While in college, interviews are often used as a way to gauge an applicant’s serious interest in the school and to provide an opportunity for students to learn more about them, they perform a more critical role in the business school admissions process. Strong communication, interpersonal and teamwork skills are fundamental to success in business school and in a business career. The interview truly helps the admissions office assess whether the applicant will be able to add value to the program as an active contributor and a person who would be sought after as a teammate. Other skills that business schools are looking for? Strong moral compass/evidence of ethical decision-making, cultural awareness, open-mindedness, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, respectfulness, and motivation.

Courtesy of Unsplash

Letters of Recommendation

While college applicants are generally asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a counselor and/or teacher, business school applicants may be a few years removed from college. For that reason, they are often asked to provide a letter of recommendation from a supervisor at work, a colleague, or someone who has interacted with them in a professional capacity. Rather than speak to their potential for academic success, these letters serve as more of character assessments, helping the admissions office understand the kind of person they are evaluating and whether the students have the skills and characteristics that would make them a successful teammate and leader, not just in business school, but beyond.   

Don’t be afraid to reach out

Business schools have admissions counselors just like undergraduate admissions offices. They also often have student ambassadors who are available to answer questions and share their perspectives on what life is like as a graduate business student through a variety of means – email, chat, phone, social media. Unlike colleges and universities who are trying to fill thousands of seats for a freshman class, most graduate business programs are small by comparison. You will generally find that the admissions staff are extremely responsive and interested in engaging with prospective students. Given that the admissions process is more personal, often involving an interview, the admissions office really gets to know the applicant pool. They want to understand the student’s motivation for selecting their program and they will work hard to make sure that the student has all of the information they need to make an informed choice about where to pursue their graduate business studies.

Have questions? Get in touch with Alison at AHM Advising.

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Alison Merzel, Author

Alison is an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) with extensive knowledge and experience in higher education and a passion for helping people maximize their potential. She is the owner of AHM Advising LLC, where she works with students and families as they prepare for post-secondary educational opportunities. She launched AHM Advising after 15 years at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, where she worked as Senior Director of Recruiting, Admissions and Financial Aid for the Full-Time and Working Professional MBA programs. Alison has been affiliated with numerous professional organizations, having consulted with the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) and served on the advisory board of Liaison International’s BusinessCAS, a centralized application service for business schools. She is currently on the Member Advisory Board for College Planner Pro, the leading college planning software for IECs. Alison holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Northwestern University, a Master’s in Human Resources from The Ohio State University, and a certificate in Independent Educational Consulting certification through UC Irvine Division of Continuing Education.

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