5 Qualities of a Strong MBA Application

Master of Business Administration graduates are a hot commodity in the job market, and top MBA programs pave the way for professionals to work in the highest levels of corporate leadership. A staggering 69 percent of MBA holders report that another company tried to poach them in the past year. MBAs are also high earners. […]

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This blog post was originally published in October 2022, and was revised April 2023.

SMU Cox Graduate Admissions aims to stay on top of trends. Given that, we've found confirmation in what we've already known: Master of Business Administration graduates are a hot commodity in the job market, and top MBA programs pave the way for professionals to work in the highest levels of corporate leadership. A staggering 69 percent of MBA holders report that another company tried to poach them in the past year. MBAs are also high earners. According to the GMAC 2021 Corporate Recruiters Survey, at $115,000, the median salary of MBA graduates is 77 percent higher than professionals with bachelor’s degrees. A graduate business degree from a prestigious institution can open doors to opportunities even more lucrative.

However, highly ranked MBA programs are also competitive when it comes to admissions. Full-time MBA programs have an average acceptance rate of roughly 59 percent, but more selective institutions admit only about 19 percent of applicants. Some sources report that acceptance rates are decreasing in the wake of the pandemic. While evidence suggests that online MBA acceptance rates are slightly higher than those of full-time on-campus programs, getting into a quality online program such as the Online Master of Business Administration (OMBA) at SMU Cox School of Business is not easy.

As interest in MBA programs continues to surge, prospective students must be cognizant of online MBA application deadlines, plan out how they will tackle the application process and craft their materials with great care.

What to Consider Before Applying for an Online MBA 

The first step in applying to an MBA program is choosing the right business school. Many experts advise prospective applicants to base their choices on what are sometimes called the “Four Cs.” Professionals can quickly assess the suitability of MBA programs by looking at career outcomes, the curriculum, the school’s culture or community and program cost.

The Online MBA programs at SMU Cox are excellent career-enhancers, and Cox School of Business graduates typically see their salaries increase after earning their MBAs. The program’s curriculum prepares students for the realities of modern leadership and to navigate change using competencies such as analytics skills that distinguish them in increasingly data-driven business environments. 

Working professionals are at home in the program. The average Cox online MBA student is 34 years old and has about eight years of work experience. The faculty includes thought leaders in many functional areas of business who build working relationships with students in synchronous courses. Students connect with peers and professors in live class sessions and in-person immersion events where they network with top business leaders.

The program also offers a degree of flexibility traditional full-time MBA programs cannot match. Working professionals can maintain full-time employment while enrolled in the program and may spend as little as 15 to 20 hours per week on coursework. The remote learning modality lets students attend a top-ranked business school without relocating to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.

This flexibility can also provide a cost benefit. Students who work full-time while enrolled in MBA programs don’t sacrifice income to earn their degrees. They may actually spend less on their MBAs than their in-person peers because they can pay some tuition out of pocket, which means they can take out fewer student loans and pay less interest over time. Additionally, some employers offer full-time employees funding assistance that covers some or all tuition costs through reimbursement programs.

What to Consider Before Applying to SMU Cox

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all MBA application. Applicants should review the Cox School of Business philosophy, OMBA program focus and application requirements and deadlines thoroughly before drafting or submitting any materials. Understanding how a program supports specific career goals is the key to crafting a compelling graduate school application. Attending an informational webinar or connecting with an admissions team member is a simple way to get answers to questions about SMU Cox and its online MBA programs before starting the application process. Applicants should also meet with a manager or HR at their organizations to find out what tuition benefits are available. 

What are the Typical MBA Application Requirements?

Application requirements vary from business school to business school, but most institutions ask applicants to submit the following:

  • Official or unofficial undergraduate transcripts showing completion of a qualifying bachelor’s degree program and minimum GPA in relevant coursework (as outlined by the school).
  • Transcripts from graduate school coursework completed, if any.
  • Standardized test scores – usually the GMAT or GRE, if you've taken. The SMU Cox application is test-optional.
  • Professional references from current or former workplace supervisors.
  • A resume detailing related professional experience and relevant non-degree credentials.
  • One or more essays detailing the applicant’s career experience and goals or motivations for pursuing an MBA.
  • International applicants may have to submit proof of English proficiency, such as IELTS or TOEFL scores.

Some programs also interview applicants before making final admissions decisions. They do this to see if an applicant is a good fit for the program, given their experience, personality and goals. Most programs invite promising applicants to interview later in the application process, but applicants should begin preparing for MBA interviews as soon as possible.

Many business schools are dropping test requirements. Some universities don’t consider GMAT or GRE scores at all while others are “test-optional,” meaning scores are considered if submitted but not a required part of the MBA application.

What SMU Cox School of Business Asks Applicants to Submit by the Online MBA Application Deadline

SMU Cox Online MBA applicants submit unofficial transcripts, the names and contact information of two professional references and a resume or curriculum vitae when applying. SMU Cox is test-optional, so test scores are not required. Prospective students do answer several required essay questions and can answer additional optional essay questions if they feel those enhance their applications.

What are the Qualities of a Strong MBA Application?

Essay Responses That Speak to Who You Are

Essays let applicants set themselves apart by crafting unique narratives about their professional experiences and career goals. Admissions coach Susan Berishaj writes that in MBA applications, “stories help share motivations, character and the experiences that have shaped what matters most to the applicant.” She advises MBA applicants to reflect on their careers, identifying their greatest challenges and what they learned from those obstacles. These reflections become the basis of a deep dive into how an applicant will benefit in an MBA program and what they will contribute. The best MBA essays back up applicants’ claims with real-life career examples.

MBA programs look for ambitious students ready to apply the skills they learn in coursework and immersions in their organizations. Strong admissions essays sketch an outline of their future careers that speak to their potential, passions and professional drive. Answers to essay questions should be an exploration of where talent plus education can take someone.

MBA essay writers should not be humble but can use their essays to provide further insight into weaker materials. For example, an applicant with a lower undergraduate GPA might use their essay to explain how a challenging freshman year led to personal growth and helped them solidify their ambitions. 

A Solid GPA or Credentials That Make Up for One

Undergraduate GPA isn’t everything in the traditional MBA application, but a strong GPA provides admissions officers with a picture of an applicant’s scholarly capabilities. While other elements of the MBA application can make up for a low GPA, academic performance is still a factor in admissions. MBA programs have lots of leeway to choose the most qualified applicants, so it’s not surprising that the average undergraduate GPA among fall 2020 students in the top 20 MBA programs was 3.53. The average GPA of lower-ranked programs was still above average at 3.37.

Applicants who don’t meet minimum GPA thresholds should still apply to their chosen MBA programs – and carefully consider how they can make other areas of their applications as compelling as possible. For instance, submitting higher-than-average standardized test scores can strengthen an application with a GPA on the lower end of the scale. The SMU Cox Admissions team is willing to speak with candidates about their specific situations, and Enrollment Advisors can offer recommendations as to what can make an application more competitive.

Professional References Who Can Speak to Your Strengths

Strong MBA applications typically include at least one reference who holds an upper-level management position. Current or former managers make excellent references because they offer proof that applicants can deliver high-quality work, stick to deadlines and comport themselves professionally in the workplace. These traits, and others, suggest applicants will do well in their MBA programs and go on to successful careers after graduation. Applicants should choose references who can provide specific examples of times they showed collaborative ability, leadership skills or a strong work ethic. 

A Wide Range of Work Experience 

MBA admissions committees review applicants’ work histories carefully, but work experience does not need to include time at a prestigious firm or senior-level titles to be compelling. MBA candidates in the Online MBA program at SMU Cox typically have around eight years of experience in their fields, but some have as many as 20 while MBA Direct candidates have much less. Thirty-two percent have an undergraduate degree in business, while fifteen percent come from a liberal arts background. Many SMU Cox students have backgrounds in technical disciplines such as engineering, computer science or communications.

Applicants with specific business management skills, experience or expertise can certainly emphasize them in their materials. However, Jody Keating, a resume coach at MBA admissions consulting firm Fortuna Admissions, told U.S. News & World Report that MBA resumes should focus on widely applicable personal strengths rather than technical skills. Successful applicants often have a history of unofficial leadership, a broad view of what matters in business and a willingness to collaborate. Real-world experience showcases their time management skills and ability to prioritize – both of which are crucial when balancing professional, academic and personal responsibilities.

Strong Standardized Test Scores (for Those Who Take Them)

Studies have found that GMAT and GRE scores can be reliable predictors of academic performance in MBA programs, but COVID-19 showed many universities it was possible – and in many ways, beneficial – to waive the GMAT or GRE requirement. Some temporary test requirement suspensions became permanent, and many programs now put together strong cohorts without considering test scores.

Interviews with admissions officers from 96 full-time business schools found that while test-optional graduate schools don’t penalize applicants for opting out of standardized tests, there may be strategic benefits to submitting scores. Strong test scores can balance out weaker parts of an application, which means MBA applicants applying to test-optional programs should take the GMAT or GRE if they have time and then consider whether or not to submit their scores.

Why Apply to the SMU Cox School of Business Online MBA Program 

While the MBA admissions process is intensive, programs such as The SMU Cox School’s Online MBA open up lucrative opportunities for mid-career professionals with compelling resumes and references. It’s worth putting in the time to craft compelling application materials because the Online MBA program delivers the same high-quality education as an on-campus program without forcing students to sacrifice two years of work experience. The virtual MBA is the new normal, and its value is evident. The program’s cutting-edge curriculum and excellent networking opportunities prepare students for executive leadership jobs at some of the most competitive companies in the world. 

The curriculum teaches essential skills in business leadership and augments a foundational curriculum with more advanced competencies, including data analytics to prepare students for the future of global business. Faculty teach concepts via a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning for flexibility, and international immersions provide real-world experience in a global marketplace. Furthermore, MBA candidates gain access to the SMU Cox Alumni Association, a global network of business leading alumni, as well as SMU Cox Career Management Center (CMC) Services, including career mapping, resume review and writing, interview prep and salary negotiation guidance. 

Ultimately, the strongest MBA applications tell a story that aligns closely with the content, focus and philosophies of target Master of Business Administration programs. While no one program can meet the needs of every student, there is an MBA program out there for every student. Professionals ready to take their business education to the next level should contact an Enrollment Advisor to learn about what the Cox School of Business looks for in MBA applicants and for additional information about SMU’s graduate admissions events, the MBA prerequisites, financial aid and start dates.