I have successfully applied for graduate studies + scholarships 3 times (MA, MBA, & PhD) and believe that the information shared below will help your application. It's focused on MBAs but is relevant for all degrees.
In 2009, I applied to Oxford and Cambridge MBA programs - got into both, chose Oxford, and graduated with an Oxford MBA a year later.
I will explicate the steps I took in hope that it would help the class of 2021 with their application packages.
Step 1. Evaluate your profile.
The key elements of your application profile are:
1. Quality of your undergrad degree (school and grade).
2. Your GMAT score.
3 Your essays.
4. Your age.
5. Your reference letters.
6. Your work experience.
7. Your extracurricular activities.
1. Quality of your undergrad degree (school and grade)
Your GPA and the quality of your school matters. The GPA is probably more important. "I finished in the top 5 percentile of my class with GPA 3.9/4.0" works magic even if you went to Mount Kenya University.
1a. My undergrad profile was not great. 2:2 (3.2/5.0 GPA) so I crafted a story around my 4.0/4.0 (all As) PhD GPA and used my lack of resources at the undergrad level to explain why I was not a stellar undergrad student.
I will share my essays later.
2. Your GMAT score.
For a top 20 school, you need a GMAT score around 90th percentile. Try to score as highly as possible. My GMAT score was 92 percentile. It meant that I scored higher than 92 of every 100 people who took the test across the world.
3. Your essays.
I'll provide more details about this later. But the key is to sell a future picture that the school would want to be a part of an essay touting a future providing solar electricity across Africa is more compelling than a future banker,, for instance.
4. Your age.
Most people don't know this. The very best schools hardly accept applicants older than 30. Other schools don't mind but you'll hardly see a 30+ student at the top 7 schools in the US. Older applicants should consider lower ranked US schools or Europe.
5. Your reference letter.
This is important! Don't trust anyone to write your reference letter. Create a draft or an outline highlighting your awesomeness and ask if the reference writer would consider following the outline for his/her letter.
6. Your work experience.
2 years at McKinsey is more valuable than 5 years at KPMG.Brand name matters. If you don't have a brand name experience. Tell a compelling story about the value of your work experience.
7. Extracurricular activities.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is a winner. Volunteering at Clinton Foundation is magic. So is working on FGM and tutoring kids in poor neighborhoods. Any activity that shows that you're not just a money-chasing vampire is good.
Step 2 - Kill the GMAT/GRE
This is probably the most important element of your application package. Good schools want to make sure that you have the intellectual rigor to cope with the coursework. The GMAT gives them the peace of mind that you will do well. So you have to prioritize it.
Most people underestimate the amount of work required to do very well on the GMAT/GRE. They think a few weeks of study will do the trick.No, it won't. Maybe it will get you into East West Nowhere University. But it won't get you into a good MBA program.
Nobody cares about your raw score. Focus on the percentile.
You need to score:
85%+ for tier 1 MBAs
70%+ for good MBAs
The top 50 programs on this list are your global tier 1 programs. They typically accept fewer than 10% of applicants.
How to get a high GMAT/GRE score:
1. Time, Time, Time
Most people underestimate the amount of time needed to do well on standardized exams. My estimate is that you need about 450 hours of dedicated work to get a 90%+ score on the GMAT. 450 hours of hard work.
Think of 450 hours as:
3 hours a day for 5 months
5 hours a day for 3 months
You need a lot of time to understand the content and to take practice tests.
1. Start with the OG - the Original Guide.
2. Try Kaplan.
3. Then close with Manhattan prep. It's tough to score 90%+ without Manhattan.
Manhattan is your most important prep material but don't start with it. Move to it after you're at 70%+ on your practice tests.
1. You must take >5 practice tests that simulate the real deal.
2. Learn GMAT/GRE tricks. E.g. You must learn to answer 452,386/4 in 1 second without using a calculator. The answer should be about 111,000.
3. You must join the two forums I recommended in Step 3.
4. Learn numbers properties.
E.g square root of 4 is not 2
It is two numbers +2 and -2
5. Brush up on grammar and comprehension.
6. Practice, practice, practice.
Step 3 - understand the rule of 3s (apply strategically)
2. Create 3 buckets - rule of 3
A. Reach schools: programs that are highly ranked and difficult for you to get into.
B. Realistic schools. Programs that match your profile.
C. Safety schools. Programs that are below your level.
My application buckets
A. Reach school. London Business School.
B. Realistic schools. Oxford, Cambridge
C. Safety school. Cranfield.
3. Apply in ratio 1:2:1 (Could be 2:4:2)
Don't just apply everywhere. Be strategy with the rule of 3s.
Step 4 - Write a killer essay
The goal of the admission committee is to select a mix of students who can:
1. Learn and help each other learn (learning).
2. Work together to create a great learning experience (teamwork).
3. Improve the value of the MBA by making a lot of money post-graduation (success).
The job of your essay is to sell your unique strengths in delivering each of these values - learning, teamwork, success.
You're not just writing an essay, you're telling the admission committee that you're uniquely qualified to deliver these 3 values.
The best essays SCREAM:
1. I am great at learning (here's the proof).
2. I work well with people (here's the proof), and.
3. I will succeed after I graduate (here's the proof).
Value 1: Learning
The only proof that you are good at learning is your previous academic success. Your GMAT score + GPA are important but you can craft other stories about things you learned informally and use the essay to explain gaps in your academic performance.
Value 2: Teamwork.
MBA programs don't like jerks cos good programs include a lot of group work so you need to work well with people. For instance, some of my Oxford colleagues are lifetime friends.
Tell stories about how well you work with people to tick the teamwork box.
Value 3: Success.
The two predictors of success are prior success and compelling visions.Tell good stories about how you have been successful professionally and sell a compelling vision of the future.
MBA essays are more of an art than a science. The questions will not directly refer to theses values. The art is in finding a way to tell stories around these values even when the questions are only tangentially salient.
Step 5 - Apply strategically
1. Apply during Round 1 or 2.
Most MBA programs have several application rounds. The first 2 rounds give you a better chance of getting in with a scholarship than the others.
Apply as early as possible.
2. Play up the compatibility of your unique strengths with the USP of the school.
"I am particularly excited by the entrepreneurship focus of the XYZ business school because I see myself as a serial entrepreneur."
3. Remember the rule of 3s.
4. Visit your top schools, if possible.
Best of luck, guys.