An Admissions Expert’s Top Tips for Business School Applicants


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Listen to the podcast interview with Accepted MBA admissions consultant Esmeralda Cardenal!

Accepted MBA admissions consultant Esmeralda Cardenal shares advice with applicants [Show summary]

Esmeralda Cardenal, an Accepted consultant and former admissions professional at business schools around the U.S. and abroad, is an expert on both sides of the admissions process. In this episode, she shares her advice on improving your MBA applicant profile, applying to data science and analytics programs, and how applicants can prepare during this unconventional time for schools around the world.

Hear expert tips for a stand-out application [Show notes]

Esmeralda Cardenal is no stranger to Admissions Straight Talk. She was a guest shortly after joining Accepted and is returning to Admissions Straight Talk just about five years later. (Frankly, that’s much too big a gap! A real omission on my part.) Prior to joining Accepted, Esmeralda Cardenal was the Associate Director of Admissions at Yale School of Management, the Director of MBA admissions at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State, and then across the pond, she served as a consultant to the Cardiff Business School in the UK. In the last five years, she’s become a much-loved consultant at Accepted, helping Accepted’s clients who are applying to MBA, data science, and data analytics programs get accepted.

What are your top tips for dealing with a low GPA? [2:17]

The GPA is very, very important for the application. If you have a low GPA, there is not much you can do about it. You can’t just go back and erase time. But there are ways that you can mitigate the impact of a low GPA in your application. So I would say the very first thing you could do is compensate for a low GPA with a strong score, with a strong GMAT or GRE. That would be the best thing.

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Another way could be, and you could do it in conjunction with a high score, would be to create alternative transcripts. By that I mean, take classes that are relevant to business school, like accounting, economics, statistics, calculus, and try to get solid A’s on those. That would help you provide evidence that you can succeed academically at business school, and also, use the optional essay or the additional information essay. Sometimes they even provide a box in the application where you can explain what happened.

As a former director of admissions, I can tell you that there is nothing better than having an applicant who can actually admit the situation because it tells you that the person did research and knew that they had a lower GPA than the rest of the class. So I would say admit that. Explain what happened. The admission’s committee doesn’t know you, so unless you tell them, they won’t know what happened. Was that because of a family illness? Was it because you had to attend to a personal emergency that had you distracted for some time? Was it that you were maybe over-committed in some other extracurricular activities or sports, for example? Or was it that you have to work to support your schooling?

Whatever it was, explain it in the optional essay, but also provide evidence of improvement. Mention the classes where you did well, or maybe you had an upward trend. Maybe the first two years were low, but the other two years were higher, and maybe talk about those classes you have taken outside, the alternative transcript that I mentioned, etc., so they can see that you took the right course of action and that you are ready to succeed academically in business school.

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When you have a low GMAT, then I would say the obvious would be to (we are in March right now) retake it. This is the perfect time to practice more to get the help of an online class, hire a tutor. You can do those things virtually now, so definitely prepare to retake. If you feel that you have taken it as many times as possible, you know that you cannot go any higher, than do similar with the GPA. Tell them, for example, if you have classes where you performed well. Mention those in the optional essay. Explain what happened. Maybe you are not a good standardized test taker. Maybe you can explain that in the optional essay.

Provide evidence. Maybe you work in finance, and you do a lot of quantitative analytical work, and then you could provide that experience in your essay and explain what you do to kind of mitigate the low scores. I’ve had so many clients admitted with low stats, with low GMATs or GPAs. It is possible. So don’t let the low GPA or GMAT prevent you from applying.

You’ve also worked with a lot of international applicants, people for whom English is a second language. What if it’s a low English proficiency score, like a low TOEFL? Is that again a case where it’s best to just retake? [5:52]

If you have the time and you think you can improve, absolutely retake. A lot of the time, you can take business English. I remember when I was at Yale, we always recommended that to our applicants who felt they were struggling with the verbal component of the GMAT or the GRE. Take business English classes and then show evidence of your English proficiency. Again, tell the admission’s office, in that essay, maybe how long you have been in an English-speaking environment. Maybe you went all your life to a bilingual school. Mention that. Mention how much you read, write, speak in English, so they can see that you are proficient. Maybe you were just not as good in tests. There is a way to do that.

How did you get into MBA admissions? [7:37]

I started in student services when I was at the Yale School of Management, and I saw that there was a gap with minority and women recruitment, and the school was kind of trying to up the recruitment. So I started working in admissions with helping them first and then became the Associate Director of Admissions, primarily in charge of underrepresented minorities and women recruitment. That led after that to a position of Director of Admissions at Michigan State MBA program. Then I started serving as a consultant, first in British business schools, helping them to diversify their population and then five years ago into Accepted.

You have an extensive background in admissions. You’ve now been at Accepted for five years as an admissions consultant. How has your experience working with individual applicants changed your perspective of the process?

It’s interesting because it has been a very rewarding experience helping my clients get admitted to their dream schools, and my perspective changed in that I am able to help them fix things that otherwise, as the director before, I couldn’t. So as a director I would read thousands of applications, and sometimes I would see that they were very close to admission, but maybe because the resume wasn’t very well proofread, or the essays didn’t really answer the questions, or maybe they could have taken the test again, they were not admitted, or they were waitlisted and then denied. As a consultant, I’m able to fix those things, and it’s amazing because I feel that I can definitely create an impact. And I absolutely love it.

What do you wish applicants did before they come to you for assistance with their applications? [9:33]

I like to help them anywhere they are in the process, so they don’t have to be at a particular point to come to me. I can help them. I meet them where they are. I can help the ones that don’t even know what kind of grad school to go to, or they don’t know what type of MBA program, or their goals, and they are wavering between one and the other.

There are other clients who know exactly the type of school they want. They knew exactly the goals that they want to achieve after an MBA in the long term. I wouldn’t say that you need to come to me with certain knowledge or anything like that. I could meet you where you are regardless of the stage where you are.

How do you think the applicants should approach the process? Should they start with their post-MBA goals as a guide? Should they start with their qualifications? [10:46]

Start, definitely, with the goals. Knowing the type of program you want is always good, even if you don’t know exactly the name of the program. A program that is strong in marketing? Do you want a program that has a small versus a large class? Et cetera.

Then also look at your stats. That would be the second thing. Look at where you are and how you compare. Most of these programs have class profiles posted on the website, so just see where you are, and then that’s where you start, from there. I would say don’t wait too long before contacting a consultant.

The earlier you come, the more help you can get in. We’re now working with clients that are thinking of applying in September, you know? It’s great because then we can work on timeline, we can work on strategy, we do work on the resume, we can work on many recommendations, all those things. So by the time the essay questions come out, they can start with the essays.

You’ve developed quite an expertise in data analytics and data science. You’ve written a lot on that topic, and you’ve helped several clients get into those programs. What are some of the differences between applying to a typical MBA program and applying to a Master’s in analytics program? [12:56]

There are a few differences, actually. For the MBA program, your leadership, your management experience of any kind, is very important. For data science, leadership is not as important, but any experience you have with data analysis or with computer programming is important, so that’s the difference.

With an MBA program, quantitative ability, knowing calculus, accounting, etc. is important, but it’s not critical. You can get in as a sociology major, maybe working in a nonprofit. You can get into a business school if your scores and everything else align well.

With data, it’s extremely important that you have some prerequisites even before you come in, like linear algebra, calculus, and some of the programming languages like C++, etc. Your goals, what you want to do with one or the other, of course change. You know that they have to be different. But those are the main differences, I would say.

You’ve also worked with several of Accepted’s Consortium clients over the years. What advice do you have for them? [15:24]

Before, the Consortium used to only take applications for underrepresented minorities. Now they have expanded that, and you don’t need to be an underrepresented minority to apply, but what you have done has to match the mission of the Consortium, which is leading underrepresented minorities into business education and the business world in general.

Look at your work experience and extracurricular activities and see if they match the mission of the Consortium, and that will tell you. It doesn’t matter where you come from; it doesn’t matter if you are from an overrepresented demographic, even international students, as long as your mission matches the one of the consortium.

The other advice that I would give is don’t focus on applying to one Consortium school. Apply to several because I’ve had clients that applied to one or two, then maybe they get waitlisted, and they think that’s too late for them to apply to the Consortium. Plan on applying to several of those schools. The benefits of being in the consortium are very underrated.

You come from Central America, and when you were working for Yale and for Broad, you specialized in Latin and Central America. What advice do you have for applicants coming from those countries in applying to U.S. MBA programs? [17:23]

I was born and raised in Nicaragua, but I came here for college. So I’ve been here now longer than I was there. But I would say for Latin American clients (this applies to anybody), if you’re Latino like me, make sure that your recommendation letter, for example, comes from your direct supervisor or your previous supervisor.

What do I mean by that? In this country, applying to American business schools, and European business school for that matter, it’s more important that the person recommending you is somebody who works with you closely and as a supervisor than for example, the president or the CEO of the company. Whoever that person is, their role in the company is less important to the admission’s committee than the interaction they had with you. They want someone who knows you well, that is your supervisor, not a colleague who sometimes supervises your work. So take that into consideration because I know that comes up and is not sometimes necessarily the case if you are applying for jobs within Latin America. It comes up every time I have Latino clients. It’s always something I want to specify, and sometimes that’s met with surprise.

The other thing is, your accomplishments on your resume have to be your accomplishments, not the company’s accomplishments. Keep that in mind. So your resume’s job descriptions have to be about what you have accomplished in that role, with results, etc., as opposed to the company as a whole. It happens a lot with other countries, but I’ve seen that is a general thing that I really focus on with my Latino clients.

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It’s March 2020. The whole world has stopped due to the coronavirus. How do you think the coronavirus is going to affect MBA admissions and business education in the upcoming cycle? [19:18]

We’re all living in this time of uncertainty, and we don’t know what to think of it. I think definitely it’s going to hurt the economy, not only in the States, but around the world. I would say we might see a decline in applications, but other people might argue that it might be the other way around. I would say if you were thinking of applying right now, it’s the best time to do your research on schools and do a lot of that. A lot of people have more time than normally because of working from home or being forced to be at home. But we’ve seen that this pandemic is forcing schools to be a lot more flexible. So be ready. Check the schools’ deadlines and things like that right now because things are changing. I think we are going to have a very different application environment in the fall, probably, because of this.

There will probably be a spike in applications next year. For those people that have a job, that have stable jobs, they might want to stick to them and not go to business school. But there are a lot of people that might lose their jobs, and that’s going to bring up the applications. It’s that level of uncertainty that I don’t think it’s going to be any less this year. I think it’s going to change, and there might be an extremely high level of applications, or it might not.

And if you think about it, in the past, every time the economy slows down, applications go up. The opposite happens when the economy’s healthy. So it’s something that we need to be prepared for.

Now having said that, if you are wondering whether to apply now, like if you have things ready and the schools are still accepting applications, go ahead and apply now because of that uncertainty. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Check those round three deadlines. I normally would say, “Don’t even think about round three,” but because of the situation right now, I would say definitely take a look at them.

What can applicants do to learn about a school since they can’t visit now and fairs or receptions are pretty much nonexistent? [23:47]

Try to research online as much as you can. The fact that you can’t go visit them should not be an excuse for not researching these schools. Attend webinars and online chats and virtual events. The schools usually have a number of those, and I’m assuming they’re going to be increasing those in the numbers because they can’t provide you with a school visit. So try to attend those and be able to jot down some notes about the schools.

A lot of my clients are using LinkedIn to connect with alumni and students, and it’s amazing to me how much generosity there is from students and alumni, in terms of wanting to connect with them and telling them, explaining the situation, answering questions, and things like that. So definitely use LinkedIn for that purpose, and I think you would find that with the slowness that we have been forced to live with, try to use that to your advantage in terms of trying to really be ready for your application.

For the application, you might not be able to take a test now, but you could prepare for it. You can take classes, etc. You can take all the classes that you might need to bump up your GPA, for example, online. So absolutely try to do that during this time. I think that this is absolutely a great time to do that because I don’t think you’re going to have this much time available in your hands for a long time after this.

What advice do you have for MBA reapplicants, both as an admissions consultant and former admissions officer?

Don’t start your application without knowing exactly what went wrong. A lot of people think, “Oh, it is my GMAT. I’m just going to retake the GMAT and reapply.” You don’t know if that was the only problem. You don’t know if that was different.

We have a very good service that is a rejection review service. It only takes one hour, and I’ll say, “Send me your application.” I’ll review that for you, and I will tell you what went wrong and what steps you should take to improve that and fix those things, and then reapply. You could use that however you want, but then you have that information to help you with your next application. Fix those things and then show, once you reapply, introspection that you thought about it, that you realized what went wrong, and that you fixed those things. Show growth in your work experience and extracurricular activities, and all the things that you have changed. Business schools will appreciate that. Every year I have a few clients that are reapplicants, and we start with that [rejection review], and it doesn’t mean that this year, that’s it. It may very well be. A lot of times you will be happily surprised [with the results of a reapplication].

Use this time to your advantage in terms of trying to prepare for business schools because you won’t be as free in the coming months as you are now.

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