Executive Education

How to Prepare a Winning Executive MBA Application

emba application

Preparing for an EMBA program can be a daunting task. From planning for tuition payments to laying out how you’ll balance your job, your personal and family life with your new academic demands, you’ll certainly have a lot of considerations on your mind.

But before you can even get to that point, you have to make it through the ultimate gatekeeper: the EMBA application process.

For EMBA program applicants, the list of required documents can seem endless. From college transcripts to GMAT scores and letters of sponsorship from your current employer, getting your application together can feel like a high-stakes scavenger hunt. To help you wade through the document maze, we’ve put together some key strategies for you to consider as you prioritize what are perhaps the two most important parts of your application: your essays and your letters of recommendation.

The Essay

At least one essay—and sometimes as many as three or four if you’re applying to Wharton—is going to be required with your application to any top EMBA program. Fear not: constructing a clever and strategic essay could be as good as writing your own ticket into the program of your choice. If you’re applying to multiple programs with several different essay prompts, here’s a strategy to help you gather your thoughts and complete this task efficiently and effectively.

Before you scurry off to your laptop to grind out essay after essay, take a moment to reflect. Taking into account the past decade or more of career experience, create a list for yourself of your most significant and hard-won achievements, your most painful but educational missteps and mistakes, your finest accomplishments in times of great stress and pressure. Once you’ve made your list, start forming these bullet points into anecdotes or stories. Consider your narrative: if you had a moment of great career crisis, find a way to bring the story to a conclusion that shows your grit, determination and ultimate ingenuity in solving the problem. Remember that you are the star of these stories so remain highly cognizant of how you choose to portray yourself.

Once you have isolated these core stories that illustrate your career and best encapsulate the trajectory you’re hoping for after you complete your EMBA, then it’s time to start writing. Most EMBA programs have broad enough questions that you can easily tweak these core narratives to apply to a range of applications and essay prompts. For example, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business asks only why you’re applying to their school and what unique experiences you hope to contribute to the program. A similar question you could use the same core narrative to reply to comes from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University: “What do you consider to be your greatest skills and talents? How will you use these to contribute to your class as well as a study group?” One illustrative story about your career could answer both—and gives you more time to thoughtfully craft the body of your essay while tailoring smaller portions to each school.

Letters of Recommendation

At almost every business school, you’re going to be required to submit letters of recommendation. With most programs, those letters are a free-form exercise: you ask a supervisor or mentor to write on your behalf and they can choose how to frame your work and experience. Note, however, that while most schools (i.e. Wharton, Kellogg and Yale to name a few) prefer at least one of your recommendation letters to come from your current or most recent role, this letter is separate from your letter of employer sponsorship.

When asking someone to write a recommendation, it’s best to have a frank and open conversation before he or she begins writing. If he or she is especially familiar with a particular accomplishment of yours, remind your recommender to include it in their letter. Remember, when you’re creating an application, you’re trying to create a full picture of yourself to the admissions board—including a third party account of a specific moment in your career can be especially helpful. Moreover, you may be doing your recommender a favor: he or she may be unsure of where to start and resort to speaking in platitudes. Ultimately, your recommender may be grateful to have a bit of direction to get writing.

Some schools, like Chicago’s Booth School or MIT have an online questionnaire for your recommenders to fill out. They might be asked to assess your ability to work with others in groups, your potential for “assuming major management responsibilities”, and even list your professional limitations or weaknesses. Finding someone who can best answer to the entire breadth of your professional experience will be vital in succeeding on these types of recommendations.

In the end…

While writing essays and seeking recommendations might seem tedious and stress-inducing, remember that these could be your best moments to shine. GMAT scores and college transcripts might not give admissions teams the best and most favorable picture of who you are and what you can bring to your cohort. Embrace these opportunities to tell a story about yourself—and make sure it’s a story that’s memorable and impressive to guarantee you admission.

About the Author

R. Kress is an Emmy Award winning journalist whose reporting and writing has appeared in national media from NBC News to the International Herald Tribune. She has covered news from cities around the world including Jerusalem, Krakow, Amman and Mumbai.