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You can get an MBA a thousand ways, but graduates from the top-20 or so brand-name business schools start higher, progress faster, and have more senior and interesting careers. Whatever the degree costs, those coming from the better institutions reap the investment with interest in their lifetimes. It’s dumb not to aim as high as possible. Of course, everyone else knows this too, which is why admissions at the top level are so competitive.

The other thing to know right upfront is that nobody fails business school. Every year, in every program, everyone graduates, save a few extreme cases where students have serious adjustment or disciplinary problems. In other words, every candidate who is admitted will graduate because they were admitted. In fact, the better the school’s reputation, the less grades or exams seem to matter. If you were good enough to get in, you’re good enough, period.

But, of course, only a tiny percentage of applicants are admitted to competitive admission MBA programs. Figures go up and down with the economic cycle, but on average 5-15 percent of applicants are admitted to exclusive institutions. In other words, application failure is the norm. What this means is that the MBA application is, for all practical purposes, the final exam. Admission is the only hurdle between the candidate and a top MBA, and all the fast-track career good fortune it brings.

But Real People Pass it

Part of business school culture, one quickly learns, is that the MBA is not an academic degree. Smart people are required, of course, but you will repeatedly hear how the most intelligent don’t always make the best managers and business leaders. This explains why seats are often refused to brilliant academicians and those with 750+ GMATs, and offered instead to candidates with diverse experience, personality, talent and drive. Admissions committees constantly reward dynamic, efficient people with a track record of real -world success, particularly if they appear easily recruit able on MBA-exit and have interesting, worthwhile plans for the future.

This means that anyone has a realistic chance of getting into the finest business schools…assuming they have the strategic and competitive understanding of what in their background is valuable to the Ad com and communications ability to make their case powerfully. Yes, the top business schools are populated with air force pilots and Senators daughters, but every year many thousands of apparently very ordinary people are accepted too, because they applied well.

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