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MBA Application Taboos: What Matters to the Admissions Committee, and What Doesn’t

As a business school admissions consultant for more than a decade, and a former member of the admissions committee at Harvard Business School, I get a lot of questions from MBA applicants about whether or not they’ll be able to get into b-school based on their background.

Most of us have a pretty good idea of what the ideal MBA applicant looks like: perfect test score, great work experience with significant time in a leadership role, stellar recommendation letters, strong post-MBA goals with a clear path of how to get there, and accustomed to working internationally or with a diverse team.


But of course, none of us is perfect. At EXPARTUS we have worked with thousands of amazing candidates, from many different backgrounds, who have been admitted to the world’s top business schools despite a less-than-perfect GMAT score, an underwhelming undergrad GPA, little work experience, or any of a number of different application weaknesses.

There is no one factor that is always the deciding element in rejecting an MBA applicant. With a clear and compelling personal brand, many business school hopefuls are able to make a strong case for admission despite seeming less-than-perfect on paper. However, there are some taboos that admissions committees feel very, very strongly about, and which it can be incredibly difficult – often impossible – to overcome.

3 Taboos That MBA Admissions Committees Avoid in Applicants

There are three elements that will almost always cause an admissions committee to reject an applicant: criminal behavior, violence, and, unfortunately, significant mental illness.

I want to be clear up front: I do not want anyone to take from this article that they should try to hide their weaknesses, or their taboos, from the admissions committee. That is not the way to get admitted. What I want you to understand is that there are big issues and small ones when it comes to MBA admissions, and it’s important to know the difference.

Criminal behavior is an immense red flag for adcoms. We’ve all heard about insider trading and ponzi schemes – Martha Stewart and Bernie Madoff were in the news for months and landed in jail for their actions. Raj Rajaratnam, a Wharton alum, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and caused his hedge fund to fail after he was arrested in 2009 for insider trading. Rajat Gupta was a HBS alum and former managing director of McKinsey when he was convicted of insider trading in 2012. Jeffrey Skilling was one of the youngest partners in the history of McKinsey, and also a HBS alum, who was sentenced to 24 years in prison for insider trading and securities fraud.

This is not the kind of thing that elite business schools want to be associated with – it’s a huge hit to their reputation. As a result, admissions committees look very hard at any evidence of possible criminal behavior on the part of MBA applicants, or for anything that is likely to be similarly perceived.

This doesn’t mean that any lapse in judgment will get you booted from consideration – many people have had traffic infractions or been caught drinking before they were of age and still gotten into business school – but it does mean that you want to be VERY careful to show that you know you made errors, you’ve learned from them, and you are completely on the straight and narrow now. And of course, it’s obviously best if these kinds of things are in the past; the longer ago, the better.

But while the temptation might be there to downplay or hide any sketchiness in your background, you do need to make sure you disclose everything: schools run their own background checks, and you do not want to be found out if you’ve lied or hidden something. I have seen applicants address things like plagiarism, expulsion, etc. and get in, so don’t try to hide those things – explain and mitigate them.

Similarly, violence, including domestic violence (if the applicant was not the victim), is very much a taboo for admissions committees. And unlike other criminal behavior, where youthful misconduct can sometimes be overlooked as not a part of a larger pattern of criminality, charges of violence can be almost impossible to come back from when it comes to b-school admission. If you’re thinking about getting an MBA, this is one area where you want to be absolutely above reproach.

The final taboo that I wanted to discuss is the most challenging one: mental illness. This is something that I get a lot of questions about from MBA applicants. In most cases, this is not something that admissions committees are going to ask about. However, as a society, we’re still not where we should be on this issue, so I would recommend that students don’t volunteer information about a past mental condition unless they are asked.

This is particularly the case if you’ve dealt with a severe issue with mental illness in the past, where it’s affected your ability to work or to go to school. We might wish that you could explain a gap with mental illness in the same way you could explain it with physical illness, and have those both be acknowledged in the same way. Unfortunately, you just can’t be certain that the admissions committee won’t see it as a significant drawback, one that could negatively affect your candidacy.

They may never come right out and say it, but this is a case where if they’re not asking you for it directly, I would not encourage applicants to volunteer the information. Even physical illness, if it lasts for an extended period of time (several months) can be a drawback for your candidacy if it’s caused you to leave the workforce.

Some of that might sound dire. But the reality is, everyone’s situation is different – there are extenuating circumstances that can affect any applicant’s candidacy, both positively and negatively. Reach out to us if you have questions regarding your MBA candidacy.