- London Business School (LBS) is the No. 6 business school in the world and turns down three-quarters of its applicants.
- Below, seven successful applicants discuss what worked for making the leap to the UK capital — and what didn’t.
- Do your homework when it comes to understanding what makes LBS’ international community different. And focus on preparing for personal interviews, but don’t brag about your achievements.
- The school’s admissions director explained that applicants should “want and need” a global MBA, be prepared to leverage the school’s location, and should have a clear idea of their post-program career goals.
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About three-quarters of those who apply to London Business School (LBS) fail to gain admission, reported the MBA website Poets & Quants. This isn’t surprising, considering it’s ranked No. 6 as one of the top business schools in the world, according to education specialists Quacquarelli Symonds’ 2020 Global MBA Ranking report.
“The biggest challenge is the fact that applications to top US schools are down, so it’s even more competitive to get into LBS and other top programs in the UK [or] Europe,” explained Barbara Coward, an MBA admissions consultant who’s advised applicants who have successfully been accepted to LBS.
This begs the question: What can MBA hopefuls who have their heart set on LBS do to increase their chances of joining the 25% of accepted candidates?
Your approach to applying to LBS shouldn’t be the same as it is for applying to other MBA programs, said Susan Roth, a former director of recruitment and admissions at LBS who is now a senior consultant at Stacy Blackman Consulting, which offers MBA admissions counseling.
“I think because LBS is a top-tier school, applicants think that all the top-tier b-schools are ‘one size fits all’ in terms of needing high GPAs, high GMATs, and a great career trajectory,” said Roth. “Of course those things are important, but LBS is different because it really wants more well-rounded students.”
To help break down exactly what LBS is looking for, Business Insider gathered behind-the-scenes insights from the people who best know the answer: students who got in, as well as the school’s current and former MBA admissions directors.
Consider your fit within the program, the student body, and the city of London
David Simpson, the school’s admissions director for the MBA program (as well as for the master’s in finance program), told Business Insider that prospective MBA students should consider the following three questions before applying to LBS:
- “Are we the right fit for you?” Simpson emphasized that much of the school’s admissions process “is about relating your aims to our offering and establishing if we are a good fit.” The “Is it right for me” page on the LBS website can get you started on this.
- “Do you want and need a global MBA with a diverse student body?” Simpson stated that your answer here is critical, since LBS “is an incredibly diverse community; [the] MBA Class of 2020 alone comprises 64 nationalities.” As Mathias Keller, LBS MBA class of 2019 and now an associate at McKinsey’s Berlin office, said: “If I had to sum up my experience at LBS in one word, I would say ‘diversity’: diversity of educational backgrounds, diversity of thought, diversity of cultural heritage and origin. LBS is a beautiful ‘salad bowl’ in which students mix, collaborate, and learn together, taking on the mutual LBS culture while remaining distinct individuals.”
- “Will you leverage our London advantage?” Simpson pointed prospective students to the LBS website, which explains more about “The spirit of London” and why it’s important to determining fit for the MBA program. “Our location in the heart of the UK capital is the oxygen that breathes life and dynamism into our people and ideas,” the website states. “Our campus surroundings are home to world-leading business and culture, offering limitless exploration and inspiration on the doorstep of our students.” Keller added that you should ask yourself, “Can you see yourself studying in London, one of the major business hubs of the world with all its opportunities, distractions, and temptations, or do you prefer spending your MBA in a small town like Fontainebleau, allowing you to fully focus on the academics?”
The LBS admissions director wants to see that prospective MBA students have done their due diligence when applying to the program, and that they thoroughly understand and appreciate what makes LBS special.
“Research LBS (and your other school choices) well,” recommended Simpson. “We like to see that candidates have carried out specific research on LBS, preferably through students and alumni. We’re not like other schools; we are unique in terms of the package of our location, student body, and program structure.” (You can read more about their structure here and here.)
He added that students should be clear on their career goals for attending LBS’ MBA program.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean having one target company and role, but we want you to have thought about your options and the likelihood of achieving them with our MBA,” said Simpson. You can check out these sections of the LBS website on “Career Impact” and “Flexibility and Customisation” to aid your career goal-setting process.
Expect an application process complete with personal interviews and video submissions
Figuring out whether LBS is right for you is half the battle — the other half is actually applying and convincing the admissions team that you are right for the school.
Simpson added that applying consists of “a thorough multi-part admissions process that includes an application, a personal interview with alumni — which can be held locally for candidates in more than 60 countries — an impromptu presentation, and a video submission.”
That said, “the entire process was incredibly simple, and supportive,” explained Smruti Sriram, who is the CEO of Supreme Creations and a member of the LBS MBA class of 2018. “I could not have been treated more personally, and kindly.”
Keep your ego in check, and showcase an ability to overcome adversity
Sriram’s biggest piece of advice is to match your tone and how you present yourself to the more modest style that LBS favors. “Ego will not get you anywhere,” she said.
With this in mind, she advised showcasing your passion, not bragging about your performance. “Don’t think you have to be ticking all sorts of skills and career boxes,” Sriram said. “Display passion, an ability to learn, and a care for the school community.”
She added that you should avoid “being too boastful” about your achievements. “Everyone is very accomplished in the LBS community, but they are not as brash or loud about it,” she said.
Roth, former director of recruitment and admissions at LBS, agreed with taking a low-ego, “be humble” approach that avoids “presenting yourself as perfect.” She noted that LBS is interested not just in an applicant’s accolades, but “in mistakes or failures that candidates have experienced and how they have grown from those experiences.”
“When I’m working with applicants, they tend to focus on all the high points of their backgrounds,” explained Roth. “My job is to help them weave the low points into their narrative, but in a self-awareness, learned-from-their-mistakes, context … I try and show them that adversity in one’s background shows character.”
Connect with alumni and students and “dive into” club networks to gain insight into LBS’ culture
Keller admitted that he found it very challenging to understand the intricate cultural nuances of LBS, and therefore “struggled” to make his application as specific to LBS as possible. To help overcome this challenge, he “tried to talk to as many current students or alumni as possible … visited the LBS campus several times, [and] attended a lecture and an information session.”
Recent LBS grad Brady Dearden, who graduated in 2019 and now serves as a cyber intelligence analyst at Lockheed Martin, took an additional step when confronting this obstacle. Dearden served in the US Army as a company commander prior to attending business school, and found that he was able to leverage his background to discover the school’s true culture.
“I overcame this challenge by diving into the networks of the school’s clubs, particularly the Military-in-Business Club,” said Dearden. “LBS has a strong culture of inclusion and my efforts, coupled with the student response, gave me a positive and insightful understanding into life at LBS.”
He suggested that other applicants could use the same tactic to link with others at LBS. But he stressed the importance of taking the initiative at the application stage, rather than waiting for something to happen.
“[You] must do [your] homework to connect with students and faculty and go the distance to do video chats and visit events at which the school is presenting,” said Dearden. “Although time intensive, this effort is what eventually led me to LBS. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the LBS community the more I researched and learned about it.”
Shoot for a high GMAT score, but know that there’s a chance to get in if you’re not in range
Caitlin Attal — who graduated with her MBA from LBS in the summer of 2019 and started working at Google in London as a revenue lead in August — was originally waitlisted from the school before getting in.
“I have always struggled with standardized tests, so unsurprisingly the GMAT was the biggest hurdle for me to overcome in terms of the LBS application,” admitted Attal. “I applied in the first round with a very low score and was waitlisted with the caveat that my application would only be reconsidered if I agreed to retake the GMAT to improve it.”
Knowing that her admission to LBS hinged on receiving a slightly higher GMAT score, Attal said she was “very diligent” in her preparation to retake the exam. She enrolled in an online course, met with a tutor, and established a regimented study routine.
“I set aside two hours before work every morning to study and would do a practice exam every weekend,” she recalled. Her hard work paid off: Attal managed to raise her GMAT score by 20 points, which was enough for an acceptance.
Don’t think you can’t apply if you’re weak in one area. If you can show the admissions committee that you’re willing and able to improve, you just may get in.
But, added Simpson, “don’t expect to ace the GMAT or GRE [the] first time and with no prep. It takes practice to become familiar with the material and format — and to maximize your scoring.” According to the LBS website, the average GMAT score for the class of 2020 was 707.
Demonstrate an international outlook
Class of 1999 LBS alum Kaihan Krippendorff is the CEO and founder of growth strategy firm Outthinker. He’s also the author of five business strategy books including “Driving Innovation from Within: A Guide for Internal Entrepreneurs.”
On his path to career success, Krippendorff attended two other top business schools in addition to LBS, receiving an MBA from Columbia Business School and his bachelor’s degree in finance from Wharton School of Business, where he is now also a lecturer in the Wharton Executive Education program.
Krippendorff said that he has “found LBS to be unique in ways that [are] critical to consider and show you understand in your application.”
“The cases you cover in class and the backgrounds of your peers and professors is more international than you can expect at a US school, so it’s helpful if you have and demonstrate a truly international (instead of US-centric) outlook,” said Krippendorff.
The CEO added that although LBS is a European school when it comes to outlook, it’s “American in structure.”
“[U]nlike most European business schools, LBS adopts a US-style, two-year program,'” he said. “This creates an exciting opportunity for you to have a degree that US companies and firms understand.”
To strike the right balance, Krippendorff made two specific recommendations for your application.
First, “don’t talk only about Wall Street or Silicon Valley in your application when describing what you have learned or where you want to direct your future career,” he explained. Second, he said, “Show a truly global outlook rather than a US, European, or even Western-leaning [one]. Show you are and want to be a citizen of the world.”
Prepare talking points for the interviews and video component
Javiera Amunategui, a 2019 LBS MBA grad and a consultant at Bain & Company, pointed to the video component — which Amunategui explained was introduced for the first time for the 2019 MBA class — as one of the most challenging parts of the application process for her.
“Not only didn’t [we] have references on what to expect, but also for one of the two videos that we had to record, the question was going to be random and we could only do it once,” she recalled.
So Amunategui focused her attention on preparing for the first video where the question was known. “I made a plan on what to say and a summary with the most important points I wanted to make just in case,” she said.
For the second video, with an unknown question, Amunategui explained that she tried her best to prepare more broadly on possible topics: “I had to think about any miscellaneous thing I could think about: the last book I read, my hobbies, sports, people who inspired me, the best things about London, etc.,” she said.
The Bain consultant recommended that applicants be prepared to provide a response that is cohesive with other application materials that they may have submitted earlier in the process.
“I believe the interview is structured a bit different than other schools,” Amunategui said. “You have a specific set of questions that the school provides to the interviewer that includes also some ‘fit’ aspects and a practical case [that] you are expected to solve or plan based on your experience; so you really need to be very thoughtful about everything you submitted [previously].”
Understand and address what’s unique about the LBS essay questions
Abraham Daniel Hajjar, LBS MBA class of 2019 who started his new job as a strategy consultant at Accenture in Dubai in July, remembers finding it “very challenging to crack what the LBS MBA was all about, and then how to reflect that in [the] application.”
He felt particularly concerned about how he would be able to communicate everything needed in the short word count allotted for the one required essay and one optional essay. “There was this big debate in my head to decide on what to talk about and what not,” he said.
Hajjar noted that while some MBA programs “require multiple themed essays, including ones on topics [not] related to the candidate just to get an idea how they think,” LBS focuses mainly on post-MBA goals under a very broad theme, which he described as “a real challenge considering candidates must cram many past experiences along with future goals into a short essay.”
The required 500-word essay question currently on the LBS site is: “What are your post-MBA goals and how will your prior experience and the London Business School [program] contribute towards these?” The optional 500-word essay is: “Is there any other information you believe the Admissions Committee should know about you and your application to London Business School?”
Despite his reservations, Hajjar took a stab at the first essay, and ended up dissatisfied with the results. “My first application draft seemed like it would be applicable to any university … and that’s when I realized that there was a lot more work to be done,” he said.
So he stepped up his game and attended multiple recruitment events, where he connected with several alumni to better understand their experience and how LBS helped them progress with their careers.
“I was advised to understand the offered courses, read up on professor profiles, and link that back into my application. There was an emphasis by everyone to focus on the program’s flexibility and how that would support [or] impact my career ambitions, which is what I also reflected.”
Alumni advised Hajjar to focus his required essay on his past and how LBS would help, then divide his future career into a short- and long-term goal with “clear themes” describing where he saw himself. For the second essay, he was advised to focus on three to four traits about his personality and working style, with “clear, quantifiable examples” to prove his point.
“The MBA’s one mandatory essay asks about career goals, experience that will help you to achieve your aims, and how the program will support with those goals,” said Jamie Wright, who worked at LBS managing recruitment and admissions for Early Career Programs from 2009 to 2017 and is currently an admissions consultant with Accepted. “The question is very clear, but the simplicity of it may cause applicants to overthink. They’re not trying to catch anyone out with this question. In addition to relevant skills, experience, and knowledge, they’re saying two things are important to them: (1) career plans and (2) knowledge of the LBS program (being an indicator of genuine interest).”
Wright added that admissions wants to know whether applicants:
- Are willing to take responsibility for their career journey
- Whether this journey is realistic given their experience
- How motivated they are to take advantage of the program and school’s resources, as well as the London location
She emphasized that your essay answers need to be very specific in these regards. “What they don’t want [are] general platitudes about things they already know — the location is great, the brand is top-notch, the faculty and peer group are inspirational,” said Wright. “They know all of this, and they’re not looking for the program to be sold to them.”
Collect your references early
On the school’s FAQ page, LBS notes that two referees, or references, are required in your application — defining acceptable references as “people who know you well” — and asks for one reference from “your current employer” and one from “someone who knows you in a professional capacity, such as a former employer, client, or peer.”
Simpson advised prospective students to “give plenty of notice to referees and brief them well. They need to understand us and what we do, as well as [know] you well.”