This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Getting into a top MBA program has always been difficult. And with applications rising each year for the same number of limited spots at the world's leading business schools, it's getting even harder.

According to Poets and Quants, applications to the top 25 schools were up by 2.5% to 84,879 last year, the third consecutive year of increases. Those increases drove the overall acceptance rate of the schools in the top 25 down to 20.3%, from 20.7% a year earlier.

It's especially frustrating for the tens of thousands of applicants who clearly have the work experience, academic ability, and leadership skills they need to be successful in business school. "Admission officials at top MBA programs concede that as much as 80% of their applicants are fully qualified to attend and successfully complete an MBA program", according to Poets and Quants.

Despite the intense competition for spots at top programs, the number of applications continues to swell, driven by strong demand for MBAs among employers. In a new survey of 104 business schools by the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance, 51% of respondents indicated an increase in on-campus recruiting activity compared with last year. Much of this increase was driven by a surge of recruiting from the tech industry.

Getting into your "dream school"-- however you may choose to define that term -- may be hard, but there are actions you can take to increase your chances of getting accepted.

Since the application season for many MBA programs is about to kick-off, I'd like to share four things I know about the process:

1. It's never too early to start preparing your application.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received for applying to business school came from someone who had graduated from a top school himself. It was 25 years ago, I had just picked up a graduate degree in East Asian Studies, and I was embarking on a search for my first full-time job. I had reached out to him with the hope that he would have an opening for me in his boutique consulting firm.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a job for me. But since I had told him I was planning on applying to business school after getting a few years of work experience, he shared some advice that helped me shape my business school application journey.

He told me to get the applications from the business schools that I was targeting so I could look at their essay questions. Next, he said I should start thinking -- now -- about how I would answer these questions. Finally, and most importantly, I should start building the career credentials I would need to answer their questions and position myself to be the type of applicant they were looking for.

2. Do your due diligence on your target schools.

Admissions officers understand that you're applying to several schools. But they want to know whether you've done your due diligence on their school. Because, from their perspective, they are the superior choice, and they want to see if you have spent the time and effort to really understand what sets them apart from their competitors.

Study the schools you're applying to closely and identify what makes them stand out from other institutions: The strength of their entrepreneurial studies department, the quality of their finance faculty, their global alumni network. Incorporate that into your application.

3. Write a kick-a** essay.

Undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores paint only a partial picture of your potential to succeed at business school. That's why admissions officers look carefully at your essays to understand why you're applying to their school, and how you'll make a unique contribution to their community.

That's why you need to invest time in writing well-crafted essays that will help admissions officers see beyond your stats. Make the extra effort to write essays that are tailored to each school you're applying to, and which tell something about yourself that a number can't.

Wondering what kinds of questions to expect? Poets and Quants compiled a helpful "cheat sheet" of application essay questions from leading MBA programs to give you a head start.

And be sure you edit your essays thoroughly so they read well and contain absolutely no grammatical mistakes. (Here's my process for editing prose of any kind that you can follow as you write your essays, and some of my advice for avoiding common writing mistakes. And if you'd like to read the story about the essay that helped me get accepted to business school, check out my post, "The Essay that Got Me Into Wharton.")

4. Prep hard for your interview.

Business schools get thousands and even tens of thousands of applications for the limited spaces they offer. No matter how good you look on paper, standing out from the thousands of capable candidates vying for seats in their lecture halls is going to be tough unless you do something that personalizes your application.

One of the best ways to do this is through an interview. While these are often conducted by alumni of the school, you may get the opportunity to be interviewed directly by a representative from the admissions committee. When I applied to business school, I was interviewed by the director of admissions from my top choice school. I believe that in-person conversation -- in which I had the chance to tell my story about why I wanted an MBA, and why his program was my top choice -- may have contributed to my offer of admission at the school.

Not all business school applicants are granted interviews. But if they do offer one, be sure to set one up, and prepare intensively for it. Having sat on the other side of the table as an alumni interviewer for my school, I know the impact a candidate's interview performance can have on the probability of getting admitted.

Getting into a top business school is competitive, and the application process can be frustrating. But if you plan ahead and prepare carefully, you can increase the chances of getting accepted to one or more of your preferred schools.

Published on: Sep 6, 2016
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