December 10 2007: 12:41 PM EST
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10 secrets for getting into a top B-school

The competition to get into the best MBA programs is ferocious, but you can improve your chances of getting accepted by following these expert tips.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

Is it important to get an MBA from a top business school?
  • Yes, the best B-schools offer a better education.
  • Yes, top B-schools offer superior networking.
  • No, getting an MBA from any school is a career booster.
  • No, MBAs are overrated.
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The most prestigious and selective schools - Harvard, Wharton (pictured here), Stanford, and their ilk - say they accept only 10% of all those who apply.

(Fortune) -- Getting accepted into a top MBA program is an arduous, time-consuming process, with plenty of potential pitfalls along the way. Witness that the most prestigious and selective schools - Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, and their ilk - say they accept only 10% of all those who apply.

Stacy Blackman has built a thriving Los-Angeles-based business, called Stacy Blackman Consulting (www.stacyblackman.com), on helping MBA aspirants avoid ending up among the 90% who don't make the cut. Since earning her own MBA in 1999 from the Kellogg School at Northwestern and starting her firm two years later, Blackman and her team have counseled more than 1,000 hopefuls on how to wow the admissions committees at top B-schools.

Here are 10 tips for making a great impression.

1. Get a sky-high score on the Graduate Management Admissions Test. Overall, GMAT scores range from 200 to 800; the median is 500. At a top school, students' average scores may be 700 and higher.

2. Be yourself. Don't try to match some imaginary ideal. "Often, people have an image in their minds of what kind of person a given school wants," says Blackman. "Usually it's because they know someone who went there, so they try to be like that person." What's wrong with that? "Business-school admissions committees aim to enroll a broad mix of different personalities and backgrounds, so they want to know who you really are - even going beyond your professional life to include any significant experiences you may have had, like a serious illness or an eye-opening trip abroad. Tell your real story. Trying to be someone you aren't is likely to backfire."

3. Don't rush to submit your application in the first round. Different schools operate on different schedules, but in general, B-schools accept one round of applications in October and another in early January. Don't rush. "There is no particular advantage in being in the first round of applications," says Blackman. "It's much more important to submit a really great application. You do want to meet the deadline, of course, but quality counts more than speed."

4. Be ready to discuss any weak spots in your resume or your undergraduate transcript. "Let's say you've been laid off three times, like one client I had. Don't just ignore that on your application. Talk about how you bounced back and what you learned from those experiences," Blackman says. "Likewise, if you have a glaringly low grade or two on your undergraduate record, address the question of why that happened. Often people think, 'Well, they know I'm smart, and that was a long time ago, so it's no big deal.' But you need to explain it, because it will be noticed."

5. Be aware of the importance of recommendations. "A really common mistake is to get fixated on the essay portion of the application and overlook the crucial role of recommendations," says Blackman. Once references have agreed to write a recommendation for you, it's essential to "keep in touch with them so you are sure [the letters] get submitted on time," she says. But first....

6. Make sure you've asked the right people. "Prestige is less important than how well they know you," Blackman says. "Sometimes people will ask the CEO for a recommendation because that CEO attended the school the person is applying to. But admissions committees want specific examples of how you work, especially in the areas of teamwork, leadership, ethics, and respect for others. The CEO is unlikely to know those details." Unless you work with the Big Boss on a day-to-day basis, ask your direct manager, a close colleague, or a client instead.

7. Ask one or two people to review your application. But don't overdo it. "It's a good idea to ask one or two people whose judgment you trust to look over your application before you submit it, to see if they spot any flaws or omissions," says Blackman. Too many cooks spoil the broth, however: "If you follow too many suggestions, your essay will end up reading as if it were written by a committee, and you definitely don't want that."

8. If you end up on the "wait list," make the most of it. "Often people assume that being put on the 'wait list' is the same as not being accepted, and they give up. But lots of waitlisted applicants do get admitted. There's an art to it," says Blackman. "If your GMAT score was relatively low, take the test again. Send another recommendation or two, if you can. If the school wants you to come in for an interview, do that. And keep in touch with the admissions committee. You don't want to hound them, but it's perfectly okay to send a letter if you get promoted or if you're working on a 'stretch' assignment that broadens your skills."

9. Do your own research. Don't choose a B-school just by picking it off a list. "Every MBA program is different, and you want to focus on the ones that are right for you," Blackman says. "Compare the schools carefully, and visit as many of the campuses as you can. If you can sit in on a class or two, so much the better. That way, when you're asked why you want to go to this particular school, you'll have a convincing answer - instead of just sounding like you're reading from a brochure."

10. Start the process as far in advance as you can. Planning to take the GMAT, researching schools, getting the applications, lining up your recommendations, and writing the essays all take time. If you wait until the last minute, you'll be rushed, stressed, and unlikely to put your best foot forward. Want to go to B-school in the fall of 2008? It's not too soon to get cracking.

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