Yes, you need a solid GMAT/GPA along w/ an interesting story and believable aspirations, but really when it comes down to it the Adcom holds your MBA future in their hands. It's this subjectivity that leads me to believe that tons of qualified candidates are dinged every year...yes I know this sucks and it's a part of life. My point is that you have to learn to play the b-school application game...play your cards right, and hopefully you'll wind up with a handful of admits.
My b-school aspirations started in January 2004...I stored away the xbox (yes, I'm a geek) and studied for the GMAT for 3 months straight (used the Official GMAT review guide and the Kaplan guide and did every question at least once..)..took the test once and received a solid score. Then it was on to figuring out which schools to apply to (I looked at career/culture fit, and then location) and crafting the dreaded essays. I ended up only applying to MIT and Cornell (both RD 1)...I was wary of using the "shotgun" approach because I didn't want my essays to come across as the vague "cut-and-paste" type. Looking back, I realize my approach was too narrow; if I had to do it over again (which I'm not), I would've applied to Cornell, Kellogg, Chicago and Tuck.
Anyway, I spent ~3 months working hard on my essays...I would highly recommend having an objective friend and/or family member read, and most importantly, -critique- your essays...gotta give props to my brother for really providing some great advice. A second set of eyes goes a long way in helping to clarify your points and making your essays more concise (this is especially important for schools like Johnson that have 400 word limits). After submitting my two apps online, the wait for interview invites began.
The stress factor is worse than waiting for your GMAT score to pop-up on the screen, because your fate is essentially in somebody else's hands. In retrospect, I should have been using this waiting time to prep for potential interviews, but I couldn't bring myself to set myself up for disaster (i.e. prep for interviews but not get any invites)...so I nervously passed the time trying to keep busy w/ non-bschool stuff (working out alot, hanging out w/ friends, etc.). I was pleasantly surprised (read: elated) to get interview invites from both schools. I chose to take the opportunity to visit each campus, and I'm glad I did. MIT's b-school buildings need a nice powerwashing, as does the rest of the campus (Harvard is stunning, btw). While Sloan was underwhelming, the JGSM was impressive (Sage Hall, the b-school building, was renovated in 1998 and includes niceties like wireless networking and private study areas for MBAs). I prepped for the interviews differently...MIT's is a non-blind behavioral interview, while Cornell's is blind and resume-based. I came up with ~20 examples total of success, failure, meaningful stuff, hardships, why an mba, why Cornell/MIT, etc. I thought both interviews went well...both were very conversational in nature. I was leaning slightly towards Cornell b/c I felt it was a much better culture fit. That said, I was hoping for two admits so that I could revisit the schools and attend some classes (I visited both schools during finals week..)
Waiting for the school decisions was the most stressful part of the application process (for me, at least)...not so much b/c I couldn't take the dings, but because the possibility of having to repeat the essay/interview/waiting process again next year was quite daunting. My plan was to possibly apply R2/R3 for some other schools, but more than likely I would've waited another year (I didn't want to rush any apps..why put myself through the stress if I'm making a half-ass attempt?). Also, it's not like I'm unhappy with my job/current situation...I'm very happy and complacent, which is why it's taken me so long to apply to b-school. I guess I figure it's now or never...I'm single and I have some doubts about my long-term career, so personally/professionally it's the perfect time for a MBA.
Alright back to the app process...after receiving the MIT ding, I started to worry because I didn't want to go through the damn b-school lottery AGAIN next year. I realized that applying to only 2 schools was probably a dumb idea, b/c now I only had one shot left. This sounds dumb, but getting the Cornell admit was probably one of the highlights of my young life. I got the call at 7pm PST on Sunday, January 30th 2005 the day before the RD1 decision deadline. I had pretty much given up hope because that Friday (1/28) I had seen posts on the Businessweek forums from fellow RD1 JGSM applicants who had already received the congratulatory call that afternoon; so the entire weekend I waited....and waited....and waited some more. No call on my cell phone, even though I was willing it to ring every hour. I was actually getting pissed when my friends/family would call my cell, b/c I was waiting for a "more important" call. Anyway 7pm PST rolls around, and I was kinda upset b/c I figured it was 10pm EST and the Johnson Adcom was fast asleep. Lo and behold I get a call from "Unknown" and my heart started racing**; the first thing I hear is "Hi, this is Natalie from the JGSM Adcom and I wanted to welcome you etc. etc.". I must have thanked her 5 or 6 times before I realized how dumb I sounded. :) Anyway since then I've been on Cloud 9; I'm very excited and looking forward to meeting my fellow classmates this August!
**I received a call from "Unknown" on my cell on the MIT decision date as well...it ended up being someone who had dialed the wrong number. You cannot imagine how pissed/heartbroken I was. Ok you probably can imagine it, but it was worse. It was like getting punk'd -really really- bad. :]