If you’ve completed your research, you should be ready to move on to the next step and begin some real work. But before you start plugging away, it’s smart to organize your application process. With that in mind, here’s the next step on our list:
Step 2: Manage the application process.
Managing the process– much like you might manage a project at work– will help ensure you meet all deadlines and obligations while maintaining high quality standards in your applications. Here are the most important elements you’ll want to be sure to work into your routine:
Tend to your relationships with potential recommenders.
Your recommendations will play a big role in your applications, and you should ensure that you’re getting absolutely top-notch recommendations. And while noted alumni are great recommenders for targeted schools, the most important characteristic of good recommendations is that they come from people who are credible, know you well, and can speak to your aptitude and preparedness for graduate work.
While your recommendations can come from a variety of sources (academic, professional, personal), most schools have preferences regarding at least some of your recommendations. In fact, many schools prefer to receive at least one academic and one professional recommendation. If you’ve been out of school for a while, it may take some time to hunt down an old professor who remembers you well and fondly enough to sign his or her good name to your application to graduate business studies.
Start early, and make sure you show your gratitude at each step of the process. If it’s been a while since you’ve spoken or seen each other, write a quick email to say hello. Maybe invite him/her to lunch (you’ll buy, of course). Make sure this person feels comfortable recommending you strongly; if you’re unsure, you might want to ask just that: “How strongly would you be comfortable recommending me to — school/program?” It never hurts to ask, as long as you are courteous.
Sort your list of possible schools into categories.
At this early point in your application process, you probably aren’t sure where you’ll score on the GMAT/GRE (many schools now accept both). But you should have done plenty of research on the schools that offer your desired program. Sort your list of possible schools into three categories:
- “Reach” schools, where you may be unlikely to gain admission, but would nonetheless love to attend;
- “Target” schools, where you are competitive for admission and would like to attend; and
- “Safety” schools, where you have a very high likelihood of admission.
While you may not be absolutely certain which schools are “reach”, “target”, and “safety” schools until after you get your scores back, you probably have some early inclinations one way or the other about many schools. You can always rearrange your list later.
I’m a spreadsheet addict, so I personally recommend making a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is probably the best way to organize your list of schools. You’ll be able to add columns for “applied” (date submitted), “complete” (date application is “complete” at each school), “interview” (date), “financial aid” (dollar amount), “tuition” (total), and “decision” (outcome). You may want to include other columns as well, but these should get you started. A spreadsheet with all important information will make selecting the best school for you much easier once all the columns get filled out, and you can always delete a row if you decide that a particular school isn’t right for you.
Make an application calendar.
Get a calendar to track important dates for admissions process. Include the following:
- Last acceptable test administration. From your list of schools, determine the last possible test date you can take to meet all application deadlines. Since you’ll likely have multiple schools, be sure to note the earliest of the test deadlines. Write this date in big, bold letters. Red, preferrably. Then plan backwards for at least one possible retake, should the worst happen. Make that your target test date, although you may want to back up your target test administration date even further to reduce your test anxiety a bit.
- Financial aid/scholarship deadlines. Many schools have scholarship deadlines prior to regular admission deadlines, especially for larger scholarships. If you plan to apply for them, be sure to note the relevant dates and schools in your application calendar. You should also try to get your taxes done as early as possible, since most schools have a financial aid paperwork deadline of March 1st, and for U.S. schools, you’ll need to submit a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in order to be considered for any need-based assistance or federally-backed loans. While you can estimate your taxes, I recommend doing them and getting the right numbers in rather than stressing about whether or not your paperwork is correct.
- Three rounds of application deadlines. Many top business schools have three rounds of application deadlines. Applying to an earlier application round means there’s more space in the class for you. Deadlines for Round 1 are typically in October, Round 2 in January, and Round 3 in March/April. These vary by school so make sure you have the dates carefully organized by school. Apply early because by Round 3, there is a chance that there may not be enough room left in the program because of all of the Round 1 and Round 2 applicants.
- Program start dates. Don’t forget to mark the date that classes start at each school. That’s what the application process is all about! It’ll help you remember why you’re doing all the legwork, plus it’ll help you organize the major life changes you’ll need to make as you get ready to start graduate school.
Set up both a physical grad school file box and a virtual file folder.
Go to Office Depot, Staples, or your office supply store of choice to pick up a portable file box and hanging file folders (unless you already have these on hand). Make a file for each school/program to which you intend to apply. You may choose to organize your files alphabetically or by preference (put your top choice program first, for instance).
Once you’ve made your physical files in your grad school file box, visit each school or program’s website. While you’re there, bookmark all important pages and organize them into folders in your web browser. Print out the admissions information, tuition and fees information, and the application form. Place a hard copy in the appropriate folder in your file box.
If you used a calendar program on your computer, then you should make an additional calendar folder. Print out a copy of each month between now and the final deadline for applications at the latest school’s deadline and slip the calendar pages into the folder so you’ll never miss a deadline.
Organize your finances for business school.
Since most of us will need some combination of personal contributions, scholarships, grants, and loans, you’ll need to make sure your finances are in order before you start the loads of paperwork that await you. Find out where you stand, and do your best to maintain or improve your financial outlook before your paperwork is submitted. Some tips:
- Get a credit report. Know your credit score so you’re not caught off guard by an instance of identity theft or some oversight from a move five years ago that can prevent you from getting loans. Do everything in your power to maintain a good credit score or improve a weaker one in the time allotted. Google “credit repair” and research the many options available to you.
- Make an application budget. Applying to business school isn’t cheap, and there are many “hidden” expenses people often forget. Be sure to include all application fees, standardized test fees, test prep/prep material costs (more on that in part 3 of 8), transcript/paperwork fees, recommender thank-you lunches, travel funds for school visits and interviews, a clothing allowance for interviews, interviewer and recommender “thank you” cards, and a seat deposit at the school you finally choose. Put the allotted budget into savings and don’t touch it until you need it (or start saving it, if you don’t have it available yet).
- Put the amount you intend to pay out-of-pocket for tuition into savings and don’t touch it. Based on your FAFSA and/or other financial aid information, you will be provided with an expected contribution. Try to get an estimate of that as early as possible so you can put that money away until tuition is due. Again, if you don’t have it, start saving now.
Once you have your process all setup, you’re ready to get to the first major hurdle: taking your GMAT test(s).