Inside an MBA Strategy Session

by on July 17th, 2017

Today’s article was written by Judith Silverman Hodara, Director, Fortuna Admissions.

Let’s talk strategy: Top MBA programs have just announced deadlines and essay requirements for the 2017/18 cycle. Poets & Quants’ John A. Byrne recently hosted three coaches from Fortuna’s team of former MBA admissions directors and insiders in a live strategy session, which focused on how to maximize your chances of admission to Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB and Wharton.

Many great questions arose during this hour-long conversation, which you can watch in its entirety. I offered perspectives from my time as former Wharton Director of MBA Admissions, along with my colleagues Malvina Miller Complainville, former Harvard Business School Assistant Director, and Heidi Hillis, former Stanford GSB MBA Interviewer.

Below summarizes our team’s thoughts to six key questions posed by session participants:

1. Which qualities are schools seeking in a recommendation letter?

First, admissions officers want to read a recommendation from someone who knows you very well. So that’s unlikely to be your boss’s-boss’s-boss. They want an endorsement from someone who’s worked with you on a daily basis and had the chance to observe your performance in a variety of scenerios, over a decent period of time (at least 6 months). Specific insights are the most important criterion.

Beyond that, schools are looking for recommenders who have credibility (both the ability to compare you with peers and some seniority). You also don’t want to go too far back in your professional experience: Ideally, your recommenders should be from the last three or four years, and one should work with you currently, or at least in the past one to two years. When you reach too far back into your professional history, schools start to speculate whether you’re not well regarded in your current position, or if there are recent performance issues.

Finally, some programs give more weight than others to the seniority of the recommender, HBS for example.

2. Besides taking additional college courses now (and excelling), how else can applicants showcase a dramatic improvement in quant skills with a subpar undergrad GPA performance?

A solid GMAT (or GRE) score is an important signal, particularly if your undergrad quant work isn’t strong. Most schools post scores achieved by the mid 80% range of their incoming class, which offers a sense of where they’re setting the bar. Plan to make time for committed study, and to take the test more than once. If your GMAT/GRE quant scores aren’t stellar, then taking some additional quant based courses (such as Berkeley Online Extension) are indeed helpful to build an “alternative transcript.”

3. You talked about applicants with typical profiles demonstrating their uniqueness. What are your thoughts on non-traditional applicants trying to show they could be strong fit? Are you turned off by non-traditional applicants for certain reasons?

Programs love candidates from non-traditional backgrounds! Remember that an admissions team is tasked with creating a diverse student community, so the more dynamic the applicant pool, the better. Challenges for non-traditional applicants are typically as follows: It can be harder to demonstrate strong analytical skills (e.g. the GMAT quant can be tough for liberal arts grads working in, say, media or public sector). It may also require some creativity to convincingly convey what you’ll bring to the classroom and contribute to the community. You also need to demonstrate some logical thread between where you’ve been and where you’re going—a connection between the experience you have gained to date, what you seek from the MBA, and what you aspire to do in the future. Some non-traditional candidates have trouble articulating these connections and may start out as less effective at conveying their post-MBA career goals than, say, investment bankers or management consultants. However, we do think that you’ll be able to discover those threads with some thoughtful self reflection, and perhaps some coaching support.

4. How important is undergrad GPA—especially if you’ve completely pivoted from your specialization to a new career path?

A top MBA program is a demanding academic experience; you may not need a stellar GPA, but you need to convincingly demonstrate you can handle the coursework. The good news is that schools consider your academic background holistically. Meaning, in addition to your GPA they’ll factor in other indicators: where and what you studied, your GMAT/GPA score, and any relevant quant skills you’ve honed through your professional experience.

5. Because I’m overseas, it’s impractical to visit a US school for financial reasons, nor do I have many contacts with alumni where I live. What can I do to counter a perception of weakness in my application in terms of campus visits and alumni interaction?

Programs are sympathetic to this situation and aware not everyone can afford to visit their school. Obviously, they will look at this more charitably if, for example, you’re in Asia and applying to the US, versus if you are in Boston and applying to a program in NYC! Nowadays schools offer plenty of forums to interact virtually – via online events, the website, social media, etc. Take advantage of these online opportunities. You can also query schools about connecting you to local alumni.

6. How honest can you be about not being very clear about your career vision?

While schools are aware there’s often little correlation between candidates’ stated aspirations and actual career paths upon graduation—after all, and MBA is designed to be a transformative experience—they still want to see evidence of compelling career vision.

Why? Because candidates who can offer a clear, logical path for the future convey an ability to be introspective, focused and adaptive to opportunity. These applicants are also more likely to be motivated in their job search and garner an offer immediately after graduation than candidates who were wishy-washy from the start. It seems that the former group is better equipped to adapt and recraft their vision, even if they undergo a complete change-of-heart during the program.

That said, authenticity is key. Show that you’re self-aware and have a powerful sense of what an MBA—at this moment in time—will mean for you and for the community you hope to enter.

For more advice, insights and insider perspectives, watch the full Fortuna strategy session.

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