Prepping MBA applications is a little like Christmas, holiday, or birthday shopping. The deadline is months away, you've got all the time in the world, you can afford to drag your feet a little bit. Then, all of a sudden, you're out of time. You might be able to find a good present at the last minute, but you won't be able to churn out a good application in a week, or even a month.
Getting your MBA can be life-changing, so it demands a high level of attention and a lengthy prep time. If you’re even considering applying to business school, most of these steps have been on your mind. So, think of these steps more as a checklist or a guide to make sure your application is as strong as possible.
#1 – Define Your MBA Career Goals
Many of the people I speak with want to go to business school to figure things out and see what appeals to them. This approach is called “ready-fire-aim” and it is a colossal waste of resources. Most people literally cannot afford another 2 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to try again.
Admissions committees recruit candidates who know what they want to do, because those candidates are far more likely to leverage their time in business school for the purpose of fulfilling their goals. They are a safer investment for the schools and are more marketable upon graduation.
Look within. Get some career coaching first and then figure out if this MBA thing is your ideal next step. Know the function & industry you want to be in, and why that will fulfill you. If you need an MBA to get there, great – but don’t go to business school to fix your life. Do the introspection work first. This will put you on the proper trajectory, and then if you still choose to do an MBA, your essays will be more persuasive and high-impact.
#2 – Do Informational Interviews
Informational interviews are a vastly underestimated resource. Work your LinkedIn connections. Reach out to people over email. Some find this scary, but it’s worth it. If you’ve completed step 1 with the knowledge that an MBA is the right choice, you now need to validate your post-MBA career goal, make sure it’s viable. Knowing that will allow you to speak from a place of knowledge and conviction, which in turn enables you to create a more compelling vision in your essays, increases both their impact and your chances for an admit. I cannot underscore these interviews enough.
Once you have specifics, figure out which programs are ideally suited to help you achieve them. What do you need to get from point A to point B? Look at the special programs/curriculum/alumni network offered by each school and back out your answer from there. Obtain a clear and specific understanding of how the program for each school fits with your career goals. When they ask you, Why Duke? Why Wharton? Why Tuck? you need a clear, thought-out response.
Little advice on what not to say: I like the city and your school has a good reputation in US News & World Report. NOOOOO…..that is the business school equivalent of telling someone you want to marry them because they’re pretty. It will not separate you from the competition, and adcom will see right through you. You need to articulate a concrete plan that demonstrates your 1) specific post-MBA goals and 2) plan to achieve them.
#3 – Retake the GMAT
This one is pretty obvious. The main premise is that you need to show academic aptitude. And if your grades are bad, your GMAT has to be stellar. If you are thinking about retaking it, get started early. You don’t want to be studying for the GMAT while preparing your applications. I recommend private tutoring over any commercial classes, because each student has a completely different set of strengths and weaknesses.
Many applicants forget that GMAT prep is not like a normal class. The questions you solve will not be on the test. It’s not about learning material and regurgitating it on test day, and doing tons of problems won’t guarantee a good score.
Rather, you want to develop a strategy for each question type – a replicable model – that will lead you down the path to solving the questions correctly. You also want to train your brain to perceive the questions in a different way, which means being able to identify blocks and blind spots as well as your current approach to problem-solving. This generally requires 1-1 interaction with an outside observer who can help you determine these things.
#4 – Prepare Academically
Is your GPA lower than the average? For a low GPA, a strong GMAT is the antidote but MBA Math, HBxCORe, and retaking college classes are all good ancillary remedies. If the problem is verbal – focus on acing a writing or literature course, or engage in a public speaking group. But most of all, make sure your recommendations and essays offer ample evidence of your lucidity in English.
I believe that one of my male, Indian, IT candidates with very poor grades and zero extracurriculars was admitted to Ross and Stern, in part, because he was getting A or A- grades in the HBS Strategic Management certificate program.
#5 – Brush Up on Your Communication Skills
MBA Schools have impromptu video questions, compulsory interviews, networking – in sum, communication skills very much come into play in your application. Given all the presentations you need to do in business school, getting out in front of this is your best strategy.
If you feel insecure about yours, joining a nearby chapter of Toastmasters will not only help you improve, but indicate that you proactively solve challenges. This involvement has many benefits: yes, becoming a better speaker, but also networking and finding a potential mentor.
#6 – Upgrade Work Projects
Admissions committees look for candidates with a work history that will enrich classroom discussions. This year, focus on obtaining projects that will provide fertile ground for MBA essay stories around leadership, teamwork, communication skills, entrepreneurship, and impact. You want these kinds of stories for your application, resume, essays, and letters of recommendation.
Maybe this means getting on an international work project. Or transferring to a smaller department, where your work is less specialized. This might provide an opportunity for leadership, people management, and process improvement.
Think about how you can position yourself in the near term, so you have some valuable content for your MBA application that speaks to the items above.
#7 – Demonstrate Progression in Your MBA Application
The most obvious way to do this is to get promoted, but it is not the only way. Community work, political volunteering, alumni associations – all can advance you to a higher level of responsibility. For example, volunteer at the SPCA on Saturdays, do your best, and let them know you could help with their business operations. Lick envelopes to help a political candidate you support and you might get bumped up to Canvassing Manager.
So, think broadly about this, especially if a work promotion doesn’t seem likely over the coming year. The goal is to show that when invited to their club, you add value and play well with others – hence – they give you a bigger role in the organization.
#8 – Cultivate Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is the key weapon in your MBA admissions arsenal. As they say, “No one can beat you at being you.” Leverage this to set yourself apart from the competition. Remember that adcom is reading your application to get to know YOU. Not your company, your mentor, or your team, you. So, you need to know yourself well enough to speak eloquently on the topic of the one-and-only you.
I highly recommend taking the Strengthfindersassessment and this quiz to find out your values. Additionally, the free 16 Personalities assessment is incredibly accurate and gives you words to help describe who you are, to convey to adcom what motivates and animates you. Knowing your values will help you answer those WHY application essay questions, i.e., “What matters most and why?” This will set you apart from candidates who wrote less personal and more superficial, predictable essays about “why this school.”
This will also help you demonstrate an authentic cultural fit with the school. Showing that you know, understand, and mesh with the values of a particular program creates an emotional connection with the reader. And that, my friend, is a highly effective – yet very underutilized – application strategy.
#9 – Do Community Service
I often hear MBA candidates say, “Can they really check on this?” No, not really, but it will still factor into your candidacy. There are ways to weave it into your letters of recommendation, resume, and essays. Community service enriches you and so too will it enrich all areas of your application.
This is such a huge way to differentiate yourself, and it’s frequently overlooked by overrepresented candidates, especially for top business schools. Deepen your engagement with a community service or find a volunteer opportunity.
#10 – Show Diverse Hobbies and Interests
As you probably know, you’re not competing against the applicant pool, but against people with your profile. Schools want diversity, which means it’s exceedingly important for you to demonstrate uniqueness and well-roundedness if you are an overrepresented candidate.
As an example, if I had a dime for every essay I’ve read where an Indian discusses their leadership role on the cricket team at university… Alternatively, one of my Indian applicants was a champion equestrian and I coached him to discuss this. If you’re nearing the deadline, don’t run out and take up a bunch of new hobbies, because that will send up a red flag. Focus on increasing your participation in a hobby that 1) separates you from other people with your profile and 2) you can speak about honestly in an interview situation.
If possible, use one of your essays to discuss a hobby that would add an interesting dimension to the class. Applicants often fixate on the GMAT and then overlook other ways to set themselves apart. Don’t miss this opportunity.
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