It took me two years and 3 rounds of applications before finally getting into one of my target business schools. During that time, I:
- submitted 10 applications
- wrote 40 essays
- interviewed 6 times
- was accepted to 4 programs
- spent thousands of dollars in the process (flying out to interview gets expensive)
Although I don’t consider myself an expert on the application process, I do believe that I have enough experience to offer some advice to future applicants. As always, take this advice with a grain of salt, as your mileage may vary.
1. Establish mentors as early as possible in your career - You are eventually going to need recommendations for every application, and it is always better to have them written by folks that are familiar with your personal development, accomplishments, and career goals. Furthermore, a good mentor will be personally invested in your growth, and that will probably cause them to spend more time writing a good recommendation. Even if you don’t plan on applying for grad school, setting up a network of mentors early in your career is extremely valuable.
2. Find something to do outside of work that you are passionate about - Anyone can get good scores on the GMAT and during undergrad, so you should look for ways to differentiate yourself from the crowd. In my opinion, one of the best ways to do this is get involved in something outside of work that you are passionate about and commit to it for an extended period of time. Besides the personal growth and fulfillment that you’ll get from doing something constructive outside of work, you’ll end up with an extra “star” on your MBA application. For me, this was mentoring/tutoring minority students, both through individual volunteer opportunities and professional organizations. It can be anything for you.
3. Prepare for the GMAT - Do not take the GMAT lightly. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are (coincidentally, I consider myself a friggin’ genius), or how well you did in undergrad, etc; take adequate time to prepare for the GMAT, since your score is an extremely important factor in determining what schools you can apply to. I was pretty cocky when I took my first practice test, and it was a sobering experience. Afterward, I decided to sign up for a prep course ($1000 was a drop in the bucket for what I got out of it) and spent 2 months preparing for that test. I contribute my high score directly to that preparation.
4. Put some thought into selecting the schools that you will apply for - Avoid the knee-jerk reaction of applying for the top 3 schools (I’ll admit I’m guilty of this) just because they are the top 3 schools. You should spend some time selecting the schools that you will apply for based on whatever criteria matters most to you, e.g. location, career objectives, teaching methods, costs, etc. Your genuine excitement and desire to attend a school will show during an interview; on the flip side, your lack of excitement will also shine just as bright, so you might as well save yourself the $200+ for unnecessary apps.
5. Be yourself in the essays - You will find plenty of examples online and in MBA prep books of admitted students’ essays, but here’s the thing, just because the essay worked for one person, doesn’t mean it is going to work for you. Not only that, but every person is markedly different in personality, background, objectives, etc, so don’t waste your time trying to emulate other applicants’ essays. Use the essays as a way of differentiating yourself from the crowd, emphasizing your strengths and experiences, and highlighting what makes you unique. Here is a small snippet from one of my favorite Harvard essays in the application that got me an interview, which I subsequently blew.
I once made the mistake of trying to score a goal on my own in a rugby game. I had the ball with 50 yards to go, the field looked clear, and all I could think about was scoring for the first time. Unfortunately, I did not notice the defender rapidly approaching me from the side; I was brutally taken down, and worse yet, I lost the ball. I came away that day with the most valuable lesson that I would learn from playing rugby: the importance of relying on one’s team.
6. Prepare for the interviews - Do not take the interviews lightly. I don’t care how charming you are to talk to or how amazing your background is; you will be surprised at how nervous you can get interviewing for one of your dream schools. There is a good chance that you already spent a lot of time to even get that interview, so spend a little more time prepping for it. There are plenty of resources online to get an idea of the types of questions that you will be asked for a given school. Learn enough about the school to give compelling reason for why you want to attend, and then focus the rest of your time refining your story (why an MBA, career objectives, etc).
7. Don’t dwell too much on rejections - It happens. Unfortunately, the entire process is mysterious, and I don’t think it is possible to accurately predict who will and who won’t get accepted into a school. If you don’t end up at one of your top choices, it is not the end of the world. In the end, your success and career will be built around how you perform, not on the name of the school that is on your MBA.
Best of luck on those applications!