As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I don’t feel like I followed the most traditional path when I applied to ESADE. Nonetheless, a co-worker of mine who received his MBA from Duke gave me some excellent advice during the application process which I found immensely helpful. He said to me that he had received the same advice from former MBA grads when he went through the process, so to continue the chain of advice he encouraged me to help others out in the future should the opportunity present itself. Well, for what it’s worth, the following is an explanation of essentially the advice I received and hopefully whoever reads this will find it useful should you find yourself applying to B-School someday (and I’d like to think some of this advice carries weight for other Master’s programs as well).
Step 1: The GMAT (or GRE or LSAT or whatever other test you may have to take)
I decided to put the GMAT as step number one, because I think you should get this out of the way up front. When you’re working on application essays later on, you really don’t want to be worrying about your upcoming GMAT appointment. Also, I fully believe I would have done much better on this test fresh out of high school or fresh out of undergrad, but I had the wrongful impression the test wouldn’t include content like geometry, algebra, etc that I haven’t seen in over six years. Bear in mind the scores are only good for up to five years, but still, try to get it done early if you have even the slightest inclination to pursue your MBA.
As far as the test itself goes, there are plenty of books and study materials written on the subject, so I would certainly advise you start with that. I purchased the GMAC’s “Official Guide to the GMAT” and a co-worker lent me a copy of the Princeton Review’s “Cracking the GMAT.” The PR book had some good strategy advice, while the GMAC guide had a lot of problems to practice with. If you need more help than what these books offer, look into tutors for material you want additional guidance on. I feel most study courses are overpriced, but if you really just can’t bring yourself to study on your own, or it has been so long you really need a refresher in the fundamentals, this may be a good bet for you.
Step 2: Work Experience (for prospective MBAs, other Masters’ may not apply)
Some may not like this, but I would advise you start your quest for an MBA with at least two years of full-time, post undergrad work experience. Now, when I first heard this bit of advice during my senior year of college, my initial reaction was, “pshh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” But please, hear me out.
The idea behind an MBA is to help people either accelerate their career, or switch from a non-business career into a traditionally business related position. In the classroom, you will likely be surrounded by experienced, high-achieving individuals and what you get out of the experience is largely influenced by what you and your classmates put in. If you head straight into an MBA program fresh out of your undergrad, you are essentially piling business theory onto more business theory. Without having applied any of these theories in the real world, you have little to no working knowledge as to how what you’re learning relates to the real world. You, and your classmates, will get much more out of the program if you have at least some work experience.
Additionally, you will surely be more competitive to even get into programs if you have at least some work experience. Most schools state a minimum of two years of full time experience in order to even apply, but if you look at the applicant pools, most MBAs actually have 4-5 years under their belts. It is certainly not impossible to get into an MBA program without experience, just bear in mind the things I’ve said. Also, know that you will be more competitive in the job market post-MBA with work experience as well, so don’t forget that! So, go get your work experience, and meet me at Step 3.
Step 3: Research, Research, Research!
So, you’ve got your work experience and you’ve decided you’re ready to pursue an MBA. Fantastic! What do you want to do? Who do you want to work for? Hoping to figure that out in B-School? That is fine, but these are things you should definitely ask yourself as you begin researching different programs. For me, I made a list of what I wanted to get out of the experience and it looked like this:
- Learn Spanish
- Study abroad (if not already abroad)
- Attend a school that doesn’t just use the case study method of teaching
- Find a program with at least a general management focus available, with the option to pursue Finance, Marketing, or any other area of specialty that meets my fancy
- Strong international reputation with at least AACSB accreditation
- Draws big named recruiters to campus
Once I made this list, I began scanning rankings like the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and the Financial Times and took note of high profile programs that looked promising in desirable locations. Eventually, I whittled my way down to ESADE as my top choice, as it met all of my criteria and more, but compiling a list of 3-5 schools is pretty normal.
Step 4: Make Appearances!
This is one area that is often overlooked by applicants, so if you have the opportunity to attend MBA fairs and visit campuses, do it! Especially in the case of visiting campuses, go, be seen, meet people, students, alumni, anyone to help you really get a feel for what the culture of the school is like. Sit in on classes if you get the chance. You may hear the term “fit” thrown around, and until you start to really meet people involved with the school, you will have a difficult time gauging whether or not you’re going to be a good fit for the program. Be prepared to write out notes shortly after your encounters, or even during, whatever makes you happy. This is important as it will provide content you will use later in your essays to show you made an effort to get to know more than just what a school says about itself on its website.
Additionally noted, if you meet people, get a card or email address and be sure to follow up with them and thank them for taking the time to meet and speak with you. Don’t bother these people by asking a ton of questions or badgering them about your application later, but definitely follow up and try to at least touch bases to keep yourself fresh in their mind. These individuals meet hundreds, maybe thousands of people just like you every year, so anything to help them remember you (in a good way) will be a plus.
Step 5: The Application
All applications are not created equally, nor should they be treated as such. Every school’s application is different, and while some may ask very similar essay questions, you should never completely recycle one essay from one school for use in another. That said, here are some things to keep in mind while writing your application essays.
You may know how great you are, your mom may know how great you are, your pet turtle may know how great you are, but never, ever expect the admissions folks at the schools you’re applying to to know how great you are; that’s why you’re applying. This means you and your entire being need to essentially be reduced to a few sheets of paper, a few paragraphs, upon which you’re trying to convince these schools why you will make a nice addition to their program. Are you up to the task?
First things first, you need a story. Before you even begin writing your first essay, you need to know what is it that makes you so unique, so special, that the schools you’re considering should even bother reading anything you write. This is a time for self-reflection. You need to really take a look at yourself and your accomplishments and decide what is the shining theme that has been running through your life. Listen to your heart moreso than your head and absolutely do not try to get inside the brain of the admissions reps and spew answers you think they want to hear…because they want to learn about you, not what you think they want you to be.
My approach to the essays was to take things I feel make me who I am and keep them as running themes throughout each essay. I wanted the admissions folks to pick up my application, read it, and come away feeling like they got to know me and what I am all about. I wanted each essay to build on the other and contribute to the overall effectiveness of the whole package. It has been said that the application is like the meat and bones of your candidature, and the interview is like your soul. Well, I tried to squeeze a little of my soul into my essays, and I’d like to think I accomplished that.
Other things to keep in mind and work into your essays include your experiences with the school and efforts to get to know what they are about. This doesn’t mean you should just start name-dropping, but if you could relate a story about a class you sat in on or some alumni you met that really made an impact on you, do it! Also, be sure to prove your case as to why you will make a good addition to the program. The reader should come away knowing who you are, what you’re about, what efforts you’ve made to get to know them and why you will be a good fit for their school. If you can do all that, you might just find yourself at Step 6.
Step 6: The Interview
So, you got called for an interview, congratulations, you’re almost there! Here is where you fill in the gaps. Your application, no matter how pristine, still leaves gaping holes into your being. Now is the time where you need to remain consistent with your application (know what you said in your essays and don’t you dare contradict yourself now!) and just be honest and act like yourself, not who you think they want you to be. By all means, prepare yourself for the various questions they may ask, but at the same time, be true to yourself and you can’t go wrong. If it turns out after the interview that perhaps you weren’t the right fit, take it as a blessing that you found out now and not a year into the program while you’re wondering, “what am I doing here?”
Step 7: Are You In?
The last step may leave you with a tough decision to make, or really no decision at all. You may get into more than one program, or just one…or perhaps none, it happens. At this point, if you have multiple offers to consider, know that only you can decide where you will ultimately go, and only you will have to live with that decision. Take this time to reflect on your experiences and what you’ve learned about the programs to this point and make the best decision for yourself. If it comes down to a money issue, like you don’t want to spend $X to go to a school, but you really want to go to the school, consider this; your education is arguably the largest investment you will ever make in yourself. So, don’t let money be too big of a factor in your end decision, because ultimately this investment is going to pay dividends for the rest of your life!
I hope this proves helpful to any future applicants who read this, and while I know it is certainly not all encompassing, I was just trying to give a quick breakdown of the process and some steps to take along the way. I also feel I should mention I’ve spent a fair amount of time on varous MBA forums (gmatclub.com & BusinessWeek.com) where I felt there was a pretty good network of people helping eachother out and sharing their knowledge on the admissions process; so I would definitely encourage anyone looking for a community of helpful individuals to try these great resources out! If you have questions or comments about any of this, please share and I will do my best to respond.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, nor is it supposed to. Practice is about increasing your repertoire of ways to recover from your mistakes.” – Anonymous