Thursday, May 03, 2007

App Recap: Advice and Reflections

Ok, so yet another day that I am allegedly working from home but just getting caught up on life events. In good news I may sell the house without even putting it on the market. The irony is that it's a buyer that I found when I was still thinking I'd FSBO so maybe I could have saved that commission after all but all-in-all it's still nice to have a realtor to guide me through this. Still lot's to figure out and do.

I wanted to recap my application experience before too much time passed and my memory faded. As a caveat, applying to one MBA program by no means makes me an expert on all this but I've enjoyed reading other candidates opinions on all this and wanted to share my own in case you found it useful.

To start, here's a quick recap of my strengths and weaknesses as a candidate:

The Good/Ok:

  • Great academics - top notch program, great GPA
  • Solid GMAT - not brilliant but within the 80 percentile range for my target school
  • Some extracurriculars - no leadership positions but I do do more than just work
  • CFA designation - completed in 2006, shows I'm serious about my career
  • Appreciative recommenders - who really valued my work and were happy to help me

The Bad:

  • Career experience - did not work for a major, well-known firm. Had 3 employers in 5 years and a 5 month period of unemployment due to our lovely economy in 2002. While all my jobs were related to my ultimate career interest and I tried to make my best of the positions I was not doing amazing high-level work or taking unprecedented responsibilities. I view this as the weakest point in my application.
  • Short time line - I had about 3 months to research schools, take the GMAT and apply. During this time I was also moving to another city, struggling with morning sickness and trying to find a new job and was pretty maxed out. Likely you may be facing your own version of this madness. I helped compensate for this in the end by applying to one program only - a risky approach - but one that helped me crank out one good application rather than many mediocre applications.

First, Know Thyself:

  1. Not everyone wants or needs an MBA. Sort this out for yourself first. An MBA is very helpful for my industry of choice which was certainly a factor in my decision but I wanted to have a very serious academic experience and wasn't sure if I would find such a program. For some, there are other graduate programs and/or certifications that could substitute for an MBA and those should be considered too.
  2. The cost/benefit analysis of entering a program shouldn't be taken lightly. I do believe (rightly or wrongly) that it doesn't really make sense to matriculate at a lesser program in terms of ROI but if you intend to stay local, a local program that's not in the top 10 list, may make sense. And a full scholarship at a somewhat "lesser" school may outweigh the opportunity to attend a more prestigious program. I also considered executive MBA programs. There is this sense that if you get into a top program, it will pay off in the end, but I'm not sure that that should be taken as a given. Run your own numbers, listen to your heart. In some ways, it was the intangibles of bschool, not just earnings potential afterwards that swung my cost/benefit decision towards attending. Frankly, I think I could make pretty good money without an MBA and I didn't need the degree to get into the career I wanted. But I felt really isolated in my career. I wanted to meet other ambitious people, especially women, and have a certain academic experience that wasn't available in my liberal arts undergrad because I felt it would improve my quality of life. I also wanted my job options to be more open geographically and to make motherhood less of a handicap to my career.

Which Programs - Do Your Research!

  1. All top programs are not created equal. From what I've observed, MBA programs are really quite different from one another and there are different cultures on each campus. Don't assume you'll love it just because it's number #1 or #2 on some list of rankings.
  2. Start with the lists but do your own due diligence. I started with the usual ratings to help me get a sense of reputation. Be aware of the methodology and criticisms of each list (WSJ, Financial Times, The Economist, U.S. News, Business Week ... to name a few). Then visit websites, any and all articles you can find about the school and its alums. Blogs written by current students are a great resource as well as reading the school newspaper online. The Business Week forums are not a great way to form opinions or get information in my mind, though there can be useful stuff. The Business Week website in general, however, has lots of good info. Books on schools can tend to get outdated too quickly but may be worth a look. Chicago and Wharton have great discussion boards if you're interested in those programs. And, of course, hit up any info sessions the school may hold in your city.
  3. Think about specialties to draw up a short list. Once I had a general idea of the Who's Who of programs I focused in on specialty strengths. I really think that this is where the rankings are most helpful. If you really want to do marketing, I think it's best to attend a program that's strong in that area. It doesn't matter if they're only #13 on someone's top 20 list if they consistently earn good marks in the strength of that particular program and if recruiters perceive this to be a strength as well. This is especially critical if your target career after an MBA is more rarefied or nichey. You want a community that is going to understand and enable your career search and not all schools have the same networks are relationships with certain employers.
  4. Visit the schools! Ok, I know that plenty of people successfully apply without visiting beforehand but I think that seeing the schools in person not only makes you a better applicant but helps you make the most informed decision. Remember this is not just about selling yourself to a school but letting schools sell themself to you. This is a huge investment and the week of vacation and a couple thousand $s pales in comparison to making a bad decision here. Yes, I know there are limitations to what you can learn in a visit but I found that my feelings about the schools changed quite a bit after visiting and I'm glad I didn't waste time applying to schools that had looked fine from afar but felt horrible to me in person. Give yourself a full day to see each school. Visit classes, talk to students, sit in on info sessions, explore the campus, etc.

R1 vs. R2 (R3?!)

I would have preferred to have applied in R1 but it didn't work out. I've read lots of reasons to apply in one round or the other and frankly I agree with the idea that you should apply when you're ready and not worry to much about strategy. I figure a good applicant is a good applicant. Yeah, the quality of the pool isn't always the same in each round or in every year. But I doubt a school is going to drastically lower the bar for quality in any given round. You're either a good candidate or you aren't and I wouldn't waste much time trying to strategize when to apply. I've met R3 admits and Chicago insists that there's plenty of room left in R3. Not ideal, but hey, why not try if that's the way the cards fall for you the year you want to apply? On the other hand, I think being an adcom must be exhausting and by R3 they might be sort of tired and cranky of reading dumb essays and likely to be a little less forgiving. Not that I actually know that this is true! But it seems possible that you'll sound more interesting and fresh to them in R1 than R3.

Taking the GMAT

  1. Better to take it early but don't necessarily can your application if that doesn't work out. I ended up sitting for the GMAT the week before my Chicago application was due. I don't recommend this to anyone, but it can be done. The standard advice seems to be to give yourself 3-4 months plus some leeway for retakes. It all depends on your abilities/time constraints, but frankly I was getting really sick of study after 2 months and eager just to take the damn test. I think after 4 months I might have done worse. Some people just need a few weeks to refresh themselves and do just fine on the test. I don't think that would have been a successful strategy for me. Bottom line: know that there are lots of timelines that have been successful for applicants. Assess your needs and try to give yourself room to retake the test if possible but don't forego applying just because of less a less than ideal timeline.
  2. Don't be afraid to use a prep service but don't waste your money on a bad one. If I had had more time I would have self-studied but since I was on such a tight timeline I used Manhattan GMAT's virtual course. I thought they were excellent and don't regret paying for the service at all and loved not having to sit in a classroom. There are plenty of crap services though. Friends, bloggers, forums can provide more user opinions on your options.
  3. The GMAT is just one (small) piece of your application. Really. I really believe the adcom folks when they say that they take folks of all different scores and that they really look at the whole package. Just take the damn test, do your best and don't consider retaking it unless you are below the 80 percent range for your target school. Do you really want to attend school XYZ if they love everything about you but won't take you unless you get your GMAT score up 20 points? Unless you have an abismal score - I doubt it's going to make or break your application. Spend your money and time improving other parts of your application. The scores are only moderately informative and I think the adcoms get that.

Essays, etc.

  1. Don't be afraid to use consultants - but get a good one. There seems to be a lot of scorn/alarm out there about the MBA consultant industry. They aren't for everyone but don't be afraid to use one because you feel like it's insincere or they're going to write your essays for you. (If they are, run away, fast.) I used Clear Admit's service. They offer many services but I primarily used them for feedback on my essays and for some quick pre-interview advice. (Their website is also a great resource in general.) I primarily used them because I was so short on time and needed to be as effective as possible (I tend to work slowly when it comes to things like this), but I had a great experience and think it would have been worth the money even if I had had more time. I will add a separate note about consultants below.
  2. I found essay books a helpful starting point. Part of what slowed me down was trying to make the essays much harder than they should be. They should be simple and to the point and I found reading other people's essays helped me frame realistic expectations for the outcome and get a sense of a workable outline.
  3. Rewrite, proofread, get feedback, etc etc. You've heard the schools' spiel about how many times they get essays with the wrong school name. Well, it's hard to believe, but don't let that be you! Give yourself time and space to sit with the end product and edit dumb mistakes out. If you are lucky enough to have access to friends or family members who can give you useful feedback, definitely use them, but I think some feedback has limited usefulness. Pick your editors carefully.
  4. Prep your recommenders. There's lots of advice on this but be sure to at least give them a copy of your resume and your Why MBA/Why Now essay. Sitting down with them and talking about why you want to do this is great too. The easier you can make this on them, the happier they'll be to do it. Especially if you want a lot of recommendations. If you are applying to many, many schools, it's probably good to break up the recommendations among several people. Be sure to buy them a nice little gift of appreciation afterwards. Don't go overboard but just acknowledge their time and your gratefulness.
  5. Give yourself plenty of time to actually upload the application. One bit of very useful advice I got on my school tour was not to underestimate the amount of time it took to complete the actual application and boy was that true. I can't imagine trying to do that for multiple schools at the last minute. Chicago wanted, for example, to know about every job I'd held since graduating from high school. That took some sleuth work and was not done in a night. Even if that sort of thing doesn't bog you down, don't plan to hit submit an hour before deadline when their servers are going to most likely crash as 2,000 other would-be's try to do the same thing. Be kind to yourself, turn this puppy in early.


This MBA application thing has spawned an entire mini-industry. Some of the services and resources are great and some are terrible. Many successful applicants do not use consultants but using one does not mean you have no integrity or are deficient in some way.

I used a consultant partly because I was short on time but also because I was incredibly insecure about the process and have absolutely no friends or family who have MBA's or any aspiration to ever get an MBA. Almost all of my ex-coworkers got their MBA from a local state program and don't have much insight about applying to a more competitive program. I read about Clear Admit in the Wall Street Journal in 2006 and sent them my resume for a free consultation that fall. I liked the woman who did my consultation and went back to them in the fall of 2007 when I was ready to apply. (In other words, I didn't shop around that much and can't tell you about using any other services.) While they assist applicants in many ways (such as just deciding whether you want an MBA or which schools to apply to), I mainly used them to get feedback on my essays. She helped with minor editorial corrections (grammar and syntax) but more importantly suggested areas to cut entirely, pointed out areas that were unclear and pushed me to replace assertions with examples. There was absolutely no rewriting her part and I think I absolutely retained my own voice and style in the end. (Evidenced by the fact that her final comments were 'this is an unusual approach, but it seems to be working'.) And I didn't always take her advice. It sounds like simple stuff but I don't think friends or family would have been as helpful to me and I think her suggestions helped me craft a stronger essay in the end that really got across what I wanted to convey. She also helped me brainstorm ideas for the very puzzling essay #2, gave me feedback on my resume and some tips for my interview.

The one risk/downside of consultants (at least the service I used) is that they tend to be pretty cautious and think of all the possible ways in which you could be unsuccessful. But having a very uninflated view of my potential was a great reality check and actually helped my self-confidence.

The Interview

I don't have much to offer here, having just had one interview. There's lots of advice out there and each school has a different approach. My interview for Chicago was very relaxed and what little prep I did do was totally unnecessary. I don't like sounding canned and if someone is going to be a jerk about the interview and ask me dumb scenario questions then I really just don't want to be bothered - but that's probably not the best attitude. There are lots of books about preparing. I tend to wonder if they don't go overboard though. Some reflection on your career and life and what choices you've made and why is a good approach for the lazy types, like me. But really it should just be a nice conversation.



Chicago Forums
League of MBA Bloggers
Beat the GMAT
Manhattan GMAT
Clear Admit
Business Week B-Schools
Wall Street Journal (great interactive snapshot of schools)
Economist Intelligence Unit
Wharton Forums

Test Prep

Manhattan GMAT - if you're going to self-study, these are still a great resource. Well-written, concise, cheaper on Amazon then their website I think. 7 books in the series. You can also purchase access to online tests and question banks, highly recommended.

The Official Guides - one large main book, one for verbal and one for quant. Must-haves. Buy on Amazon. Be sure to download and utilize the free prep software that GMAC offers.

Princeton Review and Kaplan - I bought Cracking the GMAT 2007 Edition, GMAT 800, and GMAT Premier Program but ended up just skimming them. I thought the questions were too easy and they weren't concise enough but lots of people with good scores like them so they're worth looking into if you're doing self-study. Princeton has a free practice test for evaluation that I found sort of useful to try before diving in.

Arco's GMAT Answers to the Real Essay Questions - not critical by any means but sort of a helpful skim the night before the exam.

Other Books

Your MBA Game Plan - worth a read

Accepted! 50 Successful Business School Admission Essays - helpful, as I said above, but not critical

Getting the MBA Admissions Edge - Detailed profiles of Harvard, Kellogg, Wharton, NYU, Stanford, Berkeley, INSEAD, Chicago, Columbia and MIT. Good info but a little outdated.

How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs - The bible for applicants. Great all-in-one resource but a little too overachiever for me. Nonetheless a helpful starting point and worth purchasing.


forrest gump said...

that is one pretty detailed and well written blog post. great job there.

MaybeMBA said...

Well, thank you! Hope it helps someone.