A Prophet I am Not
Despite the nature of heavenly event #1 , heavenly event #2 and heavenly event #3 in my journey to an elite MBA, I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on the subject of getting into top business programs. In fact, the only true experts are the adcoms themselves (because they make the actual decisions) and, perhaps, admissions consultants (especially if they have dealt with hundreds of applicants over time).
One of many defining “aha” moments for me during this journey came back in March of 2012 during my Stanford visit when one of the senior members of the GSB’s adcom said to a group of us (in so many words–gross paraphrasing alert!) “…and for those of you who are asking current students and recent graduates for advice on ‘how to get in’, here’s the thing: THEY don’t even know why they ‘got in’ “. While I feel strongly that the advice that I received from successful admits on my own applications was invaluable, I’ve always kept this idea in mind.
Lack of expert status notwithstanding, my performance in this process does imply that I at least have a pretty good idea. The premise upon which that implication is based is similar to those of my friends who were gracious enough to impart some wisdom to me just a few short months (or weeks; or days) ago when I was losing my mind (like many of you are right now). Multiple admits is never an accident; and a set of best practices can generally be gleaned from the journey of one with such fortune.
I’d like a share my personal take on some of these best practices for the sake of current and future applicants. This is neither the first nor last word or opinion on this topic; but it is my small contribution to the mountain of op-ed that one can find in about a bazillion places around the internet.
My 30Something Thesis on Top-MBA Admissions (and Beyond)
- Thou shall play to win: You’re in the big leagues. Why even bother if you’re not going to play full out? A lot of your results (good, bad or in between) will have to do with execution (GMAT, essays, positioning, interviews). Plan on putting forth your maximum effort if you really want to play at this level.
- Thou shall respect the elite MBA application process by starting early: From beginning to end, this process is a TON of work. From school research to GMAT prep (and retakes) to essay writing each phase from day 1 til day last will seem more arduous than the next. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by waiting until the last minute to get everything done. This is not like high school where there are only a handful of folks who are a lot sharper than everyone else. 70-80% of your competition is more than qualified to take your spot at any school you could name. Respect that and give yourself enough time to make sure that every answer choice, essay paragraph and recommendation serves you well.
- Thou shall respect the GMAT and take it seriously: Most people who’ve tried to cut corners on the GMAT have ended up marching to their own funeral on test day. If you want a spot in an elite MBA program, it won’t be enough to just do well. You’ll need to do better than the vast majority of people, which means getting as close to the 90% percentile or better, if at all possible. Unless you’re a natural whiz on BOTH of the major sections, don’t kid yourself by trying to be cheap and skimpy on your prep. Buy the books. Take the classes. Put in the long hours. Do whatever you need to get into your target schools’ middle 80% percentile of scores or better. The GMAT won’t get you into your dream school, but it will definitely keep you out of it if your results communicate that you may possibly be incapable to handling a rigorous first-year curriculum.
- Thou shall not ever attempt to explain a poor GMAT score: I just had this conversation today with someone who was asking me for admissions advice on Beat the GMAT. There’s a fairly clear and simple reason why your dream school’s adcom ain’t buying any story about your GMAT. They know that everyone who has A) the aptitude and B) the tenacity and discipline to prepare (and/or retake the exam) should be able to get a “good score” that is within their 80th percentile range. Unlike your four years of undergrad (about which a substandard performance might be explainable), any explanation that you try to offer about your GMAT will be seen as a whiny excuse. They’ll feel that you either lack A) that aptitude or B) tenacity–both of which would be bad news for you. Don’t do it. Do your absolute best, retake the exam (or edit/expand your list of schools) if you need to and submit your apps with confidence–AFTER you’ve comfortably achieved the 80th percentile range or better for EACH school you are applying to.
- Thou shall not shoot in the dark: Applying to 9 or 10 schools that you know very little about (besides the prestige of their names) just to “see what happens” is a poor strategy; and one that I completely intended on following at one time. Once you really take the time to research and rank MBA programs in your own mind, you are likely to find no more than 5-7 (max) that really interest you.
- Thou shall perform rigorous research on thy target schools: Your level of knowledge about your target schools will scream loudly in your essays and interviews. Do thy homework. It has the potential to pay big dividends later in the process. Those who skimp on this typically wind up sounding like everyone else; which is one good way to get a ding without an interview even though you have a 700+ GMAT and a 3.5+ GPA. Spend a lot of time in particular building granular knowledge about the specific concentrations, classes, professors, institutes, organizations, contests and initiatives that interest you most. Your ability to speak about these things in detail will have a lot to do with whether adcoms will view you as being a good “fit” for their school. Scour websites. Interview students. Make contact with professors. It all helps.
- Thou shall not believe they own press: Regardless of how great you think you are or how phenomenal other people tell you that you are, don’t believe any of it. Approach this process as if every school that you apply to is a long shot that you must exhibit near perfect execution to gain admission to…because they are. The moment that you buy into your own press will be the moment that you become arrogant and start cutting corners. Obsess over ever sentence of every essay; every detail of every story; your body language in an interview; the kind of info that comes up when your name is typed into Google. It all counts and it all has the potential to place a (+) or (-) by your name. Take nothing for granted. Consider that people with higher GMAT’s, higher GPAs, more extras, and more impressive work and leadership experience than you have been dinged from every school that you are applying to. Focus on details in an attempt to circumvent a similar fate.
- Thou shall consider being reviewed by Sandy Kreisberg on Poets & Quants: Sandy’s series on Poets & Quants can be a jagged little pill to swallow. Its harsh, often crass and exactly what you need to hear before you go too deep in any direction of optimizing your profile. When I had my profile reviewed, I got the blessing of hearing all the “bad” parts about my profile right up front. Then in everything that I did from then on, I was aware of those weak points and, thus, able to craft each aspect of my candidacy to handicap them to the best of my abilities.
- Thou shall leverage admissions consultants and previous applicants: I’m not saying that you have to go blow a wad on an admissions consultant; but I am saying that it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Whether you end up purchasing their services or not, admissions consultants are a wellspring of information and real-world case studies in this area. In the past, I’ve recommended Kofi Kankam of Admit Advantage and Linda Abraham of Accepted.com. While I am not a customer of either outfit, both contributed a tremendous amount of advice that helped to guide me to where I am now.
- Thou shall take admissions consultants with a grain of salt: Now that we’ve broadly covered the benefits of admissions consultants, here is the caveat: you must take the consultants advice within the full context of their perspective. They are generally nice people who want to see you “get in”–and help you if you’re open to that. They are also constantly mindful of their success rates, which includes buyers remorse if you don’t get in anywhere. That would make them sad. Due to this circumstance, most admissions consultants are risk averse. They don’t want you putting your heart and soul into an app that may not get you accepted. One consultant, out of concern for me, suggested that I extend my target schools farther down the the rankings list (let’s just say closer to #25 than #5) just to be safe. She meant well and meant no harm; yet here I am going into January with acceptances from 2 of the top 5 and a pending interview at a 3rd.
- Thou shall have multiple essay/application reviewers: One set of eyes cannot catch everything. Whether you use friends who are current (or former) MBA students or you hire a consultant, get multiple sets of eyes that know what they are doing to ensure that your application is top quality.
- Thou shall start an MBA blog: So here’s my soap box about MBA blogging: Do it because I said so….ok, ok…I know that blind following doesn’t really work well for exceptionally bright people like you, so here’s my actual rationale. For starters, the people who are commiserating with you through this process will become a huge source of encouragement and confidence should you begin blogging (and they really like your blog). I personally believe that there is just something magical about having people on your side; rooting for you. In my case, my blog attracted Cheetarah1980, the person who is most singularly responsible for the envious position that I am in at this point in the admissions process. While I had several other friends who also invested hours of their time helping me (and I thank each of you!), she literally invested months reviewing my material–not because she had the time, because she didn’t. It was because she read my blog and saw a person that she began to root for. The same was the case with Linda Abraham of Accepted.com and Kofi Kankam of Admit Advantage. While I was not their client, they rooted for me and gave me about as much advice as one could every hope for short of the full monty that their actual clients get when they invest in their services. I can’t tell you who might reach out to you. It is likely to be a completely different set of people than those who reached out to me. It is impossible to guess who will buy your story and seek to help you out. What I do know, however, is that no one will buy a story that they aren’t aware of because you’ve failed to share it. Blog through your MBA application experience. At the very least, it will provide a great sense of catharsis for you.
- Thou shall apply as early as possible: Statistically, more people apply during Round 2 than during any other round. There is, however, a bigger reason to apply on the earlier side of admissions: managing the logistics of your applications, any acceptances and finances. When you go for the gusto during round one, you will generally know by Thanksgiving whether you need to tee up for another round. If you wait until the second round and blow it, then you’re probably toast. Additionally, earlier acceptances take the pressure off should you decide to move ahead with R2; and in the event that you are accepted to somewhere you want to go, you’ll have that much more time to not only save money but devote your finances to locking things down with the school of your choice (admit weekend, deposit, summer plans, moving, etc.).
- Thou shall not apply in round 3 without an Olympic medal, performance at Carnegie Hall or cure for cancer on thy CV: At this point, schools are simply rounding out their classes. While I’m sure that there are examples of non-exceptional (in relation to their peers, at least) applicants who were admitted during R3, the odds are insurmountable. Besides, being late to the party is NOT a great habit to begin your business school career with. I”m just saying.
- Thou shall not assume thyself the exception to the rule: Yes, there is someone at HBS with a 2.8 GPA and a 620 GMAT; but please don’t toy with your own emotions by putting a lot of effort into trying to be that one. Your GPA is something that you can no longer do anything about; yet things like your GMAT, work performance, etc. are all things that you can push upward prior to submitting your application. Don’t even bother being inspired by those 1-off “exception to the rule” stories of people with Phoenix stats who ended up at Wharton instead. They probably came from rich families; or grew up 3rd world poor; or have something else “going” for them that your reality is far from. You’re smart. You’re capable. Do what you need to do to build a competitive profile. If you are unsure about what it means to do that, then you might be an excellent candidate for hiring an admissions consultant.
- Thou shall play nice in the MBA sandbox: Avoid being a jerk on various MBA blogs and forums like Poets & Quants, BeatTheGmat and GMAT club. Most of the people on each of these sites (and others like them) are working their butts off to try and get into the school of their dreams–or at least something close to that. If you don’t tend to be the type who is open-minded when it comes to accepting diverse perspectives that may contend with yours, then b-school probably isn’t the place for you anyway. Instead, try med school or some other environment where they deal with absolutes. You’d like it there. There is almost always a “right” and a “wrong” answer that no one is allowed to disagree with.
- Thou shall not apply to “safety schools”: While I understand the strategy of doing this, I still think its off base. That’s not to say that you should snub a particular school because they are lower ranked than the school that you dream of. That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying, however, is that you should not apply to any school that you would not go to just because you feel that you are a “shoe-in”; and that has nothing to do with rank. It has a lot more to do with fit. Here’s your acid test: if you got in with NO money, would you attend and gladly pay your loans back over the 2-10 years after you graduate? If your answer to that question is not “yes”, then do not apply.
- Thou shall have well researched, realistic goals: Next to the GMAT, stepping to a top business school with goals that aren’t up to snuff will create the easiest excuse for a given ad com to place your application in the ding pile with a totally clear conscience. Again, if you don’t know what it means to do this, then speak to previous successful admits and online communities or speak with a consultant.
- Thou shall know thy demographic and where thou fittest among thy peers: So, life ain’t fair. We all know that; but hey, we could all be war orphans in 3rd world countries. So let’s just all collectively GET OVER the bubbling emotions of how life ain’t fair because we grew up poor/are over represented/under represented/didn’t know X/had to work full time in undergrad/went to public school/have a speech impediment and a lazy eye, etc. and look at the facts; and one fact is that not everyone to your left or to your right is your competition–most aren’t, in fact. Your competition is comprised of those who are most like you: people who come to the table with your undergrad major, your alma mater, your industry, your company pedigree, your geo location, speak the languages you speak, etc. Ad coms are like chefs building 7-course meals. There needs to be an entree’, a vegetable, a starch, a salad, a soup, a bread, etc. You’re a tomato. How do you stack up against all of the other tomatoes? Never mind that loaded mash over there because besides GMAT you aren’t really being compared to her. Your job is to convince ad coms that you are the one (or one of the ones) they should pick to lend a tomato’s perspective in class and in study groups. Be VERY WELL AWARE of how you stack up against others like you. Do everything within your power to paint a picture of yourself that displays you as clearly superlative among that group. For instance, I know very well where I stand among 35 year old b-school applicants; and African American males; and engineering majors; and people who went to black colleges; and people who are in Toastmasters; and people with 10+ years of work experience. I also provided data and numbers to illustrate all of that–especially in areas where the adcom might not know much about (such as my having a pretty high class rank from college despite a sort of wonk wonk GPA, etc).
- Thou shall submit a well-balanced, rounded out application: Remember that you are painting a picture of your candidacy. It must display your academic, professional, personal and intellectual (not the same as academic; more about how you think than grades and scores) value to the ad com. Its never a bad idea to make a checklist of which attributes you want to display and check your app as a whole for an example of each. While you may showcase some things in your resume or essays, other things might come up in the detail that you provide on the online application or in a cover letter. If you have the opportunity to submit a video, PowerPoint or essay about you outside of work (e.g. Wharton’s day without work responsibilities or Stanford’s what matters most)–jump all over that. Tweak, edit and tweak again until you’re sick of looking at what you’re about to submit.
- Thou shall communicate an upward trajectory in thy career: One of the opportunities that you have to impress ad coms is with the trajectory of your resume. This is also something that I don’t think people put enough energy into focusing on. Simply put, your trajectory needs to generally point upward. You can show this by income, responsibility or title. If possible, use all three to illustrate this. In many cases, however (mine included), an upward path may not be so obvious. This might especially be true if you’ve taken a few lateral rotations (like I have). It might even get more sticky if you actually took a pay cut (like I did). The main thing is that you must use your resume and in some cases, your essays to show how each move was A) strategic, B) a closer step toward your goals and C) a move up. “How were you able to show a job with a pay cut as upward movement?”, you might ask. Simple. More responsibility, managing more people and choosing a job within an industry that was more directly related to my goals. See how this works? Other details like notating the size of your company (in revenue), budgets or capital assets you oversaw, or just explaining WHY you went from one opportunity to the next. Illustrate a clear path to your future goals.
- Thou shall add context to thy academic performance: One of the ways that you can show that you are superlative among your peers is to add context to your academic accomplishments. In my case, I had a very challenging undergraduate major (there was only one summa in my class out of nearly 100 EE majors; and it wasn’t me) that no doubt made it a little more difficult to have a pristine GPA (yet I also knew that plenty of people who had my major DID earn pristine GPAs–and at better schools. So I didn’t make any excuses–catch that. Also catch what I did next.). When you look at my actual number, its hardly impressive; however, when I noted on my resume that only about 7% of the people who I graduated with had the same GPA or higher and that I made my honor society for that profession, that redefined the adcom’s perspective on what my GPA number meant in context to how I performed versus my peers.
- Thou shall quantify responsibility and results: This is really related to the previous two points. Attach numbers to everything. Be specific. The ad coms will appreciate it. I”m not an ad com member; yet I imagine that they’d hate to loose a great person in the next class of your dream school because you gave them no specifics to add context to your candidacy.
- Thou shall be a do-gooder: Community service counts big time in this process. At the same time, this isn’t about just signing up for some random tutoring program and quasi-enthusiastically showing up a few times per month to teach fractions. Just like your job, you want to show impact, responsibility and even advancement if it is available within your chosen activity. The real trick is to do something that you love doing where you enjoy making a contribution. If you start there, everything else will most likely take care of itself. And if there is an impact that you can quantify, all the better.
- Thou shall write an optional essay for every application: Remember that picture? Remember context and detail? Well, unless you are a 3.89 former economics major from HYP with a 780 GMAT who’s a McKinsey alum/Olympian with a well-funded start-up, a non profit foundation in Bangladesh and a rich daddy who’s running for President, you’re bound to have a need to add just a tad more context to your story. Your optional essay is your chance to do that. Low GPA because you worked full time in college? Had to retake a class or two? Got great stats but very little community service because you work all the time? Come from an over-represented group like white males in finance or Indian males in IT? Use your optional essay section to add whatever context you need to plug even the tiniest holes in your profile. If you do it right, you could very well put the finishing touches on a masterpiece. Just DON’T write War and Peace. Stick to the facts and keep it painfully brief. If you can keep it to 100-150 words, that’d be fantastic.
- Thou shall choose thy recommenders wisely: This is self explanatory. Don’t ask anyone to recommend you unless you’re sure that they A) are impressed with you (by their own admission) and B) like you in general and support your upward movement. You’ll be better off explaining (in your optional essay) why your immediate direct supervisor isn’t recommending you than taking a chance on a rec from a boss that you don’t trust. Believe it or not, quite a few people get into great schools without a direct boss’ recommendation. Its not a death sentence, the adcoms will simply want a coherent explanation that makes sense. I got lucky with my current boss; however, a few years ago I had a boss with whom I had a horrible relationship. She was a poor leader, a well-known company slut (20 years worth!), and I didn’t respect her–and I was quite vocal about my lack of respect to boot; thus, our relationship was rocky. I would have never asked her for a recommendation; and neither should you in even a remotely similar circumstance. Don’t allow someone who you know has a personal issue with you to block you out of your future. Don’t allow their unfair opinion to count. Finally, choose a good writer. My best recommendations came from great writers–people who were proficient at expressing their thoughts on paper.
- Thou shall become the project manager of they recommendations: Here’s a newsflash. Even the most well-wishing recommender WILL blow off your recommendations a time or two simply because your dream of going to Booth or Tuck or Wharton or Stanford is not central to their life. Manage them. Give them a folder that explains what you are trying to do and why. Tell them why you need their help. Give them a deadline that is well before the actual deadline (even though they will know the actual deadline when they sign in). Manage the process up until the time you get the email notice that each recommendation has been turned in. You might end up being a pest at times, but you’ll be glad you did once you can let off that sigh of relief that your apps are complete. Also, your recommenders will understand. They get it; it’s just that their daily lives don’t revolve around your apps. Again, manage the process accordingly.
- Thou shall focus on content and not production on video and PowerPoint essays: Multimedia essays can be a fantastic opportunity for you to paint bright colors over some of the grayer spots in your profile–your portrait. The biggest mistake that you could make, however, would be to put so much effort into putting on a great show/making an amazing video/entertaining/wowing and impressing that you basically end up turning in a monkey act that doesn’t tell the adcom anything about you that is going to help your candidacy. Both my Booth PowerPoint and my MIT video were fairly basic and straightforward. Both were nice and professional, but neither was overly polished or produced; and why should they have been? This isn’t a production contest; its a PROFILE contest (catch that!!!!!!!!!) They were also focused on giving very specific information that filled in specific areas of my profile that needed it; and in both cases, it worked. I got both interviews.
- Thou shall prepare for thy interviews: Everyone who makes it to the interview round for your target school is serious competition for you. If the ad com didn’t like them, they wouldn’t be there. Don’t become over confident in the fact that you’ve been granted an interview. For each of my interviews, I’ve embraced the very real possibility that I might not make it to the other side. I believe that my humility and acceptance of a possible negative fate in each case thus far has encouraged me to prepare in a way that really helped me to perform. My Wharton group interview result in particular was the result of tedious preparation. Even in the case of my Booth interview (which I thought fell flat), the interviewer later shared (after my acceptance) that they were extremely impressed with me (go figure). While I have no clue how my MIT interview will go, I can assure you that it won’t be taken for granted either.
- Thou shall save thy money: As soon as you get an admit, EVERYONE will begin lunging for your wallet. Your school, the airlines, hotels, next year’s landlord, moving companies, your favorite men’s store/boutique. Start saving as soon as possible. Once you actually get that admit that you will have invested 6 months to a year or more vying for, everything will move very fast; and there will be a toll of some sort literally at every stop from that point until your very last loan payment is made. Believe it.
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