Days of Whine and Neurosis

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Part I: Pre-Application and the GMAT (For Future Applicants)

I started seriously committing to business school one year ago, almost to the day. I had applied for a job that I was overqualified for that would pay me too little, but it was a job that I wanted nonetheless. I interviewed twice, hit it off for everyone and impressed the decision makers, but ultimately they went with somebody else. I was really surprised that they passed on me, and I decided that I wasn’t ever going to put myself in that position again. I needed the leverage on my side, and some additional real-world skills to make it where I wanted to go.

I was, however, a little doubtful when I started looking into the process. I had been working as a professional and as an artist for years, but I wasn’t an I-Banker or a Consultant. When I picked up my first GMAT book I realized that I hadn’t seen geometry in well over a decade. I wasn’t the “typical” candidate, but I knew that if I could score well enough on the GMAT to merit consideration I could produce a compelling application. No matter where you come from, you have a chance!

First Things First:

1) Write down your “positioning statement.” Who are you, why are you unique, what have you done, what do you want to do, and how will you add to a business school community?

You will live this marketable image over the next 9-12-18-24 months, so start working on it ASAP. It won’t be perfect right away, but it’s better to get started sooner than later. All of your essays will touch on this message in some way. As my friend said, “It’s like the admissions committees are casting a play. You have to decide which roles you can audition for.”

2) Commit to making no excuses and giving it everything you have. I don’t want to make this sound like Rocky, but you’re going to have a million chances to give less than 100% or make excuses to rationalize failure. You simply have to stick your neck out and commit to this process until the fat lady sings or you’ll get eaten alive. It’s not easy, it goes on for a long time, and it’s very competitive, but the rewards are great and the satisfaction of getting into a great MBA program will make it all worth it!

Visits and Meetings:

I attended the World MBA Tour over the summer and found it to be very informative. It was my fist opportunity to meet admissions committee members and current students face to face. I didn’t make any relationships, but looking back on it, I definitely should have. I say that because I attended an info session at one of the schools I applied to and met an admissions consultant. We exchanged cards, I followed-up with an email, and we stayed in touch all the way through the process. Creating that business relationship helped my application and helped my chances. It really does matter. Getting to know the people who will read your applications is the easiest way to stand out from the thousands of applicants they will judge.

You’ll also hear some good info at these tours/info sessions, provided that you’re there to listen. I remember passing by the Tuck table at the World MBA Tour and listening to one of their adcom members. He was describing what makes a successful essay. He suggested using the STAR tactic, or Situation Task Action Result. In other words, when writing about accomplishments, describe the macro situation, talk about your specific role in helping the process, talk about what you did and show how it helped. Pretty basic stuff, but it was great to hear how they wanted the short essays arranged, and I applied that focused approach to all of the essays I wrote (even though I didn’t apply to Tuck).

You should also visit all of the schools you want to apply to, ideally at least a month before you start writing your essays. Take notes during any info sessions, write down people’s names (including those of professors whose classes you visit), jot down your general impressions, etc. All of these notes will make your essays more personal, and admissions committees want to see that you’ve researched THEIR program, not just a generic MBA.

GMAT:

If you haven’t already, start studying for the GMAT. Even if you’re only ½ sure that you’ll apply to bschool, start studying. It’s not a fun exam and it tests how willing you are to learn its style, so get on it. That said, everyone is capable of achieving a good score if they’re willing to work hard enough. For some it will come easier than for others, but it’s a challenge and you simply have to overcome it to get the ball rolling.

I didn’t start studying until August, and I took the test in November. I wish I’d had a few more months to study, but the R2 deadlines were approaching and I left myself just enough time to take the test once. Luckily, I got the score I needed on the first shot, but don’t put yourself in that position if you can avoid it.

If you’re not good at math and aren’t satisfied with your progress, find a class or a tutor. You can find plenty of test taking courses like Kaplan or Princeton Review, or you can find a private tutor. Check out Craigslist if you want to find an affordable tutor in your home town. The same goes for English and Reading Comprehension.

My favorite GMAT resources:

Official Guide to the GMAT, Volume 10 -- This book had the best, most realistic questions. The math sections at the end of the book were very tough and representative of the math you’ll face on the test.

Test Magic -- A great forum for questions, strategy, and test-taking community.

Recommendations:

Talk to your recommenders-to-be as early as possible and communicate your positioning statement to them. Obviously, they’re going to write the recommendations in their own words, but it can’t hurt to let them know which aspects of your character and accomplishments you want to highlight. They might not take your words into consideration when they write your recs, but if you never communicate you can be sure that your message won’t be heard.

I really thought that recs didn’t help all that much. I assumed that everyone had great recs and, therefore, unless you got a bad recommendation it really wasn’t a difference maker. Just recently I spoke to a former adcom member at a top-20 MBA program. They mentioned that the GMAT and the recommendations were their top two criteria! I was amazed! They said that if Bill Gates wrote a recommendation, they took it into consideration and gave the application more weight, no matter what. So, if you’re two degrees of separation or less from any famous business people or leaders, find a way to meet them face to face and try to impress them with great questions! Who knows, maybe they’ll be willing to write you recommendation if you ask.

…more to come in the next episode.