Long-Term Planning for Your MBA

By: MBA Mission

The Big Picture

With the final round of MBA applications for almost all of the top schools upon us, we can take a brief moment to reflect on the main story of the year thus far: application volumes are up significantly as a result of economic turmoil. So, with the promise of increased competition for a finite number of spaces going forward, it is best that prospective MBA applicants who are targeting admission for next year (or even beyond) start working to improve their chances now. Further, regardless of this macro-trend, by being proactive, candidates can remove a great deal of stress from the process and ensure that in July, when the 2008 applications appear, they can simply focus on “mastering” the applications. We at mbaMission have several big picture recommendations for candidates to consider so that they can be as competitive as possible.

Few realize that there is a tremendous opportunity to visit campuses now to learn about and establish interest in specific schools early on. It is important to note that campus visits are not just opportunities to “register” with the Admissions Committee, but are also a time for you to gain an intimate understanding of various academic methodologies and social environments. However, on a less idealistic note, these visits will certainly help you frame your thoughts and write far more personal essays when the time comes. After all, there is only so much you can learn about a school from its website. So, we advise early campus visits, as they will allow you to experience the true character of your MBA program of choice, absorb the information and then discuss your connection to the school in a profound way.

Beyond campus visits, by meeting with alumni or current students now, you can gain a more intimate understanding of your schools of choice. Current students in particular will have an awareness of specific programs and classes that may not be prominently featured on a school’s website, but that may be quite appealing to you and may enable you to strengthen your case for attending that particular school. By meeting with students and alumni and by visiting classes, you will collect a variety of data points that will serve as a foundation for you to persuade the Admissions Committees that their school is ideally suited to you, in a way that few others will be able to do.

While the steps discussed thus far are somewhat subtle, you can take more overt measures to bolster your candidacy. For example, if you have not yet taken a leadership role in your community, you still have nine months in which to create a track record and show that you are a substantive individual outside of the office. If you were to start volunteering in September, your gesture would seem far less sincere, and you would lack the profound experiences to explore in your essays.

When selecting volunteer activities in which to involve yourself, you should — first and foremost — join organizations about which you feel passionate. If you are excited about your volunteer experience, you will be more committed, enjoy a more profound experience and have a far more genuine story to tell. Ideally, you will create a record of community experiences that will both complement and supplement your profile: the accountant who volunteers with Junior Achievement is complementing his existing profile by showing a commitment to his professional path and the desire to give back in this area; the accountant who coaches soccer in his community is supplementing his profile in that he is offering a new window into his personality and abilities. Your community activities have the power to reveal a true passion for your field (complementary) or to shift the Committee’s perspective (supplementary) on you and thus differentiate you from many others.

In the examples above, we use Junior Achievement and soccer coaching to illustrate our point; while a solid commitment to any organization will be helpful to your candidacy, the more esoteric the organization, the more distinct you become. While you should not volunteer for a completely obscure organization just to be different, if you are truly passionate about both soccer and antiquities preservation, for example, you should consider volunteering in the latter field, thus increasing your opportunities to discuss this unusual hobby/interest. Regardless of the organization you choose and the nature of your activities, if you can (to cart out a cliché) “make a difference” within your organization and show true leadership in doing so, you should be able to add an entirely new dimension to your application.

Similar to immersing yourself in community endeavors, by advancing personal achievements, you have the power to differentiate yourself from the indistinguishable masses. While every candidate has his/her work experience and academics, you can offer a far more diversified and remarkable picture of yourself through your volunteer and personal accomplishments.

In terms of personal achievements, you should focus on accelerating the timeline of existing endeavors. If you have always intended to publish a certain article and have almost finished a final draft, then finish it. If you have always intended to earn your CFA and only have Level Three of the exam left, then take the final test this year. If you can run 20 miles and have always dreamed of completing a marathon, do it this year. We are not suggesting that if you have never run a mile in your life that you start training for a marathon now; however, if a goal is in sight and will be otherwise achieved after your applications are due, you should accelerate your timeline to ensure that you have completed it before the first-round deadline.

While it is important to build up your personal and community profiles, it can be equally important to bolster your academic profile through additional coursework. Many candidates fret about their poor undergrad performance and feel that they are powerless to change the Admissions Committees’ perspectives on their academic aptitudes, but MBA programs are actually far more forgiving of previous academic problems than other graduate programs are. For most candidates, their academic experience is far in the past, and their GMAT score, references and work experience are better indicators of their potential for success. This is not to suggest that poor grades do not matter; however, poor grades can be mitigated.

If your academic performance is worrisome to you, you should certainly consider enrolling in additional coursework immediately. In particular, if you did poorly in math courses (even if your overall GPA is quite high), you may raise concerns about your ability to manage a heavily quantitative workload. Thus, you should consider taking a calculus or statistics course. Furthermore, in order to show an aptitude for management studies, you might consider taking an accounting, economics or corporate finance class. Of course, it is important that you get As in these courses to show that you have an aptitude for this kind of work and that you take your academics quite seriously.

It is also important to recognize that additional coursework is not solely the domain of the “academically challenged.” Even those who did quite well in their undergrad classes might explore the option of taking additional coursework. Liberal Arts majors with 4.0s and no quantitative background can benefit from two As — one in a math discipline and one in a management discipline – which will allow them to make strong statements about their competencies for their coming studies.

The Details

Now that we've covered “macro” ways to significantly bolster your profile on your way to becoming a more competitive candidate next year, let's look at pragmatic and practical steps that you can take to ensure that you will have the time needed to put your best foot forward. In some ways, these are “micro” tips for the uber-motivated — those who leave absolutely nothing to chance.

With some foresight and planning, you can ensure that when the essay questions come out in early July, you will be able to focus solely on them and reduce the “noise” around you. In last week’s piece, we discussed visiting schools now, a step that will not only show your commitment, but that will also free up significant time in September. Another simple step that many can take is to prepare a resume now and then make small modifications and updates regarding your most recent position in October, during the latest stages of the application process. By preparing your resume now, you will save precious hours that would otherwise be spent crafting your resume during a much busier summer. Further, an added benefit is that you will start the process of reflecting on your accomplishments and reawakening yourself to certain experiences now as well. In many ways, preparing your resume now will be a primer for your essay brainstorming process, which will be the foundation for your essays.

We find that one of the most frustrating parts of the application process for candidates is connecting with and motivating recommenders. With some foresight, you can take the time now to identify recommenders (even if you do not approach them for months) and gather some intelligence on each of them. Has your recommender written letters for anyone else? Is he/she generous with his/her time when it comes to employee feedback and review sessions? One of the best windows into your recommendation process will be the previous experiences of your colleagues, with whom you may want to speak to discover how your supervisor managed their respective processes. By identifying recommenders who will be helpful and generous, you will potentially alleviate the stress of missed deadlines and unpredictable letters.

While you should spend time right now doing your homework on available recommenders, you should also take time to reconnect with previous supervisors who could be strong potential recommenders, but with whom you may have fallen out of touch. You do not want to be in a position where you are calling a former supervisor for the first time in a year and asking him/her for a large chunk of time on a tight timeline. If you can identify a former supervisor whose time you will need, then make contact now and keep the relationship warm for the next few months. You will be far better off when the letter-writing process begins. (Note: In most cases, MBA Admissions Committees have a bias toward current supervisors, but depending on the situation, past supervisors can be acceptable.)

At mbaMission, we always emphasize that candidates should strive to differentiate themselves via their experiences and the sincerity of their voice within their essays. With respect to sincerity, many candidates have trouble honestly articulating their post-MBA goals, and virtually every MBA program requires that candidates write an essay on short- and long-term career goals (HBS being the notable exception, as they make a goal statement optional). If you aspire to enter a competitive field, such as banking or consulting, it may be wise to conduct informational interviews or even job-shadow an individual for a day, where possible. MBA Admissions Committees frown on vague goal statements or generic claims that lack a profound personal connection to a position and therefore lack credibility. The sincerity of your interest, magnified and thus better articulated, as a result of personal experience, can make the difference for you.

For those who plan to remain with their current firm post-MBA, it wise to do some research now to find out whether your firm will sponsor your MBA. While the financial benefits of firm sponsorship are obvious, many candidates do not realize that there is additional power inherent in being a firm-sponsored candidate. The Admissions Committees know that these candidates, with their firm’s backing, will be employed upon graduation and that their post-MBA goals are thereby “guaranteed.” Furthermore, the Admissions Committee will sleep better, knowing that when they report their school’s statistics to Business Week, they will see a small benefit in the “percentage of candidates employed upon graduation” and possibly even “average starting salary” categories. So, you should find out whether your firm has such a program and then, if so, learn about the process for earning a firm scholarship. We have worked with clients who have needed to apply for such a scholarship within their own company 1.5 years before their proposed programs would begin; obviously, in such cases, you do not want to be applying at the last moment. Similarly, we have worked with clients whose firms did not originally have sponsorship programs, but created them when our candidates brought forth the idea — a process that can take months of bureaucratic haggling. So, this is certainly a process that you should start now.

Finally, if you are remarkably diligent, you can take one last step to free up some time later by preparing your responses now to the short answer sections — the small sections within the application forms that pertain to your work history, community accomplishments, scholarships and other criteria. These sections do not tend to change much from year to year, and many candidates choose to put off these “details” until the last moment. By starting now, however, you can rid yourself of an enormous headache later. Furthermore, similar in benefit to updating your resume now, by completing this step early on, you may contemplate and discover stories that will be quite useful when you are writing your essays.

In this piece, we have outlined a variety of steps that candidates can take in order to be ideally prepared for the application process. Even if you take only a few of these steps, you should be well ahead of your competition and thus should be poised for a well thought out, lower stress experience, which should in turn maximize your chances for success.