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Journey to my MBA

Monday, November 13, 2006

Advise on Applying to B-School from a B-School Student

In search of a hot date

By Neil Courtis

Published: November 12 2006 15:13 | Last updated: November 12 2006 15:13

Prospective MBA students become used to lectures from alumni on the rigours of MBA study. However, neither alumni nor the schools themselves prepared me for the extraordinary rigmarole involved in applying to business school. Before crossing the threshold, business school aspirants should expect a year of lost evenings and weekends sweating over their applications.

If you want to study next autumn, you should have started your research already. Harvard and London business schools have already closed their first round of applications for 2007 study. Leading US schools will be finalising classes by the end of March.

Having spent 2006 scrambling to meet deadlines, I now see the MBA application process as a particularly tricky case study involving practical, logistical and strategic challenges.

The three core practical hurdles are transcripts, the Graduate Management Admission Test and references. My transcript – the official record of your university degree – took almost six weeks to arrive from Manchester University in the UK and only after I had submitted my applications did I realise that the registry had awarded me a degree in German and modern languages rather than the politics and philosophy I had, in fact, studied.

Next comes the GMAT, a four-hour computer-administered test of verbal and numerical skills. This requires rote learning of life-enhancing disciplines such as basic number theory, the properties of triangles and times tables up to 15. Time-poor worker bees such as myself can take a refresher course with tutors such as Manhattan Review or Kaplan, but these classes are intermittent and add weeks or even months to the application process. After my weekend of cramming, we were advised to undertake a month more practice and sit two three-hour sample tests.

Numeracy and integrity

And while worrying about GMAT, do not forget to track down some referees, ideally two people who have worked with you, like you and have the stomach to complete lengthy online questionnaires about your skills, character and potential. Woolly flummery will not do. Referees have to consider your analytical skills, numeracy and integrity. By my third application, I was wincing at the thought of asking my long-suffering mentors to write yet another online paean.

And if you want to visit the schools you might apply to, get ready for some logistical challenges. My February shortlist of five schools meant five pre-application visits. Take out a solid week to write applications. You will soon be faced with some tough choices: do you spend the weekend polishing up your maths skills to eke out another 3 per cent on the GMAT, or do you visit your fourth-choice school. And do not think that the schools are not watching. Admissions staff at top schools will expect an applicant in the same country to visit and will wonder why if you do not.

But the really hard part of the process becomes apparent when one is faced with a blank 20-page application form. It is not really the length (although top schools seem to compete over the complexity of application they can impose on you), but the personal reflection you have to undergo in order to explain why the vast expense and life disruption may be the right thing for you.

“There is a lot of soul-searching involved,” says David Simpson, senior manager of marketing and admissions at London Business School. “You have to know yourself before you can confidently talk about yourself in an application.”

For the best business schools, these forms are a marathon. IMD in Lausanne not only requires three references but also 11 different essays about your previous experience and capabilities as a global business leader of tomorrow. While business schools do not aim to dissuade applications, they definitely want to filter, argues Katty Ooms Suter, admissions and recruitment at IMD. “If you can’t handle the application, you are not going to get through the course, which is very intense. We do want to scare off people who are not right for the programme.”

The bottom line is that some business schools know they are a hot date and do not want to appear easy. Indeed, this may be why, at the top schools, it is surprisingly hard to get admissions staff on the phone. A key reason for visiting MBA fairs is to clasp the hand and claim the business card of an actual human whom you can then pester by phone and e-mail.

Soul searching

The process can become surreal. At some point you will have to explain at length, on paper and during the interview, why you should be allowed to purchase the achingly expensive MBA on offer. And when business schools ask why you want to join them, do not merely repeat their sales pitch. “We don’t just want a précis of the website,” says Mr Simpson.

However, do not be too discouraged. You will soon find yourself naturally describing your motivation for taking an MBA as a desire to “broaden your skill set” rather than anything as prosaic as wanting to “learn” stuff. And being forced into soul-searching is no bad thing. The most important and useful part of my process was to talk to MBA alumni about their experiences and subsequent careers. My final choice of school – I am starting at Insead in January – was largely determined by the unanimous enthusiasm that smart and sleek Insead graduates express for their alma mater.

And, like business itself, most elements of the application process are, to some extent, negotiable. My duff transcript did not faze the schools I applied to. And deadlines may be more flexible than they appear. Each year one or two lucky (and flexible) people on the LBS waiting list are offered a place a week before the course to fill a gap that has emerged. Even Insead has given me an extra week to prove that my French (a second language is required to start the programme) is up to scratch.

So for those starting down the MBA path I say: courage, mes amis! You have nothing to lose but your weekends.

Maximise your chances of application success

■Find referees who actually know you. A common mistake, according to Sharyn Roberts, award programmes director at the Australian Graduate School of Management, is to choose referees simply on the basis of seniority. “It is very hard to persuade applicants that we really will not be impressed by a reference from a company CEO if they have no idea what the applicant is like or how they work.”

■Be nice to the people you meet. The same people who market a school often sit on, or have influence over, admissions committees.

■Do not underestimate bureaucratic hurdles. Students who are studying abroad may require visas and these can be time-consuming to acquire. A replacement birth certificate alone can take 6-8 weeks to arrive. Plan conservatively.

■Do not underestimate how long you will need to settle in. If moving abroad, don’t expect to show up the day before classes begin.

■Be careful about help with essays. Over-studied applications can read impressively but reveal little about the applicant. Don’t over-use buzzwords.

■Include everything in your application. Business schools do not see it as their job to chase up missing elements of an application.

■Come clean about career problems. Few careers are without blemish. If you have a CV “problem” (for instance, redundancy) show how you have learned from and overcome it. Admissions staff home in on evasion.

■Visit a class. Most business schools will be happy to allow a candidate to sit in on a lecture. There is no better way of getting a flavour of the place.

■Aim high. Do not assume you will not get into a top school. Most schools like diversity and different experiences.

■Remember scholarships. More scholarships are available than you may realise (23 per cent of students at LBS now have some kind of award). Some are awarded to very distinct groups, meaning you may be one of a handful of candidates who qualify.

■Apply early.


Blogger geetu said...

Hey! This is really helpful!

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Aqua said...

my two cents on this advice of urs dave....thnx a lot......

12:26 PM  
Anonymous 800 gmat guy said...

Very nice set of tips. Thanks.

2:40 PM  

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