The clock is ticking for candidates applying to start an MBA program in 2015. For most applicants, round 2 represents the last realistic shot at securing a place at a top school in the class starting next fall. And this season, 17 MBA programs have their round two deadlines in a four-day period between January 5 and January 8. It’s enough to give you the January jitters!
So with just three weeks to go until the start of those round 2 deadlines, how can you best maximize your chances of admission with the time you have left? Here are our top five suggestions for focusing your time and nailing your applications:
1. Regularly check in with your recommenders. In our former roles as Admissions Directors, we would receive panicked calls around this time of year from candidates who wanted to apply in round 2 but discovered that a recommender had gone on an end of year vacation and would probably not submit the recommendation letter on time. So make sure you are aware of any constraints on your recommenders’ availability, especially during the busy end of year period.
Hopefully by now they have drafted their recommendations and just need to put the finishing touches before hitting the submit button. It is your responsibility to know where they are in the process (this is a great way to learn about “managing up.”). Ideally you should have a back-up plan, and a third recommender who can step in if one of your planned recommenders suddenly becomes unavailable. It can also be a good idea to give your recommenders a well advanced draft of your full application, to give them a holistic view of how you are presenting yourself and how they can contribute to building a clear overall view of your strengths and your achievements. If you suspect they won’t have time to read it, then try to secure a few minutes in their schedule to run through the key points. Of particular note – if you have your final GMAT score and you do not feel it is indicative of your abilities, try to ensure that the recommendation includes some reference to your analytical/intellectual ability.
2. Check if you are presenting a holistic view of yourself across your application. An MBA application should be greater than the sum of its parts. Each piece of the application – the essays, the resume, transcripts and test scores, the online forms, the recommendations – is like a piece of a puzzle that should fit together to build a picture of the real you – your goals, your accomplishments, your potential and your individuality. What are the key messages that you want to convey about your candidacy, and do they come across in each element of your application? It can sometimes be a balancing act between communicating the richness of the range of skills and experience you bring to an MBA program, and getting a more focused, specific message across. So take a break from working on your application and then come back a few days later to review the whole package, imagining yourself in the shoes of the file reader. Do the different elements of your application come together to build a coherent and memorable picture? You want to leave a strong impression in the file readers mind – after all, they are reading dozens of applications before and after yours. If possible, you should not be writing new material after January 1; at that point it should really be a just matter of polishing your presentation.
3. Check the details. While it is important to have the 30,000-foot view of the key messages that you are conveying across your application (see point 2 above), you should also carefully review your application, word by word, and make a list of any points you need to check or revisit. As Admissions Directors, we would sometimes read fantastic applications that all fell apart when it became apparent that the candidate had copy-pasted one section of an essay from another application, and left in the wrong school name. Yes, that really does happen, with alarming regularity! And don’t rely on your memory – we’ve seen mis-reported GPAs and GMATs where the transcript doesn’t match the self reported data on the application form. Admissions file readers have an eagle eye for spotting such errors.
4. Get someone else to review everything. At this stage, most candidates will have been working for some weeks or months on their applications, and have probably reviewed and reworked their essays and application forms countless times. It can be hard to see the wood for the trees and very hard to imagine how your carefully crafted work will appear to fresh eyes reading your essays for the first time. You might think that your resume is clear and compelling, but a third party might not pick up on the growing levels of responsibilities and leadership opportunities, or they may be turned off by industry jargon. So enlist help from someone who can critique your applications and give you honest, objective feedback.
5. Continue networking with the school community. Most candidates spend a lot of time at the start of the MBA application process on researching their potential target schools, as they whittle down their list and figure out which schools really are the best fit. However you should not stop learning about the school once you start writing your application. Stay connected to your target schools, through social media, newsletters and events, and continue to stay in touch with any connections you have with the relevant school communities (alumni, current students, administrators, etc). You never know who might end up having a word with a member of the Admissions Committee; it is also good to show that your knowledge of the school is bang up to date when you (hopefully) get to meet an admissions interviewer.
Between us, the Fortuna team has held senior admissions positions at most of the top business schools. We have all returned to the office in early January to find our voice mail blinking and email inbox drowning, filled with frantic messages from applicants who have experienced some mishap, weren’t able to secure an official transcript, cannot upload files, or have recommenders that are AWOL. We also saw files arriving minutes before the deadline that confused an applicant’s birth date with the deadline date, and other small details that suggested a hurried approach which then marred the rest of the application.
So once the holiday celebrations are over, and with quiet time away from the office, plan to have everything ready a few days before the January jamboree of round 2 deadlines. Once confident that the application is as strong as it can be, why not submit a day or two early. Good luck!
Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas.