Inside an MBA Strategy Session with Former Admissions Directors

Judith Silverman Hodora, Director, Fortuna Admissions

Judith Silverman Hodara, Director, Fortuna Admissions

It’s time to talk strategy:

Top business schools are announcing deadlines and essay requirements for the 2017/18 cycle. Three coaches from Fortuna’s team of former MBA admissions directors and insiders recently joined Poets & Quants’ John A. Byrne in a live strategy session, focusing on how to maximize your chances of admission to Wharton, Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School.

Many terrific questions surfaced during this hour-long dialogue, which you can still watch in its entirety. I offered advice from my perspective as former Director of MBA Admissions Wharton, along with my colleagues Heidi Hillis, former Stanford GSB MBA Interviewer, and Malvina Complainville, former Harvard Business School Assistant Director.

I’ve distilled our thoughts to six key questions that were asked by session participants:

1. Which qualities do schools look for in a recommendation letter?

First, schools want a recommendation from someone who knows you very well. This is unlikely to be your boss’s-boss’s-boss. They want a recommendation from someone who’s worked with you on a daily basis and has had the opportunity to observe your performance in a variety of situations, over a decent period of time (6 months plus). Detailed insight is therefore the most important criterion.

Beyond that, schools are looking for someone who has credibility (both some seniority and the ability to compare you with peers). You also don’t want to go too far back in your professional experience: Ideally both recommenders should be from the last three to four years, and one should be working with you currently, or has done so in the past one to two years. If you’re reaching too far back into your work history, schools start to wonder if you’re not highly regarded in your current position, or if there are issues with your recent performance.

Finally, some schools give more weight than others to the seniority of the recommender – HBS gives more weight to this than other schools, for example.

2. Besides taking additional college courses now (and getting As), in what other ways can applicants showcase a dramatic improvement in quant skills over their undergrad GPA performance?

A strong GMAT (or GRE) score is an important signal, particularly if you have weak quant in your undergrad. Most schools publish scores achieved by the mid 80% range of their incoming students, which gives you a sense of where they’re setting the bar. Plan to make time for dedicated study, and to take the test more than once. If your quant GMAT/GRE is not stellar, then taking some additional quant based courses (such as Berkeley Online Extension) can be helpful to build an “alternative transcript.”

3. You talked about very traditional applicants demonstrating their uniqueness. What are your thoughts on non-traditional applicants trying to show they could fit well into your respective programs? Are you turned off by non-traditional applicants for particular reasons?

Schools love applications from non-traditional applicants! Remember that the admissions team is tasked with crafting a dynamic classroom, so the more diverse the applicant pool, the better. The challenges for non-traditional candidates are typically as follows: It may be harder to demonstrate strong analytical ability (e.g. the GMAT quant can be tough for liberal arts grads who are working in, say, journalism or government). It may also require some creative thinking to compellingly convey what you’ll bring to the classroom and contribute to the discussion. You also need to show some logical thread between where you have come from and where you want to go—a connection between the experience you have gained to date, what you will get out of the program, and what you want to do in the future. Sometimes non-traditional candidates start out not seeing the connections and may begin as less effective at articulating their post-MBA career goals than, say, management consultants or investment bankers.  However, we do think that with some thoughtful self assessment and perhaps some coaching support, you’ll be able to find those threads.

4. How important is undergrad GPA – especially if you’ve completely shifted from your specialization to a different career path?

A top MBA program is a demanding academic experience; while you may not need a stellar GPA, you need to convincingly convey you can handle the coursework. Schools do look at your academic track record holistically. Meaning, in addition to your GPA they will take into account other factors: where you studied, what you studied, your GMAT/GPA, and any relevant analytical skills you may have developed through your professional experience.

5. I’m overseas and it’s impractical to visit a US school due for financial reasons, nor do I have many contacts with alumni of these schools where I live. What do I do to counter a perception of weakness in my application in terms of alumni interaction and campus visits?

Schools are sympathetic to this situation and are well aware not all candidates can afford to visit the school. They will obviously look at this more charitably if, for example, you are in Asia and applying to the US, versus if you are in Philadelphia and applying to a program in NYC! These days the schools offer plenty of channels to interact virtually – via the website, online events, social media, etc. Take advantage of these online opportunities. You can also ask the schools about putting you in touch with local alumni.

6. How honest can you be about not being very clear about your post MBA goals?

While admissions officers are aware there’s often little correlation between applicants’ stated career goals and actual career paths upon graduation—after all, and MBA is designed to be a transformative experience—they still want to see some evidence of career vision.

Why? Because candidates who articulate a clear, coherent path for the future demonstrate an ability to be self-reflective, focused and adaptive in the face of opportunity. Practically speaking, they’re also more likely to be motivated in their job search and land a great offer immediately post-MBA than candidates who were wishy-washy at the start. It seems that the former group is better equipped to reformulate and recraft their vision, even if they experience a complete change-of-heart during business school.

That said, authenticity is essential—demonstrate that you’re both self-aware and have a great sense of what a stint at business school will mean for you and for the community you would enter.


For more insights, advice and insider perspectives, watch the full strategy session.

Judith is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former director of MBA admissions at Wharton. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 8 of the top 10 business schools.

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