There are three stages to the admissions cycle to get into a top business school: pre-application, application, and post-application. Each of these periods is important to get into your dream school and each takes a fair amount of your time and focus. Beginning to plan for the MBA two years before applying to business school allows candidates to address any hole in their story. Applying shortly before the deadline (while it may work for some candidates) is not optimal because it does not allow enough time for candidates to build up a track record or to address any potential weaknesses in their story.
So let’s start with the first of the three stages: pre-application. This is when you do your due diligence to decide which MBA program is the best fit for you. During this stage, candidates can research MBA rankings, review program websites and marketing materials, attend open house events, visit campuses, and refine their personal brands. What a candidate does during the pre-application period can significantly change his or her odds for admission to an elite business school.
Another important component of this stage is GMAT preparation. The GMAT material covers mathematics, and grammar, and other subjects you probably studied many years ago. When was the last time you were tested on a sentence completion exercise? By taking a GMAT prep course during this period, you can increase your test performance when you take the exam.
Starting early also gives you the opportunity to strengthen your quantitative background, especially if your GPA is low or you do not have a business background. I had a Caucasian, male client who was an engineer and who had attended five universities before finally graduating with a 2.9 grade point average. He was able to strengthen his academic background by taking two business classes and earning an A in both of them. Taking the initiative to attend finance and accounting courses and demonstrating that he had the intellectual aptitude and discipline to handle rigorous coursework was exactly what he needed to do to mitigate the low GPA. He ended up gaining admission to a top MBA program and received several thousand dollars in scholarships.
Overall, there are four basic steps that can guide candidates in the pre-application process. They include looking at the various rankings of business schools, attending various open house events, reviewing the marketing materials of the schools you’re interested in, and finally making campus visits to help narrow your choices. My general opinion of rankings is that they are a good starting point to gain perspective on the brands of the programs and how students, alumni, and recruiters view them. However, I caution applicants about using rankings as the only determinant for their decision to apply to a particular program. The methodologies for ranking business schools vary from one list to another, and a large amount of the information is subjective. It is also important to remember that just because a program is ranked in the top ten doesn’t mean that you will fit in there.
Open house events are another good opportunity for you to become acquainted with the different MBA programs. Each summer and fall, business schools embark on an extensive recruitment schedule that includes on-campus information sessions and open house events across the globe. These events are designed to introduce prospective candidates to the MBA program through presentations from admissions staff, faculty, current students, and alumni. Invites are often extended to prospective candidates living in the area where the admissions events take place. I recommend that you provide your contact information to the admissions office as soon as possible so that you can be invited. Many business schools use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with prospective students. You can also subscribe to the blogs of the MBA admissions board so you will be one of the first to know about upcoming events and news from the program.
The marketing materials of MBA programs are another important source of information in the pre-application stage. Nevertheless, relying on the glossy brochures and elaborate websites of the top schools may only give you a superficial view of the programs. I can’t tell you how many candidates swear that a particular program is ideal for them simply based on the marketing materials they read. It’s crucial not to take these brochures at face value without speaking with alumni and current students to get a firsthand experience of the program.
Although the websites of business schools can be useful tools, a campus visit is far more preferable—if not a must. It allows you to attend classes, experience the faculty and their teaching styles, and interact with current students to learn about the academic and social culture of the program. Limit your visits to a couple of trips to campus and ensure that you get full exposure to classes, student life, and the admissions board (when available) during your visit.
You’re now ready for the toughest part of getting into business school: the application process. This is obviously the most challenging stage. It can be extremely stressful for most candidates. The combination of knowing that you have a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of acceptance and the engaging, time-consuming nature of the process presents a fair amount of anxiety. You should avoid skipping any steps here. During the application cycle, for example, passing up an opportunity to interview at programs for which interviews are an option may communicate to admissions that you are not fully committed to their program.
This stage is composed of several items, including your resume, recommendations, essays, transcripts, GMAT, and a completed application. Each aspect of the application is important and carries significant weight in the decision to admit a candidate. The goal for applicants is to present a strong application across all the evaluation materials. The stronger each element of the application is the higher the chance of being admitted.
MBA programs have strict policies surrounding the deadlines, so plan to start the application process early. Incomplete applications are typically pushed to the next round and exceptions are rarely granted even when an incomplete application is the result of an errant recommender.
Applying first or second round is preferable. There isn’t a fundamental between round one and round two, so applicants should apply when they are ready, not because they are trying to “game” the system. Avoid submitting your application in the latter rounds. Many programs explicitly state that applicants should avoid applying then because most admission spots are already taken. It may also become tougher for international students to secure their visas if they apply late.
Finally, after you’ve turned in your materials, you enter have what I call the post-application stage. There are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for business school. For starters, you can register for one or two business classes if you feel you need a refresher. This could be helpful if you have been out of school for a long time. At the very least, such coursework is excellent preparation to ensure that you are not too rusty when you begin the business degree.
One of the issues facing applicants once they are admitted is when to quit their jobs. Planning your exit strategy is important. An overly confident applicant believed that the admission “was in the bag” so she subsequently quit her job before getting an offer. Unfortunately, she was denied admission by all the schools she applied to. Exiting before you receive a firm admission offer is a risk not worth taking. It is equally important to manage the expectations of those with whom you work. As long as you remain at the firm, it is wise to convey unrelenting commitment to your job.
Your application to business school is a marathon and not a sprint. It takes years of “training” and careful execution to get the desired result. Devoting appropriate time and resources to each stage of the process will give you a better shot at getting into a top school. It’s a missed opportunity to leave any part of this process to chance.
Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than ten years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.