WHAT SHOULD YOU START WITH AND WHEN SHOULD YOU START?
So how should you be using the coming months to prepare the best applications possible? Below are some of the areas that we recommend you start working on in the months ahead to make the difference between admissions and rejection.
We’ll assume that undergrad is now behind you (though if you are still in school and looking at HBS’s 2+2 or Yale’s School of Management Silver Scholars you can obviously still positively impact your grades). But don’t assume there is nothing you can now do to improve your academic profile. If your liberal arts education is too short of quant courses for the likes of Columbia or Wharton, now is the time to sign up for an online course in accounting, calculus or stats. UC-Berkeley extension online is frequently suggested, with many other courses and night classes also available around the world.
And of course it is best not to leave your GMAT prep to a few days off work in early September. Even if you do historically test well, or believe that standardized tests can’t be coached, don’t wait until test day to be caught out as much by the timed conditions of the test as any of the content. You might have learned the word procrastination for your SATs, but now is not the time to master it. And yes, many of your competitors for a place at a top B-school are also working 70+ hour weeks, so it might be time to set your alarm for 5.30 a.m. and begin your day with OJ, strong coffee and data sufficiency. As admissions directors, we sighed every time we read that “my GMAT does not fully reflect my academic ability: due to professional commitments it has not been possible to dedicate sufficient time to test preparation.” That’s a fast track to the rejection pile.
It takes time to think through your story, to figure out how to “pitch” your candidacy, and to work out what are the unique elements of your profile that could catch the eye of the admissions file reader. At this stage, it can really be worth getting some advice from someone who can hold up a mirror to you and give you some feedback on your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, and help you develop a narrative around your strengths that builds a sufficiently compelling picture for the school to want to get to know you better. You may want to approach both a mentor, and a friend – to get a few different takes on your profile.
All very well saying you want to work for McKinsey/BCG/Bain or a high-flying tech company, but what do you really know about these sectors, and can you point to the skills that make you a good fit? As our colleague and former Assistant Director of Career Services at HBS, Malvina Miller Complainville, explains: “You can’t come up with a credible career plan in an afternoon. Career planning requires multiple steps, and the best way to begin is with an in-depth self-assessment. This self-assessment is a process that cannot be rushed – it is an opportunity to reflect on what your passions are, what motivates you, what gives you satisfaction at work; but also what frustrates you and what job criteria you are not flexible on. It is an opportunity to reflect on the ideal lifestyle you would like to have, the work culture you would like to be part of. Once you have done this you can begin to zero in on a function and an industry. Further researching your choice industry and function, mapping out your career goals, identifying potential employers, and building a network are the next steps to the career planning process.”
One of the biggest surprises for first-year MBAs is how quickly they have to start working on their job search once they arrive on campus – company presentations and resume collection for internship opportunities takes place in the fall of their first year. This timing makes it crucial for MBA students to arrive with a clear idea of what they want for their internship.
Business schools will be looking for candidates who have thoughtfully planned how to get leadership development opportunities out of their jobs, hobbies, sports and community work. Think of this as developing a pattern of leadership.
Admittedly, being one out of 100 in your analyst peer group may not mean that you have the title of leader in your class, but leadership can take on many different forms. Have your informally helped colleagues with projects, tying together loose ends pre-deadline? Did you mentor the new intake of junior staff? Have you taken on leadership with external organizations that you have been supporting?
Like test prep, leadership is not something that you can decide you want to do on a Monday and finish by Friday. It takes a number of months to plant the seeds for relevant initiatives and find ways to “step up” and take advantage of sometimes hidden opportunities.
Judith Silverman Hodara, ex-director of admissions at Wharton says “while at Wharton, I would tell applicants that while I understood that formal leadership was difficult to attain in a hierarchical organization, it behooved them to let their mentors/ team leads know that they wanted more responsibility – and that they were ready for it. If you don’t ask, you never will know what you could achieve.”