As admissions directors, we weren’t particularly impressed by the investment bankers who started volunteering at the animal shelter two months before the application deadline. Sure, go ahead and help the puppies – just don’t make a song and dance about it in your application. If you do, the short time frame makes your volunteering efforts look calculated and cynical.
If your extra-curriculars are a bit thin, the time to be expanding your engagement is at least six months (ideally 18 months+) before you will be submitting your application. And as with the GMAT, counting on your 70 hour work week to excuse you from having a track record of extra-curricular engagement won’t buy much support from the admissions file reader.
Research and outreach
Two business schools might be separated by one or two places on a media MBA ranking, but there can be tremendous differences in their personality, student community, learning style, leadership development approach, recruitment opportunities, etc. So it is important to take the time to make yourself a well-informed candidate. You will also need to show that you are passionate about the school, and it is hard to communicate that if all you have done is read the school’s website. We see that candidates who have made a big effort to get to know a school – through attending school events, reaching out to alumni through their networks, and ideally visiting the campus, are not only more motivated to gain a place at the school, but they are actually better candidates – because their sense of affinity with the school and the excitement they feel about the idea of being part of that community actually shine through both in their written application and in the interviews. Admissions teams are very good at picking up whether the candidate has genuine insight into the school.
Your recommenders might think the world of you, but if you only give them a few days to write your recommendation, the end result will almost always suffer from a lack of depth. We could identify the letters that were thrown together at the last minute, and referred only to what the candidate had done on his or her latest project, because the recommender didn’t have the time or energy to provide input that reflected the entire period that the recommender had worked with the candidate.
So plan accordingly, sit down with your carefully chosen recommenders three or four months before the deadline to discuss your business school plans, and share the sort of specific examples of your work that will truly help the admissions office to better understand what is unique about your profile.
Once you have put together all the various elements of your application – give yourself a pat on the back and take a break. Then a day or two later, come back to your application with a fresh pair of eyes, and review everything again. It is often at this stage that candidates identify some important information that is missing, or spot some unintended repetition.
Suggested MBA application timeline
Every candidate will have a different timeline, because the amount of time they need to invest in GMAT prep, preparing their essays and so on will vary. But here is a sample timeline for a candidate planning to apply this fall:
Develop a plan for how you will research schools and develop your list of target schools. Attend school events and/or visit campuses; network with alumni.
Evaluate your potential strengths and weaknesses as a candidate
Figure out if there is anything you can do to mitigate your weaknesses (eg build your extra-curricular profile, take extra quant courses, etc)
Identify your options for your recommenders. If you haven’t been in touch with them for a while, make efforts to reconnect and build your relationship with them. Spend some time discussing your MBA plans with them. Get them on board.
Finalize your list of target schools and plan your timeline (which schools you will apply to in which round)
Start working on your essays. You will likely go through several iterations and should get someone else to review them and give you feedback.
Brief your recommenders on what is required from them and agree a timeline.
Take the GMAT
Gather any supporting materials you need to submit (university transcripts, etc).
Prepare your resume and bio data form.
Finalize your essays, your resume and online form.
One week ahead of application deadline:
Submit your application. Don’t leave it to the last minute, in case you have to deal with any last-minute issues!
Don’t underestimate the value of careful advance planning. The candidates who called us in the admissions office in a panic at the 11th hour because they had just discovered one of their recommenders had gone on vacation and would therefore miss the submission deadline did not make a good first impression with our admissions teams. Securing a place in a top MBA program is a major project with a lifelong impact, so don’t let yourself down by taking a last-minute approach.
Matt Symonds is a co-director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge”, founder of Kaplan Test Prep in Europe and QS World MBA Tour. 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. This is the second in a series of myth buster articles on admissions.