A Great 100-Hour MBA Application Strategy

clockIn the coming weeks the world’s top business schools will announce their MBA admissions deadlines for the Class of 2018. Harvard Business School has maintained its tradition of leading the dance, with Managing Director of MBA Admissions Dee Leopold already confirming a Round 1 deadline of Sept 9. That gives you four months – or roughly 125 days from now – to prepare your application.

Are you ready?

Let’s assume that you are a busy young professional, working hard on client projects, M&A deals, a new product campaign, software launch, or your own startup. These of course are the experiences and accomplishments that make you so attractive to the admissions office, so there is no chance you can slack off at work in order to devote more time to your MBA applications. And besides, you are going to need a resounding letter of recommendation from your boss so this is hardly the time to pull back.

And then there is the time you spend volunteering in the community and engaged in other activities that you enjoy. It’s a great example of what matters to you, with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate your collaborative mindset and leadership potential. Don’t let that fall by the wayside as you pull together ideas for your b-school essays. This kind of engagement is important for your own sense of balance as well.

And what are you going to do about that GMAT or GRE score? If you still need to take the test, or have a score that is weaker in the verbal or quant section than you would like, you’ll need to plan a rigorous study schedule. It is always a little sad to think that data sufficiency and critical reasoning are your new best friends on a Friday night, but the reward – or the penalty – is all too real.

If you figure you can reasonably spend six hours per week working on your MBA applications between now and R1, that gives you around 100 hours to meet the HBS deadline. Where will you get the best return on investment on those 100 hours? The team of former admissions directors at Fortuna have put together some idea on how to best prioritize your time, along with a case study of a would-be applicant (on the following page):

Self-assessment – take a few hours away from the office, phone and email to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, what you bring to business school, why you want an MBA and how you see your career evolving in the future. Developing greater self-awareness and taking stock of where you stand right now builds a great foundation for then developing a compelling application, when the time comes.

Invest in your extracurricular profile – at this stage, it is better to invest time in activities where you already have a track record, rather than starting something completely new. We recommend taking an assessment of what you are doing outside work, and examining if there are ways you can get more fully involved. Can you deepen your engagement and find ways of demonstrating relevant skills – such as team building and leadership – through your extra-curriculars?

Researching the schools – it takes time to building up your knowledge of the various schools and get a better sense of where you would be a good fit. So gradually expose yourself to the school communities, through networking with alumni, school visits, and online research. Identifying which areas of study or clubs you would like to learn more about can also be a good way to dive into deeper research and networking with the schools. Breaking the points of contact down into smaller sections may make the process much less daunting. For example, you could reach out to the presidents of certain clubs on campus, specific professors in your areas of interest, or students with whom you share industry or educational backgrounds.

Visit the campuses (if at all possible). With all the resources available online, it can be tempting to think that you don’t need to leave your desk to learn all you need to know about business school. But there is no substitute for actually visiting the school and soaking up the vibe on campus. Most schools are not in session over the summer, but you can sign up to visit in the early fall. Remember to book the time off from work in advance. Also sign up on the schools website so that you are aware of any special events that they may have going on in your location.

Differentiate your work experience. Are there projects at work where you can take the lead? Where you can take a higher level of responsibility than would normally be assigned to someone of your level? Think about how you can build one or two standout stories over the coming months that will really showcase your professional abilities.  Consider letting HR or your supervisor know you are considering applying, and that you would welcome additional opportunities to lead or own projects. You may want to come to the table with some ideas of your own to present.

Weigh up your GMAT score. If you have already done the GMAT, but have a score that is below the average for your target schools, think about whether you should retake. The GMAT can be a black hole of time, energy and stress, and unless you are significantly short of the 80% range of accepted scores, have an academic background and professional activity with little or no evidence of quant ability, or fall well short in a particular section (for example, schools like Wharton, Columbia, Booth and Sloan are all unapologetically quant driven and therefore like to see very strong quant scores) your time might be better spent on other areas of your application. Factors to take into account:

  • How do you rate your chances of increasing your score? It is probably not worth retaking it unless you think there is more than a 50% chance of increasing your score.
  • How well prepared were you last time? Have you given it your best shot already? Was the test day in any way unusual for you?
  • Test takers scores normally plateau after taking the test 3 times – it is rarely worth taking it more times than that.

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