Countdown to Round 2 MBA Applications: Top five tips for the final stretch

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Caroline Diarte Edwards is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD.

This is it: the countdown to round 2 application deadlines, with Harvard, Kellogg, Booth, Columbia, Tuck, Duke and LBS all waiting to hear from you by Jan 4. If you haven’t knuckled down to your application yet, now is the time to start. At six months out you had the opportunity to shape your profile, but at roughly six weeks it’s all about packaging it.

Reality-check: Your demanding day job, unrelenting deadlines, family commitments, community engagements, and unexpected complications in any or all of these arenas will only be compounded by the impending holiday season. Too many promising candidates let these factors diminish the quality of their final application. The irregular tempo of Thanksgiving through New Year’s makes it a busy season for most: a festive cocktail of high expectations, stress, and out-of-office messages.  The only antidote is time and thoughtful planning, and doing everything in your power to deliver on an application that is as brilliant as you are. Excellence beats excuse making, and admissions officers have heard it all.
Six weeks is an unforgiving window for applicants just getting serious about the admissions process. With less time, you’re going to need a shrewder strategy. It begins with stepping back to survey the big picture and deploying a practical methodology for getting it all done. This approach is vital whether you’ve been preparing for months or are finally prioritizing your application. It’s about recommitting to a process of attentive engagement with a long-term ROI, not just a stellar product at deadline. That means looking past the deadline to a successful next stage—you’ll want to be a well-prepared interview candidate, and that’s not an overnight process either.

Consider these five tips for prioritizing your remaining time and making the most of your effort, culled from our team of former senior admissions staff at Fortuna:

Visualize what success looks like. Develop a detailed picture in your mind (or on paper) of your MBA experience and your post MBA career—the self-awareness and program insight required to imagine this level of detail is a compass for your priorities. What do you need to know about your top schools to see yourself on campus, engaging with professors, industry leaders, and peers who will all be part of your path to the next stage in your career? And what do you need to know about yourself—your values and priorities, motivations and aspirations, your strengths and gifts? Sincere introspection is foundational for bringing your best thinking to every level of your application—from researching schools to preparing recommenders, crafting essays, and acing interviews. Knowing what success looks and feels like will also help ensure you are deploying a strategy for achieving it that extends beyond the application deadline.

Write, and re-write, your essays. Applications have become shorter in recent years, which may give an impression they require less work. Don’t be deceived—having less room to tell your story requires more reflection, creativity, and discernment. To paraphrase the irreverent Mark Twain: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. And Twain probably never had to “choose one song that expresses who you are…” (Berkeley Haas) or pick from a photo-montage “the moment that best resonates with you…” (Chicago Booth). These kinds of questions can feel maddeningly open-ended, triggering anxiety about what it could possibly be that “they” want to know. Instead, consider each question an invitation to craft a personal response that speaks to your character and differentiators. Your strategy-setting introspection is the foundation for writing an essay that’s authentic, compelling, and coherent. Consider the following:

  • Take the time to go wide and deep through brainstorming before winnowing down your best ideas.
  • Create an outline that frames your key points and ensures smooth transitions between each thought.
  • Plan to revisit and rewrite several times, and don’t overestimate the amount of time you’ll have, or want to spend, sitting at your laptop over the Holidays.
  • Build in time to solicit feedback from at least one person who can offer fresh eyes and candid comments—and be explicit about the input you want. Everyone needs a good editor, even Pulitzer prize winners.
  • A final review from an expert perspective – for example our Admissions Director’s Evaluation – can ensure you put the finishing touches that will make all the difference when your file finally reaches the admissions committee.

Continue to follow your target schools. By now you’ve built your knowledge of various schools and assessed for best fit. Beyond devouring program websites, you may have started networking with alumni, engaging key professors, or diving deeper into content areas that pique your interest. Now isn’t the time to pull back. Continue your engagement with the school community and stay on top of what’s happening on campus—whether its reaching out to a club president, visiting campus, or creating a handful of Google alerts and making time to stay appraised of the latest news. It’s not just about research, but building relationships that contribute to the quality of your application, presentation, and experience.

Stay in touch with recommenders. By this stage you’ve likely identified your recommenders and brought them on board. Foster a close relationship with consistent communication throughout the process, especially in the run up to vacation when many have travel plans. In addition to a clear timeline, provide each recommender with a briefing document to help them understand the context of your application and how you’re positioning your candidacy. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to write a glowing and detailed letter of support. Which also means not turning your poor planning into their holiday headache. The last thing you want is someone’s half-hearted attention while they sip a glass of wine or skim an iPhone from the family cabin. And in our days in the admissions office, we’ve all fielded that call from a panicked applicant whose recommender can’t submit by deadline because he’s at a remote ski lodge without Internet. Ample timelines, clear communications, and frequent touch points allow recommenders to shine as your outspoken champions.

Make sure you are comfortable with your GMAT score. You can still test until the 11th hour, and these days if you take the test and the result isn’t what you were hoping for, you can cancel and it will never show up on your official score report. So you can retake without the risk of looking bad if you don’t improve your score. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily retake given what’s at stake at this stage. Scores often tend to plateau after the third try, and you’ll need to consider if it’s worth the effort in study and stress. However if you’re short of the 80% range of accepted scores for your target school and think there’s a more than 50% chance of boosting your score, seriously consider building testing into your countdown plan.

A closing caution: we’ve seen candidates who submitted to their top schools in round 1 who then are half-hearted in their efforts in round 2 because they’re hoping for good news from their round 1 schools. This isn’t the time to slacken off, but to be even more convincing. Schools are aware that some candidates apply in round 2 because they weren’t accepted by their top choice program, which means you now have to show the love even more. Admissions officers want to see that you’re both motivated and well informed, that you’ve made and effort to understand the culture and visualize your contribution to it.

All told, preparing your business school application can be a grueling and meticulous process. But hang in there; an acceptance offer quickly makes the pain and suffering evaporate from memory. May you look back on this moment as the time that your smart planning, thoughtful reflection, focused attention, and dedication to your dreams propelled you into a life-changing career.

by Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools.