With many Round 1 deadlines approaching in a few short months, here are some ways to kick-start the application process early and ensure yourself a little less stress later!
The ink has barely dried on the last batch of acceptance letters for the Class of 2019, yet MBA programs have already started releasing their applications and essay topics for the upcoming season. Although these deadlines are still months away, the time can go by in a flash, and balancing the work of completing your applications with your job and personal obligations can be a formidable challenge. Here are five steps you can take now to get ahead of the game and make the rest of the application process more efficient, less nerve-wracking, and possibly even (dare I say?) enjoyable:
1. Finalize your resume: Here is a common misconception: you already have a resume, so you can just upload it into the application and cross that task off your to-do list, right? Unfortunately not. The resume you have used to apply for jobs is different in focus from the one you want to submit with your MBA application. In the latter, you want to be sure to maximize space, highlight your results and impact rather than just your responsibilities, and showcase any volunteer or extracurricular activities in which you have been significantly involved, with an emphasis on leadership experiences and accomplishments.
On such a brief document (one page only!) every word counts, so start by identifying what you want to accentuate for each professional position you have held and give yourself sufficient time to edit and re-edit. This process can be significantly time-consuming, so by starting early and finalizing your resume before crunch time, you will be at a distinct advantage! If you have an especially generous supervisor who knows about your MBA plans, you can even have him or her review your revised resume and give you feedback on how best to describe your key accomplishments in your current job—just be sure to do so as far in advance as possible to give yourself time to act on this person’s suggestions.
2. Research your target programs: Successful MBA applicants have at least one thing in common—they made a strong case in their application and interview for why they are a good fit with their target program and what they would bring to its student body. But how does one do this so effectively? The key is to go beyond the information available on the schools’ Web site and actually visit campus, sit in on at least one class, have coffee with students, attend information sessions, meet with local alumni, consult mbaMission’s Insider’s Guides, and thoroughly read each program’s blog(s)—a single school might have a news blog, a dean’s blog, an admissions blog, and/or a student blog! The information you gather via these avenues can not only help you determine whether the program you are targeting is truly a good fit with your personality, learning style, and professional and academic needs (which is important, considering that an MBA is a huge investment!) but also give you specific points and stories to include in your essays that will show the admissions committee you have really done your homework and deserve a spot in the class.
And when is the ideal time to conduct this research? As early as possible in your application process! You want to have completed some level of student and alumni outreach and done extensive reading about the school before you begin writing your essays, rather than as you write your essays. Too many candidates, if they do this kind of preparation at all, wait until deadline week when time is running out and they are rushing to finalize their materials. As for visiting campus, check the school’s class visit schedule and choose the earliest opportunity your personal agenda will allow. Visiting your target school when classes are in session allows you to meet students, observe a real class, and experience the true vibrancy of the campus scene. So, if you plan to start your applications in 2018, schedule your visits for this calendar year—and take a lot of notes!
3. Begin brainstorming for—and even outlining—your essays. Several schools (including Harvard Business School, the Yale School of Management, and Columbia Business School) have already released their 2017–2018 application essay topics. If you intend to apply to any of these programs, start thinking of possible topics from the very first time you read the questions. And if your intended school has not yet revealed its essay prompts for this season, check out its questions from last year to get your thoughts flowing. In many cases, programs make only minor changes to their essay questions from year to year, though you cannot rule out a wholesale change. Because programs largely the seek the same kind of information from applicants’ essays—albeit via different types of questions—here are a few important ideas to start thinking about thoroughly and even outlining (as a bonus, this work will also come in handy for your eventual interviews):
Why do you want an MBA, and why from X program?
What are your short-term (post-MBA) and long-term goals? What is your motivation for pursuing these goals? If you hope to make a career switch, what has inspired—and prepared you for—this change?
What are some professional and personal accomplishments of which you are especially proud?
What are you passionate about outside of work, and how have you demonstrated your commitment to this passion?
By starting the brainstorming process now, you leave yourself ample time to bring numerous ideas to light and to consider each one thoroughly, thereby ensuring that you do not miss or forget anything significant when you actually start writing. This will result in stronger and more polished essays that will be ready submit well in advance of the deadlines.
4. Start drafting your application short answers and gathering supplemental materials: Quick, what was your exact annual salary and bonus three years ago? Where is your copy of your college transcript? We are guessing you do not have a speedy answer to either of these questions, and neither does anyone else. The short-answer section of the application seems simple, but it can be time-consuming. Moreover, your responses are important and deserve sufficient attention. These questions are easy to put off, but completing them now will save you immense stress later on. When a school releases its application, the first thing you should do is read the whole thing from start to finish—let us repeat that: read the entire thing from start to finish—to learn what details and materials you will need to provide. Then, start assembling any required documentation and formulating your answers to the school’s basic questions so you are not rushing to submit them at the last minute. After all, these components of your application, just like all the others, help shape the admissions committee’s impression of you, and you want it to be a positive one.
5. Talk to your recommenders: Many MBA applicants tend to postpone selecting and engaging their recommenders. This is understandable, given that asking your boss to dedicate a significant chunk of his or her valuable time to writing a detailed endorsement of you is awkward, especially when doing so will (hopefully, for you) result in you leaving your job and having to be replaced! And approaching a former supervisor can be awkward if you have not been in contact for a while, again in part because of the time demands of writing such a letter. However, to secure your best possible recommendation, you must have these conversations as early as possible. One you have selected your recommenders, discuss with them your plans and confirm that they feel comfortable strongly supporting your candidacy. Next, provide them with bullet points outlining your various accomplishments and any positive, constructive feedback they gave you; this information will help steer them in the right direction and ensure that they provide meaningful letters full of specific, detailed examples—just what the admissions committees want. To avoid any last-minute stress, give your recommenders a deadline that is at least a few days earlier than the official application deadline. That way, if anyone is “late,” you have time to prod them and still submit the recommendation to the school on time.
Applying to business school is undoubtedly stressful and tedious, but following these tips and front-loading some of the work involved will make the journey much more bearable—and may even bring you a few steps closer to that coveted acceptance letter.
Nisha Trivedi is a senior consultant with mbaMission, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. She earned her BA in communication from the University of Pennsylvania and her MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. A deep interest in understanding the consumer inspired her to initially pursue a career in marketing research, and after college, she held positions at Time Inc., Rosetta, and KPMG LLP in New York City.