Your 100-Hour Application Strategy: MBA Class of 2020

Matt Symonds Fortuna

Matt Symonds, Director, Fortuna Admissions

The world’s best business schools have begun to announce their MBA admissions deadlines for the Class of 2020 (and if that doesn’t sound futuristic…). This year, Stanford is leading the dance, with incoming Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions Kirsten Moss confirming a Round 1 deadline of Sept 19, 2017. Wharton confirmed its new admissions deadline of the same day, and HBS released a September 6 date.

This gives you just under four months to prepare your application. Are you ready?


If you can conceivably spend six hours a week between now and R1 working on your MBA applications, that gives you about 100 hours to meet the Stanford GSB deadline. Where can you get the best ROI on those 100 hours? My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former admissions directors and b-school insiders, offer up their best thinking on how to prioritize your time. For maximum success, your emphasis should be laying a solid foundation before sitting down to write. Here’s what this looks like:

1. Reflect & self-assess ~ 5 – 10 hours

Take some time away from your office, email and phone to get introspective about your motivations for pursuing an MBA, how you see your career evolving in the future, your strengths and weaknesses and what you would bring to business school. Assessing where you stand right now and developing greater self-awareness will build a solid foundation for crafting a compelling application when the time comes.

2. Research programs ~ 10 – 20 hours

It takes time to gain an in-depth understanding of various programs and get a stronger sense of mutual fit. Begin to connect with the school communities, through online research, school visits and networking with alumni. Check out MBA blogs and follow the latest on social media. A good way to dive into deeper research and networking with the schools is to identify areas of study or clubs you’d like to learn more about. The process feels less daunting when you break down the points of contact into smaller sections. For example, you could reach out to specific professors in your areas of interest, presidents of certain on-campus clubs, or students with whom you share educational or industry affinities.

3. Visit campuses (if at all possible) ~ one day

Given the mountain of resources and media available online, it’s tempting to imagine that you can learn everything you need to know about business school from your laptop. But nothing will give you a sense of the vibe and culture like visiting the school and witnessing life on campus. You can sign up to visit in the early fall (most MBA programs aren’t in session over summer), and remember to schedule time off work in advance. It’s helpful to stay aware of any special events that might be happening in your area by signing up on the program’s website.

4. Invest in your extracurricular profile ~ 1 – 2 hours/week

At this stage, its wiser to focus your time on activities where you already have a track record rather than pursuing something completely new. Assess your commitments outside work, and explore if there are ways to get more fully involved. Can your deeper extracurricular engagement help demonstrate relevant skills such as leadership and team building?

5. Distinguish your work experience ~ 2 – 5 hours planning

Consider how you can build one or two standout stories over the coming months that will showcase your professional abilities and broaden your experience. Can you take the lead on a project at work, or volunteer for more responsibility than you’d normally be assigned? Consider telling your boss or HR that you’re considering an MBA, and that you would welcome additional opportunities to own or lead projects. When possible, come to the table with some of your own ideas and be ready to present them.

6. Evaluate your GMAT score ~ 1 – 20+ hours

If you’ve taken the GMAT and scored below the average for your target schools, consider whether you should retake. This test can be a black hole of energy, time and stress. So unless you’re short of the 80% range of accepted scores, have little evidence of quant ability in your academic and professional background or bombed a particular section, your time might possibly be better spent on other areas of your application. Your school choice might be a driver – for example, schools like Wharton, Booth, MIT Sloan and Columbia are all unapologetically quant driven and therefore want to see very strong quant scores. Factors to weigh:

  • How likely are you to meaningfully increase your score? Unless you think there’s more than a 50% chance of increasing your score, it’s perhaps not worth it to retake.
  • How well prepared did you feel last time? Did you already give it your best shot? Was test day in unusual for you in any way you might overcome in the future?

Test takers scores normally plateau after taking the test three times – so it’s rarely worth taking it more often than that.

If you’re concerned your quant score isn’t going to budge, think about enrolling in an online course in finance, stats or accounting to demonstrate your academic abilities.

If you’re someone tempted to retake in hopes of shifting your GMAT score from competitive to stellar, consider whether it’s the most appropriate use of your time and energy. We sometimes see these same candidates with little to show for themselves outside of work and school, and generally advise them to invest the time in their extracurricular profile instead.

7. Start wooing recommenders ~ 4 hours

You will need two recommenders, and at this stage you’ll want to identify three or four options. Build your relationship with them proactively – if you currently work with them, look for opportunities to shine, so that they can then witness some examples of your abilities in action. If they work with a previous employer – reconnect and stay regularly in touch. If there’s a way to do them a favor, all the better. Start priming them now, so that when the time comes to ask for their support in your MBA application, they’re ready and willing to be your outspoken champion.

After laying this important groundwork – roughly 60 hours depending on your areas of emphasis – your actual application writing is poised for maximum efficiency. With a solid foundation, this body of work can be executed in approximately 40 hours, and includes: refining your resume; drafting, rewriting and polishing your essays; completing the data form with precision; and guiding your recommenders by providing a briefing document and maintaining consistent communication. To this end, it’s advantageous to narrow down to a shortlist of programs that best match your personal goals – it’s rarely feasible to apply to six or seven schools in one round.

Speaking of rounds, a little over a month from your deadline you’ll want to have an honest check-in by asking yourself whether you’re prepared to submit your best work in Round 1 or Round 2. All told, it’s better to submit a polished and accomplished application when you are ready, rather than something hurried and poorly conceived. The most important thing: Optimize the ROI of your energy and time between now and September.

Matt Symonds is a 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 Admissions Six Tips to Stand out in a Sea of ExcellenceFortuna is a dream team 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, UCLA Anderson and Johnson Cornell. 

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