Harvard Business School was the first to announce its Round 1 Admissions deadline for the Class of 2023, set for Tuesday, September 8th at noon ET. Both Stanford GSB and Wharton recently posted an R1 date of September 15th, while other top business schools will likely follow suit for early September. If HSW is on your shortlist, that gives you 100 days to prepare your application. Are you ready?
Unique to this year is the evolving specter of Covid-19, which changes your application strategy in unprecedented ways – from campus closures to online exams and virtual interviews. My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former admissions directors and business school insiders, share their best thinking on how to focus your time and prioritize your efforts over the next 100 days. For maximum success, your emphasis should be laying a solid foundation before sitting down to write.
YOUR 100 DAY COUNTDOWN TO ROUND ONE: 6 STRATEGIES TO START NOW
Reflect & self-assess.
From written essays to the admissions interview, the MBA application process is riddled with formidable questions designed to solicit significant introspection and surface profound self-awareness. Business schools don’t just want to hear about your academic excellence and professional triumphs – they want to know who you are, what you care about, and what makes you unique. Taking the time to summon this clarity of purpose for yourself is the single most important thing you can do to strengthen your application.
This is your chance to step back from the relentless pace of professional commitments and really think about where you would like to see yourself five to 10 years from now, what matters most to you, and what you have to offer in both the MBA classroom and in the wider community that is so much part of the business school experience. For specific strategies for diving deeper, view my related article in Forbes, Start Early and Enjoy Yourself.
Research with discernment & network.
Admission Committees are obsessed with fit, and you should be too. That’s why it’s essential to do your homework and gain an in-depth understanding of various programs. Reach out to the school communities and start networking with students, alumni, and faculty. When you do, initiate frank conversations that help you understand a school’s identity beyond its brand. Schools have ramped up virtual relationship-building opportunities given campus closures amid the Covid crisis. UCLA Anderson, for example, has an ‘admissions ambassador’ core of some 120 students, and an online portal that allows you to find connections based on your professional, personal or club interests. MBA blogs are a font of useful and up-to-the-minute info, as are schools’ social media channels.
“Your thoughtful research ensures you know what matters to your top programs, and what matters most to you,” writes Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards in her article, 4 Top Tips For Researching MBA Programs. “When comparing schools, ask yourself: How can each program help me achieve my career goals? Can I picture myself thriving there?”
Invest in your extracurricular profile.
What you do in your free time (what little you may have of it) is as important and interesting to the admissions committee as what you do at work, as it signals the kind of student and alum you’ll be. Business schools are looking for active contributors, not just candidates who will excel in class. Demonstrating your leadership potential through meaningful extracurriculars is about your engagement in, and commitment to, the communities to which you belong.
For applicants lacking extracurriculars, Covid presents a special opportunity for what otherwise would be seen as a last-ditch effort (and one that is too late to be meaningful). Whether it’s reaching out to your alma matter to serve as a virtual liaison or supporting local nonprofits with your skills and expertise, your savvy support will be welcome in almost any sector. We recently heard from a prospective MBA applicant who organized and launched the free tutoring service, pandemicprofessors.org, after being inspired by my Fortuna colleague’s recent article, Extracurriculars In Quarantine: Building Your MBA Leadership Profile. By this fall, file readers – while undoubtedly sympathetic to work and life disruptions caused by the pandemic – will also be looking to see how you spent your time.
Distinguish your work experience.
Consider how you can build one or two standout stories over the coming months that will showcase your professional abilities and broaden your experience. Look for opportunities to show patterns of behavior that convey your leadership potential – can you take the lead on a project at work or volunteer for more responsibility than you’d normally be assigned? Here, again, the Covid crisis poses unique opportunities for those who take the initiative.
“I recently spoke with a BCG associate and MBA hopeful who admitted that he’d never felt more empowered,” says Fortuna Director, Judith Silverman Hodara. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, he’s become indispensable for his technical and communications savvy at the office, helping to transition colleagues and managers to Slack and facilitating the quick and seamless integration of other digital tools to meet clients’ changing needs.
Evaluate your GMAT score.
While many schools are receiving applications without exam scores in the wake of test center closures, you should expect that schools will want your scores by the Round 1 deadline given that both the GMAT and GRE are available online. Preparation is vital for this quant-heavy, adaptive test with non-intuitive elements like data sufficiency, but with 100 days until deadline you’ll want to be strategic. The average GMAT score for the class of 2021 at Stanford GSB is an eye-popping 734; for Harvard Business School it’s 730 and Wharton 732. Candidates who score above 700 often report studying at least 80-100 hours.
If you’ve taken the GMAT and are short of the 80% range of accepted scores for your target schools, and believe you can meaningfully increase yours, it may be beneficial to retake. But if you’ve taken the GMAT more than three times (it’s typical to plateau) and are concerned your quant score isn’t going to budge, think about enrolling in an online course in finance, accounting or stats to prove your academic abilities. For specific ways to maximize your effort, view my Fortuna colleague’s blog, 7 Essential Tips for GMAT Prep.
Coach Your Recommenders
They may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your recommenders will know exactly what’s expected from them. Set your recommenders up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. This doesn’t mean telling them what to write – you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead – but you also don’t want them to dive in blindly given the level of substance and specificity schools are expecting. Be sure to give them plenty of lead time and check in regularly, especially since everyone is experiencing personal and professional disruption because of the pandemic.
But first, choose wisely: By far your best bet is someone who has been responsible for your development and growth and can comment in detail as well as with enthusiasm, such as a current or recent supervisor. “Frame your ask, not in terms of, ‘would you write a recommendation for me?’ but rather ‘would you advocate for me?’” writes Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards in her recent post, How to Get A Killer MBA Letter Of Recommendation. “How your chosen recommender reacts will give you a valuable indication of whether they are willing to be your champion, or if there’s a risk that they could write a lukewarm recommendation.”
After laying this important groundwork over the first 50 days, the writing of your actual application is poised for maximum efficiency. Once you have a solid foundation in place, you can turn your focus to refining your resume, completing the data form with precision, and writing (and rewriting) powerful MBA essays.
By day 75, 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. It’s far better to submit a polished and distinctive application when you are ready, rather than rushing to hit the earliest deadline. The most important thing between now and September: Optimize the ROI of your energy and time to submit an application that’s as brilliant and memorable as you are.
Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.