2020 is just wrapping up, but it’s definitely not too early to start on your 2021 MBA applications! It may seem wild to prepare nearly a year ahead, even before the essays have been released for the 2021 cycle, since Round 1 MBA deadlines are in September, but applicants who start the process early have a marked advantage compared to those who don’t. In this article, we’ll look at why early preparation is so vital for your competitive edge, when you should start in on the process, and what to do first in that process.
Why An Early Start is Essential
The first reason to begin early is that competition at top MBA programs is fierce, even before the impact of 2020’s recession. Although you might be hoping that every candidate with a 700+ GMAT score, “good grades”, and a job at a recognizable finance or consulting company would be admitted to a top MBA program, this isn’t true. Especially at schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton, there are numerous very well qualified candidates for each open seat. Thus, small differences in the quality of your application matter.
The second reason to start as early as possible is that the process takes a lot of time. (We describe these steps and the timeline in another post: Optimizing your MBA Application Timeline.) Many of you are probably already studying for the GMAT, which can take months on its own. And then, you need to research your career goals, meet students and staff at your target MBA programs, refine your extracurricular activities, and build relationships with your recommenders. And that’s all before setting pen to paper on even your first essay!
Beyond the possible time investment necessary, it is important to remember that all of you have very busy schedules. No matter what sector you come from, the jobs associated with elite MBA applicants have tight deadlines and long hours. As a result, you want to start as early as possible and work around your professional obligations. If we had a nickel for every time an MBA applicant we’ve coached was staffed on a new deal or a new engagement just weeks before their deadlines, we’d be quite wealthy indeed.
The good news is that even though MBA application essay questions won’t officially be released until May or June of 2021, the topics are very predictable. The following list covers the three points that are typically addressed in some way on MBA applications and are worth working on even if the specific prompt isn’t yet known:
- Personal Story Questions. There will likely be essays about some aspect of your identity, the people that shaped you, or other things about your life outside of your professional experience. This includes essays such as the open-ended HBS essay, Fuqua’s “25 Things”, or Kellogg’s “Values” essay. Coming up with important, formative experiences or things that make you unique is a good way to get started for your personal MBA statement.
- Practical Career Goals. At most schools, there are essays that deal with your specific and actionable career goals and how the programs you are applying for can help you reach them. These essays require a lot of detail and some research about the school. You can certainly start in on that right away, both researching the goal itself through informational interviews, and researching how the school can help you achieve it.
- What You Can Give Back. MBA programs can be a bit selfish. They want to know what you will bring to the program both as a student and as a future alum. Figuring out what you can say about how you will be able to improve the program is going to be essential long before you have the specific wording.
What Else Can You Work On Early Besides the Essays?
A lot, actually! Where do we start?
- GMAT Study Time. It’s worth repeating: the GMAT is a difficult test and you may need to take it multiple times to get the kind of score you need to get into your preferred program. If your score is not where it needs to be, it is difficult to make up for it with great essays — you want to have BOTH great essays and a great GMAT score. An early lead gives you the opportunity to join a GMAT prep course, get professional tutoring, and schedule multiple GMAT attempts until you reach your target score.
- Developing Extracurriculars. With a long runway, you can begin to take on the sorts of extracurricular activities that will make you stand out as a candidate without seeming like you just started taking them on just to pad your resume (which is a risk if you begin shortly before your deadlines).
- Career Advancement. Your career goals essay needs to be both ambitious and plausible. If you’re more than a year out, you can even make the kind of career move that feels like it is a step towards your ultimate goal. Moving into a new position at your job that demonstrates your dedication to your goals has huge potential value but can’t be rushed.
- School Networking and Research. As we discussed in that third category of essay question, you’ll need to do a lot of work in terms of reaching out to schools and being able to demonstrate that you understand what makes them unique. With a long lead time, you can plan visits or remote interviews. You can ask questions and follow up on the information you receive.
Advice from MBA Applicants
At Menlo Coaching, we’ve successfully worked with applicants from all different backgrounds and industries, targeting a range of business schools. During exit interviews to reflect on the process, we tend to ask clients, “If you could go back and apply to business school over again, what would you do differently?” No matter the candidate’s profile, the number one answer to this question is: “I would have started earlier!”
“I think had I known everything I know now when I started, I would’ve just started applying earlier. I gave myself two months and it was an extremely intense two months. My job is pretty demanding. I travel a lot and I worked really long hours. So a lot of my business school application time was between the hours of 10:00 PM and 3:00 AM and the weekends. Had I known then how deep I needed to get, or kind of how many iterations I needed to go through. I would have started much earlier.”
“I would say that my advice for applicants, whether that be deferred or in general is to really plan out when you’re taking the GMAT and make sure that you get that out of the way, and then start working on your application in terms of having a more stress-free process, and also giving yourself quite a few months to get the work done. There’s a lot of iterations and planning and, you know, doubting the process and doing it again that happens that, you know, you might not anticipate. So definitely give yourself as much buffer time as possible.”
Menlo Coaching’s Early Birds Program is designed for MBA applicants who want to get an advantage by preparing ahead. You can build your profile by making the right choices now on career moves and extracurricular activities, and avoid the stress of last-minute application writing. Contact us as soon as you’re sure that you want to pursue an MBA!
David White has been recognized as a top reviewed MBA admissions consultant by Poets&Quants in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and is a founding partner at MBA admissions consulting firm Menlo Coaching. His 15-year tech career included executive roles at startups (Efficient Frontier, acquired by Adobe) and publicly traded companies (Yahoo, Travelzoo), during which time he hired, trained, and developed dozens of young professionals. He has been coaching MBA applicants since 2012 with a special focus on developing the right career goals.