The first time I applied to business schools was when I was leaving active duty after a decade of service as a pilot and staff Officer with the United States Marine Corps. I had a 750 GMAT with 99-percentile quant (this was before all the test score inflation we’ve seen in the past decade); a 3.5 GPA (just a tad on the low side for my target schools, but from MIT); and a Lieutenant General writing my main letter of recommendation. This particular general commanded over 50,000 personnel. I reported directly to him, and he treated me like a son.
I was perhaps arrogant and thought I would get into anywhere I applied. I also used a really scientific way of choosing target schools: just applying to the top five schools according to US News & World Report at the time. I did get an invitation to interview from Stanford GSB, but in the end, the best I did was get on Stanford’s waitpool (their term for waitlist). I never made it off the waitpool. So I failed, and I had no idea why.
The Difference of an MBA Admissions Consultant
Fast forward five years later, I was just a Reserve Officer and in the semiconductor industry living in the Bay Area. Something happened at work that made me revisit the idea of going to b-school. At this point, I was 36 years old, and already had my first child, it was August, I had to retake the GMAT, and I had an 80 hours/week job. Unlike the first time, however, this time I searched for an admissions consultant to work with. (So full disclosure, I’m actually a former client of The MBA Exchange.)
Having much less confidence this time around, I applied to ten schools. (To my consultant’s credit, he tried to talk me out of applying to that many schools – and in the end, he was right – but I had to do it for myself.) This time around, due to everything my admissions consultant taught me and the body of work we produced together, I felt good about my chances of at least getting into one school. My applications were night and day compared to the first attempt when I went it solo. Well, beyond my wildest dreams, I received invitations to interview from eight schools and got accepted to six, waitlisted at one. The schools where I was accepted outright included Wharton, MIT Sloan, INSEAD, and IMD.
Create a Unique MBA Application that Stands Out
Why am I relating all this? Because it brings up two crucial questions: What was the difference between the first attempt and second attempt? Why the disparity in results despite being less competitive the second time around?
First, I thought I knew how the admissions committees (adcoms) worked at the top business schools, but after working with my consultant, I realized there were many things I didn’t know or never thought of. By definition, you don’t know what you don’t know. So, at the very minimum, my admissions consultant was a Subject Matter Expert (SME).
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I thought I had related my military experiences and told my story well the first time around. The problem is that the military is a demographic, just like any other major demographic of people who typically apply to b-schools – such as management consultants and investment bankers. And, even within the military, you have combat pilots (like me), special forces, logisticians, infantry, etc., etc, applying so you have to differentiate yourself among the sub-demographics within the military as well. As all veterans know, we have our own language like any other profession. COC, FLOT, UCMJ, AFV, IOC, FSCL, WIC, OIC, NEO, …, on and on and on. (TLA and DICNAVAB anyone?) For many adcoms, despite the many different MOSs, our experiences can often start sounding the same.
How do you elevate and differentiate your experiences among fellow veterans? A stellar admissions consultant who knows how adcoms work, especially one who is a vet themselves, will sit down with you, get to know you well, and then help tell your story in a way that will differentiate you from the other vets who are applying, and in a way that will resonate with the adcoms.
Even in Disappointment, Keeping Reaching for Your Career Goals
Put in another way, during my failed attempt, I thought I had told my story and presented my candidacy well, in a way that would be understandable and resonate with the adcoms. I was wrong. During the second attempt, my consultant reviewed my previous essays and applications and told me I sounded like every other vet planning on using b-school to help make the transition from military life to civilian life. Where was the differentiation? Where was the compelling story of what I had done with my life while serving my country, what I planned on doing after getting my MBA, and why a b-school education was the bridge to reaching those future goals? I thought I had done all of these things well, but I didn’t have the benefit of having seen hundreds, if not thousands, of applications like my consultant had.
My essays were night and day between the first and second attempts. Not just the essays, but the entire application: how the resume read, what I encouraged my recommenders to focus on, how I leveraged campus visits, etc., etc. My admissions consultant was able to help me tell my story much, much better, in a compelling way that differentiated me from other vets and resonate with the top b-school adcoms.
For any vet considering applying to business schools, I would highly recommend looking into working with an admissions consultant, and especially one who understands veteran experiences first-hand. No one can understand a vet like a fellow vet.
An MBA graduate from the MIT Sloan School of Management, Alex was selected by their MBA admissions staff to serve as an Ambassador Captain. In that role, he interacted directly with applicants and provided input to the Admissions Committee on exceptional individuals. As an applicant, he also earned acceptances to Wharton, INSEAD, IMD, and UCLA. After joining The MBA Exchange in 2007, he helped numerous MBA applicants gain admission to top-tier business schools. Alex’s professional background includes entrepreneurship in the general aviation industry as well as international and domestic business development, sales, sales management, and corporate strategy for Fortune 200 companies such as global semiconductor distributor Avnet and $15-billion conglomerate Textron. He was an Officer and pilot in the United States Marine Corps. In addition to his MBA degree, Alex holds a bachelor of science degree in art and design from MIT. He is fluent in Korean.