In the coming weeks, business schools will release deadlines and application details for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle. The earliest first-round deadlines are only about four months away — and some schools accept and review applications on a rolling basis.
That means that the time to start your business school application is now. With an early start, you’ll have time to fully understand and coordinate every element of the application. With ample time to reflect and optimize your application, you’ll reduce stress and maybe even enjoy the process of applying.
You may scoff at that idea, if you are focused on the super-selective admissions rates at top schools and the competition from talented peers racking up ever-higher GMAT scores. But there is a healthier, more productive way to approach your application that will set you up for success.
Remember, applying for the MBA represents more than the next step in your career, but the opportunity to enter a meaningful process of self-discovery. It’s an invitation to pause amid the velocity of your fast-paced life and think about where you want to be in five to 10 years, what matters most to you, and what you have to offer in both the classroom and in the wider community. If you bring this view to the process of applying, you’ll make a strong impression with your application, and reap the benefits of a guiding focus that will extend far beyond an acceptance letter.
Fortuna Admissions offers a great new opportunity to jump-start this essential self-reflection that will shape your application. In an intensive six-week series,our M7 MBA Application Prep Sessions will walk you through the ins and outs of every step in the MBA application process, guided by the best MBA admissions coaches in the business. Registration remains open for the course starting May 10; additional series will be offered starting June 14 and July 12.
For a sample of the insight these sessions offer, I asked my experienced Fortuna colleagues for their advice on the key things you should be doing right now to set yourself up for admissions success.
COUNTDOWN TO ROUND ONE: 7 STRATEGIES TO START NOW
1. Reflect & self-assess.
From written essays to the admissions interview, the MBA application process is rife with imposing questions designed to reveal your career aspirations, motivations, values, and, perhaps even more challenging, your unique traits. 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 you, and how you will contribute to an admitted class. Taking the time to summon this clarity of purpose for yourself is the single most important thing you can do to strengthen your application.
“I tell my clients at the start of our engagement that spending time on self-reflection is the single most important factor in determining if you’ll get into one of your top choice MBA programs,” says Fortuna’s Jenifer Raver, a top-ranked expert coach and former Director, Dean of Faculty Office, Yale-NUS College & Wharton MBA / Lauder MA. “It’s not your resume, achievements, GMAT, or GPA. How much time are you willing to invest in yourself and this process – that’s the question. I’m asking you to get to know yourself.”
2. 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. You want to assess how the school will help you achieve your dreams and goals. Since you’ll be spending an intense two years there and connecting with the school’s alumni community throughout your career, you also want a good sense of the school’s community and culture. How will you feel and learn there?
To find out, 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. Since the pandemic, many schools have done an impressive job accelerating the quality and dynamism of virtual offerings to help students get to know themselves and their communities. UCLA Anderson, for example, has an Admissions Ambassador Corps of some 120 students, and an online portal that allows you to find connections based on your professional, personal or club interests (including links to LinkedIn profiles). 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, How to Research MBA Programs. “When comparing schools, ask yourself: How can each program help me achieve my career goals? Can I picture myself thriving there?”
3. 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, because it signals the kind of student and alum you’ll be. The most competitive MBA candidates have a level of community engagement that speaks to a sense of higher purpose and a desire to contribute to society. Whether it’s a nonprofit board, fundraising effort, sports team, or Bollywood dance club, your extracurricular pursuits illustrate patterns of leadership and commitment.
While outside activities can fall by the wayside in the face of heavy workloads, it’s vital to stay involved in at least one or two of your commitments outside of work. This demonstrates that you’re both dynamic and passionate – values highly prized by MBA admissions. Also, know that extracurricular activities that you start just a few months before your MBA deadline may look calculated and are unlikely to be given much weight. (View this related article by Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis for a deeper dive into how to position extracurriculars on your MBA application.)
4. 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. Proactively seek opportunities that are out of the ordinary and volunteer to head up projects outside of your scope. Can you take the lead on a project at work or volunteer for more responsibility than you’d normally be assigned? Look for opportunities to show patterns of behavior that convey your leadership potential. If you can connect these experiences to your future aspirations, all the better, but the key point here is that anything out of the ordinary on your roster of experiences will go a long way to making your application more memorable to admissions directors.
5. Evaluate your GMAT score.
Preparation is vital for this quant-heavy, adaptive test with non-intuitive elements like data sufficiency, but you’ll want to be strategic. The average GMAT score for the class of 2024 at Stanford GSB was an eye-popping 737; for the Wharton School the average was 733 and at Harvard Business School the median was 730. Candidates who score above 700 often report studying at least 80-100 hours.
Test scores aren’t everything and it’s important to consider the range of scores accepted into the entering class. If you have taken the GMAT and your score falls short of the 80% range of accepted scores for your target schools, and you 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.
6. 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 shine through. However, 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 to draft letters before deadlines and check in regularly.
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?’” Diarte Edwards writes in her 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, you are positioned for maximum efficiency in the actual writing and compiling of your application. 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.
7. Don’t go it alone.
As the Co-Founder of Fortuna Admissions, I’m biased about the benefits of having an expert MBA admissions coach who can guide and support you. Beyond their expertise and insight, a seasoned coach will push you to go deeper, helping to illuminate the stories and reflections you may have overlooked that will distinguish you to the MBA admissions committee.
“I’ve found that if you’re willing to meet with your coach regularly, and commit to self-reflection several months in advance, things are going to work out well,” says Raver. “We can always meet people where they’re at in the application process, but what we’re offering isn’t just editorial support. It’s a relationship, and that takes time. The most powerful stories are often the most personal, and those kinds of insights won’t come out in the first phone call.”
That said, a first phone call can help you assess mutual fit and what you stand to gain by investing in the coaching process. You can request a free consultation with Fortuna Admissions.
“People were coming to us seeking MBA admission coaching closer and closer to deadline, straining to do months’ worth of work in mere weeks or simply cutting corners to one-shot their applications,” says Raver. “I persuaded many round one MBA hopefuls to wait until round two when their applications were strongest. But the reality is that my most successful clients – the ones that get into one or more of their top choices – invariably start working with me at least four to six months in advance.”
An upcoming Fortuna–Poets&Quants webinar slated for May 24 will give you a free taste of the expert advice and insights available from Fortuna’s expert coaches. This live, 50-minute strategy session is also a chance to get your application questions answered by our panel of industry experts. Watch for registration information coming soon in Fortuna and PoetsandQuants newsletters.
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.
Comments or questions about this article? Email us.