MBA application preparation is a long process of eternal suffering.
Coming from an international student background, I feel that there are extra hurdles for people like me to go through. Unlike applicants in the US, international applicants do not have the undergraduate prestige/brand name companies to leverage as a part of their application. Some may get the luxury of having good MNC on their resume but most do not. So it’s always better to be prepared for what’s to come of the application journey.
I see most people on MBA forums (especially reddit) saying that it’s not worth it to plan on grabbing an MBA very early in one’s career. I would agree on this front when it comes to candidates who are still in their freshmen year or sophomore unless you are one of those people who can get into HBS 2+2 or Stanford’s defer program. Truthfully, I think it’s better to know what to keep in mind during your career in order to set up yourself for the best kind of success. I still think that even if I didn’t get an MBA, the preparation itself had made me a better person after going through a lot of tough interview/essay questions that require you to internally reflect about your damn life.
So what do I wish I had known before I started this grueling but very rewarding process?
1. Study for the damn GMAT
I cannot stress this point enough. If you ever want to do an MBA within a certain 5 year span of life, then study for the GMAT. The exam requires a lot of time and effort, at least for a month, in order to do well. Some test prep companies found that the average study time required for the GMAT to receive your peak score is around 3 months.
3 months! Who has that amount of time and energy during a full-time job? (A lot of people). But if you are not one of those who are extremely diligent and require time off to do well, the earlier you prepare, the better. If you are interested in how I studied my GMAT, you can read it here and here.
2. Understand the MBA application process and what it takes
I honestly think that this should be number one on the list but studying for GMAT will always the devil that I will mention first. I went in blind to get ready for an MBA. All my experiences were “on-the-job” and “trial-and-error”.
The MBA application process involves a lot of components: GMAT, GPA, work experience, extra curricular, application form, English proficiency tests, essays. Each component has its own weight to your application and knowing the ins and outs of what to expect would go a long way for an individual’s application process.
I could have used my time wisely on other aspect of the application. For example, I knew I had to study GMAT but I didn’t know what resources to use and who I should talk to. It was only on the 3rd month of studying I knew that the best verbal prep companies were online and not in person. I think I would have saved a good 30 days of studying and devote it to writing up my application.
You can always read more on MBA application here at gmatclub.com where they created an awesome guide and timeline for MBA prospective.
3. Take up all the possible volunteering experiences regularly
One thing I neglected during my years after university was volunteering experiences. The activities fell off the top of my head. Fortunately, I was on the board for my local community so it was easy to talk about the projects during my interview… however for international students, at least the ones in my country, we never knew that solid volunteering is important.
By solid I don’t mean to say going out to the beach and collecting trash, I mean helping the community to become a better place to live in the long-run. I wish I had more time to truly develop my life outside of work. Fortunately, I have started building it towards the end of my application process.
For example, I have been working with local volunteering network as a pro-bono consultant during my MBA applications. I did not mention this fact during my essays because it would seem a bit fake to talk about volunteering activities that just happened.
Through the activities I realized that going through your life without giving back in some way seems almost purposeless. You get to meet very interesting people from various backgrounds, hone your skills and gain skills, and learn more about what matters to you.
Other volunteering opportunities I would suggest to others would be mentoring kids in highschool/university, teaching certain subjects to the local community, and developing and executing campaigns to help social issues.
4. Beef up technical skills
I was asked the question “so what are your technical skills?” during one of my MBA interviews and I was truly stumped. How was I supposed to answer? I didn’t prepare for it! Of course I winged myself through the roof by answering things like basic data handling, survey design & development, and simple coding knowledge. However, if I had already have my technical skills, this question would be easy.
So what are you supposed to do? Take internships during undergrad! Join social clubs! Volunteer for a non-profit! Learn new skills and create your very own portfolio online! These skills are transferrable to almost any job that requires data and money… and these days all for-profit jobs are related to money. It’s quite obvious you need technical skills.
At least these technical skills will be able to complement your time during your MBA as well or get you a job that requires them.
5. Read up on more essay tips
You do not need an admissions consultant to get into a top ranking business school. All you need to do is write a compelling essay with the required elements. Usually these elements are available online and for free. You can also find numerous examples of great MBA essays on admissions consulting website.
At the same time, knowing what you have to do saves you a lot of time. Imagine you have 2 – 3 years before you want to attend business school. If you know how to write an essay, you will know what kind of experiences you need to think about and go do before your MBA application starts. Essays also tremendously help with interviews. There are so many great advantages of reading up on essay tips so don’t be lazy and do it!
6. Meet more MBA alums and current students
Similar to school visits and information sessions, meeting more alums and current students will help you gain invaluable perspective. Your MBA application can be peppered with names of these alums (given this people are well known etc.) so that you can sound well involved with the school. However, do not over do with name mentions. It’s obnoxious.
On the other hand, you can also ask these alums and current students how their expectations have changed over time about the school. This will help you narrow down a proper school list that will fit with your MBA goals and personal goals.
7. Do school visits or attend information sessions
These visits and information sessions are free (excluding travel). If you have the resources to afford a visit, do so. If not, go to the school information sessions available in your country.
Getting to know the school allows you to get a better sense of how to write why the school you are applying to is the school of your choice. You will gain materials that are not available on the school website at these sessions. And as you may have known, schools expect you to not vomit out aspects that are readily available.
Once you are admitted, the information you have will help you pick the best school for you. Most people think that getting into b-school is difficult, but choosing the right school for you is also a huge task on its own.
8. Work on jobs/projects that create great impact
You may see the term “work experience” come up often during your application process. But what constitutes a quality work experience? Quality work experience is work that shows leadership, initiative, and impact. Essentially, it shows who you are and how you have grown over the years. Business schools look for candidates who has the potential to make it big after graduation. The only way schools can check is to see your past achievements through your MBA applications. Since this is the core of your application, try your best to find a job that empowers you to create, ironically, something larger than your pay check.
I was lucky that I was able to fight for interesting and unique projects during my gig as a consultant. However, if I had known impact was important I would have taken on projects that guarantee a tangible result. It is way easier to talk about hard numbers on your applications than about employee happiness’ effect on internal hiring costs.
Lastly, a protip: achievements do not only come in forms of impact but also comes in forms of third party recognition, a.k.a promotions from your work. I suggest finding jobs that promotes you according to performance rather than years of experience!
9. Outline MBA essays
I wrote my first MBA essay without an outline. I was pulling out from my butt for a 750 word essay for UCI. When I had my friend peer reviewed it, I was completely shredded to pieces. The essay showed no substantial achievements or goals. It was vague. This type of essay will not be fitting for any MBA application. I can assure you that planning can go a long way for essays. Even though it might seem stupid but an outline will help ensure you include all the relevant points.
So what is the best way to outline MBA essays? For me I would say your stellar achievements, examples that show your personality beyond work, and proof of solid and achievable post-MBA goals. I suggest checking out MBA essay guides or examples from admissions consulting that are available for free. I checked out references from Aringo.
10. Have a Career Goal
People want to do an MBA for many reasons. Most reasons are personal rather than professional. For example, some people go to business school because it will be the last 2 years of fun they would have for the rest of their lives (anecdotally – business school years were the best of my life). Though 2 years is a good duration for a break, I highly doubt that the experience would be fruitful without a career goal.
Think about what you want to do right out of b-school, what job you want to get. Having the mindset of ‘I will figure it out in b-school’ should be your last resort. The time will fly by so fast that without a compass, you won’t be intentional about improving your future prospects. Have your goals drive your actions.
On the plus side that your goals change, be flexible with your actions and ensure that the results you are hoping to get, puts you in a better spot to succeed.
I hope for those reading this blog will at least know what to think about before getting an MBA. Also prepare money! Nobody told me that the application process was pricey as well. I am jealous of the schools which reap profits from application fees.