Fortuna Admissions has been asked by The Economist to write a four-part series explaining how to improve your chance of getting into a top business school. Our experts from Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, IE Business School, Kellogg and UC Berkeley Haas are answering readers’ questions over the course of the coming weeks.
Part four: Letters of recommendation; interviews; waitlist; next steps
Letters of recommendation
If the application essays (discussed in part three of this series) are an opportunity to convey your goals and accomplishments, letters of recommendation provide the MBA admissions office with valuable insight into how you are viewed by others. The people that you choose, and the strength, thoroughness and enthusiasm of their recommendations, are a critical element in your file.
Most business schools require two references, though you should be clear about what is expected by each school. Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB, for example, ask for three letters, with the latter requiring two professional references and a third from a peer, perhaps a team member, whether personal or professional.
So who should you ask? Above all, make sure that your recommender knows you well and will take the time to write a thorough and supportive letter, detailing your performance with specific examples rather than general statements. Business schools are not impressed by illustrious names or fancy job titles when it is clear that you have not worked together closely. If they are unable to discuss your strengths and potential in any depth, or provide specific illustrations of your performance, do not ask them. Similarly, do not pursue colleagues who are graduates of your target school if they have had little professional interaction with you. While they may be well-placed to identify the qualities required of a successful student at their schools, the lack of knowledge about you will be obvious.
The ideal letter, therefore, is from a current or recent supervisor. If you feel that asking such a person will jeopardise your job situation, and you would prefer to ask someone else—a client, for example—you may want to include a sentence about this in your optional essay. Admissions officers understand such situations, but we would rather know why you made the decision rather than having to figure it out indirectly.
Another common mistake is not including a recommendation from someone with whom you have worked in the past two years. If you have to go back too far in time to find a recommender, it raises questions.
Do not assume your recommenders know what they are doing. We have seen too many candidates let down by poor recommendations, probably unintentionally, because the person didn’t know what was expected, and only wrote a few lines. (Schools ask that recommenders submit letters straight to schools. Although students may legally ask to see what has been written, schools usually ask that this right be waived. Failure to agree will probably make them think that you have something to hide.) Again, details and depth matter, with anecdotes of specific situations and how you performed. Comments such as “he is a real team player” or “she has great leadership qualities” will not leave a lasting impression. An example of your contribution to a project and the impact on client satisfaction, or a description of a particular problem you solved, is far more compelling.
You should therefore take the time to prepare your recommenders and give them helpful information. We suggest meeting with them before they write the letter, so they really understand why you are applying to a particular schools. You may also want to remind them of recent projects you have excelled at, or ways in which you demonstrated leadership. Do not assume that just because you report to someone they recall every single time you did a great job.
Make sure to give your recommenders ample time. Springing a request for a letter two weeks before your deadline can make it very stressful for both you and them. We suggest a six to eight week lead time, with follow ups after three weeks and then a seven days before due date. The onus is on you to manage your recommendations from start to finish.
Finally, remember to thank them for their support and to follow-up. There is nothing that makes a recommender happier than knowing the outcome of your application. Keep them up to date on your progress—did you secure an interview, have you visited campus—and send them a handwritten note to express your appreciation. Treating them with respect and showing your gratitude can really help to make this a good experience for you both.
The MBA interview
The offer of a MBA interview from a business school is a very encouraging sign. You have just made the first cut; only a modest percentage of the thousands applying to a top MBA programme receive the call. Of those, typically half will be offered a place, so your chances of success have improved significantly. Good preparation is essential.
Whether with an admissions officer, or an alumnus who has been selected to represent the school, you need to have good answers to questions about yourself: your strengths and weaknesses, why you want an MBA from this school, what you can bring to the business school community, and what your future career goals are. You also need to train yourself to give natural, well-structured and confident answers. Particularly with alumni interviews, the person in front of you may not have seen your application, so your job is to capture the essence of what your experience and accomplishments say about you. Practice with a coach or suitable friend until you are no longer just delivering lines from your application essays, but can comfortably and clearly make your point. This should also help you to interact with the interviewer.
Making a personal connection in the beginning should get you off to a good start. If you can find common ground, or show a genuine interest in them, they will be more likely to feel favourably disposed towards you. You could research the background of your interviewer beforehand, perhaps on Linkedin or by searching the web. It might help you to find that common ground, such as a place you have both lived or an interest you share. Remember that any subject you raise could lead to a follow-up question, so if you are going to bring up a shared passion for vintage wine or scuba diving make sure you can intelligently pursue the discussion. At the very least, some background research should help you feel more comfortable meeting with someone who you already know something about.
We suggest that you prepare four or five pieces of information that you wish to share. Although it is important to focus on the question you are being asked, maintain a proactive rather than passive approach to ensure that you represent yourself well. Be consistent with how you pitched yourself in your written application, and have answers for some of the tougher questions that may probe a career decision you made, how you react to feedback, why you need an MBA, or what makes you stand out among other candidates. If there is an aspect of your application that the school might question, have a solid explanation, not an excuse. If questions keep coming back to one issue, stay calm and continue to give confident and poised responses. Be ready for confrontation. Some schools want to see if you can think on your feet, and want to see how you react when you are directly challenged. If you have worked at the same company for some time and have forgotten how to do an interview, now is the time to engage with others so that you can practice and be well-prepared.
Given that interviews tend to last no longer than 30 to 45 minutes, be concise with your answers. If you find yourself losing your thread or going into too much detail, take a breath and try to wrap up your point. It is better to admit to over-enthusiasm for a subject (other than yourself!) than lose the interviewer’s attention and leave the impression that you cannot stop talking. The bottom line is to respond honestly and candidly, and give specific examples of the point you are making, or the character trait you want to emphasise.
Beyond your own answers, don’t forget to ask intelligent questions yourself. While the interviewer is leading the dance, this is your chance to find out more about the programme, with questions that are pertinent to your plans, such as details about particular clubs, study trips or centres of research. Just avoid asking questions that have been clearly answered on the school website.
As with any professional interview, you should look the part in suitable business attire, arrive ahead of time to compose your thoughts, be polite and enthusiastic with all the people you encounter, and think to send a thank you note with a specific example of what you appreciated. For those applying to the Harvard Business School you are now expected to submit a “post interview reflection” within 24 hours. There is no right answer, just something thoughtful that gives your genuine reaction to the interview experience.
Learning from your dream school that you have been placed on its waitlist is frustrating. You feel that you are so close to your goal, but now have the torment of sitting it out as the school assesses the next round of applicants. Being waitlisted is certainly better than being rejected. But what can you do to manage this period of uncertainty?
The first step is to accept your place on the waitlist and reiterate your desire to attend the school. Schools have different policies, so find out whether you need formally to confirm your place on the list. Certain schools do not accept any additional materials and you should respect that policy. Others not only accept supplementary information, but might suggest that an additional essay or letter of recommendation would be helpful. If you are offered feedback from a waitlist manager, take it up.
You should also evaluate why your application came up short and look for help to identify areas of weakness. Retaking the GMAT might be worth considering if your score is below the school average, but only if you think you can improve by a decent margin, not just ten extra points.
Update the school with any significant information such as a promotion or a job move, or inform the school if you are on the verge of accepting an offer from another school, but do not send unnecessary updates. Definitely avoid contacting the school too often—we have seen admissions officers run for cover when they see a waitlisted candidate’s phone number light up yet again on their phone screen. You do not want to gain a reputation for being a pain.
Finally, stay optimistic. Tough though it may be, as a waitlisted applicant you are still in with a chance of admission.
We hope that this series of articles has given you an idea of what to expect throughout the application process, and how you should tackle each phase.
Make sure that you start the whole process well in advance, and build in lots of buffer time in case it takes you longer than expected to get the GMAT score you want, or one of your recommenders disappears for a three week holiday and cannot be contacted, or you spend two months on an intensive project and have no time to come up for air.
Applying to business school may, at times, be as much fun as having your teeth extracted, but try to see the whole process as an opportunity for you to learn and develop, regardless of the outcome. Addressing the essay questions in a thoughtful way, preparing your recommenders, and facing the interviews, all require you to go through a process of deep self-reflection, from which you might emerge a wiser person, with a clearer sense of what your want from your future career.
The previous three parts of the series look at: