The countdown to Round 2 MBA application deadlines is on… Harvard, Booth, Kellogg, Columbia, Tuck, Duke, and LBS are all waiting to hear from you by January 4, 2017. If you haven’t begun your application yet, you had better get started. At six months out you had the opportunity to carefully craft your profile, but at about six weeks it’s all about packaging and presenting it.
First, a reality-check: Your demanding day job, relentless deadlines, personal commitments, community engagements, and unforeseen complications in any of these areas will only be compounded by the fast approaching holiday season. It’s all too common that candidates let these aspects weaken the quality of their final application. The busy season from US Thanksgiving through to New Year’s begins: a festive cocktail of high hopes, stress, and out-of-office messages. The only solution is time and careful planning, and doing everything in your power to create an application that is as amazing as you are. Let alone with the holidays, six weeks is a tight window for applicants just getting serious about their applications. With less time, you’re going to need a well thought out strategy. Take a step back, review the big picture and thoughtfully map out what needs to be done by when. This approach is essential whether you’ve been preparing for ages or are finally prioritizing your application. It’s about recommitting to a process of attentive engagement with a long-term return on investment, not just a brilliant product at deadline. That means looking beyond the deadline to a successful next stage—you’ll want to be a well-prepared candidate during the interview process, and that’s not something you can achieve overnight either.
Fortuna’s team of former senior admissions staff have put together five tips for prioritizing your remaining time and making the most of your effort.
1) Envision what success looks like. Develop a clear picture in your mind (or on paper) of your MBA experience and your post MBA plans—the self-awareness and program knowledge required to visualize what this looks like will help set your priorities. What do you need to know about your top schools to see yourself on campus, interacting with professors, industry leaders, and co-students? And what do you need to know about yourself—your values/what’s important to you, motivations and aspirations, your strengths and talents? Thoughtful introspection is foundational for bringing your best thinking at each touch-point of your application—from researching schools to briefing recommenders, developing essays, and nailing interviews. Visualizing what success looks and feels like will also help you set up a strategy for achieving it that extends beyond the application deadline.
2) Write your essays, review, edit, then edit some more. Essay questions have been reduced in recent years, which may give an impression they require less work. This is not true—having less room to tell your story requires even more creativity, reflection, and judgement. To paraphrase Mark Twain: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” And Twain probably never had to “choose one song that expresses who you are…” (Haas) or choose from a photo-montage “the moment that best resonates with you…” (Booth). These questions can feel extremely open-ended, triggering anxiety about what on earth the ad coms want to know. Instead, think of each question as an opportunity to develop a personal response that speaks to your character and what makes you unique. Your strategy-setting introspection is the basis for writing an essay that’s compelling, authentic, and coherent. Consider the following:
– Brainstorm by challenging yourself to go deep and wide before selecting your best ideas
– Create an outline that supports your key points and ensures smooth transitions between each points
– Plan to edit and rewrite multiple times, and don’t overestimate the amount of time you’ll want to spend sitting at your laptop over the holidays
– Build in time to get feedback from at least one person who can give you fresh eyes and honest comments—and be explicit about the input you are looking for. Everyone needs a good editor, even the very best writers
– A final review from an expert perspective – for example our Admissions Director’s Evaluation – can ensure you put the finishing touches that will make all the difference when your file is read by the adcoms.
3) Continue to monitor your target schools. By now you’ve assembled your knowledge of numerous schools and assessed which one(s) are the best fit for you. Beyond scouring program websites, you may have started networking with alumni and students, engaging key professors, or diving deeper into content areas that spark your interest. Now isn’t the time to let things lie. Continue to interact with the school and stay on top of what’s happening on campus—whether its reaching out to a student club president, visiting campus, or creating Google alerts and making time to read the latest news. It’s not just about research, but developing relationships that impact the quality of your application, presentation, and experience.
4) Keep in touch with recommenders. You’ve most likely already identified your recommenders and got them on your side. Nurture a close relationship with steady communication throughout the application process, especially before holiday time when many will be out of the office. In addition to a clear timeline, provide each recommender with a written brief to help them understand the context of your application and how you’re positioning your candidacy. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to write a super supportive and detailed recommendation. Which also means not turning your poor planning into their holiday headache. The last thing you need is someone’s half hearted attention while they sip a cocktail or skim an iPhone from somewhere in the mountains. When we were in the admissions office, we’ve all experienced that call from a panicked applicant whose recommender can’t submit on time because he’s at a ski lodge without Internet. By agreeing timelines, communicating clearly, and frequently following up will allow your recommenders to shine as your outspoken champions.
5) Don’t submit a GMAT score you aren’t comfortable with. You can still test until the 11th hour, and these days if you take the GMAT and the result isn’t what you were aiming for, you can cancel and it will not appear on your official score report. This means you can retake without the risk of looking bad if your score doesn’t improve. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily retake given what’s at stake at this stage. Scores often tend to level out after a third attempt, and you’ll need to consider if it’s really worth the extra stress, effort, and study time. However if you’re short of the 80% range of accepted scores for your target school and think there’s more than 50% chance of increasing your score, you should strongly consider building testing into your countdown timeline.
A closing caution: we’ve seen candidates who submitted to their top schools in Round 1 who then make less effort in Round 2 because they’re counting on good news from their Round 1 schools. This isn’t the time to slack off, but to be even more persuasive. Schools know that some candidates apply in Round 2 because they were rejected by their top choice program, which means you now have to show the love even more. Admissions officers want to see that you’re both well informed and motivated, that you’ve made an effort to truly understand the school culture and can visualize how you will contribute to it.
In sum, preparing your MBA application can be an arduous and painstaking process. But keep your chin up; an acceptance offer will quickly make the pain and suffering disappear from your thoughts. May you look back on this time as the turning point when your thoughtful reflection, clever planning, focused attention, and commitment to your dream propelled you into a life-changing career.