MBA Class of 2020: Your 100-Hour Application Strategy

July 14, 2017 | by Matt Symonds


By Matt Symonds, Director, Fortuna Admissions

The world’s top business programs have announced MBA admissions deadlines for the Class of 2020 (and if that isn’t futuristic-sounding…). This year, Stanford led the dance, confirming Sept 19, 2017 to be its Round 1 deadline. Wharton’s is the same as GSB, and HBS released a September 6 date.

This gives you just under 10 weeks to prepare your application. Are you ready?

If you can credibly spend 10 hours a week between R1 and now working on your MBA applications, that gives you roughly 100 hours to meet Stanford GSB’s deadline. Where will you gain the best ROI on those hours? My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former MBA admissions directors and business school insiders, share their wisdom on prioritizing your time. Your focus should be creating a solid foundation before sitting down to write for maximum impact. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Self-assess & reflect ~ 5 – 10 hours

Take some time out from the office, phone and email to get reflective about why you want an MBA, your strengths and weaknesses, how you envision your future career taking shape, and what you’d contribute to the business school community. Evaluating where you are from a place of considered self-awareness will lay the groundwork for crafting a great application when it’s time to write.

  1. Do your research ~ 10 – 20 hours

Gaining an in-depth understanding of various schools and a strong sense of mutual fit takes time. Start by connecting with the school communities – through school visits, networking with alumni and savvy online research. Follow the latest on social media and review MBA blogs. Another research and networking strategy is to identify areas of study or clubs you’d like to learn more about at specific schools. It feels less daunting when you break down the points of contact into smaller doses. For example, you could reach out to presidents of certain on-campus clubs, students with whom you share educational or industry affinities or specific professors in your areas of interest.

  1. Visit schools (if possible) ~ one day

Given the deluge of content available online, it’s tempting to believe that you can glean everything you need to know about business school from your laptop. But nothing gives you a stronger sense of the culture and vibe like a visit to witness life on campus. While most MBA programs aren’t in session over summer, you can sign up to visit in the early fall, (and remember to schedule time off work in advance). Also, stay abreast of special events happening in your area by signing up on the program’s website.

  1. Strengthen your extracurricular profile ~ 1 – 2 hours/week

Its wiser – at this stage – to focus your time where you’re already invested rather than pursuing completely new activities. Assess your outside commitments and consider ways to get more deeply involved. Does your extracurricular engagement help demonstrate relevant skills such as team building and leadership? Can you point to ways you’ve improved the communities in which you live and work?

  1. Bolster your work experience ~ 2 – 5 hours planning

Look for ways to build one or two standout stories over the coming weeks that will broaden your experience and showcase your professional abilities. Can you volunteer for more responsibility than you’d normally be assigned or take the lead on a project at work? Consider telling your boss or HR that you’re applying for an MBA, and that you’d welcome additional opportunities to own or lead projects. Come to the table with some of your own ideas when possible, and be ready to present them.

  1. Weigh-up your GMAT ~ 1 – 20+ hours

Carefully consider whether you should retake the GMAT if you’ve scored below the average for your target schools. This test can be a black hole of time, stress and energy. So unless you have little evidence of quant ability in your academic and professional background, bombed a particular section, or are short of the 80% range of accepted scores, your time might be better spent on other parts of your application. School choice might be a factor – for example, schools like MIT Sloan, Wharton, Columbia and Chicago Booth are unapologetically quant-driven, while others are less-so. Factors to weigh:

  • How likely are you to meaningfully increase your score? Unless you believe there’s more than a 50% chance of increasing, retaking is probably not worth it.
  • Did you already give it your best shot? How prepared did you feel last time around? Or was test-day unusual for you in some way you might overcome in the future?

After three times, test takers’ scores normally plateau – so it’s rarely worth taking the GMAT more often than that.

Another option is to prove your quant ability by enrolling in a course in stats, finance, or accounting online.

  1. Woo your recommenders ~ 4 hours

You will need two recommenders, and at this stage you’ll want to identify your options. Build your relationship with recommenders proactively. If they work with a previous employer – reconnect and stay consistently in touch. If you currently work with them, look for opportunities to shine so that they can then witness your abilities in action and name some examples. All the better if there’s a way to do them a favor, as writing an artful endorsement is no small ask.

All this important groundwork is roughly 60 hours depending on your areas of emphasis, which poises you for maximum efficiency in your actual application writing. With a solid foundation, this body of work can be completed in approximately 40 hours, which includes: crafting, revising and fine-tuning your essays; refining your resume; completing the data form with precision; and providing a briefing document to your recommenders and maintaining frequent communication. It’s also advantageous to slim down to a shortlist of programs for R1 that best match your personal goals – it’s rarely realistic to apply to six or more schools in one round.

Speaking of rounds, about a month from your deadline you’ll want to have a check-in by honestly considering whether you’re prepared to submit your best work in Round 1 or whether to hold off until Round 2. All told, it’s better to submit an accomplished and polished when you’re ready, rather than dashing off something hurried or poorly conceived. The most important thing: Optimize the ROI of your time and energy between now and September.

A version of this article was originally published in Poets & Quants on June 2, 2017.

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