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Round 1 Strategies Amid Covid-19: MBA Application Tips & Advice

It’s no wonder that business school holds enormous appeal as a key adaptation strategy for early career professionals and college seniors whose plans have been summarily upended.

Given the exceptional circumstances at play, what do you need to know, and how can you prepare for delivering a standout application for round 1 as early as September?

On April 12, more than 400 MBA hopefuls joined me and my Fortuna Admissions colleagues, Matt Symonds and Cassandra Pittman, for a live online strategy session on Applying to Round 1 Amid Covid-19. While you can now view our conversation in its entirety, including our responses to a host of fantastic questions from participants, I’ve captured some of our team’s key insights, below.


1. It’s strategic time to pursue an MBA, but R1 will be more competitive.
Even with some sort of recovery on the horizon, industries are bracing for a deep and severe recession. If you’re thinking of the MBA as a strategic way to ride out the storm while enhancing skills that will better position you when the job market rebounds, you’re not alone. Applications are often cyclical, and they run counter cyclical to the economy. In terms of application volume, Judith (former head of Wharton admissions) expects to see the kind of app volume she saw in 2008 – perhaps a 20% spike across the board, with schools like HBS and Wharton about 10-12% higher.

That said, having a good five months before round one deadlines puts you in an excellent position for taking the time to prepare a high-quality application. Don’t over focus on the competition or fret the idea that there are likely more people with your job title in the pool. What’s vital is to deliver a strong narrative and a unique story.

2. Despite visa uncertainty, schools are still seeking international applicants.
Many international students are worried that where they live will diminish their chances of admission. Embassy closures and travel restrictions are vexing candidates, but top programs, like HBS, have explicitly reaffirmed their commitment to international students.

“I cannot imagine a world in which the schools themselves are the ones that choose to select fewer international applicants,” says Cassandra. “It would be completely contrary to the values and the intention of every school that I know.” But what we what we don’t know is what travel restrictions are going to look like in the next five months, which is not that far away.

A big question mark is when the State Department will be back up and running to process visas. We may begin to see deferral options for admits unable to secure the paperwork, although that may not pacify somebody who wants to enter this fall. Given this great unknown, it’s really important to calculate contingencies: if your top choices schools are in the US, you may still want to apply to a backup option that’s closer to home if you don’t want to put off the MBA.

3. Test scores still matter.
While many schools have invited candidates to submit applications without exam scores in the wake of test center closures, most schools are still looking to see a test score before making an offer. Among the rapidly evolving Covid-19 Changes to MBA Admissions, the only top school to wave test scores altogether is Kellogg (at the time of writing this article); UT Austin McCombs recently announced you can petition for an exam waiver. The GMAT or GRE supply data points schools have relied on for decades to evaluate candidates across educational systems and geographies, and imperfect as the tests are, schools look to it as proof that you can handle the quant-heavy coursework.

The GMAT Online Exam became available on April 20 in most (not all) countries, while the GRE and TOEFL have been online since March (see Matt’s related Forbes article, What MBA Candidates Need To Know About The Online GMAT.) Schools have been clear that they won’t discriminate between exams taken at home or in test centers. Try to apply with a score if you can, even if it’s an older score that you’re hoping to raise, or submit one as soon as you can so admissions has that data point to work with. While it may seem like an act of grace to sidestep the exam at submission time, it’s not necessarily going to do you good if you don’t produce it.

4. Schools are activating new channels of communication to encourage prospects.
Programs are actively mobilizing their current students and alumni to reach out, and to be engaged and available to prospects during this period of uncertainty. If you’re weighing the merits of whether or not to go for it right now for an extended R3 or R4, apply in R1, or hold off until things settle down, chances are there’s someone on the other end at your target program you can talk to. Second year students feel very passionate about their programs and they want to share their experiences with you. The technology is getting ever more fluid, and there’s certainly a higher bar to create a valuable virtual experience as schools compete for the attention of top candidates.


“It’s not what you achieve, it’s what you overcome. That’s what defines your career,” Cassandra likes to remind our clients, quoting American baseball great, Carlton Fisk. (Who, incidentally, echoes wisdom from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery.)

This perspective-shifting advice is doubly relevant in the current moment, when no individual or industry is unaffected by the Covid-19 global pandemic. Times of crisis really test our ability to adapt.

As Cassandra said in our live webinar, I want to preface this from a human perspective to emphasize that it’s okay if you are not doing everything we’re going to recommend that you do right now and for the next five months. It’s a very stressful situation worldwide, and while there’s opportunity to be seized in every crisis, schools will be understanding given the scope and scale of the pandemic that’s affecting people in innumerable ways.

That said, in the spirit of maximizing your time and focusing your effort, there are several things to consider for presenting a standout application in round 1 this fall.

1. Dial up your digital networking.
Think about how you make meaningful connections in a virtual format, and start reaching out now to students, alumni and administrators at your target schools. Get clever about your online brand and your digital networking. Think of it this way: The access to entry is so much easier – you don’t have to fly out to a school, attend a class in person, or spend resources (whether money or time) that may have prevented people from campus visits in previous years.

Whether you send messages on LinkedIn or other social networks, ask for 15 minutes to glean advice and learn more about someone’s experience. When you’re sincere about asking for an alum’s insight and perspective, especially in demonstrating a point of connection or synergy, it’s very likely they’ll say yes. And, if you don’t get a response, don’t assume this person is uninterested or uncaring – just assume they’re really busy. When you do connect, be respectful and humble in what you ask for – you don’t want to solicit a letter of recommendation after first contact with an alum (I wouldn’t say this if it didn’t happen).

2. Put your adaptability on display.
Last week I spoke with an MBA hopeful and BCG associate who admitted that he’d never felt more empowered. Amid the Covid-19 crisis, he’s become indispensable for his technical and communications savvy at the office, helping to transition colleagues and managers to Slack and facilitating the seamless integration of other digital tools to meet clients’ changing needs.

Six months from now, the question of how you adapted to such unprecedented circumstances will be front of mind to the MBA admissions committee who reviews your candidacy. Most applicants think it’s their accomplishments that define who they are, but it’s the challenges and pain points that so often shape our character and catalyze growth and transformation. This is what the admissions committee wants to know. Look for opportunities to show patterns of behavior that convey your leadership potential – whether it’s responding to a need in your community or taking the initiative at work.

3. Don’t assume a gap in your resume is inevitable.
Schools will undoubtedly be sympathetic to a gap in your resume given the circumstances, but don’t assume it’s an inevitability. But as mentioned above, they’ll also want to know how you responded and what you did with your time. Instead of turning your 80-hour work week into 100+ because your commute and/or gym time has evaporated, how might you increase your community engagement? If you’ve been laid off or furloughed, how can you apply your expertise and skills where they’re needed most? (You might also consider taking a class to freshen up your quant experience.)

Think about the impact you have always wanted to make, think about the things that you were always passionate about, and then think about how those things are affected in the current climate. It’s about using this time in a way that you create value, and that’s consistent with who you are in your overall narrative. All the better if you can deepen your commitment to organizations or activities you were already involved in before the crisis. (For more on this topic, view my related article, Extracurriculars in Quarantine.)

4. Position your uniqueness.
Think beyond what you’ve accomplished that’s exceptional – because lots of people have done exceptional things – to what makes you different from others with a similar (or identical) professional profile. Your exceptionalism is a given if you’re applying for the MBA at a top program. As the admissions committee is tasked with building a diverse cohort, they’ll be looking for what value-add you’ll bring to the class and what makes you unique. That’s where the work is in your narrative – always, but now more than ever in a potentially higher than average applicant pool.

If that sounds intimidating, take this to heart: You are more than what you do for a living, and frankly, it’s your unique qualities, how you make decisions, and what motivates and drives you that is so much more interesting to the MBA admissions committee than the fact that you do X for X industry.

When I was head of Wharton’s MBA Admissions, my team and I are were always seeking to understand who the applicant was as an individual. Your job – identity shaping though it may feel – is really just the vehicle by which you learn to harness this bevy of skills and abilities. When you talk about the things that really are important to you, it feels genuine and inspires a personal connection with the reader.

5. Get self-reflective
From written essays to the admissions interview, the MBA application process is riddled with formidable questions designed to solicit significant introspection and surface profound self-awareness. It’s a heartfelt and thoughtful process by which you’re being asked to really reflect on your life your goals, your mission and values, why you want to do this and why now. Taking the time to summon this clarity of purpose for yourself is the single most important thing you can do to strengthen your application.

Fortuna’s Matt Symonds says it well in his Forbes article, Start Early and Enjoy Yourself:

“This is your chance to step back from the relentless pace of professional commitments and really think about where you would like to see yourself five to 10 years from now, what matters most to you, and what you have to offer in both the MBA classroom and in the wider community that is so much part of the business school experience,” says Matt. “The MBA application is a welcome reminder of this meaningful road to self-discovery. If you bring awareness to the process of applying, and not just the outcome, the benefits will extend far beyond an acceptance letter.”

Want more insight? View the video recording of this dynamic conversation, including participant Q&A.

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