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2 Tactics to Help Avoid MBA Application Burnout

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Applying to business school is a stressful, exhausting and arduous process no matter how brilliant or organized a person you are. A great …

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

staying motivatedApplying to business school is a stressful, exhausting and arduous process no matter how brilliant or organized a person you are. A great way to reduce the risk of burnout is allowing ample time for the entire application process, which you can gauge by checking out this MBA timeline?.

Life doesn’t always follow a tidy pattern though, so when application fatigue looms, dodge the fear of MBA application failure  and try these tactics to get your MBA mojo back on track.

1. Team up with a buddy: It can be hard to stay motivated when you are faced with so many competing responsibilities, both as an applicant and from the real world. Schools often connect incoming students with a second-year buddy, so take a page from their book and pair up with a fellow MBA applicant targeting a different set of schools in order to bolster your enthusiasm.

Swap essays with each other to provide a fresh pair of eyes to catch possible grammar or punctuation mistakes and  also to see how well you have conveyed your goals, experiences and strengths to an audience outside of your industry.

When – fingers crossed – the invitations to interview start coming in, conduct mock interviews with your partner, in person if possible or via Skype, and provide each other with feedback on the exchange. Mock interviews will help crystallize your thoughts and allow you to figure out the appropriate level of detail and length of response to each question.

Never underestimate the importance of having someone you can vent to who knows exactly what it feels like in your shoes. A little nudge from your application buddy, and having a sense of support, community and accountability to another person in the MBA trenches, can go a long way toward keeping your motivation levels running high and your eye on the prize.

2. Choose your online resources wisely: The Internet is a wonderful resource for free information about applying to business school. Major news outlets cover the subject, admissions consultants like me publish MBA blogs to share the latest news and tips and test prep forums provide another popular source for information as well as camaraderie.

While nervous applicants often jump at the chance to read any and all information about the process and their dream schools, the smart thing is to pick a handful of trusted resources and filter out the rest. Not only will you arm yourself with the most accurate information out there, but you’ll also sidestep a lot of external anxiety as well as inevitable rumors constantly circulating online.

School-hosted and independent student blogs provide a valuable, up-close look at the programs, which is useful when you’re making your final selections but can also be biased. Blogs written by applicants offer a real-time glimpse into the process, with all its ups and downs, and can be a comfort to candidates going through this phase on their own.

Any advice offered through test-prep or MBA forums, or posts on student or applicant blogs, should be taken with a grain of salt. What worked for one applicant may completely backfire for another, so make sure those tips are substantiated through other credible sources. When in doubt, ask your admissions consultant or, if appropriate, contact the admissions committee at the schools where you’re applying.

The MBA application has several components, so when one area starts making your head spin – I’m looking at you, essays – then it’s time to redirect your attention elsewhere temporarily or take breaks when the demands on your time have exceeded your energy reserves. Most importantly, remember that you’re pursuing an MBA to transform your career, so do whatever it takes to revitalize your excitement and keep on keeping on.

Photo credit: Blueberryz CC 2.0

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5 Don’ts for Managing MBA Recommendation Writers

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com I recently got off the phone with a business school applicant who believes poor recommendations were a key reason she was not admitted …

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

I recently got off the phone with a business school applicant who believes poor recommendations were a key reason she was not admitted to school last year.

RecommandationShe carefully selected her recommenders and gave them several months’ advance notice. Her first recommender gave her a copy of his letter after submitting it. It was six pages long, written with care – and all wrong. He emphasized the wrong qualities, rambled like crazy and did not provide relevant examples.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, and it’s the reason why properly managing your recommenders is just as important as selecting the right ones. Heed these five don’ts for doing so, and you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary anxiety at a time when you are already under a lot of pressure.

1. Don’t assume he or she will remember all of your achievements or know what to write about: Your recommender is probably time-strapped and doesn’t remember those three amazing examples of your leadership. They also probably don’t know exactly what schools are looking for in letters of recommendation.

Show your reccomender your essays and decide on four or five key traits that you would like him or her to emphasize throughout the letter, such as leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, determination, focus, intelligence, charisma and integrity.

Come up with at least one concrete example that you feel illustrates each characteristic.

Here’s what an instance of initiative might look like: “Last year, when I learned that international sales were declining, I took it upon myself to research the competitive landscape and learned of two recent market entrants. I then offered to lead a team to analyze these new competitors and develop a strategy for regaining our market share. Our team of five analysts proposed a solution after one week of work. The solution was implemented and within six months, we gained back 5 percent of lost market share.”

2. Don’t bombard them with too many materials or reminders: Doing this can overwhelm your recommender and lead them to ignore what you’ve prepared for them. Create a bulleted list of all of the projects that you have worked on and an outline of your strengths that go into more detail than your resume.

You want your recommenders to actually read this document, so try to keep it to one page and do not overload them with information. It should be a helpful, quick reference.

3. Don’t allow your recommender to provide a rave review without supporting their statements with solid facts: The cardinal rule of good writing – show, don’t tell – is equally important in a letter of recommendation. The admissions committee really wants to get that third-party perspective missing from your essays, test scores and interview.

No one expects the applicant to be perfect, however. The best recommendation letters paint a vivid picture of the candidate that brings the candidate on paper to life.

4. Don’t let them submit late under any circumstances: It’s important to get started on this process as early as possible. Your recommender should know that writing such a letter is both an honor and responsibility.

Give them plenty of time to prepare for your deadline. You may find it helpful to advance the due date by a week or so in order to remove one last-minute worry from your plate.

5. Don’t write the recommendation letter for them: In an effort to save time or ease their burden, a recommender may ask you to write the letter for them to sign. Don’t do it!

For one, the admissions committee will probably recognize your writing style from your essays and that will immediately raise a red flag. And secondly, if the individual doesn’t have enough time to write a proper recommendation, you would be better off seeking out someone who is more enthusiastic about championing your business school dreams.

On the other hand, if the reason for the request is because English is a second language for your supervisor and he or she is worried about sounding unprofessional, you have two options. The first is simply to not worry about it and explain that the admissions committee is focused solely on the content of the message and understands any language limitations that may exist. However, if you fear it might become a distraction, hire a translator and eliminate that concern.

If you can help your recommenders stay on message, deliver on time and provide vivid examples of your professional skills, you will have this element of your MBA application well in hand.

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3 Ways to Show Business Schools You’ll Make an Impact

 This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Most candidates approach the MBA application process by putting their own needs first. Perhaps you have decided to pursue an MBA because you want to …

 female executiveThis post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

Most candidates approach the MBA application process by putting their own needs first. Perhaps you have decided to pursue an MBA because you want to achieve something new, change careers or advance more than you would otherwise.

However, what can set you apart from many candidates is thinking about what you can add to the business schools you are targeting. While everyone benefits from a diverse alumni network, what specifically do you want to give and receive from your classmates?

Applicants should frame their essays and interviews with the goal of convincing the admissions committee that they will enhance the student experience once on campus and will continue to make a positive impact as an alumnus down the road. Here are three ways to accomplish this.

1. Show how your skills and interests will benefit the program: Business schools strive to assemble a cohort filled with impressive individuals who will use their unique characteristics to enrich the learning environment. This is the perfect opportunity to distinguish yourself from those who may have a similar educational or work profile.

It’s effective to start with what you bring to the table. Think about what your points of differentiation are from other MBA candidates. Perhaps you have a distinctive leadership style or knowledge you can share with the class. Share with the admissions committee how you will contribute to the organizations that already exist, or mention your ideas for creating new ones.

Consider how you can add knowledge to a classroom. Maybe you have contacts in your industry that can help other students obtain jobs. Think about whether you can you provide connections to interesting speakers or if you will bring special skills to a club or classroom.

Remember, if your answers can be easily replicated by other applicants, they will add little to your candidacy.

2. Connect your past and present experiences to the future: You should be aware of the major academic, extracurricular and social components of the MBA programs you apply to and think about how you will enhance the mix. Perhaps your professional experience will further a case discussion in your strategy class, or it may also help your classmates with a panel on the industry they are putting together as part of a professional club.

Maybe you want to start a club or a conference based on your specialized industry knowledge. Perhaps you aspire to help a professor with her research because of a special interest you have. Or, you might be planning to return to the school as an alumnus to be a panelist or mentor once you develop your individual professional pursuits.

Since fit is so important, this is also an opportunity to reveal your depth of knowledge of the school’s culture. To be most effective, you will want to be both specific and logical in what you choose to highlight, focusing on the activities that make the most sense in the overall context of your career and industry interests.

3. Make the case for why each program is the best place to achieve your goals: Whatever your own personal reasons for seeking an MBA may be, make sure you can point out specific aspects of the skill set required for your future career that will be augmented by attending that school.

The admissions committee wants to know why your particular aspirations will be uniquely satisfied by their program, so use the essays and interview to show you have done your research. You should know everything about the aspects of the program that most appeal to you.

Know the classes you want to take, the professors you hope to work for, and how any specialized programs will be an asset in your future career. Make sure to reach out to current students and alumni, as those conversations will give you crucial insights that will provide a personal perspective on the culture of the school.

As you can see, business schools today seek a symbiotic relationship with their students. The highly competitive state of MBA admissions now requires applicants to show not only that they are qualified to attend the program, but that they will raise the bar by positively impacting the experience of everyone around them.

Image credit: Flickr user Bureau of IIP  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Focus on Career Progression, Results for a Successful MBA Resume

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com While most business school applicants might readily accept the need to spend weeks or months on test prep and MBA essays, many wrongly assume …

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

While most business school applicants might readily accept the need to spend weeks or months on test prep and MBA essays, many wrongly assume they can simply tweak their current professional resumes and hit submit along with the rest of the required data forms.

In doing so, they have missed a tremendous opportunity to create a powerful first impression on both the admissions committee and, fingers crossed, their future MBA interviewer.

The MBA resume is quite different from a traditional business resume in that it should focus heavily on MBA skills and traits such as leadership, teamwork and international work experience. Admissions committee members often view the resume as one of the most important parts of an application, so think of it as a marketing and branding tool and make it shine while keeping it simple.

Imagine someone scanning an MBA application resume for the first time on the 30-second walk down the hall to the interview. That person should be able to get a clear picture of the candidate – and that quickly.

You do want to provide a snapshot of your functional skills, but the admissions committee will be more interested in the fact that you led a cross-functional team to develop a new version of your product than the fact that you coded in three computer languages to develop the new version.

To the extent possible, illustrate career progression through the resume. Highlight a promotion or show how skills were cultivated after switching to a new job.

For example, if you have worked for the same company for five years but were promoted twice, you should highlight all three job titles, with separate dates of employment and separate descriptions. The descriptions should reflect your increasing levels of responsibility.

Business schools in general today aren’t as strict as they used to be regarding years of work experience, and some programs regularly admit students right out of college.

Whether you have five years on the job or one, don’t go so far back as to list high school jobs on your resume – they are just not relevant anymore. In some cases, even part-time college positions aren’t worthy of more than a mention, so focus on highlighting your most recent roles.

Admissions committees like to see results-oriented phrases in resumes, so for every bullet point, try to quantify results in dollar amounts or percentages whenever possible. It is much more powerful to write that you “created a marketing plan that resulted in a 30 percent increase in leads,” as opposed to noting that you simply “created a marketing plan.”

Business school applicants often find it helpful to frame their accomplishments using the STAR method, which stands for situation, task, action and result. For each employment position listed on your resume, think of a project, initiative or transaction where you made a meaningful contribution. Then describe the situation, your task, the actions you undertook and the results.

For example, one client who had worked as a summer associate at McKinsey & Co. noted on her resume that she “isolated regional sales performance weaknesses and designed a plan to recover $50 million in revenue.”

We see that the situation involved regional sales performance, the task was to isolate weaknesses and the action included designing a plan that resulted in recovering $50 million in revenue. The description was clear, brief and powerful.

The last couple lines of the MBA resume can highlight various interests and skills such as computer proficiency, second languages spoken or a love of travel. This is also an opportunity for a personal touch by adding something fun that shows a bit of personality and can become an icebreaker during interviews.

My resume included that I collect Pez dispensers, and that was always the first thing that the interviewer touched on that warmed things up and made the exchange more conversational.

Finally, for applicants with a noticeable gap in employment history, the best place to address this is in the optional essay, not the resume. Candidates want to fully explain any anomalies to the admissions committee so that no one jumps to an incorrect conclusion, and there’s simply not enough space to do so in a one-page resume.

The MBA resume may only receive a few minutes of attention from the admissions committee and MBA interviewer, but applicants should do all they can to make this first impression as powerful, compelling? and concise as possible.

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3 Ways to Get a Head Start When Building Your B-School Network

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com With the availability of the Internet and social media, it’s possible to get a head start on developing your business school network as early …

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

With the availability of the Internet and social media, it’s possible to get a head start on developing your business school network as early as the application phase.

That network can help you research schools, decide where to apply and support you throughout your candidacy. As most incoming MBA students know, the network you cultivate during business school is likely the most valuable part of the experience. In addition to making those two years a whole lot of fun, these relationships will become a lasting set of connections that have the potential to change the course of your professional life forever.

Here are three ways to build your business school network before you even set foot on campus.

1. Be social media savvy: Business schools want to expand their follower base in order to share school news, application deadlines and admissions events with prospective students. Follow your target MBA programs on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and through school-sponsored student blogs, such as the first-rate blog Booth Experience blog from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Use these online vehicles to learn about the school and to personally connect. Friend people who can be your peers – it’s an easy way to stay in touch once you’re admitted and can take all of this social networking one step further. Don’t attempt to friend any of the admissions folks on Facebook, but do feel free to follow them on Twitter, engage by asking thoughtful questions about the admissions process and learn all you can from them.

Another way to get on the admissions team’s radar is by keeping them apprised of your progress with a tweet. For example, you could write something like: “Submitted my Round 1 application to @MichiganRoss? ?today. Super excited for a chance to participate in the team-based interview.”

If you don’t consider social media to be another way to strengthen your candidacy, you may be missing out on a great opportunity that other MBA applicants will most certainly take advantage of.

2. Ask to be introduced to current students who share your interests: Visit campus and go out of your way to meet specific students in person whenever possible. If you’re interested in finance, ask someone to introduce you to the head of the finance club. Find out who is running the women’s association if you’re a female candidate targeting that school.

Call the admissions office and ask to be connected to a student who is doing something you want to do, such as pursuing your dream entrepreneurial goals, focusing on a mix of statistics and management? or concentrating on green business practices?. Admissions should be able to hook you up with like-minded individuals who can help you understand how the school can serve your goals.

Once you’ve made contact, these are great people to stay loosely in touch with as you make up your final list of schools. Sometimes, you can even name drop a bit in your essays? to show you have really done personal research and gotten to know the program and its student body.

Now is also a great time to reach out to alumni and current students that you already know. Reinvest in those relationships and talk to them about their experiences and how an MBA degree has enhanced their careers.

3. Work MBA admissions events to your advantage: Go to as many business school admissions events as you possibly can. This is a great way to decide if a certain program is legitimately the right place for you by hearing students and alums speak, and by sizing up the way a school markets itself.

As a ?bonus, attending an event shows you are interested and have done your homework. It makes a school feel loved. Everyone likes to feel loved, even admissions committee members.

While it can be hard to stand out at these events swarming with people hoping to make a good impression, sometimes you will have that meaningful conversation that can make a world of difference. Business schools often recruit local alumni to attend these events and help sell their program to prospective students, and you may encounter people working in the same industry you hope to after earning an MBA degree.

Try to find two or three people who match up with your experience and goals, and learn how their business school experience transformed them personally or professionally. If you establish a rapport and the person is willing to continue speaking with you outside of the event, ask for an informational interview over coffee or even email to learn more about how he or she successfully transitioned to their current career.

It truly is the people, not the brochure bullet points, that bring a school to life, so the more person-to-person contact you have the more informed you will be when it comes time to apply – and when you finally set foot on campus.

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Avoid Choosing the Wrong MBA Recommenders

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com You probably already know not to ask the CEO of your company to write your business school letter of recommendation – unless of course he or …

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

You probably already know not to ask the CEO of your company to write your business school letter of recommendation – unless of course he or she is  someone you work closely with and who knows you very well.

Below are three more potential pitfalls when it comes to selecting a recommender. Avoid these mistakes or you may find your chances of admission crushed despite having an overall compelling application.

• Don’t select someone who can’t answer the questions: In other words, you may feel tempted to choose someone who knows you inside and out, but not in a professional setting. He or she can speak to your love of soccer, your compassion and your integrity, which are all great attributes. But this person cannot answer the specific career questions recommenders must address.

Business schools typically ask recommenders to evaluate how the candidate’s potential, performance or personal qualities stack up against those of other individuals in a similar role.

We worked with one client, Mike, when he was applying straight out of college. He had done a few short internships during college, but had no full-time work experience to draw from or a supervisor to tap for a traditional recommendation.

Mike had a stellar academic record, but a choosing a professor is rarely a good choice for a business school reference, no matter how cordial the teacher-student relationship. However, once we learned that Mike had worked as a teaching assistant for one of his professors, we knew we’d found someone who could better speak to the types of questions asked. Though unconventional, the recommendation from a professor became the right choice for Mike.

• Don’t select someone who is not an advocate for you going to business school. This may sound strange, but plenty of successful and well-positioned professionals won’t understand why you would want to go to business school. They may even be actively against it. Maybe they don’t want to lose you as an employee for two years, or maybe they aren’t really your biggest fan.

Our client Todd worked in finance in an office that didn’t require the MBA degree for promotion, and many higher-ups scoffed at its value. While his boss agreed to write the recommendation and had plenty of good things to say about Todd, he sort of laughed it off and clearly would not act as a true advocate for him going to business school.

Todd worried about what might happen if one of his target schools called his boss to discuss the reference, and that uncertainty was just too stressful. He decided instead to choose his supervisor from a prior position, someone with whom he had kept in touch and discussed his graduate school plans with quite a bit.

Choose people who like you, who care about your success and who think you’re good at what you do. Choose capable writers who can express their opinions clearly. If a potential reference seems less than enthusiastic in any way, keep looking. That person’s ambivalence will likely come through in the letter.

• Don’t select a person who doesn’t know who you are and where you stand now: If you worked with someone four years ago and have not done a good job of staying in touch, that person really cannot comment on your progress and skills today.

We worked with one client, Guillaume, who was reapplying to business school after receiving a series of setbacks the previous season. Upon reviewing all of the components of his previous application, it quickly became apparent that a feeble recommendation letter had likely weakened his otherwise strong candidacy.

He had gone to a supervisor from a previous position, and while he left on good terms personally and professionally, Guillaume had never felt fully comfortable at the firm, which was why he resigned to find a job he felt more passionate about. Unfortunately, it appeared Guillaume’s supervisor had also perceived his lack of enthusiasm for his job.

Having few years of distance from Guillaume’s work, the former supervisor wrote a recommendation that would appear polite and generally positive upon hurried review, but a closer read revealed some deliberate omissions and even a few veiled criticisms. In this case, the recommender’s letter was actually damning with faint praise. 

When considering potential references, ask yourself whether the person has worked closely with you, thinks favorably of you, and will put in the time to write a thoughtful, detailed endorsement of your candidacy. If you can’t answer yes to these three requirements, move on until you find the person who fits the bill perfectly. Your chances of admission to the school of your dreams may well depend on it.

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