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Should You Retake the GMAT?

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com While I occasionally hear tales of MBA applicants offered admission in a top business school with a 640 GMAT score, the truth is that  accepting students …

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

While I occasionally hear tales of MBA applicants offered admission in a top business school with a 640 GMAT score, the truth is that  accepting students with stellar scores of 700 or higher is more the norm at the most competitive programs.

Before you start to panic and become hung up on achieving the highest score possible, or fixate on the average GMAT score reported by the schools, I urge test-challenged clients to focus instead on aligning their scores within the 80 percent range, which schools usually list within their admitted class profile.

Many experts in the test prep industry advise all students to plan on taking the test twice. If your score after the first attempt is already at or above your goal, you can always cancel the second sitting. Remember, top schools want to see scores in the 80th percentile in the quantitative section. So if you score 100 percent in verbal and low in quantitative, you would want to retake the exam, especially if you don’t have a strong quantitative background outside of the GMAT.

[Learn about ways to fix a low GMAT score.]

There is absolutely no reason to retake the GMAT when you score over 700, test prep company Magoosh says emphatically. You’ve already proven you can handle the quantitative component of the curriculum, so turn your focus toward ensuring all of the other parts of your application are as strong as possible.

Keep in mind that this high number is primarily for those targeting a top-tier MBA program. If you scored a 680, the decision to retake should be carefully considered, as you may be better off focusing on your essays or coaching recommenders instead. Applicants looking at programs in the top 20 or 50 should check the average scores of admitted students to determine their personal target GMAT score.

If illness, nerves, exhaustion, or simply a lack of adequate preparation resulted in a low score, then a second attempt becomes a necessity. Repeat test-taking, with additional preparation, typically results in a higher score as students become familiar with the experience, and therefore, less stressed out.

[Learn to dodge your fear of failure when applying to business school.]

Although the Graduate Management Admission Council allows you to take the test as many times as you like, you must wait 31 calendar days before retaking the exam. Make sure to check your target schools’ application deadlines in order to allow enough time to send in your final scores.

Applicants self-report their highest score, and it’s worth noting that the admissions committee doesn’t have an issue with students taking the exam more than once. In fact, committees may look positively on the dedication you’ve shown to improve upon your prior performance. Mind you, I’m talking about a score report with two or three scores, max – not one that shows you’ve sat for the GMAT seven times.

After your first test, it’s time to go over your entire GMAT performance to determine your weaknesses and double-down in those areas as you resume your studies. Don’t completely ignore the sections you did well on, however. You wouldn’t want to improve in one area but do worse in another the next time.

If you studied alone or took a class for your initial preparation, you might consider studying one on one with a GMAT tutor for the second go-round. A test prep expert can work around your schedule and tailor the curriculum to your needs.

Finally, some people aren’t natural test-takers and have a less-than-optimal performance no matter how well they know the material. One of the primary causes is stress under pressure, and it may help to watch this video tour of the GMAT Test Center and detailed explanation of all procedures to increase your comfort levels about what to expect.

If that familiarity still isn’t enough to calm your nerves come test day, consider using relaxation techniques such as meditation and visualization to reduce test anxiety. Also, taking the GMAT in the same center will help you feel more comfortable with the test-taking process and any logistics that may have thrown you off the first time.

Business school hopefuls can be incredibly hard on themselves when they make mistakes on the GMAT, but each error is a learning opportunity and a chance to improve. So don’t become discouraged if your first score isn’t where you’d hoped. Relax, and think of it as a dress rehearsal for a stellar performance to come.

Posted in Application Tips, General, Test Prep Advice | Tagged , , , ,

Build an Effective MBA Application as a Female Candidate

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com It’s tempting to dismiss the idea that female MBA applicants can benefit from targeted tips when applying to business school as out of touch or …

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

It’s tempting to dismiss the idea that female MBA applicants can benefit from targeted tips when applying to business school as out of touch or old fashioned. But the reality is that women are still considered a minority on campus and sometimes gender stereotypes can impact their applications.

Female enrollment continues to trail behind men, and despite gains in recent years, the latest Graduate Management Admission Council application trends survey reveals that the proportion of woman applicants dipped slightly in 2014 for full-time, two-year MBA programs. The number dropped to 37 percent in 2014 from 39 percent in 2013.

In business school, as in the working world, a woman might find herself in a position where she is the only woman at the table or in the minority. So, you need to do all you can to feel comfortable and confident in those situations. Obviously, this information won’t apply for every female applicant, but having an awareness of some of the differences that exist can be very helpful.

A frequent issue I’ve had in my consulting work with female clients relates to the admissions committee doubting whether the applicant has enough moxie to contribute to the classroom discussions that form a crucial part of the MBA learning experience.

Several clients have reported that their recommenders received phone calls from admissions officers with questions such as, “Is she confident?” or “Will she speak up in class discussions?” I can’t recall a time when a male client experienced a similar problem.

In the application process, female candidates have to make sure that they exude confidence. Essays, interviews and letters of recommendation need to indicate a comfort level with speaking out, defending points of view and collaborating with all types of people.

In an interview scenario, female candidates often begin their answers with a disclaimer that reveals their insecurities and detracts from any positive information that follows or are too modest about their accomplishments for fear of appearing arrogant. Ideally, you started cultivating your personal brand early on in your application process, so tap into those bullet points and broadcast your accomplishments and skills with pride.

Business schools have made significant efforts to increase female enrollment over the last decade, and the numbers are much higher than when I attended Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Some male-dominated post-MBA career paths, such as finance, are hungrier for women as well, so a woman targeting those fields may have an advantage over one pursuing a role in brand management. This is true in the MBA admissions process as well as in the job search.

Another upside is that by tapping into storytelling skills and the emotions behind an event or experience, we’ve found that female clients generally have an easier time coming up with compelling essays. The admissions committee doesn’t favor women over men outright, but the subjective nature of this part of the application process often gives females an edge.

If you are a woman planning on applying to business school in the future, I encourage you to connect with Forte Foundation and Catalyst, two widely respected organizations dedicated to expanding opportunities for women in business. Forte’s mission is to educate women on the value of an MBA degree, and holds events throughout the year to help prepare female applicants to become the best candidate possible.

Also, look for MBA blogs written by female students and applicants, such as Defying Gravity–The MBA Journey, My Life of Bliss, and Pulling that MBA Trigger, for advice from those who have walked the path before you.

The array of opportunities for women on campus is another important aspect of business school that you can consider as an applicant. Be sure to research what options your target programs offer, and think about how you could help contribute to them.

The Huffington Post featured a great article last year written by a student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who believes being a woman MBA candidate is a beautiful thing, the best part being that you have the ability to affect change. Showing schools that you are aware of their networking opportunities for women and have ideas for how to build upon them is a great way to convince the admissions team that you are a perfect fit.

Earning an MBA degree opens doors all over the business world, so make sure to evaluate all of your options and take advantage of the numerous resources available to help you reach your career goals.

Posted in Application Tips | Tagged , , ,

Addressing Academic Strengths On MBA Applications

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Hard data points such as test scores and GPAs carry significant weight as business school admissions committees attempt to determine whether an applicant has …

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

Hard data points such as test scores and GPAs carry significant weight as business school admissions committees attempt to determine whether an applicant has the chops to handle the quantitative requirements of an MBA program.

While you’ll often hear advice on how to mitigate poor academic performance when applying to business school, it’s also important to take a look at the academic strengths in your undergraduate record and how you might play up those qualities in your application.

[Know how to convince MBA programs you’re a good fit.]

If a candidate had a quantitative-heavy undergraduate course load, obviously he or she should throw the spotlight on that. But business schools don’t want to fill their classes solely with economics and business majors.

Those applicants do fill a fair share of seats, but today the emphasis on diversity of thought means the schools are working hard to attract applicants from a wider variety of academic backgrounds. Often candidates coming from the humanities such as sociology, psychology or political science, are more attractive to the admissions committee than the typical business background peer.

A good application strategy is to show the connections between seemingly unrelated college courses and note how those classes shaped your current career goals.

[Check out three exercises to help MBA applicants develop a personal brand.]

For example, perhaps a history class sparked an interest in a different part of the world, which led to international business pursuits. Or maybe your psychology major prepared you for working well in groups and managing the diverse personalities of a team, as it did for one client of mine who parlayed those characteristics into a strong MBA admissions essay for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Perhaps all of those science courses fueled a desire to lead a start-up in health care. Dig a little and you may be surprised at how the connections fall into place.

With business as globally focused as it is today, MBA admissions committees are on the lookout for candidates who are fluent in a second or third language, or who have had study-abroad experiences.

We coached one applicant who had double-majored in Spanish so that she could finally have a conversation with her grandmother, who had emigrated to the U.S. from Chile as an adult and had never learned English. That’s something we knew admissions committees would like to hear more about. Business schools are very interested in these qualities, as they indicate a certain level of comfort working with an international cohort.

[Avoid these surprising application mistakes of prospective MBAs.]

Applicants who participated in several extracurricular activities while in college and still managed to maintain a high GPA exhibited excellent time management skills and a dedicated work ethic. And, if a candidate held a leadership position in any of those activities, that shows initiative with a long leadership track record. Admissions committees are impressed if you can commit to something over a long period of time, no matter if it’s a sport or hobby.

MBA programs seek to attract applicants who show curiosity about the wider world, whether through academic, extracurricular or life experiences. As you start thinking about your MBA application strategy, take note of any compelling connections from your college days you can mine from. You never know if those years on the water polo team, the minor in game design or those articles you published in the school newspaper are just the ticket to creating a standout application.

Posted in Application Tips | Tagged , , , ,

Navigate a Job Change While Applying to Business Schools

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Think about what you would you do if you needed to move into a new job just a few months before submitting your …

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

Think about what you would you do if you needed to move into a new job just a few months before submitting your MBA applications. Or, maybe there’s an intriguing career prospect on the horizon, but you’re not sure if changing companies now would help or hurt your chances of admission.

These scenarios happen all the time, so I’d like to share some advice to help you weigh the pros and cons of starting a new position before applying to business school.

[Get tips to overcome the fear of MBA admissions failure.]

One client I worked with, Josh, was deep into his third draft of essays for round one applications when he landed a new job. The move happened just as his former company, a tech startup, had begun a round of layoffs that likely would have included him. While Josh felt excited about starting a new position, he also worried that switching jobs right before submitting his MBA applications could cause problems.

Generally, I advise candidates who have held their position for less than a year to stay put. The admissions committee looks for consistency, and job-hopping could convey flakiness or a lack of clear career goals. However, if you’ve held the same position for a long time, a new career move might show initiative and bolster your candidacy.

Some argue the admissions committee won’t value a horizontal job move but that a vertical move with greater responsibility and leadership opportunities would be viewed favorably. While this is often true, there are always exceptions.

[Learn how to sell yourself in MBA admissions.]

If you’re taking on a career change that’s in line with your long-term goals, you can move to a position with less or equal responsibility as long as you can explain through your essays that you’re trying out something new, but would still benefit from the MBA degree in terms of greater growth in the new field.

Like many applicants in this situation, Josh wondered what to do about his letters of recommendation, since most schools prefer insight about an applicant from current supervisors. Also, he wasn’t sure how to address his new work responsibilities in essays or the MBA resume while he was still getting up to speed with the practices of his new employer.

Strong recommendations are critical, so ask yourself if your possible job move will burn bridges at your existing company with present or former supervisors. One option would be to share your MBA plans with a new employer and seek a reference from someone at that company.

Because Josh didn’t want his new boss to know about his MBA plans just yet, he was advised to use the optional essay to explain that he had chosen to get a recommendation from his previous supervisors because they were in a better position to provide examples of his leadership traits and work responsibilities.

[Get advice on convincing MBA programs you’re a good fit.]

For the essays, he framed most of his career goals story in the context of the work he had done for the previous three years. Josh touched upon the reasons he joined the new company, but kept a tight focus on what skills he wanted to gain from his MBA and his future goal of starting his own company.

We saved the resume revisions for the end, when Josh had been on the job for a couple of months and felt more confident in describing the responsibilities of his position. This three-pronged approach worked, and Josh was accepted to Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

If there’s one cardinal rule about late-in-the-game job switching, it is to never change positions as a ploy to impress the admissions committee by shifting into a career path you think the school will find safe or compelling. As long as you can show how the recent job change is consistent with your mid- to long-term career goals, you should be fine.

However, be sensitive to any concerns the admissions committee may have that your new job is so great that you won’t actually want to leave after eight months to go to business school. Whether you choose to stay on the existing job or try out a new one, be prepared to explain the whole story in your application.

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Do’s and Don’ts of Convincing MBA Programs You’re a Good Fit

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Focusing on fit is one of the most important elements of finding the right business school. This can seem like an abstract thing to determine …

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

Focusing on fit is one of the most important elements of finding the right business school. This can seem like an abstract thing to determine at first glance. After all, many students assume they’d be just as happy at Harvard Business School as they would at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business or MIT Sloan School of Management.

This might be true, but these top business schools really aren’t one-size-fits-all.

Your job, then, is to find out what is unique about each program, determine what about the program will most benefit your career goals, and persuade the admissions committee to take a chance that you will be a vibrant addition to its community. Many schools ask a version of the essay question, “Why Us?” – so here are some do’s and don’ts for addressing that prompt either in your application essay, or later on during the admissions interview.

Don’t: Regurgitate the well-known characteristics of the program as a way of explaining your interest. I’ve read countless first drafts of essays that cite the “unmatched student body, world-class faculty, and committed alumni network” as the reasons the applicant has chosen a certain MBA program. The admissions committee knows what the program’s strengths are and doesn’t want to read essay after essay of its own marketing messages.

Do: Show what you’ve learned about the program, beyond what you’ve read in the brochures and website, that makes it stand out for you. Your first point of entry will often be by participating in information sessions online or in your area, but the best way to really get to know the school is by visiting the campus and sitting in on a class. There’s no replacement for spending time in that environment to soak up the energy and get an authentic feel for the student experience.

Other ways to obtain a deeper understanding of the program include contacting the student clubs you are interested in, becoming a regular reader of the MBA student blogs many programs have and speaking to alumni. The feeling you walk away with after having personal contact with students past and present will speak volumes about whether the choice is a good fit for you.

[Follow these exercises to help MBA applicants develop a personal brand.]

If you can you already see yourself learning alongside the students at the MBA program you’re considering, or if your coffee chat with an alum gave you a great impression about the strength of the alumni network, make sure you say so in your application.

Don’t: Make the common mistake of extolling the superiority of the program you’re targeting over all other schools. The admissions committee isn’t interested in declarations of eternal love and will likely suspect that you’re professing the same adoration for every school to which you’re applying.

Do: Focus on how your career goals, interests and educational needs are a good match for the program. Whether the school is known for its emphasis on the case method, experiential learning or lecture-based learning, explain why you too favor that format. Discuss which specific courses would help you develop some of the skills that are missing from your toolbox.

Applicants usually have a clear picture of where they want to work after graduation, so let the admissions committee know if you think the program’s geographic location is an ideal place to launch your post-MBA career.

If you love the fact that the program provides ample opportunities for working and studying abroad, explain how having that experience ties in to your plans. Also, if you discover there is a club on campus dedicated to one of your hobbies or passions, show how you would participate and contribute to that side of the student experience.

[Learn how to stand out in a competitive business school application pool.]

Don’t: Assume the admissions committee will immediately understand why you want to do an MBA based on your previous career experience.

Do: Explain in great detail why the degree is the next logical step in your career trajectory, and provide concrete examples of how a particular program will help you reach those goals. Perhaps the program is known for its strengths in an area you wish to specialize in, or offers an intriguing dual degree program.

If there’s a particular industry you want to break into, or a company you really want to work for, research placement stats through the career services office to find out if they recruit heavily at your target program. After all, the school wants to make sure they can help you find work after you graduate.

As you can see, there are many ways to determine a genuine interest in a program that goes far beyond the latest MBA rankings. Going to business school is an expensive yet rewarding experience, and arming yourself with as much information as possible will go a long way toward making an informed decision.

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4 Factors to Consider About European MBA Programs

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com As business becomes more global, future MBA applicants may ask themselves if they should consider heading abroad for business school. In many cases, the …

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

As business becomes more global, future MBA applicants may ask themselves if they should consider heading abroad for business school. In many cases, the answer will be yes.

The best business schools attract international students and faculty of the highest caliber, and in terms of rankings, elite European programs perform as well as many top programs in the U.S.

According to the latest top MBA salary and job trends report, international study experience is sought by 67 percent of MBA employers, and recruiters “most significantly agree that candidates with international experience outperform those without.”

There are four factors you should weigh to determine if a European business school is a better fit to help you reach your career goals.

1. Global networking optionsIf you want to build a global network in a multicultural environment, then apply to schools that can help you fulfill those goals.

While MBA programs at Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business have sterling reputations worldwide, just 17 percent of 2013 HBS grads and 13 percent of 2014 Stanford MBA grads found work abroad after graduation. If you know you want to work in Europe, you’d be better off choosing a local school where you can network directly with employers.

2. Greater classroom diversity: The top programs in Europe tend to be much more internationally oriented, with 96 percent of the class coming from outside the country at some schools. Think about how that culturally diverse mix enriches class discussions, as well as creates networking opportunities that span the globe.

There is one caveat to the diversity of top European programs: They typically enroll fewer women compared with U.S. business schools. For example, IMD, a business school in Switzerland, is 96 percent international with a 24 percent female representation. INSEAD, in France, is 96 percent international but women make up 36 percent of the student body.

[Know the four questions to ask yourself before applying to b-school.]

3. Lower average GMAT scores: Test scores are one of the key data points in the MBA admissions process, and in Europe you’ll often find GMAT scores trending lower than in the U.S., making them slightly less competitive. This is likely due to the fact that many students attending European schools are not native English speakers, so the admissions committees allow applicants a bit more wiggle room with their scores.

At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the average GMAT score was 723 for the class of 2014, 721 at New York University Stern School of Business and 728 at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. However, at similarly ranked schools in Europe the averages were much more attainable: 700 at London Business School, 685 at HEC Paris and 670 at IE Business School.

[Don’t make one of these surprising application mistakes of prospective MBAs.]

4. More established students: Students at European business schools also tend to have more years of work experience under their belts than those attending U.S. schools, which could come as a relief to applicants worried they skew too “mature” for a seat at the most competitive programs.

Another draw: Most of the programs are one year in length, saving both time and money for older candidates with families who don’t want to be out of the workforce too long. The shorter time frame doesn’t mean a skimp on learning, however. One-year European MBA programs will have a heavier workload in order to maintain the quality and integrity of the program.

If your professional goal is to live and work abroad, pursuing an MBA in your desired location is arguably the best introduction to business life in that country. A cultural immersion experience of this kind is not without its challenges, but most participants would agree studying abroad is not just financially rewarding, but personally fulfilling as well.

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