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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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5 Key Qualities of Successful MBA Applications

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Every MBA candidate brings something unique to the table, but business schools are always on the lookout for specific qualities as they review …

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

Every MBA candidate brings something unique to the table, but business schools are always on the lookout for specific qualities as they review the thousands of applications that cross their desks each season. If you can convince the admissions committee that you possess the following five qualities, you’ll put yourself leagues ahead of everyone else within your applicant pool.

1. A leadership track record: Business schools want to develop leaders who will contribute positively to society, and applicants should show how they have begun to lead others even before setting foot on campus. But this does not have to mean coming up with grand and sweeping examples that forever changed the course of history at your company.

Think about a time when you motivated others to do something, when you marshaled resources to solve a problem, when you brought a fresh idea or new way of thinking to your organization and most importantly, how you worked to inspire others and bring out the best in them. The aim is to show where you made an impact, no matter the size.

One former client, George, had participated in an annual charity bike ride for the past five years. He felt his application lacked compelling examples of leadership, so we suggested that he volunteer to lead the coordination of the next ride. His responsibilities included recruiting volunteers, coordinating vendors and collecting funds.

[Find out 3 Surprising Application Mistakes Prospective MBAs Make]

George’s leadership of the team ultimately helped to increase the amount raised in the ride by 14 percent. George used this experience to write a strong leadership essay for each of his target schools, and it ultimately helped him gain admission to MIT Sloan School of Management.

2. Display quantitative competency: While you don’t need an undergraduate degree in economics to go to business school – MBA programs warmly welcome diversity in the form of applicants from the humanities, arts and social sciences – you do need to show that you won’t be in over your head with the information business school is designed to teach.

To get your foot in the door, strive for a GMAT or GRE score that aligns with the average at your target schools. It will set the admissions committee’s minds at ease knowing that, assuming you have relatively minimal academic experience in quantitative subjects, it won’t be a hindrance once you hit those core courses.

If this is a problem area for you, tackle it head-on. Allow ample time for test prep, retake the test a few times, complement your score by acing a college-level quantitative course or point out any quantitative skills used on the job to support your ability to handle the material of the program.

[Learn how to Effective Ways to Address Academic Strengths On MBA Applications]

3. Exhibit excellent communication skills: The general principles of finance and accounting are easily learned at business school, but recruiters frequently gripe ?that even MBA graduates from the most elite institutions need to work harder at cultivating soft skills.

You’ll impress the admissions committee right out of the gate if you can demonstrate that you already possess strong communication skills. Highlight experiences that show you work well with others and that prove you can make a presentation in a persuasive, professional manner. Or, show how your effective communication skills have helped you land a client or seal a deal.

If this is an area you need to work on, reach out to mentors or supervisors whose communication skills you admire and ask for advice on how they read their audience, navigate meetings, and how they have cultivated their own interpersonal abilities for business success.

4. Set realistic post-MBA career plans: It’s not uncommon for MBA applicants to be uncertain about their career goals. Nevertheless, you need to be very concrete about short and long term goals in your application. Explaining why you chose your career path is crucial.

As you describe your career trajectory, make sure you explain what has led you to pursue it and why it resonates with you. The answer doesn’t need to be elaborate or dramatic, but it should be convincing and real.

[Get do’s and don’ts of convincing MBA programs you’re a fit.]

Whether they discuss it openly, business schools are very concerned with job placement statistics. If they can’t help their MBA graduates find jobs, the ripple effect leads to fewer applicants in the future and lower yield.

Are you sure that the industry you want to work in is one that typically hires MBAs? The admissions committee needs to know your career plans are achievable with an MBA degree.

5. Get enthusiastic recommenders: Letters of recommendation are one of the most compelling components of the application, and also the most unsettling for applicants since it’s the one aspect you cannot entirely control. Make sure your recommenders are close enough to provide specific and relevant examples of your work and, above all, make sure they share in your excitement about going to business school.

Whether the mistake is choosing someone who doesn’t know you well enough to provide a convincing recommendation, not adequately preparing your recommender, or unwittingly selecting a supervisor who is not 100 percent supportive of your MBA plans, there’s nothing worse than discovering your chances at admission were torpedoed by a lukewarm endorsement.

So there you have it – five essential details that can make or break your MBA application. Study them well and with any luck, you’ll sail through the admissions process and sidestep many of the common red flags plaguing lesser-prepared applicants.

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Research U.S. MBA Programs Without Visiting Campus

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Many would agree that visiting campus is the single best way to get a feel for the business schools you are considering. You …

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

Many would agree that visiting campus is the single best way to get a feel for the business schools you are considering. You can sit in on a class, meet current students and really envision yourself as a part of that community.

Often, the campus visit will fuel your excitement about the program, and other times, the in-person experience isn’t quite what you imagined and you’ll know right away that the culture just isn’t a good fit for you.

However, for many MBA hopefuls, particularly those targeting multiple programs and coming from abroad, a campus visit can be a real challenge during the application phase. Whether the problem is the prohibitive expense of air travel and lodging or the time off from work required, these candidates must turn to other sources to fill in the blanks as they decide on which programs to target.

A great starting point for any applicant is connecting with students and alumni at the schools you are considering. Top MBA programs host numerous events around the world each year, so plan on attending the event nearest you in order to meet admissions officers, alumni and current students, and to gain valuable application advice.

These individuals can offer the inside scoop on student life and what makes their school unique. Participating in online information sessions and virtual webinars is another valuable way for candidates to get a better sense of the school’s culture.

Business schools often have programs that connect applicants via email or Skype with current and former students of similar backgrounds and profiles, and this is a great introduction to the program that can help you narrow down which schools to focus on for your MBA. Even if there’s no such formal program in place, most admissions officers will happily put candidates in touch with an alum or current student if asked.

Hugo Varela conducted most of his school research from Madrid, Spain, and was able to visit only one U.S. school in person due to work and financial constraints. Despite that fact, Varela was accepted at MIT Sloan School of Management, Duke University Fuqua School of Business and Dartmouth University Tuck School of Business.

“I tried to talk to current students and attend events hosted by many schools in my city, before and after applying, in order to get to know as much as I could about every school,” says Varela. “This cannot make up for a campus visit, but is the best you can do from afar, and current students and alumni really have been key for me to decide where to apply and where to attend.”

“Reading student blogs and talking to alumni and current students were invaluable in helping me gauge the right schools to apply to,” agrees Vandana Sathpathy, an applicant based in India who received offers of admission to three elite MBA programs without visiting any of the campuses and heads to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University this fall.

She says she was especially impressed by current students who went out of their way to spend time answering questions patiently and enthusiastically, and really showed how passionate they were about their schools.

“There is a wealth of information available online if you are motivated enough to find it – and I was,” Sathpathy adds. In addition to scouring every inch of the school websites, she read the official school blogs and followed all of her target schools on every social media network possible – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and particularly YouTube.

By watching everything from guest lectures, Ted Talks events, orientation videos, talks given by professors at her target schools and even Bollywood Bash Night videos, she says, “I knew the pros and cons of each school by the time I applied, and the reasons I really wanted to go there.”

Positive engagement with the admissions committee via social media is another excellent strategy and could help you stand out in a competitive applicant pool. Schools that actively monitor their social media sites can often answer an applicant’s questions in mere hours, whereas an emailed query could take days to receive a reply. Prospective students should also subscribe to the feeds of student and admissions blogs to find out immediately about any news that could influence their interest in the program.

Online research can’t replace the value of the in-person experience, but candidates who simply cannot visit their selected schools before applying should take comfort in knowing that there are many ways to thoroughly get to know a program without a campus visit to guide them. Diligence and motivation are all you really need.

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Fit the GMAT Into Overall MBA Application Strategy

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Just about every MBA candidate needs to submit a GMAT or GRE score as part of their business school admission package, but not …

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

Just about every MBA candidate needs to submit a GMAT or GRE score as part of their business school admission package, but not everyone has a clear grasp on when and how the exam fits within the context of the whole application process.

In an ideal world, you would take the test just coming out of college, while you’re still in study and test mode as a recent student. Since both GMAT and GRE scores are valid for five years, getting the exams out of the way years in advance would free you to focus on all of the other elements of the application.

If, like most applicants, you didn’t have the foresight to take the exam right after college, the next best step is to plan your application strategy so that the GMAT is finished before you finalize your list of schools. Your score isn’t everything, but it is an important part of the admissions equation.

If you bomb the exam and can’t improve your score, you may need to reassess your target schools to include less-competitive options. Conversely, you may be able to add one more reach school if the score was higher than expected.

Round one of business school admissions is about four months away at many schools, and if you still need to take the GMAT, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Unless you’re a natural at taking standardized tests, you’ll need to train your brain to get it back into test-taking form.

Most applicants devote at least 100 hours to test preparation, and depending on where you are in the process, you may have to take a prep class and perhaps take the test more than once. If this is the case, the first round may not be a realistic option unless you’re able and prepared to completely immerse yourself in the process.

One client, Tasha, came to us just five weeks before the round she was targeting with some idea of her school choices and a GMAT score she wanted to improve. With her limited time she needed to schedule the GMAT for two weeks before her application deadlines. That meant she did not have the luxury of focused studying for the GMAT in all of her free time.

To help Tasha manage her time, we wrote down all of her tasks, including the number of essay iterations we expected her to go through, and then we worked backward from her deadlines to see how many days she had to work. Tasha then started alternating essay writing and GMAT study until the day she took the test.

This abbreviated yet methodical time management system worked for her, and Tasha was able to improve her GMAT by 30 points and submit a strong application to her three target schools. She ultimately gained admission to Stanford Graduate School of Business and Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Tasha’s strategy won’t work for everybody, but we see applicants pull off the impossible every season.

I typically advise clients to plan for two attempts at the GMAT, leaving a buffer for a retake if needed. There’s no harm in taking the test two or even three times, and unless you score really well right out of the gate, you often will do better the second time. This is because you’ll have fewer nerves, more familiarity with the process and no big surprises. There is no such thing as a bad test, just opportunities to build on and learn from.

Average scores are creeping higher every year at the top MBA programs, making it hard to offset a bad GMAT score. It truly is a level playing field, and I often cringe when I read essays where people try to rationalize a low score.

What you can do, however, is acknowledge the score and say you don’t find it truly reflective of your abilities. Then show why you are actually strong in quant or going to excel academically by pointing to your college GPA, work experience or by encouraging your recommenders to focus heavily on your intellect.

Timing and planning are key to reducing the stress of the application process. I generally encourage applicants to not cram everything into too short of a timeline, but everyone has their own style and you need to figure out what makes the most sense for you, your goals and your schedule.

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

Decide Whether to Pursue a Pre-MBA Internship

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com The summer before business school is traditionally a blissful time to just hang out, travel, sleep in and generally savor the brief respite between …

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

The summer before business school is traditionally a blissful time to just hang out, travel, sleep in and generally savor the brief respite between your turbocharged job and the whirlwind that awaits once you set foot on campus.

While the vast majority of incoming MBA students still do spend the months leading up to school indulging in their favorite pastimes, the pre-MBA internship has become a growing trend among the recently admitted. Let’s take a look at what it is, who it’s for and why you should think about pursuing one – maybe.

What Is a Pre-MBA Internship?

A summer internship is the hallmark of the two-year MBA program, but a pre-MBA internship is one that is specifically targeted to professionals who will be heading to business school in the fall for a full-time program. Whether you’re interested in banking, private equity, venture capital, consulting, marketing, or nonprofits, there’s probably already a niche program with this group in mind.

These internships or “camps,” as they’re sometimes called, are short, usually ranging in duration from four to six weeks. Many companies have created intensive pre-MBA programs lasting no more than a few days.

If you know the industry you would like to pursue, begin tapping your fellow future students and the alumni network for leads, and check to see if the companies on your career target list offer these opportunities. Above all else, make sure the internship environment provides you with a chance to learn, not make coffee runs.

Who is Best Suited for a Pre-MBA Internship?

This type of internship is ideal for career switchers, who make up 38 percent of incoming students, according to the latest Prospective Students Survey Report published by the Graduate Management Admission Council. If you are switching fields, this short stint before your first year is like a test drive of a new area of interest and effectively gives you two summers to do an internship.

Use the experience to try out an industry or company and see if you love it and want to return the following summer, or move on to a new and different industry instead. The pre-MBA internship is brief, but it’s usually enough to confirm your interest so that you’re not wasting your precious summer internship doing something you’re not passionate about.

Why Should You Do a Pre-MBA Internship?

The obvious reason for pursuing a pre-MBA internship is that it allows you to build skills and gain experience in a new role or industry. It often feels like the recruiting starts as soon as you set foot on campus, so students should arrive on campus with a fairly clear idea of where they want to intern.

It can be challenging to persuade recruiters that you’re serious about the field and to take a chance on you if you have zero experience in their industry and only a few weeks of case studies and lectures to back you up. Having a bit of real-world exposure under your belt makes you that much more competitive and will give you more ammunition when you interview with recruiters for a summer internship.

When Should You Avoid a Pre-MBA Internship?

As I’ve said, most incoming students don’t pursue a pre-MBA internship. You already have a lot going on between sorting out your financial aid, budget and housing as well as finalizing projects at work.

From a purely financial point of view, it’s unlikely you would make as much money in the internship as at your current full-time job, so this might be the time to save your pennies before going to school and facing that steep MBA tuition.

On the other hand, many admitted students have spent the past few years with their nose to the grindstone, with little thought or time for a rejuvenating vacation. The summer before business school could be their last chance for some carefree fun and globe-trotting, and a necessary break to recharge and refill the tank before the intensity of the MBA program hits.

Ultimately, you are already admitted to the program so this is not about gaining favor with the admissions committee. It’s a personal decision about how you want to spend your free time.

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Building an MBA Program Short List

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com When the idea of pursuing an MBA degree first germinates, many prospective applicants begin picturing themselves roaming the hallowed halls of Harvard Business …

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

When the idea of pursuing an MBA degree first germinates, many prospective applicants begin picturing themselves roaming the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School or Stanford Graduate School of Business.

But getting hung up on one or two dream schools isn’t a smart strategy. Most applicants need to submit four to six applications in order to maximize chances of success.

In the early stages of research, stay open-minded about business school options. Applicants may discover an interesting program that previously wasn’t even on their radar. Putting together a school list is a very personal process, but these are some of the question prospective students can ask to start thinking about to guide their selection strategy.

1. Where are you in the window for applying? The overwhelming majority of MBA applicants range in age from their mid-20s to early 30s. Younger applicants often decide to apply to one or two choices the first time, figuring that they can always reapply a few years down the line with more work and life experiences under their belt.

This is a fine strategy for that younger age group. However, older candidates should apply to a wide array of schools to make sure they have the option of going to business school next fall.

No matter which end of the age spectrum you fall, it’s important to still present yourself as a “work in progress,” and demonstrate how the program you’re applying to will transform you.

2. What industry do you want to work in? Many applicants have very specific career goals, and may even know which companies they aspire to work for post-MBA. If that’s the case, call up that company and ask what they think about business schools you may be targeting.

I once had a client with her heart set on attending Columbia Business School, and she also had a short list of companies she wanted to target for a summer internship. When she called one of her top companies, she learned they recruited at five schools, but Columbia was not one of them.

They also told her it was virtually impossible to secure an internship if she didn’t come from one of those schools. This five-minute phone call had a huge impact on her school list.

3. What kind of community feeling do you prefer? These characteristics are highly subjective, and figuring out what environment they would flourish in will help applicants determine whether a particular program is a good overall fit.

Big cities provide unparalleled access to business and recreation, but rural programs offer more of an immersive environment and are typically more close knit and family friendly?.

Cost savings can also be a huge factor for many applicants in this situation. The cost of living for a family at Duke Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, will be lower than for an MBA candidate and family at a school like New York University Stern School of Business or the Anderson School of Management at the University of California—Los Angeles.

Geographic location also matters a great deal for certain industries, such as New York for finance, the Bay Area for entrepreneurship, Los Angeles for entertainment and Texas for energy.

The location of your school will also likely determine where your post-MBA job is. Even if you intend to target companies with offices around the globe, you’ll have the highest exposure to jobs in your immediate geographic area.

4. How do you learn best? Unfortunately, this question typically doesn’t receive as much consideration as it should. Not everyone excels in the same learning environment, and it’s important for students to find out where they’d be most comfortable.

Students may prefer the case method approach to learning, a highly experiential environment; a traditional, lecture-based style; or some mixture of these. Business schools are very specific about their teaching methods, and this information is easily gleaned on their websites.

Teaching method affects not only students’ enjoyment of the program, it also affects the quality of the knowledge they walk away with, so students should only consider MBA programs where they can thrive, not merely survive. Learn as well how rigorous the workload is, which varies by school. After all, the MBA is about much more than academics.

Even students who have a pretty good idea of the MBA programs they plan to target should= know that the most well-thought-out school list is still a work in progress, with new programs added in and others dropping off as they further clarify your goals. Students only have one chance to study an MBA, and weighing all of these different elements at the outset will help them find the right fit.

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