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Choose Safety Schools for Your MBA Applications Carefully

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Landing a seat at a top MBA program isn’t a slam-dunk for anybody. It’s getting increasingly competitive to get into the highest-ranked schools. …

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

Landing a seat at a top MBA program isn’t a slam-dunk for anybody. It’s getting increasingly competitive to get into the highest-ranked schools.

The term safety school gets thrown around quite a bit in MBA admissions, and it’s important for applicants to have a clear understanding of what that term means before they start the school selection process.

The rule when coming up with a list of business schools is that you must feel genuine enthusiasm about attending each and every one of them, regardless of whether they are dream schools or programs you might consider a safer bet. If you would feel disappointed rather than ecstatic about advancing your career by attending a school, then do not apply. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and your money.

[Consider the benefits of looking beyond the top-ranked business schools.]

A good way to determine whether your list should include one or more safety schools is by asking yourself how important it is for you to go to business school next year. If the need is immediate, then definitely include a range of schools of varying degrees of competitiveness. The application pool fluctuates each year, and all you need is one admit, so spread some risk around.

However, if you’ve zeroed in on a handful of highly competitive programs that you strongly feel are the best choices for advancing your professional goals, and you have some flexibility with the timing, it would be better to focus your energies on the GMAT and elevating your profile in line with your target programs’ characteristics.

If you don’t get in the first time, you can learn from your weak points and reapply in the next application cycle.

A safety school doesn’t mean you’d be guaranteed an offer of admission, though. It merely means your chances are far greater than at a program with an acceptance rate of 15 percent or lower.

[Here are some tips to narrow down your b-school application list.]

So, in order to decide what qualifies as a safety school for you, start with the hard data points. As a general guideline, take a look at programs you like where your profile falls within the top 10 percent of admitted students.

Compare your undergraduate GPA, GMAT score, years of work experience and particular industry with those of accepted applicants reported by the school in their class profile page. If your industry is underrepresented, consider that an advantage for your application.

Everyone has different reasons for applying to business school. Your main focus may be on networking prospects, the educational experience, geographic location, culture, special programming or even family tradition. If you’re excited about any of those elements at a school and would be happy to attend for any of those reasons, then consider it, even if it’s a safe choice.

I had a client who applied to both University of California—Los Angeles Anderson School of Management and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Of the two, Stanford is obviously the more competitive “reach” school, but my client was from Los Angeles and would have been happy to go to Anderson, thus making it a great selection for a safety school.

[Fight the fear of failure when applying to MBA programs.]

Ultimately, he did get into Stanford and chose that school over the full scholarship offer he received from UCLA.

Another client faced the difficult decision of remaining on the waitlist at the University of California—Berkeley Haas School of Business, his dream choice, or accepting an offer of admission from the University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business, his safety school and one he would be thrilled to attend.

When the waitlist purgatory continued into summer, even after he’d submitted a deposit to hold his place at McCombs, he finally decided to withdraw from the Haas wait list and commit to a sure thing. He was increasingly happy with McCombs as he met his future classmates and weighed the significant financial benefits of in-state tuition.

If you do apply to a range of schools, make sure each is a good fit and that your excitement, level of research and passion for the program comes through in your application regardless of whether it’s a safety school or not. The folks in the admissions committee have typically been at it long enough and can tell when an applicant has lukewarm feelings for them – and that’s the surest way your safe bet will become a bust.

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Know Parents’ Role in the MBA Admissions Process

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com If Mom and Dad are actively involved in your MBA application process, then it might be time to rethink their role at this critical …

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

If Mom and Dad are actively involved in your MBA application process, then it might be time to rethink their role at this critical career crossroads. The admissions committee wants to see applicants with demonstrated leadership and maturity, which is hard to convey with parents chiming in at every step along the way.

So-called “helicopter parents” may have the best intentions, but their interfering actions could unwittingly jeopardize their child’s chances of admission to a top business school. Millennials, defined roughly as anyone born between 1980 and 2002, have an upbringing rooted in play dates, involved parents and constant feedback and praise for their accomplishments.

[See how authenticity can support an MBA application.]

Millennials typically enjoy a cozier parent-child relationship than any previous generation, but it’s important for parents to strike the appropriate balance between taking an active interest in their adult child’s education and career choices and hijacking the responsibilities those choices entail. This is true even if parents are fully or partially footing the bill, which is more and more often the case, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s latest Prospective Students Survey Report.

Business schools certainly welcome parents when they come to visit their enrolled students, and tolerate those who join their children on a general admissions tour. But unlike undergraduate admissions, where parents are assumed to be heavily involved, the expectation in MBA admissions is that students are independent, fully formed professionals. When parental involvement becomes intrusive, it raises a serious red flag about the candidate’s ability to be successful in the program.

[Find out how a personal brand can help an MBA application.]

So what level of parental involvement is appropriate when it comes to the b-school admissions process? In my view as an MBA consultant, it’s perfectly all right for parents to get in touch with my company for information about how admissions consulting works, to chip in or cover the costs of consulting, or to provide helpful insight or act as a sounding board for their children’s essays – if they request it.

Parents should not attempt to guide the process themselves, however. I’ve had parents ask for conference calls to discuss their child’s issues without the applicant on the phone. Getting on a call without my actual client on the line makes no sense.

We’ve also known cases of parents impersonating their child when contacting the school admissions office with questions about financial aid, application status and more. If discovered, this deception will cause irreparable damage to the applicant’s candidacy.

The truth is, parents may know their children very well in a certain light, but they don’t necessarily know how to reveal the aspects of their child that will be most appealing to business schools. In some cases, their opinions are slanted in completely the wrong way and can actually be harmful.

[Learn how to stand out among b-school applicants.]

We have had many incidents of parents nearly derailing the process when they critique and tear apart the applicant’s MBA essays that my consultants have already determined are pretty much good to go. When that happens, we’re left wondering why they paid for expert consulting in the first place.

The urge to insert themselves into the admissions process likely stems from a desire to protect their children from failure or disappointment, but parents can serve their children’s needs better by cheering from the sidelines and offering moral support if a setback or ding does occur.

Even if they still rely on Mom and Dad for advice and financial support, graduate-level students are adults who are expected to be capable of making independent, adult decisions. If you’re the student in this scenario, make sure you set limits with your parents’ involvement so as not to jeopardize your candidacy by creating a poor impression of your decision-making capacities.

And parents: Trust that you’ve done a great job and that your child is responsible enough to make the right decisions for his or her future.

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Assess 5 Funding Options to Help Pay for an MBA

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Getting your MBA acceptance letter is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but submitting your deposit for business school is a thrill of a different kind. …

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

Getting your MBA acceptance letter is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but submitting your deposit for business school is a thrill of a different kind.

After you decide where to attend, you’ll only have a few months to get your finances in order. Before it’s too late, take a look at how to assess the following sources of funding when planning to finance your MBA.

1. Scholarships and fellowships: Scholarships are clearly a great source of funding – it’s free money – but it’s easier said than done to get them. Be aware of how your school makes scholarship offers, as you may need to prepare a separate application to be eligible.

You may also need to submit a different application for each fellowship or scholarship. Don’t lose out because of a missed deadline. Look beyond your business school, too, to organizations like the Forte Foundation or Consortium for Graduate Study in Management that offer highly valuable scholarships for MBA students.

2. Company sponsorship: If you’re one of the lucky few with a sponsorship offer, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into before you accept. Because sponsorship often comes with an obligation to return to the company after you complete your MBA, take a step back and assess whether you’re absolutely confident you want to return. Breaking such an agreement after your earn the degree can lead to not only strained relationships with former colleagues, but also a mountain of unforeseen debt.

Some lenders such as CommonBond will allow you to take out a loan to pay for an MBA even after you’ve graduated, but it’s always better to be prepared ahead of time. Meanwhile, if you plan to return to your company but don’t have sponsorship, it never hurts to ask about options. See if you’re eligible for any reimbursement given the new skills you’ll bring to the table.

3. Retirement savings: This less obvious pool of money comes with a few extra considerations, first and foremost being that you should always think hard before touching money set aside for retirement. However, those who have saved aggressively already and plan to continue doing so may find it worth it to take some money out for the short term.

You’re exempt from the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawals when you put the funds toward qualified higher education expenses, of which attending business school is one. You’ll still face income tax on this money, but the tax burden will likely be less when you’re in a graduate student tax bracket.

4. Federal loans: The U.S. government offers at least two loan options for each academic year: the Stafford Loan and the Grad PLUS Loan. The Stafford is limited to $20,500 for a year, while the Grad PLUS is available up to your school’s cost of attendance.

You can apply for these loans online via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and the Department of Education is a great resource for information on rates, fees, eligibility and more.

5. Private loans: When you’re looking for the right loan, it pays to shop around and find a lender you trust at an interest rate you like. After all, your MBA is only two years, and you’ll probably be working with your lender for 10 or 15 years.

Private loans can provide customized options to help you save, sometimes at rates even lower than the federal government’s. If you’re looking to augment your other MBA financing, seek a lender with great customer service and ask about what loan options can maximize your savings.

Finally, use an online MBA student loan calculator to organize your costs and see how loans with different interest rates can work in your favor. Your MBA is a great investment, and I hope you can make the best use of the months ahead to make sure you have all the funding you need.

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Know Your Buyer to Sell Yourself in MBA Admissions

Many applicants tell me crafting their application would be so much easier if they knew exactly what business schools were looking for in a candidate. But if you ask any MBA admissions officer, the likely …

Many applicants tell me crafting their application would be so much easier if they knew exactly what business schools were looking for in a candidate. But if you ask any MBA admissions officer, the likely answer is that all-too-elusive “fit” with his or her program. Schools have to determine if your experiences, both personal and professional, make you an intriguing addition to the class they are forming, and they also need to be convinced that your career goals and their program are a good match.

Since my background is in marketing, I often explain it in marketing terms: the admissions committee is the buyer and you’re the seller. As a marketing strategist, you want to get to know as much about your buyer as you possibly can…

(continue reading this post on Stacy’s US News MBA Admissions: Strictly Business Blog)

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Look Beyond the Top Business Schools for Your MBA

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com People typically pursue an MBA because they are looking to improve their career opportunities and increase their future income. What some applicants don’t …

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

People typically pursue an MBA because they are looking to improve their career opportunities and increase their future income. What some applicants don’t consider is that you can achieve both of those objectives even if you don’t make it into the business programs at Harvard, Wharton or Stanford.

While rankings are a valuable piece of the puzzle when you’re narrowing down your school list, don’t get hung up on the top few programs. It’s more important to be pragmatic and align your expectations with the MBA programs that match your particular profile, particularly if your GMAT score isn’t through the roof or your career trajectory has stalled out.

MBA programs update their career or recruiting reports annually and post them online, so a good strategy is to think about the company or industry you want to work in, and find out whether they recruit at your target schools.

[Research b-schools that match your learning style and personality.]

For example, top MBA employers including McKinsey & Co., Goldman Sachs, Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Co. and Deloitte Consulting recruit heavily at the most elite schools. But they also recruit other schools, such as at UCLA Anderson School of Management, Emory’s Goizueta Business School and Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. These graduate business schools all placed in the Top 25 of the 2014 U.S. News Best Graduate Schools rankings.

While most schools don’t disclose the number of hires per company, MBA applicants can extrapolate that you might not need to get into a top school in order to land at the company of your dreams.

A few years ago, our client Priya had her sights set on attending one of the top three ranked schools in the U.S. However, as her consultant worked with her on her applications, it became apparent that her chances of admission were less than ideal.

Priya had taken a few swings at the GMAT, but test-taking was a significant weakness for her and her scores topped out at 640. She had a few years of work experience, but promotion freezes had left her stuck at her initial position without advancement.

[Find out how to fix a low GMAT score.]

Priya was starting to wonder if she should apply to business school at all. Before letting her quit, Priya’s consultant asked why she wanted to apply to those top three schools.

Priya wanted to work in corporate finance at a specific Fortune 500 firm after graduating, and had chosen the top schools where that company heavily recruited. With her career goal in mind, Priya and her consultant decided to change strategies.

Since an MBA was the key to achieving her career goals, Priya cast a wider net to include schools ranked in the top 50. She also retooled her application to emphasize her specific, concrete career plan, which helped shift focus away from her weaknesses.

Priya found a great fit in the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Though not as competitive for admission as the very top schools, it ranks No. 20 in the U.S. News rankings and in the top twenty of several other lists, and offers a concentration in corporate finance that Priya found appealing.

She maximized her academic and networking opportunities while on campus and found a job with her chosen finance firm after graduating using the skills and contacts she gained, rather than relying solely on recruiting. Priya is now moving up the ranks and is encouraged by the fact that her firm’s CEO obtained his MBA from a school that rarely even appears on a business school ranking list.

[Get MBA admissions tips for applicants with a finance background.]

Location is often overlooked by candidates choosing a b-school, but is extremely important. Recruiters give priority to candidates who have already lived or worked in the same region where the position is located, and graduates tend to gain employment near the geographic location of their MBA program.

While an MBA from Harvard opens doors anywhere, if you’re interested in working in the energy sector, you might have a better shot going where the energy industry thrives. Examples in the oil and gas industry include the University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business or Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business offers an MBA concentration in energy & environment, as well as a new concentration in energy finance.

The point is, if you’re not going into finance or consulting, you have greater flexibility in finding a niche program that’s the right fit for you.

While a degree from an elite business school is a goal and dream for many, several factors – such as test scores, undergraduate academic performance and tuition costs – influence whether it’s a viable option. If you believe the degree is critical to your career goals, consider expanding your school options while still getting a great return on investment.

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3 Common Hurdles for International MBA Applicants

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com Nearly a third of students in some of the top MBA programs are international, which offers great professional and cultural diversity and enriches …

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

Nearly a third of students in some of the top MBA programs are international, which offers great professional and cultural diversity and enriches the classroom experience.

Applying from abroad involves certain expected obstacles, such as the logistics of campus visits, securing visas and financial aid and demonstrating language proficiency, but students share other challenges as well.

Here are three specific client cases – and their challenges – I’ve encountered while working with international MBA applicants that may help you with your applications.

1. Explaining your international GPA: Our client Naveen wanted to work in technology management and felt that the MBA program at Stanford Graduate School of Business would be a great fit for him. He had attended the College of Engineering at University of Delhi, where he received marks of distinction in almost every class. However, due to the difficulty level of the courses at his college in particular, those marks usually resulted in percentage scores in the 70s.

Naveen was shocked when he translated his overall grade percentage as 73 – the equivalent of a C average in the U.S. He was convinced his academic record would stand out negatively when compared to applicants from American schools grading on a 4.0 GPA scale.

Looking at grade conversion calculators available online, we found that for some transcripts, a 75 percent would be the equivalent of an American A-plus, and at other, more difficult programs, a percentage as low as 60 would translate to an A grade.

We felt that the Stanford admissions committee would likely be familiar with the rigorous engineering program at University of Delhi and would know that marks in the 50-60 range would be the equivalent of a 3.5 GPA in the U.S.

Naveen insisted on describing his degree as “First Class with Distinction,” and we agreed, so long as he used his actual scores without any conversion. This straightforward strategy worked, and Naveen ultimately landed a seat at Stanford.

2. Distinguishing yourself from other applicants: Another client, Abhi, desperately wanted to attend a top MBA program and had his sights set on University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After earning his undergraduate degree in India, he had come to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in engineering and spent three years in a technical position within a financial services company.

Unfortunately, Abhi’s academic and professional profile was nearly identical to a thousand other applicants. His handful of extracurricular activities were similar to ones we had seen from other applicants.

In addition, Abhi’s GPA and GMAT score were merely average, so we had a difficult conversation about the reality of this highly competitive situation and encouraged him to apply to a portfolio of schools in order to maximize his chances. He did agree to apply to four programs: Tepper School of Business, Darden School of Business, NYU Stern School of Business and Wharton – with Wharton being by far the most competitive.

We mentioned his long track record of service, but really highlighted his organizing a large group to train for a marathon and raise money for a six-year-old girl with leukemia. Abhi discussed his own training process, recruiting and engaging others, planning multiple fundraising events and the leadership ups and downs that he encountered throughout the process.

For Wharton, Abhi put in an extra push. He visited the campus more than once, and came to know the school extremely well, which was made clear in his essays. He also asked a good friend, a current student and someone who could legitimately add insight into his candidacy, to submit a letter on his behalf.

The final package showcased how truly passionate he was about the program and what a good fit he was in terms of culture and goals. Despite having a profile that on the surface mirrored countless others, by digging deeper to find and highlight the compelling aspects of Abhi’s background, he was offered a seat at both Wharton and Tepper.

[Find out how extracurriculars can enhance your b-school experience.]

3. Balancing out zero community involvement: Schools outside the U.S. often place far less emphasis on an applicant’s extracurricular or volunteering involvement when making admissions decisions. When Italian national Aldo came to us for help with his applications, his problem wasn’t quantitative. His balanced GMAT with an overall 720 and a 3.8 GPA presented a very strong academic profile in addition to three years of investment banking experience.

Aldo’s main issue was that extracurriculars and volunteering were not a part of his undergraduate experience, nor was it a priority for his peers in banking in Italy or London. He had no real way to demonstrate the community engagement that American MBA programs like to see.

Although it didn’t seem immediately relevant to Aldo, we helped him see the value of his passion for travel, which had spurred him to visit all seven continents and study abroad in Singapore.

Aldo referenced some of the lessons he learned while traveling and living in Singapore and London to demonstrate his cultural awareness and a sustained focus on international interactions. Ultimately Aldo was admitted to Wharton and NYU Stern.

Each of these applicants benefited from taking a fresh approach to their particular situation. Often, the steps necessary to strengthening your business school application become apparent once you spend some time in self-reflection.

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