From the Trenches: Insights from Successful Applicants

As one group of nervous applicants transitions to being enrolled students, another group gets ready to apply. Why not learn from the successes, failures and decisions of the group before you? For the next several weeks we will be publishing interviews that we conducted with some of last year’s clients. We gave them a list of questions and asked that they be brutally honest and try to provide any insights that could help future applicants

Biggest mistake you made or almost made in this process?
The biggest mistake I made was underestimating how much time the process would take. I was pretty sure I could get everything prepared and done for first round, and in fact I made it with only a week or two to space for second round deadlines! That’s an average of 1 month per school, and that includes a fair bit of essay re-use!! But I’m glad I didn’t make the mistake of trying to rush my essay writing to deliver for round one, I think the results would have been disastrous.

Some keys to your success?
The biggest key was definitely my consultant’s help. Not only were her edits always on point and prompt, her participation kept the momentum going. And the quality of her work made it imperative that my own revisions have some real substance.

Perseverance. You really have to want it, and have the energy to follow through. Writing and re-writing and re-re-writing essays nearly every day after work can be discouraging.

What did you find most challenging?
The essays, by far. Especially starting new ones, getting the flow right, telling an interesting story that delivers a strong positive message.

How did you put together the following important aspects of your story?
– why MBA?

This was relatively easy for me because I really did know why I wanted one. The challenge was in looking at my past and showing how each experience played a role in creating the person I am today. Then, identifying the ones which led me away from engineering and introduced me to the business/entrepreneurial/finance world, and describing those in a way that shows a definite passion and strong desire to learn more.

– why this school?
Web research! To start with, the schools I chose to apply to (after narrowing it down) had strong curricula in finance, or were otherwise well-suited to my goals — except HBS (should’ve skipped that one). That made it easy because I could speak to their strengths while being genuine about my interest. The aspects I highlighted (thanks to my consultant’s suggestions) were: specific classes I was interested in taking; specific clubs I wanted to participate and lead in; specific research centers and professors I would like to learn from/work with; geographic reasons.

What was most helpful in your interview prep?
I learned a ton from my consultant during my interview prep. Most importantly I learned how to describe my application’s biggest weakness (lack of community/social leadership) in a way that makes a strong positive impact. That was a huge benefit because when asked about that weakness I was not only very aware of it, but also had a real story and plan of action to redress that weakness.

How did you select your recommenders?
I was lucky in that I had a fair bit of choice at my work of people who I felt confident could write strong recommendations for me, and doubly lucky that my direct manager and his manager were both among that group. I chose those two because of the strong direct relationship we have at work, and also because they have different perspectives and backgrounds which I felt would help keep the essays good AND interesting (non-repetitive, different styles)

How did you prep your recommenders?
I used the recommender package template sent to me by my consultant, and prepared a semi-personalized letter for each of my recommenders describing the online process, giving them a hard copy of the questions, and a hard copy sample letter of rec. In the letter I included a list of the projects we’ve worked on together at my company, as well as a brief description of the strengths and weaknesses I’d be highlighting in my essays.

What were you most nervous about in your profile?
I was most nervous about my lack of involvment at the community level.

How did you overcome this potential stumbling block?
Community involvment and leadership was not just something that I thought I should have for my application, but something I was genuinely missing in my life. My consultant helped me formulate an answer to that question which conveys that genuine desire and a real plan to change that aspect of my life during business school.

How did you select your list of schools?
My criteria were: geography (could not be in California), ranking (had to be a top-10 MBA program), and specialization (had to be strong in finance and entrepreneurship). From there I narrowed it down to only the schools that I would be thrilled to attend if it was the only one I got into. No backup schools when you’re spending two years and 100K+, it doesn’t make sense.

What was helpful when you hit writer’s block?
It helped to go back to the brag sheet I put together with my consultant to see what I hadn’t yet talked about. Also, talking to my family about the particular essay question sometimes brought different ideas to the table. When all else failed I could always count on my consultant for a few suggestions as well.

How did you stay motivated?
Calculating the average time it took per essay and looking at the amount of time remaining before deadlines, you quickly realize how short 2 months is. The good thing is the average time per essay does go down very fast once you get the hang of things, luckily. Getting prompt, high-quality feedback from my consultant helped motivate me to keep the momentum going also. And most importantly, truly believing that an MBA makes sense right now meant that I had to follow through and do things right.

What was the best GMAT resource?
A combination of tons of prep materials (especially computer based tests and drills) and a study group. The materials are key because I believe it’s all about practice for standardized tests. The study group helped because we went through the same materials which had two advantages: 1) competition, and 2) when one person had it right and the other had it wrong, we could explain the solution and thought process to one another. Much better than reading the solution in a book…

For other Chicago insights, visit:
GSB Mennonite
Le Voyageur
Dirty Canuck
the daily travails

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