Business Week

December 2005

MBA Journal: Admissions
by Grant Allen

THE APPLICATION MARATHON. When MBAs tell you the application process is a marathon, listen up. It is. Really, I’ve never run a marathon, or more than two miles by choice, but I think the metaphor sticks: from research to GMAT to recommendations and essays, the process is a grueling endurance test. The upside is, thousands have gone before you and it can be done with proper preparation.

wrote accurately of the process: “First, withdraw $1,000-3,000 from your savings. Burn it. Second, lock yourself in a room for one to two months with a computer and a phone line. Write insightful, heartfelt essays about the essence of your being, but don’t exceed 500 words.”

For me, it was more like $5,500 and four months ”” all in all, expensive and time-consuming. I started researching back in Boston in 2001. After getting laid off, I figured I could have some “strings pulled” as I’d seen friends do and head back to school with, oh, seven months experience. But, I had my eye on a very few schools so that pesky two to five years work experience pre-req was quite real. As I went into my next two consulting jobs, I kept a short list in my mind: Wharton, HBS, Sloan. There’s insufficient space to fully explain this group’s rationale, but I can say they all seemed like good fits on top of representing tremendous brands. Wharton and Sloan particularly meshed with my quantitative, engineering background and my desire at the time to go into analytic marketing. It was this interest that later brought Kellogg into the mix. Tuck was more of a last-minute addition and Sloan dropped off after I visited and realized the school has no campus. HBS really should donate its little brother some buildings.Before being recruited to Dean & Company, I had about two weeks of lame duck status at my old job. This was the perfect opportunity to study for the GMAT. I regard myself as a pretty good test-taker, so I forwent the Kaplan-style courses in favor of regimented self-study. I used the GMAC CD-ROM, a Princeton Review book I bought on eBay, and a book I found to be most helpful, “GMAT 800” by Kaplan, which focuses on the Type C, hardest questions that are going to be the core question type for anyone scoring in the super-700 category. Essentially, to get a very high score, you need to have 100% comfort with the most challenging questions the CAT will pitch at you.

I took the test after taking three full-length practice tests and spending a few days holed up with “GMAT 800.” Many of you may be wondering about re-taking the exam. Ideally, try to do your best the first go-round, but there is variability around everyone’s “innate” score, plus environmental pitfalls (my computer actually crashed when I was writing my AWA essays). My rule: If you have above 80th percentile for both verbal and quant scores, don’t retake the test. If you’re more “typical” (in B-school terms) ”” Caucasian male, Indian engineer, other non-minority ”” I’d aim for 730-plus. I’ve never heard of a score keeping anyone out of a good school, but it does help to be over that oft-cited hurdle of 80th percentile or 700, depending on who you talk to. Wharton’s middle 80% range is 670-760 and the mean is 716, the highest of any school, though I’d put the median at almost 730.

The next step is tackling your essays. I could write a book on this but for now would just point you to Montauk’s “How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs,” Mendonca’s “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge,” and a carefully selected group of your peers. Ideally, you are friends with a real writer or English major for obvious reasons; bonus points for being published. Most applications make you sign something to the effect of “this work is entirely my own,” but you’re naive at best if you think outside editing isn’t commonplace and you don’t get someone to go through your essays with a fine-tooth comb. Personally, I knew what I could say, but needed help with the messaging. My disjointed background required a sculptor, so I hired a consultant to help me strategize. Essay-writing services do exist, but the service I decided on, Stacy Blackman Consulting, is more a coaching service. Stacy, a Kellogg MBA (tell her I sent you), acted as message-clarifier, motivator, and sometimes baby-sitter in taking my raw material and helping me make the most of it. She tirelessly edited my drivel and, although expensive, as are all these types of services, was certainly worthwhile.

Read More of Grant’s MBA Journal