After doing a career pivot (finance to tech) sans MBA, I didn’t think I needed or wanted one. And yet, amid the Covid-19 chaos and a job change within tech, I determined it was the right next step for me. I quickly scrambled to prepare, but wondered, how hard could it be? I even debated dusting off the old college application essay and wisely chose against it. Somewhere between 20 open tabs of business school application requirements, a disorganized excel spreadsheet, and page two of a rolling to-dos doc, I realized I underestimated what getting into business school would take. After some time for wallowing, I created a step-by-step plan. This problem-solver loves a challenge. Fast forward to today, having gotten into my dream B-school, here are my 10 surefire steps for getting in.
1. Take the GMAT early. It’s good to get this out of the way and you can even take the exam remotely online during Covid-19. You want to give yourself room to take it a second or third time if needed. Take a few practice tests in advance (and on the computer to mimic the real testing environment). Your GMAT score and college GPA will help determine which MBA programs are within reach.
2. Research the MBA programs. Find the ones best for you. Go to information sessions, reach out to someone in your network who went there, ask the admissions office if you can ask them some questions. Doing your due diligence will help you prepare for essays and interviews as well as for your own benefit of choosing the place right for you. If you do steps 1 and 2 right, you will only need to apply to 3–5 schools (within reach and well researched), which will save you time and headache.
3. Know why an MBA and why these schools. An MBA is costly (including opportunity cost from not working), it’s time intensive, and it’s arguably less relevant today than it was 10 years ago. Make sure it’s the right next step for you. Think about short term and long term goals post MBA and how the MBA helps you get there. Look at what classes the MBAs have and think about what you want your concentration to be and what classes, organizations, and student activities are interesting to you.
4. Prep and outline the application requirements for your selected choices. Make an application plan and give yourself plenty of time to rework and revise the essays. Determine which application round is best for you (earlier typically means better chances but you also want to give yourself time to prepare and put your best foot forward) and then work backwards from the application deadlines to set your own goals and due dates.
5. Draft the essays. Do this early. Make sure it speaks to what you want to get out of the MBA and how you will be an effective leader. Write freely at first to let it flow and capture what you want to say. Then, track the word count and cut cut cut. For each essay, I started with nearly double the word count and got it down. You can always say something in a more concise way. Take out the fluff, keep the meat. Make each word count.
6. Ask for recommendations early and, ideally, include bullet points of your work together as well as a draft of your essays so the recommenders have the whole picture and can share aspects that are most relevant and support your story. Choose recommenders who are recent supervisors / managers (even if indirectly) and ideally from different places of work (or at least different departments).
7. Rework and revise the essays. Take a step away and think about reading it from the reviewer’s perspective. Is it punchy enough? Does it stand out? Does it tell a story? Is it your authentic voice? If it sounds generic, take it out and challenge yourself on what you are really trying to say. Work out of a Google doc for version control when you cut full paragraphs and then go back for that one just-right phrase…
8. Have your essays peer reviewed by a friend, a mentor, and an MBA grad. Don’t send them to everyone you know — too much feedback just becomes noise and the feedback is often conflicting. The friend, mentor, and MBA grad approach works because it’s just three voices and they each offer a unique viewpoint — the friend knows you well, the mentor has the perspective of your future growth potential, and the MBA grad knows the process and what MBA programs are looking for.
9. Submit your application! This was actually one of the hardest parts so it deserves it’s own step. I felt like I could iterate endlessly and at some point, you have to draw the line and step away. When you do hit submit, celebrate the hard work and then find a new hobby to keep yourself distracted for the weeks to months until you hear back. However, do occasionally check your spam email folder for the one acceptance email that ends up hiding there.
10. Interview and prepare for the interview. Make sure you are dressed professionally (seems obvious, but at this point in the Covid-19 pandemic…). If you are interviewing remotely, find a quiet room, check your wifi, and arrive at the virtual meeting five minutes early. Be prepared for questions like why an MBA, why this school, walk me through your resume, where do you see yourself in five years, describe a failure or conflict, how will you take advantage of our resources, etc. Think about your personal brand. Maybe come up with three words to describe yourself that you want them to take away from the interview and remember you by. Then, think about experiences that speak to those descriptors and use those experiences to answer behavioral questions.
+1 more - NB: Apply to scholarships and fellowships. Check out the school’s financial aid page for opportunities specific to them and apply to additional scholarships. Planning for how you will pay for your MBA is just as important as getting in.
Overall, the most important piece is to really know why you want an MBA and what you are going to do with it. There might be easier and cheaper ways to get where you want to go. There are courses you could take if you are interested in a specific class or skill (even online ones like Coursera). There are meet-ups and events to expand your network and meet people. There are start-up incubators and accelerators for you to grow your entrepreneurial idea and leadership and soft-skills training for you to grow as a professional. But if in the end, you are bitten by the B-school bug and you do decide it’s right for you, follow these 10–11 steps and you should be good to go. If not, there’s always the next year! Just kidding. I hope you get into your target MBA program too!
Jillian Ward is a Senior Sales Engineer at a top AI start-up. She joins the Executive MBA program at Columbia Business School this May.