This interview is the latest in an Accepted.com blog series featuring interviews with MBA applicant bloggers, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at the MBA application process. And now…introducing our Jon Taves…
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? What’s your favorite non-school book?
Jon: I grew up in a tiny town in Northern Minnesota and went to undergrad at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN – a private liberal arts college near Fargo, ND. There I double-majored in economics and accounting.
Above all else, I’m a huge economics nerd. To me, nothing’s better than using economic theory to analyze and explain markets. In my freshman year at Concordia I read Moneyball by Michael Lewis and was fascinated by his subject: Billy Beane. Not so much from a baseball standpoint, but by how he exploited market inefficiencies. That led me to take Economics 201 my sophomore year, and the rest is history.
For its long-lasting influence on my life, I’d have to say Moneyball is my favorite book. (Not to mention the fact that Michael Lewis is a fantastic writer. His story-driven approach to explaining complex topics is a style I try to mirror in my own writing.)
Accepted: What stage of the application process are you up to so far?
Jon: I plan to apply in Round 2, so I’ve got a few more months to put the finishing touches on my essays and press “submit.” I probably could’ve done so in Round 1, but I want more time to coach my references and get involved in the community again – I’ve missed it while I was studying for the GMAT all spring and summer.
Accepted: What’s been your greatest admissions challenge? What steps did you take (or are you taking) to overcome that challenge?
Jon: To date, my greatest admissions challenge has been the GMAT. Prior to the GMAT, the last test I’d taken was the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. To pass one of the four parts of that exam it’s a simple equation: spend 150 hours reviewing topics and answering practice problems. Get something wrong? Study that topic. Lather, rinse, repeat.
That’s not a formula for success on the GMAT. More than I’ve ever experienced before, the GMAT is truly a test of how you think. I’d read about that in guides and various sources online, but it took me awhile to actually believe it. After taking the GMAT, I can honestly say that that’s the most important takeaway. (I’ll elaborate further in the next question.)
Accepted: It looks like you’ve got lots of GMAT advice on your blog. What are the three categories one should allocate their time to when studying for the GMAT?
Jon: In short, one should allocate their time between the following three categories:
1. Topical areas
2. Timing of answers
3. Identifying question patterns
To expand on what I said in question #3, the GMAT is a test of how you think. The best advice I can give is that having an above-average understanding of the topics covered is important, but having an above-average understanding of test strategy is even more important. In total, I studied about five months for the GMAT. At first glance, one might assume that 5% of their time studying should be spent on test strategy and 95% on topical areas. After all, that ratio was successful in high school and college, right? That couldn’t be farther from the truth: I would estimate that I spent 60% of my time on test strategy and 40% on topical areas. (If it focused only on topical areas, an eighth grader would be able to ace the GMAT.)
How long it takes for you to achieve that 60/40 ratio will vary. If it takes you a month to get comfortable with grammar rules and geometry, then plan for two months spent on test strategy. Test strategy is broken up into two parts: timing and patterns. The pace in which you answer questions matters. If the goal of the GMAT is to test how well you think, then it’s relevant to incorporate not only how long it takes you to answer a question, but also in what order you answer correctly/incorrectly. Think of the GMAT as a water park. You want your timing to be like a “lazy river.” Simply put, getting five questions wrong with consistent timing will equate to a higher score than answering the same amount correctly while riding the Verruckt.
With its proclivity for patterns, the GMAT is like Taco Bell. Have you ever noticed how they introduce a new product every few months – although it isn’t really “new,” it’s just some derivative of a taco or burrito? Similarly, all GMAT questions are testing the same thing: “What’s the best way to solve this problem?” Keep that in mind while you’re studying. When doing practice problems, your work isn’t done once you answer it. Make sure to ask yourself what other questions it relates to. This will make those thirty-seven quant questions look less like thirty-seven individual feats of mathematics and more like a bunch of tacos and burritos.
To close, I’d like to comment on the importance of the GMAT. Do your best, but don’t let the pressure to perform well consume you. A great GMAT score and nothing else doesn’t amount to much. Perhaps when schools preach about their “holistic” approach to admissions they’re underselling the GMAT’s importance, but that doesn’t mean it’s everything. It’s a lot easier to dominate one test than to be a well-rounded applicant that’s not only intelligent, but also a leader, collaborator, and problem solver.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Cuban. He says that “there are three types of entrepreneurs: innovators, imitators, and idiots.” To stand out to an admissions committee, you need to distinguish yourself. Everyone applying to the top schools will have fantastic GMAT scores. What’s different about you? Whether it’s an interesting initiative you led at work, an extracurricular activity, or a unique perspective on the world, remember that you’re more than a score from 200-800 in ten point increments.
Accepted: What is your current job? Do you plan on staying in that same industry post-MBA? Or moving into something new?
Jon: My first job out of college was for a public accounting firm in Minneapolis. I worked there for a little over two years until I left for Travelers last November. At both companies I’ve worked on federal tax projects for C-corporations. Accounting is a solid field and I’ve met some amazing people while working in it. Post-MBA, however, I’d like to switch careers.
In the short run, I hope to use my MBA to start working in management consulting. After that I hope to start a social enterprise. I was on the board of directors for a non-profit in Minneapolis for two years; I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to be financially sustainable. I hope to put together a business whose profits will be able to support the communities I love indefinitely – not just until the last grant dries up. I believe the credibility and connections that I’ll gain through an MBA program will allow me to make that dream a reality.
Accepted: Where and when do you plan on applying to b-school?
Jon: I’ve narrowed down my list to the University of Michigan (Ross) and the University of Minnesota (Carlson). Both schools have the characteristics I’m looking for, most notably: strong entrepreneurship programs and a plethora of experiential learning opportunities. Ross and Carlson are pioneers in the hands-on method of teaching; students are able to go out into the marketplace to solve problems, not only study cases about them in the classroom.
Where they separate from each other is with Ross’ prestige and its relationship with Detroit, MI. There’s no more fertile ground than there to do the kind of work I’m interested in. Carlson, however, can give me something Ross can’t: a built-in network. Particularly for my post-MBA plans, I understand the importance of relationships. (And my mother would be much happier if I stayed in the state of Minnesota.)
Accepted: Can you tell us about your blog? Who is your target audience? What have you gained from the blogging experience?
Jon: A professor told me my junior year at Concordia that the best way for him to retain information – and truly understand it – was to write it down. I recalled this advice a few years ago when I wanted to find a way to remember the information I was reading in economics and finance-related books and articles. It’s been one of the greatest decisions I’ve ever made. Not only do I feel like I know more about the topics that interest me than ever before, but I’ve rediscovered my love of writing. (I was the guy in your college writing class that asked all of the questions and revised his essays a dozen times.)
To be honest, my audience is myself. I don’t publicize my posts on social media, but thanks to the wonder of WordPress, I’ve gained a small following of fellow GMAT takers and MBA applicants. It makes me extremely happy that I’ve been able to help others along their journey. In general, I write about whatever interests me in the economics/finance sphere. At the time, it’s business school. If my musings on those topics interest others, as well, that’s terrific. I suppose in that sense I have a Field of Dreams-esque approach to my blog: “If you build it, they will come.”
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You can read more about Jon’s b-school journey by checking out his blog, EF ESSAYS: Essays on Economics & Finance. Thank you Jon for sharing your story with us – we wish you loads of luck!