You can almost feel it in the air: the nail-biting excitement of the soon-to-be-released US News and other business-school rankings, the proud chatter of accepted candidates on MBA forums worldwide, the online articles speculating on just how many more (or fewer) people will apply to business school this year. Whether you’re an MBA re-applicant (or re-re-applicant) or in the I-might-apply-this-year camp, it’s time to start doing some deep thinking about your candidacy.
I know you have many decisions to consider—from how many and which programs to target to how to pay for b-school in this global downturn—but here I’ll offer three tips that apply to everyone considering an MBA this year or considering whether they should consider an MBA this year.
1. Build your experience—now. Yes, the GMAT is important. And yes where you went to college is (somewhat less) important. But I’ve found year after year that my most successful clients distinguish themselves through their professional and extracurricular experience. Hold on, you may say, I’m not about to get promoted or take on new responsibilities, and I’m just happy to still have a job. Fair enough. But remember, b-schools love to admit proactive candidates, and it’s never too late to volunteer for new experiences at work and in other roles, especially during times when headcounts have been cut dramatically. Is there a cool new initiative that requires as many hands as possible? Sign up for it. Are there opportunities to reach across functional lines, maybe to find new customers or reposition products and services? Go for it. It doesn’t even have to be within your current workplace. Especially for applicants without formal business experience, having something to say in this domain can go a long way to setting you apart. For example, my successful IT/engineering clients have often been involved in friends’ start-ups, advising them on tech strategy, operations, and other key components. Be creative—it’s a key skill for any aspiring MBA. And, as Linda points out in a recent post, it’s never too late to add to your outside-of-work experience too. You may not have time to establish a new non-profit, but you can certainly contribute your time to existing service efforts (they don’t seem to have quotas on volunteers!).
2. Clarify your goals. Every year I help many of my clients think about their career goals—or, more accurately, how to position their goals. First, again as Linda points out, you have to have goals. Ideally you’ll be able to lay out what you’d like to do immediately post-MBA and in the longer-term, and why. Don’t be lazy on this point—“I’d like to be a management consultant and eventually an entrepreneur” is simply not specific enough. Why are you interested in consulting? Maybe you’re already a tech consultant or love problem-solving in multiple domains. What firms would you like to work with? McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are the usual suspects, but think more broadly, especially because recruiting rates for these firms have dropped precipitously with the economy. Are you big on operations? Then Booz Allen or A.T. Kearney may be great fits. Do you come from a healthcare background? Then ZS Associates may be worth mentioning. Ideally you’ll mention firms that recruit at the school in question. For the long-term goal you may not have to be quite as specific, but try to paint the picture. If it’s entrepreneurship, why? Ideally you have some entrepreneurial experience already or can demonstrate your passion for the field in some other way. What type of business would you like to establish? Why? What trends suggest this is a “hot” area? Ask yourself these questions. Or let us ask you them.
3. Start thinking in stories. One of the main ways I add value to my clients’ essays is by shaping them around key story elements. Story is a highly powerful tool that’s too often overlooked in the business world and elsewhere. If the schools weren’t interested in your stories they would just look at your grades, GMAT, and resume. But they want to know why you’re interested in an MBA and how you achieved what’s on your resume. They want to know what obstacles you faced at work and, sometimes, in your personal life. They want to know what lessons you learned. Frankly, they want to know if you can tell a good (true) story, because that’s crucial to holding your audience’s attention, whether it’s classmates, professors, future colleagues, shareholders, boards, or Congress. So think about what went into that great project management experience or consulting engagement or fundraising effort. What would be a good way to open the story? What were the obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them? What was the ending? In an upcoming post I’ll dive deeper into key story elements. Because great stories aren’t just for novels or movies, as evidenced by my clients’ results.
My fellow editors and I would be happy to help you with any or all of these strategies and others.