As an admissions consultant, I am often asked, “When do I start preparing for the MBA application?”. My answer remains, “As soon as you know that you will be pursuing an MBA.” MBA admissions – especially at top-ranked institutions- is competitive, and the sooner you begin the preparation process, the better.
There are two stages of preparation for your MBA: pre-MBA profile preparation, and MBA application preparation. In this article, we will mainly address the pre-MBA preparation.
If you are thinking about earning an MBA, you should give yourself a minimum of one (1) year to prepare before applying. You will require a minimum of 3 months to fully prepare for the GMAT/GRE and the remainder of the time should be allotted to developing your experiences, strengthening your profile, and researching schools.
Having a clear goal is perhaps the most crucial component of the MBA application for two reasons: (i) it will guide the rest of your application, including target school selection, and (ii) a clear vision of the future and an MBA’s role in it will enhance the clarity of your application and demonstrate to the admission committee you are a candidate with both focus and purpose. Establishing clear post-MBA goals also happens to be the most challenging component for most MBA applicants. So ask yourself: Do you want to work as a consultant for the big 4? If so, in what sector? And to what end? Or, perhaps your goal is to be an entrepreneur starting a new venture. If so, what industry? How are you prepared to be an entrepreneur? Or maybe, you want to work in strategic management. That’s wonderful! In that case, what sector are you targetting? Can you identify the company you would want to work for?
You might want to take some time to implement an active imagination exercise in your routine and play forward how your ideal future unfolds. Where do you see yourself in the next three (3), five (5), and ten (10) years?
Of course, having a clear idea of the future is excellent. However, for the dreams of the future to be attainable, the goals must, in one shape or form, be connected to your past experiences. For example, to be an executive in pharma when all your experience has been in the fashion industry poses a challenging transition. But if your experience has been in business development and you earned an undergraduate degree in STEM, then a connection can be made to working in Pharma.
While MBA programs will teach management and strategy, they cannot teach fundamentals – there are too many industries and too many interests in an MBA cohort. An MBA program desire enrolling students they will be able to place post MBA – this is especially true for top tier institutions that value metrics.
Take the time to identify the connections between your experiences and your post-MBA goals. Clearly articulating your goals early in the process is invaluable in helping you make the most out of every step that follows in the MBA application process. Read how to put together Your List of Top-10 B-Schools.
Now you have identified your future goals and connected them to your past experiences; the next step is to evaluate your profile honestly. Critically evaluate all components of your resume: professional background, academics, community engagement, etc..
When it comes to admissions, a lot rides on your professional background. As mentioned earlier, MBA programs want to know you are employable post-MBA. Therefore, evaluate your experiences: Have you received promotions? Have you demonstrated leadership? Have you led a project or a team? Leadership qualities are not dependent on a management title. Spend time being introspective and identify specific experiences that showcase your leadership potential. If there are areas in your professional development that are weaker, then you want to take time to address those areas – a much more difficult feat with only three (3) months to the application deadline.
Unlike professional development, your strength as a student is “easier” to evaluate, as their numeric scores are based on a scale – 4.0 on the GPA and 800 on GMAT. I do not mean to imply that your scores concretely identify your strength as a student; but they can help you evaluate where you fall within the standard deviation of the target school’s class profile and address deviations in a qualitative manner.
When it comes to GPA, most b-schools provide a class profile that can be used to compare. Your GPA should be evaluated with two categories in mind: your GPA and the undergraduate school’s ranking (for international students whose undergraduate universities do not follow a 4.0 scale, look at the institutions ranking and your class ranking, instead). If your GPA is lower than the school’s class average, then you want to: (i) be prepared to address your GPA in your application, and (ii) research programs/graded courses you can enroll in to boost your academic scores. For the latter, of course, you need time. Therefore, it’s imperative to start this process early, as strong programs like HBX CORe, for example, require an application period (about two weeks) and a class-time (either 10-12 (intensive) or 17 weeks (regular)).
Take a similar approach with your GMAT score. Whether you have the score in hand or scheduled to sit for the exam at a later date, identify the average target score, and work diligently to attain it. Give yourself ample time to retake the GMAT if needed, knowing that you will be strategically managing your application and working full-time.
Top programs seek engaged citizens. Whether that is during your undergraduate or postgraduate career, ask yourself: how involved have you been in your community? Where you engaged in the finance club, fencing club, student council, or any other undergraduate clubs? Did you volunteer, helping the affected in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma in Cuba, California wildfires, or the Sierra Leone floods and landslides? How about building community in the company you work in? Perhaps you’ve organized a book club, or arranged “A Day In the Life” to help local high school students decide on a career. Identify your engagements, both formal and informal and determine if they can be improved? If the answer is yes, take time to identify areas of participation that strengthen your community engagement. The earlier this happens, the better – it doesn’t look good to be the person that four (4) months before the application deadline decides to volunteer.
The MBA Application is stressful, and the earlier you begin the preparation process, the healthier your work-life balance will be. Not only will the resulting product be stronger, but you are not cramming all the work in one short period. Start early and have a plan in place. A well planned and meticulously nurtured crop will always yield the best fruit.