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To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the third—will provide a year-by-year guide to what you should be doing and thinking about in building the sort of rÉsumÉ and skill set that will be attractive to MBA admissions committees.
In Year One, you learned about getting your feet wet at work and finding a mentor. In Year Two, you took on greater responsibility and initiative and started to prepare for the academic rigor of an MBA program. Year Three is the turning point in your five-year plan. You are on steadier ground, and you're much more removed from your undergraduate life. There are no more late-night philosophical discussions or keg stands left in you. In Year Three you must show actual movement in your career and either move to another company or earn a promotion where you are. This is the year you must prove yourself, so let's get right to the point:
Not everyone was promoted in Year Two, when it was possible to get by with a bit of initiative and greater responsibility. Now, however, things are different. You must have a change in title in the form of a promotion, or you have to move to another department or company. "Admissions committees don't want to see you doing the same job sitting in the same position for the third year," says Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting in Los Angeles. It's critical, she adds, that you wisely choose your next move and that it is something that enhances your rÉsumÉ and shows progression in your career.
What kinds of work should you be doing in this new position? Well, you should have more responsibilities and new projects, and ideally you should be managing and/or recruiting others. Your two years of training are complete, so you should help to make change and give direction to the company. If you can't find those kinds of opportunities where you are working, then you should move on, which may be difficult given the state of the economy. In Year Two, you should have looked into all possibilities; now it's time to seriously pursue those other positions.
Ideally, you'd like to be in charge of something. For example, if you are in engineering, you should be a project manager who controls a budget and has at least one other person reporting to you, says Jay Bryant, assistant vice-president of qdmissions and recruiting at Thunderbird School of Global Management. Admissions committees want to see that you are a leader with great potential—and you'll need specific examples to prove that as fact.
At this point, says Bryant, you must have a narrow list of what you'd like to be doing post-MBA and how this career path (even if it's not in the field you'd eventually like to be in) is going to get you there. As you make decisions about positions to take, you must keep this ultimate goal in mind. In business school applications, you'll have to be explicit about this plan and how your current experiences will help you achieve your goals. For example, if your in marketing and your post-MBA goal is to launch a business, your new position might involve helping launch a startup, perhaps as the company's vice-president of marketing.
Now that you have two years of work under your belt, you can start mentoring others, says Blackman. The benefits are twofold: By serving as a mentor to an up-and-coming young person, you are building your network while that person is gaining valuable advice to advance his or her career. Blackman says you can even approach young people in your office who show promise and offer to mentor them. This is yet another way to show initiative in your life—a great characteristic if you're seeking an MBA, and one you'll need to demonstrate in your B-school applications.
In the meantime, you should maintain your relationships with your mentors. Keep up with them, fill them in on your life, and if you can, help them, too. Networking lasts a lifetime, so you should also still meet new contacts and learn about them. Start asking people about their own MBA experiences, how the degree has helped them in their career, what their school was like, why they chose it, and what they think about your desired path. Of course, you might want to be careful about discussing your interest in leaving a certain position for business school if that's not a traditional path for your industry and if you think your employer would not be understanding.
In Year Three, you have the chance to extend your network by talking to administrators, students, and alumni at the schools that interest you. At this point, you should be contacting schools. "You should identify who you are, where you are planning to go, and which school will get you there," says Bryant. He suggests being in communication with your short list of preferred business schools. At the very least, you should be on the school's mailing list, so that you can attend events, speak with alumni, and be able to refer to specifics about the school if and when you interview there, says Bryant.
Order the applications online to read the essays, so you can start thinking about what you might write, suggests Blackman. "Having those questions in your head helps you to be more thoughtful about them later," she says. This is your chance to get to know the schools, so you apply to the places that best suit you—and so the schools get to know you, too.
You can't put off GMAT preparation any longer. The process can be lengthy, say admissions experts. You may take the test itself two or three times before achieving the score that you'd like. Getting a high score requires studying, which means different things for different people. Some applicants take a few practice tests and read up about the GMAT online and are satisfied with their first score. Others take prep courses on- and offline, study on the weekends and at nights, and take loads of practice tests to prepare. You won't really know what category you'll land in until you start familiarizing yourself with the test and assess how much work you must do to get the score you'd like.
Head to the GMAT site and read about the test. Then take a free practice exam, see how you do, and come up with a plan. You might want to check out the average scores and range of scores for those who are accepted into the programs that interest you. You'll find those numbers in the Rankings and Profiles on BusinessWeek.com. You can also learn about various GMAT prep courses if you think you'll need one of those to achieve your desired score.
You should be continuing your extracurricular work. You should be flourishing and leading whatever organizations or clubs of which you are a part. Living a healthy lifestyle that makes you proud and serving as a leader in your community will come through in your application and probably make you a more confident, happier person. Now is definitely not the time to drop the ball.
Filling out the application should be on your mind. One other thing you should do to prep for the application process is find a way to make yourself stand out. Use your passions to guide you. For instance, Bryant had one candidate who wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person to travel the world and had already visited 170 countries. Dance the salsa or go on safari. Live a full, well-rounded life so that you have lots to write about in essays and discuss in interviews. Determine what already makes you stand out from your peers, who might also be applying to B-school, and work from there.
Some of you will have husbands or wives or be in a serious, committed relationship by Year Three. If so, you should discuss your plans to attend B-school with your significant other. Full-time programs often require people to pick up, move, and spend lots of time in study groups or teams. This lifestyle, although temporary, will affect the people with whom you share your life. They should have a say in your decisions about where to go and how to proceed.
Your plans and your partner's future should work well together. If you have kids, then you must also consider their feelings and lives and what it would be like for them if you moved to go to school. "Business schools are not here to break up couples," says Bryant. You might also want to research the various programs B-schools have for families and present that information to your loved ones.
As mentioned in the previous articles in this series, you should be saving money to finance your education. Year Three is a great time to make sure you're paying off outstanding debt and to look into how you will supplement your finances so you can afford tuition and housing. As you inch toward Year Four and the application process looms, you should be living more and more like a student. That means spending less, eating at home, and refraining from splurges such as fancy clothes and cars. Your budget should get tighter and your debts smaller as you get closer to B-school. Living on a budget, even if you anticipate making big bucks post-MBA, is a wise idea that will help you weather any economic storm and two years without an income.
You should have:
Either been promoted where you've been working or moved to another company to reach the next level in your profession.
Found someone to mentor while still maintaining relationships with your own mentors and continuing to make contact with superiors who can better inform you about the MBA and various business schools.
Narrowed down the list of things you'd like to be doing after you complete your MBA.
Made contact with business schools that interest you.
Discussed your future with your loved ones and listened to their thoughts about your plans.
Tightened your finances even more than before in anticipation of paying tuition and going without an income for two years.
Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.