To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the fourth—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 how to get your career started on the right foot and find a mentor. In Year Two, you made inroads in the office and learned how to get noticed by the right people. Year Three was a turning point, when you might have moved to a different company or accepted a promotion. Now, in Year Four, you must make your mark and start preparing for the MBA application process. This is the year that you start tracking your achievements and devising future goals, so that you will be able to knock out a solid application essay and make a big impression in the interviews next year. There's no time to waste, so here goes:
BROADEN YOUR EXPERIENCES
By now, you should have been promoted at least once, perhaps twice. You are probably comfortable in the role you have at your company. If you can, take on projects and duties in other departments to get exposure to different careers and to show that you can wear many hats. This kind of work, besides serving as additional research as you decide exactly what you want to do post-MBA, can be great fodder for the application essay and interview. You might also pick up additional skills, which should be a goal of yours, especially if you plan on using the MBA to switch careers.
Just because you have earned a promotion or two does not mean that you should rest on your laurels. You still should strive to stand out at the company. Take advantage of leadership opportunities such as heading up a committee. Create projects and initiatives. Try to win awards for your work. You should have specific examples of where you are adding value to the company, whether that's helping launch a successful new product or undertaking a cost-cutting initiative with measurable results, says Julie Barefoot, associate dean for MBA Admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.
Don't worry too much if the slower economy is slowing down your career, too. "We're not clueless about the economy," says Barefoot. "We understand that this group of students has been thrown a lot of curve balls." In other words, the admissions committee will understand if you have been laid off or if you were given more responsibilities without a promotion or salary change. Just be sure to explain the situation—and how you turned your lemons into lemonade. If you lost your job for a brief period, explain in your application essay how you freelanced while job hunting until you landed a better, full-time gig. Take on the challenges of a slow economy and perform well under difficult circumstances. For instance, says Barefoot, if you are helping your team at work to accomplish the same goals with fewer people, you should definitely bring that up in your MBA application.
CHOOSE YOUR RECOMMENDERS
Now is not the time to give up on your network. "Networking is like gardening," says Beth Flye, assistant dean and director of admissions and financial aid at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "If you have a garden, you need to constantly tend to it and care for it. It's the same for a network." Therefore, you should be continuing to keep in touch with your mentors, the people you are mentoring, and any other contacts you have made in the last three years.
In addition, you should be looking around you to determine who knows you and your work best and would be able to confirm whatever you decide to include in your application in the form of a recommendation letter. A big name is much less important than someone who works closely with you, knows your strengths, has witnessed your accomplishments, and will speak well of you.
If it's too early to come right out and tell your recommenders—say it's your boss and you don't know if he'd appreciate your decision to leave the company—then ask subtle questions about what this person thinks of the MBA, says Alex Chu, president of MBA Apply. Use this information to come up with a roster of people who can write recommendations for you. Chu adds that you should ask the same people to write the recommendations for every school to which you apply because it's easier for everyone.
Those who can openly discuss their plans with their recommender can take him or her to lunch at this point, suggests John Roeder, director of MBA Admissions at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management. Use your time together to give the potential recommender an overview of your achievements and your reasons for wanting to go to business school.
While you're deciding on your recommenders, don't neglect the rest of the application process, particularly the research into your target schools. Track down students and alumni at your top choice schools—your list of schools should be narrowing as you research the offerings at each—and ask them questions about the culture, campus, and highlights of the MBA program. This is great background information that you can use to make your application essays specific to each school to which you apply, even if you can't make it to campus for an actual visit, says Jim Ward, an aspiring MBA in Washington, D.C., who is going through the application process now. Ward adds that narrowing your list of schools and thoroughly researching each is key to performing well in essays and interviews. He is pleased that he chose only four schools and got to know each one very well. "Four is enough," says Ward. "It was a lot of work, and I'm happy with the four."
KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK
Your extracurricular activities—from community service to that garage band—should be ongoing and consistent. There's not much sense in starting new activities, but you should try to shine in the ones in which you're already participating. These groups are a good way for you to get leadership experience if you are unable to get it at work. "There's a difference between participation and accomplishment," says Chu. "Anyone can participate, but achievement is something more." If you volunteer at a soup kitchen every day and won an award for it, then you have achieved something. Recognition of your services is an asset to your application.
Some of the people who work with you in these other activities might be on your list of recommenders. Treat them as you would those with whom you work. Just as you would on the job, continue to look for leadership opportunities and ways to make your mark and improve the organization.
Minorities, women, those coming from certain industries, and others might find organizations that will help them with the application process. Groups, such as the Forte Foundation, are great places for applicants to join, says Analilia Silva, associate director of admissions at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. They can provide a network, in some cases information on the application process, and scholarships. Professional organizations can also be helpful because you can meet people who can tell you about the jobs that interest you in that field. Year Four is an ideal time to get involved since you'll be starting to write the applications soon and can use that information.
PREPARE TO COMPLETE THE APPLICATION
Filling out the applications is now only one year away. There are things you can do to prepare for writing the essays and interviewing with alumni or admissions committee members. The first thing you should do is take a self-inventory, says Flye. Where have you had an impact? What have you learned? What skills are transferable for the move you want to make post MBA? Answers to all these questions should be included.
You also might consider keeping a leadership journal. In the journal, you should take notes as you demonstrate leadership on the job or in your extracurricular activities. These notes will come in handy as you write your essays and think about what you will say in an interview. Write down anything you think could be relevant because you can always leave it out of the essay if you end up having stronger examples. In the essays, you're going to want to illustrate not just what you accomplished but also why it is important, says Barefoot. Keep this in mind as you track your examples.
Mock interviews with your mentors or other trusted contacts who have gone through the MBA application process can help applicants prepare and stand out, says Roeder. If the MBA application interview is the first one you've had in four or five years, you will likely have trouble, he adds. Practice certainly can only help you.
By now, you should have taken the GMAT at least once. If you're still not satisfied with your score, take it again. While most programs will not disclose their minimum GMAT scores, you can get a hint for what it will take to get accepted by checking out each school's profile and looking up its average GMAT score, which range from 696 to 726 for BusinessWeek's Top 10 full-time MBA programs. In preparation for the MBA, you should also look at the curriculum and perhaps even the syllabus of the courses at the programs that interest you most. Besides helping you determine fit, you will have specifics for the essays and interviews.
Good applications happen when people put their all into them. "It resonates in their application that they have prepared and put a lot of work into the process," says Flye. Indeed, work ethic plays a role and can help you stand out from the crowd. "Hard work is what separates those who get ahead," says Chu. "It's a bit of luck but mostly hard work and commitment [that will help you]. Some people just want it more."
GET READY FOR A MOVE
Whether you are single, married, or have a family, you will most likely move from where you are living now to another area when you begin your MBA program. As you narrow down the schools, you should be looking closely at the location of those that interest you most. Determine if you want to live there after the MBA because there are likely more jobs offered to graduates in the school's home than outside. Also, consider the housing prices, if you won't be living on campus. If you do have a spouse and kids, consider the jobs and schools available to them where you'd be living.
Visiting campuses is a great way to get to know the culture and see the city or town. Have your spouse and family join you if you can make a visit before applying. If not, you should try to attend recruiting events for those schools in your area. When you do get to visit a school, check out the groups and benefits they offer to families of MBA students. For example, spouses at Kellogg can audit courses.
People who are thinking about applying to business school should be saving money to fund their education. At this point, you should have saved lots and should already be living like a student on a budget. Consider what your cost of living and tuition will be and start making calculations about how you will be able to swing this. Of course, start researching scholarship and award money now. Get working on those applications, too. Free money, as opposed to loans, is the best way to fund your education because you don't have to ever pay it back.
BY THE END OF YEAR FOUR…
You should have:
Earned recognition on the job and broadened your experiences by taking on new roles or projects
Narrowed your list of top business schools and thoroughly researched them
Chosen your recommenders and either talked with them about the MBA in general or your desire to apply, depending on your relationship with each
Begun taking note of your achievements and demonstrations of leadership in preparation for the essays and the interviews
Researched the regions of the schools that interest you most to determine the types of jobs available, the cost of living, and the culture for you and your family if you have one
Started applying for scholarships and any other free money to fund your MBA
Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.