Business Schools

Five Years to B-School: The First Year


Typically, students enter business school five years after getting their undergrad degree. A new series takes a year-by-year look at positioning yourself for an MBA

Five years. For a newly minted undergrad, it sounds like a long time. It might be, but it's also roughly the amount of work experience collected before a student enters an MBA program. Which means that if you're planning on going to business school someday, you'll boost your chances of getting into a top school by spending those five years wisely.

To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the first—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.

But what are we waiting for? Five years goes by pretty quickly. Here's what you should be doing in Year One.

Make the Most of Your First Job

The kind of job you have after graduation is not half as important as your performance and the responsibilities you have. Whether you're working at an investment bank (which is typical for someone destined for the MBA track) or teaching middle school (with your mind set on one day starting your own business even though you haven't yet dipped your toes into such endeavors), your goal should be to do your job and do it well, says Lawrence Murray, former associate director in MBA Admissions and current program director of the BSBA Program at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Set out to show an evolution in your career, Murray adds. But this is just the first step. Figure out your place in the organization and the organization's place in the industry.

Admissions committees will be looking to see that you made your mark and took advantage of every opportunity you had to be a leader. They want to know that you have initiative and never shy away from challenges and responsibilities. They don't care if you do this at a tiny startup or some big corporation with a well-known name, says Scott Shrum, director of MBA Admissions Research at Veritas Prep and MBA blogger at BusinessWeek.com.

During this first year on the job, take advantage of any training sessions your company offers, soaking up knowledge about the industry, learning the ropes, and developing skills that you'll be able to put into action. You're preparing to build a résumé that is more than just a list of titles you held; it should eventually be a demonstration of your abilities and accomplishments. Ideally, you should have already gotten started on this during internships. Now you're building on and enhancing your skills.

While most experts agree that it is not wise to up and quit a job right away, they also say that you shouldn't be afraid to leave if there are better opportunities elsewhere or if your current job isn't offering you any chance for growth. Don't job-hop, says Rosemaria Martinelli, admissions director at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, but leave if you have to, and be ready to give a good explanation to business schools and potential employers.

At the end of Year One, you should feel more confident about your work and have at least a slightly clearer picture about what you want to do eventually. You can't expect to be CEO at this point, but you should have seen tremendous growth and adjustment in yourself and your work, says Linda Abraham, president and founder of Accepted.com, an MBA admissions consulting firm. "You are really becoming an adult," she says. "Mommy and daddy are not doing it all for you anymore."

Learn to Network

Networking, or making contacts in your industry or the greater community, is important for potential MBA candidates for many reasons. For starters, especially at this early stage of your career, you want all the help you can get to succeed and carve out a career path that will earn you one great gig after another. Besides needing the help of your mentors, you'll also need great people who know you well and can vouch for your strengths and achievements in MBA recommendation letters.

The right mentor is someone who is a few years older than you and has a job you covet. You can approach potential mentors either in person, by e-mail, or with a phone call, briefly explaining that you were hoping to snag a few moments to pick their brains about their job. Tell them you'd like to set up a quick meeting to discuss how they ended up taking on their role, what their job entails on a daily basis, and any tips they might have for you. Accommodate their schedule; they're doing you a favor. In the end, you should be able to use their career paths as a guide for your own.

Don't think the process ends when your meeting does. You have to keep up with these contacts and develop real relationships with them. The relationship goes two ways. You also have to contribute and help them. "You get what you give," says Abraham. In fact, you might even consider mentoring those who are younger than you by offering advice on the job search and looking over résumés.

Getting to know people is the hard part. You don't have to limit yourself to the team with which you always work. Look around the cafeteria at work, sign up for professional organizations, and get involved with any conferences or special meetings your company offers. Consider talking to people outside of your function in jobs that might interest you to make sure you know what job you'd like to be doing in the future. Many people earn their MBA because they want to change fields or functions altogether. That's O.K. The important thing is that in five years, when you write that application, you know exactly what you want to do. Now is the time to start making those decisions—and talking to others will help you make informed ones.

Get Involved

The office is not the only place you should be getting acquainted with new people. You should also be getting involved in community service and activities that ignite your passion outside of work. While it's true that business schools want to see a track record of service, it's also healthy for you to have a life that is well rounded and full. In those first days after graduating from college, you might feel down or closed off from the world. Essentially, you are a freshman again—and getting involved will give you a renewed sense of self and some purpose.

Consider this your chance to act on your passions. Think about what you really enjoy doing and choose a relevant activity. You don't have to be involved in a 100 organizations, but you should truly be involved in the activities you choose.

These extracurricular activities, besides being fun for you, offer an opportunity for you to show off your passion and personality to admissions committees. "Schools want something substantive, not a list," says Dan Poston, the assistant dean for the Masters Program at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. He adds that you should be able to enthusiastically discuss your participation in these activities during admission and job interviews.

Tutoring and Habitat for Humanity are not the only kinds of activities that admissions committees will find appealing, so don't feel limited. Shrum says he wrote half his application essays about his involvement in an improvisational comedy troupe. The important thing is that you take on responsibility and leadership in any of the groups you join. The good news is that if you're starting to get involved five years away from the MBA, then you are ahead of much of the competition, who often wait until the last minute to perform a few deeds in order to have something to write about.

GMAT: Now Rather Than Later

One advantage you have in Year One is that you are still in the student mindset. You've only recently completed your undergraduate degree, and you're still used to reading lots of material, taking exams, and listening to lectures. Now is the time to make these disciplines a habit. "Deciding to be a business leader means you're committing to a lifetime of learning," says Chicago's Martinelli.

If you had weaknesses in your academic life—writing or especially quantitative skills—continue studying those subjects. Buy books or take courses to sharpen your skills. Read, read, read, adds Martinelli. Pick up books and periodicals that will keep you up to date on business and the industries that interest you most. Stay abreast of current events, particularly those that influence your business. Pay attention to what's going on in the world around you. This will help you to be a better leader, and genuine intellectual curiosity is a must for admission committees to see.

Consider taking the GMAT— the main business school admissions test—now. While it sounds premature, since the GMAT score is good for five years, it makes sense to get it out of the way, when you're still used to studying for exams. On the other hand, some MBA admissions consultants, such as Shrum, say taking more time to study for the exam at a measured pace is an argument for waiting. Either way, you can take the test more than once.

By now you know your learning and test-taking style, so you know what's best for you. If you think you'd do better by taking the test now, then do it. If not, take extra time to study more. If you're not sure, you can always take a practice test from a book or online and see how you do before deciding the best time to take the actual test.

Stay Grounded

Times are tough enough these days. While it's good to have a five-year goal, it's also important to have a well-rounded life now, when you're free of many of the responsibilities that come when you're older. Plus, MBA programs want to see that you are physically and mentally healthy and that you can contribute to society and perform well at work. Find ways to de-stress and unwind. Of course, don't be crazy and irresponsible. Explaining why your name showed up on a police blotter to a business school admissions committee isn't an easy task.

You're already staying connected with friends and family through Facebook and Twitter. More professional networks, such as LinkedIn, could be useful to your career (more on that in Year Two of this series). But you have to be careful about the image you present online. Five years from now, Google will still find your Facebook and MySpace profiles. Therefore, do yourself—and your future— a favor by making responsible decisions on- and off-line.

Consider using social networking to do some good. Kenan-Flagler's Murray once had an applicant use her Facebook and My Space pages to market a nonprofit organization that she launched. In her application, she was able to use this material to demonstrate her passion, leadership, and initiative, which the admissions committee ate up. Help some people now, and it might help you five years from now.

By the End of Year One…

You should have:

Begun developing your skill set

Found a few mentors who have given you a better idea about the jobs you might like to do in the future

Found a way to translate your passions into a couple of activities in which you'd really liked to get involved

Decided how you can make an impact at the office and in those extracurricular activities and start implementing a plan of action to do just that

Kept your mind on business by reading relevant books and articles

Made a decision about when you'd like to take the GMAT

Started building a satisfying, well-rounded life and career

Business Exchange related topics:

Executive Search

Career Change

Employee Engagement


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