A 750+ GMAT score is not sufficient to open the doors to competitive B-schools. That’s because an MBA program, unlike an undergrad program, is not an academic program. Its goal is to produce future business leaders, and not academic scholars. Therefore, once you cross a threshold on GMAT, schools look at evidence of leadership, problem-solving, initiative, interpersonal skills, career progression, achievability of career goals, fit with the school, reason for pursuing MBA etc., which they glean from your essays, resume, recommendation, and interview.
As part of admissions consulting, I offer following to cover post-GMAT application process (essays, resume, recommendation, and interview):
Who is this for?
There are broadly two types of applicants who take ALL-IN.
Those who don’t want to leave anything to chance for their most important target schools. Such applicants typically take this package for three schools, and often optimize the value by picking schools whose essays are least overlapping. (Remember, recommendations overlap to a great degree and resumes overlap almost 100 percent across schools.)
Those who want to get their narrative, career goals, choice of schools, recommendation examples (to the extent covered by one school), red flags, and resume right for one school, and then transfer the knowledge to other applications on their own.
Getting the basics right can make a big difference to where you end up. More on this here:
As the name suggests, this package covers the entire pre-interview admission process. Specifically, it covers:
1. School selection
Not everyone can get into a top-10 program. But if you pick schools prudently, you can fulfill your career goals even from a somewhat lower-ranked school. For example, if you want to work in MBB (McKinsey, Bain, and BCG) post-MBA, you may also consider schools such as Duke, Darden, Tuck, and Ross, as MBB recruit at these schools too in sizeable numbers.
If you want to work in tech industry, Haas, UCLA, Tepper, and few other schools on the West Coast too can take you to the biggest brands. Besides, if you’ve industry experience, you may also consider specialized one-year Tech MBA programs such as those offered by Cornell and NYU.
Other factors too can play a role in school selection. Age (European programs are more accepting of older applicants) and geography of post-MBA work (recruitment even at top schools is highly regional) are few of them.
If you haven’t decided on your target schools, we can deliberate on your longer list and prune it when discussing application strategy.
2. Application strategy
Some of the questions you need to consider:
Do I have a narrative? Do I have a vision of the impact I want to make in future?
How do I differentiate in an overly competitive applicant pool? Read this for an example.
Do I have experiences which I don’t consider worth leveraging in my application, but in reality could be valuable? (The above link provides an example.) Overlooked strengths, in other words.
How do I address potential red flags? 30+ in age. Second MBA. Low GPA. Low Quant score. Gap in employment. And more…
How do I make my post-MBA career goals credible by leveraging my past experience and transferrable skills, and providing details in case there are gaps (few examples in point 3A)?
Here is an example of strategy for an application to Canadian programs facing two major weak areas.
Our engagement starts with 1-2 calls (approx. 120 minutes total) aimed at nailing down answers to foundational questions. These sessions are school-agnostic and happen before we take up the first school.
3. Essays, videos, and others
While 3A finds place in almost every school’s essay (sometimes in the online data form), 3B too is a common feature. 3C defines the type of content that goes into answering other types of essays. Last, 3D and 3E define the writing approach. Overall goal is to provide a consistent message about your strengths, who you are as a person, and any overarching narrative you may have. (Here is a sample essay. You may see another in point 3D.)
3A. Career goals
One or two sentences typically don’t break an application, but if there is one area where they can, it is poor articulation of career goals. It’s the fastest route to hit the ding list, and one of the most common mistakes applicants make (click on the links in the bullet points below to see few examples).
First, ask yourself if an MBA program is required to achieve your career goal. Second, your career goal should ideally build on your past experience and skills, and should answer why you’re interested in that path. By the same logic, an audacious goal requires higher degree of explanation on how you can attain it. Among other things, career goals should also reconcile to the stage of career you’re in and the peculiarities of your target school’s employment data. Few examples:
You, an older applicant, want to pursue management consulting.
Why would you want to forego several years of experience and start at the Associate level? Moreover, you may not relish the intense work culture and frequent travel at your age. Therefore, your desire to join consulting needs authentic, strong explanation.
Your career goals don’t make sense.
You aspire to join private equity or venture capital industry, post-MBA.
It’s almost impossible to get into these industries if you don’t have requisite work experience (VC: VC, successful exit as an entrepreneur, or startup; PE: PE, investment banking, or deep operations experience). See answers to real cases on PE and VC.
You, an international applicant, want to work in real estate.
A career goal in a niche industry such as real estate may not be feasible for international students because these industries may not sponsor work visas. Such goals require deeper digging to make sure they’re feasible. See answer to a real case.
You want to work in real estate.
A career goal in an industry that constitutes a small fraction of the overall recruitment at your target school too can be risky.
You want to start a company.
That’s an audacious goal. Even if you’re an industry expert, entrepreneurship is extremely hard. You need to show that you understand the specific gap in the market you want to exploit, go-to market strategy, and associated risks, to name few. The bigger question though is why do you need an MBA if your short-term goal is entrepreneurship? See answer to a real case.
You want to start a company in 3-5 years in a fast-evolving industry.
Being too precise in your articulation in an industry where major pillars get shaken every year can be viewed as a sign of naivety.
3B. Fit with the school or personalization
Are you doing enough to demonstrate fit with the school? “Why MBA” and “Why XYZ school” type questions?
Schools, some even in top-10, take conscious steps to filter out uninterested applicants. A strong articulation of how the school will uniquely help you achieve your goals shows that you’re not treating the application perfunctorily.
For example, this is a poor attempt at showing interest in Duke:
Duke is my top choice because of its strong alumni network, community environment, distinguished faculty, and strong reputation.
Even this is inadequate:
… I lack in-depth understanding of finance and other streams like marketing. The program’s rigorous core curriculum, strong finance program with expansive elective courses and student clubs such as the Investment Banking Club and Management Consulting Association will help to bridge the gap in my business and financial knowledge and prepare me for my career transition after MBA. I also value the school’s focus on combining theory with practice. Participating in industry events, Global Immersion Program and getting hands-on experience in Master Classes will extend my theoretical learning to solving real world problems.
Mere name-dropping (courses, professors, student clubs, alumni etc.) doesn’t work any longer. Here is a much better example of personalization.
3C. Other essays
The following content is illustrative of what goes into your other essays (and recommendations), and it comes from the session(s) on application strategy and the particular school. This list isn’t exhaustive, and what goes into a particular essay depends on the essay prompt.
Instances when you made disproportionate impact
Instances when you worked outside your comfort zone
Instances of modern-day workplace skills: innovation, collaboration, customer service, interpersonal, problem solving, and comfort with learning new things, to name few
Instances of leadership: going beyond the call of duty, taking ownership, motivating others, initiative, and humility, to name few
How failures have shaped you?
What are 1-2 areas of deep interest (this could be your personal narrative) and what insights have you gathered in those areas over the years?
Have you been associated with projects that aren’t common in your industry?
Do you have a unique story? Overcoming diversity in personal or professional life, for example?
3D. Are you reflective?
The purpose of essays is not to learn about your accomplishments and/ or setbacks; it’s to learn about you. Therefore, you need to provide a peek into your values through your thought process in critical moments, issues that are dear to you, how you take on challenging situations, and the like. In other words, focus more on ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ (and less on ‘whats’) of your experiences. Here are few examples.
3E. Is your writing up to the mark?
Does your essay leave one or two key messages? Do your paragraphs build on the previous ones? Do your sentences vary in length and sound? Do your sentences transition smoothly from one to the other? Grammar? Punctuation (hyphenation in complex words and commas are the most common errors – here are few from HBS essays of admitted applicants)?
In short, is your writing professional?
After the session(s) on application strategy, we take up the essays and recommendation questions of the first school. In the call, we finalize the key message(s) to amplify, experiences to use, and the structure (how different paragraphs will flow) of each essay. Post this, you write the first draft, which goes through multiple iterations of refining, both on content and language.
Are your recommenders supporting their assertions about you by providing details of the instances when you displayed those qualities?
How you can strategically use recommendations to corroborate your strengths and address red flags in your profile?
In the session for essays, we also discuss your experiences that your recommenders can use while answering recommendation questions.
Resume review will involve reducing your resume to the standard one-page format, highlighting soft skills (some resumes, especially job resumes, focus on industry skills and therefore could be overly technical), giving precedence to important accomplishments, making them result-oriented, and clearly defining your role in them.
Equally important is to show career progression. (Career progression is an important criterion for assessing professional success.) It’s easy to show when you’ve had regular promotions, but in absence thereof, you need to show career progression through increased responsibilities.
We hold a call to discuss above points. After the call, you send the first draft, which we finalize in 1-2 iterations.
You’ll have many queries outside of what we’ve covered so far. For example, you may find some questions in the online application puzzling. You would want to discuss the mini-essays (outside the regular essays) in online application that some schools have. You may have questions on how to handle communication with schools. On fellowships. On choice of recommenders.
You can pose your queries as and when you have them.
7. Waitlist, if required
If you’re waitlisted, you need to further address weak points in your profile, show strong desire to join the program if admitted, and… shine. Depending on school, this could mean sending few essay-type updates to the school.
In case of a waitlist, we brainstorm the strategy to follow, and get updates ready, following the process similar to that in essays. (Note: different schools have different approaches on dealing with waitlisted applicants, and therefore this process will vary accordingly.)