How to build a perfect application for a Top B-school
Last updated on April 10th, 2015
The MBA application process can be quite overwhelming if you’re just starting out! Learn how to plan your MBA application journey all the way to your dream B-school!
Application Process Deconstructed
Welcome to Part 2 of the series- Introduction to MBA and GMAT application process. In the first part of the MBA and GMAT application process, we looked at what is it that we can look for while selecting a b-school and what are the questions you need to be asking yourself when you look at an MBA program- why you want to do an MBA.
In Part 2, we will be completing the application part while looking at what does an MBA application process involve and what do b-schools look for.
You have to understand how the process works so this is an overview of how b-schools selecttheir students. B-school select for approximately about 6-8 months. So when does it start?
Pre- Application Process
(start as early as possible – i.e.today)
Steps to follow:
It starts with a pre-application process and that is nothing but the activities that you need to do in order to be ready for the application.
Following are the activities:
1. Take the GMAT
This is as simple as it can get. You have to take the GMAT to apply to most top b-schools. Be sure that you’re ready for the exam. Don’t take the exam 2 weeks before your deadline because let’s say, God forbid, something was to happen and you have to take the test again. It will not give you an opportunity to reschedule the test. Try to take it as early as possible.
2. Identify your recommenders
Apart from GMAT, you have recommendations. This is where you have the college requiring you to write in with the names of 2 people who have worked with you in a professional capacity. So make sure you’re able to get the recommenders in place. Identify, talk to them, tell them that you’re interested in an MBA, try to get a buy-in from them. A lot of times, just before the applications, I’ve seen a lot of applicants running here and there.
3. Get your college transcripts
Transcripts are nothing but mark sheets provided on a single page. You don’t need to worry about it in the end. Just apply for it- a lot of b-schools have an online procedure – you can apply using that.
4. Get an idea of the MBA programs you want to apply to
In the first part, we spoke about how to select the right program and the right b-school for your MBA.
Application Process (August- February)
Steps to follow:
1. Fill in the online application
Go to the college website, create a username and password. Provide all the details they ask you for- education, experience, extracurricular, co-curricular etc. Fill out all those details.
2. Send email link to recommenders
There will be a lead where you’ll have to give the email address of your recommenders, so the earlier days of giving a hardcopy letter are gone. It’s all through email. So the recommenders would have to give their email address and this email id cannot be [email protected] It has to be from the official email id.
3. Write your essays
You have to essentially fill in the essays that you’re writing.
4. Interview with the schools
If you’re selected after the first initial assessment, you might be called for an interview, so you go and take the interview.
Aug- Feb is when the actual deadline starts. The deadline means this is the time before which you need to apply. Usually, there will be 2 deadlines. For example, ISB typically has a deadline somewhere starting Sep end- Mid Nov. US schools have their deadlines in October & January, while some spill into February. Apply well before the deadline. If you already have all the required data with you by July, apply to one school in Oct, one in Nov, one in Dec. Try to spread because this is actually labor intensive work. You have to sit and write all the essays and it takes a lot of time. So, be careful on that part.
Post-Application Process (Admission to joining)
Steps to follow:
1. Figure out where you are going to get your finances from
Financial planning is very important and that’s a separate topic altogether that we would be covering in one of our later sessions.
2. Apply for VISA
In case the MBA is not in India, this is necessary.
3. Try connecting with people who are joining the same batch
A lot of times you’ll be able to get very valuable information from them. These are questions such as “What food items do I need to take? How are you getting your funding? Is there any pre-requisites?”
4. Take any pre-MBA courses as required
A lot of times b-schools may look at your transcripts and say “Hey, you seem to be a smart guy but you want to make sure that you are able to do well when you come over here. Why don’t you take this extra course on accounting or excel?”
Make sure you put a tick on these check boxes. This is essentially how the process works. Now we’ll quickly go through each part.
About Recommendation letters
Detailed and well written recommendations
Don’t bother too much about the title. A lot of people get fixated on the fact that they need to get it from a senior VP or MD of a company. It’s not true. You can get it from a project leader or project manager, but what is more important is that he can write well.
The biggest mistake that people do is they take is from people who are so high up the hierarchy that they really don’t have the time to write or they may not know you as well. So rather than getting a very short piece written by someone higher, I would rather have a pretty elaborate personal recommendation coming from someone who has worked with me professionally. Some people take it from their immediate reporting managers, some may even take it from a client. The cliental recommendation is also considered to be pretty good.
Authenticity is important
I’ve seen a lot of places where candidates have come and say that the recommender doesn’t have time and he wants the student to write something for him. My advice is please don’t do so. Ethics is obviously one part but the other part is also you’re really cheating the process- you’re not being true and if you’re going to get into a b-school without ethics then it’s probably going to have a large bearing on what you’re going to do post that. But also from a perspective that if you’re going to write your essays and if you’re going to write your own recommendations, trust me, anybody can see through. With my experience, I can just look at it and say, “Hey, this guy who wrote the recommendation is the same guy who ended up writing the essays.”
Provide relevant information
Make sure you “prep” them in advance by providing a copy of your CV, your application essays, as well as having a conversation with them around your motivation. Tell them why you’re looking at a particular b-school and what your opinion is. Get them involved in the process and get their buy-in for the whole MBA thing as early as possible.
It may be a good idea to provide the recommender with some inputs on your achievement over the period considered. Go with a sheet of paper with 10 things you did over the last one year so that they don’t have to rack their brains to think of your achievements. So you’re basically helping them.
Ask in advance
More importantly, try giving recommenders ample time. Remember that, you don’t just have to approach them for one school. You might have their recommendation required for multiple schools and also remember that they are not giving recommendations only for you. They might not tell you on your face but the fact is they have multiple people who they’re going to be working with.
About College Transcripts
In the US, the standard GPA is calculated out of 4. However, this is not true for most Indian schools, so make sure that you do not try to convert it to a 4-point GPA. Make sure that you are providing just the numbers that you have with you.
You will be surprised that a lot of these foreign b-schools have heard a lot about the Indian schools. They know how hard it is to get in, what IIT’s are, what NIT’s are, they know how hard it is to pass certain courses. They know the value of the transcripts. So, all of it is something you don’t need to worry about.
Finally, when you’re filling in your application, make sure you have the transcripts in advance. You have the transcripts and you know what needs to be done.
Each school requires you to fill in an online form which will contain a lot of detail about who you are- your education, experience etc.
Apart from this, you will also be writing various essays, which will assess your motivation to join a b-school. We will be looking at each specific essays in the slides later on.
Remember that all essays come with a word limit. Some of the schools have even a PowerPoint presentation. In fact, ISB this year is going to come up with a 90-second video. It is sacrosanct that you stick to the word limit. If it says 90 seconds for a video, make sure your video ends in 87 or 88 seconds.
Do not repeat information that is found elsewhere in your application. A lot of people make the mistake of repeating their resume. Think about it as valuable real estate. If you have 700 sq. ft. of land and you’re going to build a house, you’d probably want to optimize each square feet that you have available. The same applies for word limit- make sure you’re able to maximize it.
Be honest. It should come naturally to you but it’s very hard since we tend to google to see what other people have written and in that course, we end up plagiarizing. Write what you really think is what you want to tell. Don’t write what you think the Adcom wants to hear.
Most schools these days prefer an interview before they select you so be prepared for a personal interview.
They’re usually announced within a month of the application deadlines. Check your admissions person to be updated on this.
There are 2 types of interviews-one taken by the admission committee and the other taken by alumni. When you take it with the admissions committee, they know your background. They already have your essays and applications, so they know what needs to be asked – the questions are very overall in that sense. But it could be taken by an alumnus as well. In the case of an alumni interview, it is usually a blind interview. It means that your profile is not known to the person who is interviewing you. He hasn’t gone through your CV or your application, so he’s just going to meet you like a blind date.
A lot of interviews are conducted in person, especially for large schools. For example, if it’s an Indian school, you’d probably go down to Hyderabad for an ISB interview or Chennai for a Great Lakes interviews. But if it is going to be a foreign university, many times if you apply well in advance, the admission committee comes down for a lot of these MBA tours. So during that time, they may end up interviewing you or if nothing else, they may end up having an interview over phone or skype. Skype has come up as a preferred medium of connectivity.
Be prepared to be asked questions outside of your application. A lot of people tend to think of an interview as a quiz program. Like the guy is going to ask you 5 things you’ve written in your application. It’s not! It’s usually a very friendly conversation. You’ll be surprised to know that a lot of times the guy isn’t really checking what you’ve written. That’s where the Indian aspect comes in, where we think they are cross questioning what we want to do. But this person just wants to assess your personality. He wants to know about your communication, whether you’ll be able to gel well with a team, what are your rationale, what you’ve written in your application- is it a true reflection of who you are or did you just go to this MBA Application specialist and get your entire application written.
Overview of MBA Essays
So each school as I said, may require anywhere between 3-5 essays, and these essays are based on a variety of different things and schools have their own rationale. Now, what is it that these schools look for when they put the essays?
I would put it this way. Think of yourself as a person who is applying and you have a goal or reach. An MBA is basically a loop through which you’ll have to pass through. We’re looking at a person who can articulate his goals well. Where do you want to go and where are you now? It’s very important that you know your gifts and gaps and how an MBA will help.
If you’re able to answer these 4 questions, honestly, most MBA essays will be a lot easier.
In other words, what is your short term and long term goals and explain how an MBA will get you there? So be as specific as possible, especially with your short-term goals. A lot of people tend to write in generics. They say, “I’m in a technical role and I want to get into management.” That is not a good enough answer.
For you to make a transition from technical to management, you can as well take the PMP and become the project manager. MBA is more than that. So you have to be very specific. You have to tell what is the job title, what is the industry, what is your domain, what does a typical day in your life post-MBA look like? You’ve to be very precise when you’re giving the answer.
One great resource that you can use is LinkedIn. So if you’re looking at a b-school, try to see where are the graduates from this b-schools actually headed to, which industry do they go to. If your dream company is Procter & Gamble, the question to ask is “Is P&G actually hiring from these b-schools?” What is the career state of a person 3 years down the line in P&G after he’s graduated from this particular b-school? So these are questions that you need to answer. Alumni can be a great source. So you reach out, you ask them a nice question, they’ll be more than happy to answer that for you.
Don’t upsell or undersell. Don’t say you want to be a CEO 2 years after you graduate. That sounds kind of stupid and don’t say, “I want to become a project manager- that’s my career goal” That also sounds crappy because to become a project manager you don’t have to invest so much of time and money that an MBA requires you to do.
I’ve heard a lot of students say, “I don’t have the faintest clue what I want to do post-MBA. What do I do in that case? “My advice is you still need to know what you want to do- not just for the b-schools, but for yourself. But to justify the investment of time and money and energy that’s going to go into a 2 year MBA program or a one-year MBA program, you need to very clear where it is going to take you. So if you don’t have an idea, no problem. Sit, think and try to figure out answers to this.
This is something b-schools ask sometimes in a direct or indirect way. Why is it so important that you have to apply this year or this round? Why can’t you wait till next year? Or why didn’t you apply last year? You’ll have to show that your career is in a point of infection- the trajectory is at that exact precise moment where an MBA is going to catapult you to a far greater distance where if you had taken at a different point in your career, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s very important that you think about this.
What is it about you that makes you believe that you are best suited for an MBA? What is your academic potential? They look at your undergraduate school, your GPA, your GMAT. There is very little that you can change over here, apart from your GMAT scores, but the fact is if you’re from IIT Delhi, 9.5 GPA, computer science, obviously it’s going to be a lot better than going to a mid-tier or a lower rank school in India and scoring 40 or 50%.
But GMAT is definitely a great equalizer. One objective measure by which all b-schools know who you are and where you stand. The other thing that b-schools understand is that one or two years that you actually spend in a b-school does not magically transform you into a leader. It’s going to make you understand leadership better. But you have to be a leader within.
Which is why they look at certain traits of leadership potential. So they look at your career progression. If you think about it, career progression is a great way to see if you have the leadership potential because the organisation that you worked with- they are the people that see you day in and day out, knowing whether you are doing well, whether you are lacking in some areas, constantly giving you feedback, seeing if you have improved and if you have, give you greater roles and responsibilities which usually lead to larger titles which in turn leads to promotion.
A promotion will come only when you have a certain amount of leadership to take up the next challenge. The other way in which they see leadership is also extracurriculars. So why is extracurriculars important for leadership? Because a leader is just not a person who is going to be stuck in a 9-5 job, come back home, watch TV and go to bed. A leader is someone who usually has more interests than just work. It could be anything. As long as you’re able to show that you’ve been able to constructively utilize your time. That’s all you need when it comes to extracurriculars.
One misconception that students seem to have is the whole deal about NGO work. The origin of this myth is probably from the US because in the US, culturally it is accepted that you do NGO work. It’s a lot easier to do it in the US. So if you’re going to show how I spent my spare time constructively, a lot of these guys who went to top b-schools showed NGO work. However, in India, it’s okay not to show NGO work.
It’s okay if you’re going to say that on weekends you were working on a start-up idea or you were busy practicing with your band or busy biking across Nandi hills. Whatever your passion is, they just look at some way in which you have constructively channelized your passion. According to them, that is leadership. It is not necessarily working for an NGO.
The third thing they look at is the kind of work that you’ve done – how much of it is cross-cultural, how much of it is cross-functional. So, one misconception that again has come is the fact that if you’re in IT, you are actually disadvantageous. There are more people applying from the IT pool than from probably any other pool, especially in India. However, within the school also, they look at the quality of work that you’ve done. So if you’ve worked in a large company, they want to see if you actually took the initiative and did something which actually cut across.
Were you an individual contributor? Were you a guy who was sitting alone a corner cubicle or were you a person who actually interacted and knew the functions of other departments? Were you a person who groomed this innate managerial leadership quality within yourself? Did you work with people outside India? If you’ve had the opportunity to travel outside India, that is taken as a big positive because they then know that this person has cross-cultural experiences. He knows how Europeans work or how Americans work. So that’s seen as a great plus in today’s global environment.
Finally, a marketing term, which is called unique selling proposition. So all this being equal, what is it that unique quality that you bring to the table? This is where students tend to struggle or they’re not able to articulate their USP. My advice is to go and talk to your friends, talk to people who know you well and ask them, “What is that one adjective which really makes me who I am?” So it could be, for example, Arun the helper- a guy who helps everyone. In which case you need to go back and look at your profile and say, “Can I bring that as a theme? Can I tie that back to why I want to do an MBA?’ Or if someone says- Amit the Analytical guy, the guy who can reduce everything to metrics and numbers.
These are things which you really need to introspect. These are not things which will come to you immediately. So you need to put in a lot of effort, trying to find the answers. But the sooner that you do it, the easier it will be for you. In fact, my suggestion is to ask yourself these questions even before you take the GMAT.
Probably this is one question that you wait for after you take the GMAT- why do you want to apply to this particular school? What is your motivation to apply to the school? Again, one mistake that a lot of students do is they write this clichéd statements saying- “You have world-class infrastructure.” Frankly, what does world class infrastructure mean? Do you want to say they have a broadband internet or air conditioned libraries? Mostly all schools these days have these. So you have to be very clear because think about it, what will you say for Stanford that you cannot say for MIT?
Whatever statement you can say for Stanford, I can challenge you that you can probably say that for MIT as well. It’s very hard, but you have to go in-depth, talk to students, try to gauge what is the culture and the unique things that the school has to offer. Try to see if it fits in with your own perspective of what you want out of a b-school. It’s very important that you do the research and very important that you articulate it.
There was a question asked in on the Berkeley essays- What have you done to know more about our school in the past one year? Frankly, if you’re going to be writing this application 3 weeks before the deadline, there’s no way you’re going to escape this question. What would you say? That you watched YouTube videos or that you googled for them? Because it’s asking you what you did in the whole year. So this is a dead-end question. You really cannot fake your way through this question.
Other interesting questions from Stanford GSB included-
What do you value most in life and why?
This is a long-running question since many years and sometimes it can be very hard to answer it.
Kellogg asks- Tell us something about you that would surprise us. The common retort that I have from students is, “I could tell them stuff that could not surprise, but shock them. I want to surprise them and not shock them.” The interesting thing is Kellogg asks you this question after almost 4 or 5 questions when you have exhausted everything you have to say about yourself.
My advice is to think through the b-school application; think through what you have to offer to b-schools. It’s very important that you start this process even before you take the GMAT.
Did that clear all your doubts about the applications process? Leave your comments below!