Originally published in Hindustan Times Education
Most MBA applicants assume the best way to get into competitive business schools is by showcasing all of their work-related achievements. While this is true, its what you have done beyond the workplace that often makes the difference between finding yourself on a flight to start your MBA abroad and finding yourself back at the office for another year.
First things first: If you are applying to MBA programs now you should have taken your GMAT exam. The test is required by most global MBA programs. It is administered by the Graduate Management Admissions Council. You can find out more and register for a test date at www.mba.com. The test is administered on-demand and you get your results immediately.
Second, you should request letters of recommendation from your supervisors and senior colleagues right away. The importance of choosing the right recommenders for business school applications cannot be overstated. MBA admissions committee put a lot of weight in these assessments so a lukewarm endorsement of your candidacy can sink you before you are even in the water. Similarly, a recommendation from someone who barely knows you is a kiss of death. So while you may be tempted to ask your Uncle’s friend who is the head of the RBI to write a letter because he is a big shot, chances are he has never worked with you on a project and cannot speak to your loyalty, leadership and analytical skills. Find recommenders who have worked with you closely, understand your goals and are willing to craft an endorsement that is consistent with your self-presentation in essays.
When it comes to the essays, give yourself a lot of time to be reflective and find interesting stories that showcase your skills and character and that you can present as an engaging narrative. I find that applicants have a really hard time introspecting about their achievements, challenges and goals in essays. You need to have solid answers these questions and they need to be consistent with what your recommenders are saying about you. One client we worked with was so stuck on finding a non-work related achievement that we spent hours digging through his background and finally found a compelling story about his determination to purchase a home and how he made it happen. This story could be common, but he framed it as something that demonstrated discipline and focus. You really have to think outside the box to make yourself stand out.
On the topic of standing out, you should have prepared over the past few years and engaged in something that makes you different from all the rest. Admissions committees regularly report that Indian applicants all have the same look and feel – e.g . Engineer turned banker wants to go into private equity post MBA. While you can’t change who you are educationally and professionally, make sure you are doing something outside the office that showcases other dimensions of your personality. Essentially, all work and no play makes you DULL. Leadership and passion are two things you need to demonstrate to business schools, and you can do that either at work or outside.
As you research and decide on Business School programs leverage any contacts you have with alumni or administration and attend the information sessions near you. Build a relationship with people you meet and remember to thank them! I regularly send clients to contacts of mine who give alumni or industry advice and I am surprised how many do not have the common courtesy to simply say ‘thank you for you time’. Besides good manners, if the person you met with has any influence you wouldn’t want to be remembered as the ungrateful candidate.
Go deep in your research preparation so you can say something unique about the university/professor/course.
Finally remember that MBA admissions are incredibly competitive. And worse the acceptance rate for Indian and Chinese applicants can be less than half-that of the published, general pool acceptance rate (e.g. published acceptance rate is 10%, but Indian and Chinese is 2% of applicants). So make sure this is an endeavor where you want to put significant time and money over a three to six month period.