Axolotl: Finding Your MBA Application Support System

AxolotlI count my blessings that I finished taking the GMAT years ago. In fact, for some programs this will be my last year of eligibility. Perhaps someday the adcoms will do away with standardized testing altogether (and in the process destroy the GMAT testing cottage industries), but for now I’m breathing a sigh of relief that I have one fewer thing to worry about compared to some of my peers struggling to balance GMAT, essays, research, extracurriculars, and, of course, their day jobs.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned to date, it’s that b-school applications are a second job. Expect to have late nights, weekends, and vacations blown up by thinking and iterating through essays and structuring the application. As someone who travels a lot for work, I’ve taken to committing airplane time to refining essay concepts.

But there are two outlets I’ve discovered to help navigate essay-writing, not including the most obvious and essential, Kyn, my Admissionado consultant. Often the essay is as much about self-reflection as it is about laundry listing accomplishments and goals, and to do that it becomes essential to employ people who might know you better than you know yourself:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Recommenders

I’ll start with family who should be an essential piece of any application essay. Your parents, siblings, and relatives have likely known you from a young age and can speak to the strengths and weaknesses of your personality, in addition to highlighting what they would consider the essence of your being. If you have an idea for an essay, sell them on it. I’ve found my mother to be exceptionally insightful (and incisive) about who I am. And while it may not be the easiest thing to hear a candid account of yourself, it’s almost always constructive.

Friends, on the other hand, are a great intellectual sounding board for specific ideas, structures, and copy edits. I find that consulting the peanut gallery of friends is a dangerous game. They are more than willing to provide constructive criticism, but it can often turn into a debate about what you should write, rather than guidance. It’s often easier to offer suggestions than produce material, so the way I’ve used my friends is–and I emphasize this–NOT to ask them for advice on whether they think it’s a “good essay,” but to ask them if it’s reflective of who you are. Unless your friends have applied to business school, and specifically the school you’re also applying to, their input is best reserved for either very high level conceptual testing–“does this sound like me? In your experience, is this something I’ve shown interest in?”–or technical detail, i.e. grammar checking.

Recommenders are also essential resources, not only to round out the application by pairing their perspective with their own, but as great sounding boards for your future career plans and aspirations. They more than anyone else will know you in a professional sense and are best equipped to tell you whether they’re convinced you are who you claim you are.

And finally don’t disregard your own perspective. If you look at an essay or even more broadly an application process and feel uninspired, that’s a strong signal. If one school’s essay prompt intrigues and inspires you and another makes you think, “God this is going to suck,” that’s by design. Schools are forcing a measure of self selection. Similarly, if you stare and stare and stare some more at one of your essay concepts and bang out a few poorly constructed sentences, that’s a sign. That’s not to say every essay that doesn’t flow like water out of your pen (or keyboard) should be scrapped, but keep in mind the application process is supposed to be self-reflective. If you don’t love it, it’s probably not the right thing to write about.

When not ruining his free time with MBA applications, Axolotl’s a Finance guy looking for an MBA to make some moves in the Private Equity/Venture Capital world. He’s documenting his MBA application experience every other week – the ups, the downs, the meltdowns, the life lessons…. Follow his journey  here

Episode 1 – Preparing to Apply