The earlier you start, the better off you'll be. Need we say more? (Sigh) Fine then. Read on, friends. There's much to cover.
You’re considering an MBA. It’s never too early to plan for the application (in fact, we insist that you plan as early as possible).
Maybe you’re in college. Maybe you’re a few years out of college. For this particular piece, let’s assume that your actual business school applications are still a ways off––a few years out, say. And you’re wondering, “is there anything I should start doing today”?
Uhh, yeah dude.
And if you’re asking this, it means you’re a planner. A thinker. A what-needs-doing and let’s-make-a-plan-to-get-it-done type. “I like you, kid.” (That, obviously, is a direct quote from the animated classic “Antz.”)
Before we talk about what you should do, it’s in your best interest to get a handle on why. Once you understand the context, the actual stuff you’ll need will make a whole lot more sense. So, start here, then when you’re done come back.
Now that you have a sense of what business schools are looking for and why, we can think about making the most of the road between us today and our eventual applications. However long that runway, whether eight months or four years, there is plenty of juice at the end of this squeeze.
What to do when you’re years away from applying
This section, we’ll go over 5 things to do when you are years away from applying. Maybe you’re in college or just finished college? Heck, maybe you’re even in high school (if so, kudos to you for thinking this far ahead). What you need to know is that these years, you’ll want to focus on building a strong foundation for when you apply. If you’re past this stage and you’re about to apply within the next year, you can skip to the next section.
1. Earn Some Decent “Comparative” Wins
Zoom ahead to when you’re going through the MBA application process. Take a look at business school requirements when applying to see the areas you need to shine in. There are four major occasions when ‘comparatives’ will be your best friend:
- Letters of Recommendation
- Your MBA Application Resume
- Your Essays
- Your Interviews (if you get offered one)
If one of the features of your work history is that ‘compared to other peers in your role’, your performance was somehow better, or your promotion speed was faster, it will be very powerful. It’s one thing for you to sport something impressive on its own, but if in addition to that, you’re able to say, oh and also I’m in the top 99% percentile of those who have done this job before me, or are doing it alongside me right now… it’s a very compelling feather in your cap. It’s a ‘prover.’ And a great one.
With that in mind, consider your current role and position and job responsibilities. Do you have a really good (and honest) understanding of what a top performer does in your exact role? If you’re content just being competent, that’s perfectly okay (and probably many would envy your blood pressure and stress levels!). If, however, you’re gunning for the top business schools, it’s incumbent on you to open your mind, and be genuinely curious and well-informed about what really top performers look like, and do, and to understand what makes them exceptional. Once you have that sense, now you have something to aim for. Or, hell, surge past. If it’s a nebulous, abstract thing, make it concrete. Talk to mentors, talk to your supervisor, talk to smart friends. They’ll receive your desire to stretch and provide (hopefully useful) feedback around what things you can do that would put you in that ‘top performer’ category, and then some. Make this a habit? And years down the road you’ll be talking about all your superlative wins in the past tense…
2. Get the Correct “Real World” Experience that Matters
Did you just say “get experience”? Sort of, except, we would never say something so laughably obvious and stupid. We’ll make horrendous puns and outdated movie references with the best of ’em, but we’ll never say observably dumb stuff.
Let’s flash forward again to your apps. You’re going to make the case that you have specific goals, and that you need an MBA to help you achieve those goals, and that you are credible with respect to those goals because of your relevant work experience history. What exactly makes you credible? The title? Working at the right company? A certain role? A certain set of achievements? It can be many of those, but let’s dig deeper and get a sense of what’s actually going on at the core of it all.
Those things listed above are all markers. They can suggest several things, but by themselves, they are meaningless. Just because you have “BCG” on your resume, doesn’t mean you automatically have the chops to do much of anything. It might mean that you are pound-for-pound more likely to have that sharp consultant brain than the next guy over who does NOT have “BCG” on his resume, but it’s not determinative. Ya feel? The thing it’s meant to suggest, that’s what you need to get a sense of. What is BCG “code” for here? For argument’s sake, let’s say it’s something like:
- Sharp, analytical mind
- Can divine solutions to complex problems faster and more effective than others
- Can survive in a cutthroat up-or-out, pressure cooker environment
If you walk away with anything, it should be to realize that BCG (here) implies the potential for those three things, but at the end of the day, for our purposes, when you’re developing a sense of skills to develop, you’ll want those bullets, NOT a mandate to “get a job at BCG.” See the difference? What if you work at another consulting firm? Can’t still excel along those three dimensions? Yes you can. (First Antz, then Barack. Ish. We’re on a roll.)
If you understand the root of what kind of experience you need, you’ll be able to approach your job and role with a new kind of intentionality. You’ll push yourself in a certain way, you’ll solicit specific feedback with those bullets in mind, you’ll make improvements that will actually matter on your apps.
As always, there’s the word(s), and there’s the deeper meaning behind the word(s). Travel sure, but don’t just get bronzed by the beach in The Bahamas. I mean, do that also if you want I guess? And if you need book recommendations, hit us up.
But like… travel travel. Put differently: seek experiences outside of ‘wherever you are’; not just to tick a box, but hopefully this scratches an itch to see something different, understand another perspective, understand your own circumstances differently when viewed through the prism of an outside eye, that kind of stuff.
Business schools love seekers. Explorers. Curious Georges and Georginas. (Shut up.) But we’ll say it again: don’t just be a box ticker and say I’ve been to Brussels, Kyoto, Paris, and Tel Aviv. I’m an explorer. Remember that stuff above about how “BCG” is just a marker? So, too, are “countries” or “cities” you’ve physically visited. Being an explorer comes through once we get a sense of why you visited these places, what you saw, what you learned, how these experiences propelled you toward new experiences, or away from others. Let your travels be the starting point for your claim that you’re an explorer. But then… have the experiences to draw on to actually live up to that claim.
International perspective is a meaningful trait for business school admissions. So, if you’re waffling between traveling somewhere cool versus not, go boldly forward, and notch those experiences, for the right reasons. It’ll potentially add the kind of texture to your application case that helps give you an important edge.
4. Volunteer or Commit to Community Service
There are two types of people who ‘give back.’ Well, three. There are some (1) who have no desire to be in the business world whatsoever, (2) who do all sorts of volunteer work and who have long track records of community service. Let’s forget about them here. Then there are (3) box-tickers: the ones who “read somewhere” that it’s important to have done these things, so then, without any sincerity, “do the things that give them––they think––a box with a check in it.” Wrong. You can always tell. And when we can tell, it’s a real turn off. Because it’s insulting. “You think I can’t see who you really are, and that your supposed volunteer effort here is a bogus attempt and fooling me into thinking….” and so on. We will turn against you. Don’t be that guy.
Then there are the folks who do have a desire to be in business school, have the skills and chops, but also have an “it’s not all about me” driving spirit, and somehow the time to feed this impulse. You know that expression, “if you want something done, ask a busy person”? (Antz, Obama-adjacent, and now Benjamin Franklin––what WILL they think of next.) In addition to being a by-itself wonderful trait (who the hell doesn’t love selflessness and the betterment of people other than themselves), it’s also a signal that this is a highly efficient, organized, sincere person who is that much more likely to be “the kind of person who gets things done, always.”
If you’re cultivating a pre-existing interest or passion, great! If you’re starting something new, also great! Our advice? Pick something you genuinely care about, and do something in that arena with the passion of a saint, but the ferocity of a business mercenary. The combination of those two things can actually be wonderful. Plan stuff, execute, push, persist, and above all else, actually do something. Prove to yourself that you’re ‘effective’ and can ‘follow through’ and do something awesome for others at the same time.
5. Go Long on Some Hobbies (aka enjoy life a lil)
What a strange and bizarre piece of advice. “Learn how to knit” or whatever. Whatever your hobby jam is (culinary arts, or music, or art, or athletics, or running marathons, or spelunking) the key isn’t what you do, but rather, that you do something other than “the stuff everyone else does” (aka work and take GMATs and talk about ‘the market’). This opportunity for something outside of all that is your golden ticket to asserting yourself as not just an individual, but an individual we actually want to meet, and learn more about. You can do that JUST by either developing a cool hobby (or hobbies), or by becoming a real master of even just one. Instant conversation starter.
I remember a former client who parlayed a Wake Forest undergrad and basically sailed his way to HBS, and I still remember the essay where he talked about not being happy with the gin & tonics he was drinking, so he decided to learn how to make his own tonic. This wasn’t ‘his thing’ it was just… a thing he decided to do. And it became a part of a larger narrative that gelled almost instantly: “ah, this is the kind of guy who gets an idea, thinks about a neat way to solve it, and then solves it.” No surprise that HBS said come hither. But so, tonic water. You get the idea, it can be anything. The key is that it is a sincere extension of something that lures you, that makes you happy, and that tells us something about you.
This is so frickin important and underrated. Once your applications make it to the interview phrase, there’s a nuclear reset, and likability becomes huge. Hobbies can be not just a conversation starter, but can also help fill in that ever-present question “who IS this cat”? And provide some clues. The ABSENCE of hobbies can have the opposite effect. Wait, I see all these amazing achievements and luminary schools and companies but… is this person interesting in any way? Or just a lump of mashed potatoes who just does work competently and that’s all. Yawn. It doesn’t effervesce. And again to get all practical, in the business world, the big movers and shakers actually like… interact with each other and need personalities. So it’s not just window dressing, it matters in a real practical sense. This is where your likability at application time connects to that gamble they’re making on whether you’re going to be a cool fixture in a company, and someone with the charm to entice international trade partners and whatnot.
What to do before starting your MBA application
If you’re planning to apply to business school within the next 12 months, we still have a lot to do beforehand. You’re about to embark on an exciting, nerve-wracking, life-changing journal so hold on tight. Before we get too deep in the various components of the actual application, there are some steps you need to take before you start opening application accounts and writing essays.
1. Understand Your Value Proposition
The value proposition angle addresses the ‘why should we care’ aspect. This is the part where you create a ‘deficit’ in the mindset of the business school: (1) a class with you as a member compared to (2) a class without you. The delta between these two should be something that makes the business school say “we want this kid because his inclusion in our class will confer X benefit. We want that.”
What is that benefit? Enter: your value proposition. What is it that you bring to the table, that someone should care about? Remember what motivates business schools: your financial success and therefore their financial success, and/or ‘loud, visible’ success that translates to brand burnishment for them. You can convey this in two ways: (1) By articulating how exactly you’ll add value to a business school cohort. Think about it. Why is someone else at your program better off with you in it? And (2) why ‘the business world’ is better with you succeeding at whatever you’re setting your mind to. Can you make it so that a business school will want to be a part of that story? That’s what happens when your value proposition is clear, and enticing.
Starting early and figuring this out gives you a key opportunity to use the upcoming months to build or strengthen the credentials that will support your arguments. Are you a McKinsey consultant who dreams of starting a public health NGO in India? Well, sign up for a consulting engagement in public health, or in India… or volunteer at a public health NGO on the weekends. Are you a hardware engineer at Dell who dreams of one day heading the Strategy group? Seek out projects and people at your firm that can teach you about the strategic management side of the business. Do whatever you need to do to make your value proposition argument credible.
2. Identify Potential Recommenders
We’ve been doing this for decades (hush now, we’re still young at heart), and we have former M7 admissions directors on our team who confirm what we’ve known intuitively and anecdotally for years: letters of recommendation matter a lot. Great ones can seal the deal. And middling ones can kill you (when your otherwise equally-matched competitors are sporting stellar recs).
Picking the right recommenders is therefore a decision you should not take lightly. More likely than not, your recommenders may be ridiculously busy with a lot on their plate. Step 1: Give your recommenders time. The worst thing you can possibly do is ask someone who would have written you a killer recommendation at a time when they’re pinched. It can backfire. Now, if your recommenders are the types who will never write it themselves (international applicants face this a lot) and ask you to write it and they’ll sign off on it, don’t just do it that way. (Talk to us first, and for the love of God don’t just do it that way.) There are strategies for how to navigate this.
With a little time and foresight, you can have some passionate folks advocating on your behalf.
3. Think About What Makes You Diverse
Hot topic, this. Spoiler Alert: Diversity here doesn’t just mean skin color. Or religion. Or geography. Think of those things as markers for something else. We’ll come back to what that is. Let’s first consider what’s important to a business school, and what makes for a strong cohort of matriculants.
From a business school’s perspective, they’re looking to throw a bunch of ‘chemicals’ into a mix, hoping for the most explosive reaction imaginable. They want the chemicals to interact and excite each other, and cause explosions. They want (the cool version of) volatility. Why? Because the right version of this turns individuals with good outcomes into individuals with great outcomes. How? Through surprise interactions with people who offer unusual or varied perspectives. Having trouble leading a team on an IT project? Sure, hear from the experience of a fellow classmate in your space who handled something similar and has an insight to share. But add to that the perspective of a military battalion commander whose experience in a totally different circumstance may yield wild insights for you. The more diverse the backgrounds and minds and perspectives, the more explosive the reactions. If everyone were ‘the same’ (no matter how gifted) it wouldn’t be nearly as additive. So, yay diversity.
Let’s circle back to a new understanding of diversity: the promise of a new and interesting perspective others have to offer. This is where you need to find out the ways in which YOUR perspective is unique. And this brings us back to one of our central tenets: it’s not the experience, but rather, how you experienced the experience. (Let that sink in, we’ll wait.) When you’re digging into your stories, if you focus on your specific experience of navigating a particular event, it will be, by definition, unique because only you could have experienced it that way. If, however, your focus is on the experience itself, focusing the attention on the things, the results, etc. then you end up with potentially generic sound bytes. Mastering this shift in perspective is part of why we recommend starting early because it can take some getting used to.
4. Crush the GMAT/GRE
Can we just get real for a sec? Yes, the score here is not as determinative as “the gaokao” in China. Yes, you can parley a 6-something GMAT into a world-class M7 admit. Yes, anything’s possible. But if your story is going to be as good as it can possibly be, why not lower your ‘risk’ by making your GMAT/GRE score as high as you can possibly make it? The last thing you want is to have everything else be rockstar stellar, but where your sluggish test scores force the admissions committees to question your ability to hang with the big guns to begin with. Why let their thoughts drift there, at all? That can be a death sentence you can easily avoid. So buck up, and raise your score. Do whatever you need to do, but make sure that when you show up on test day, you’re committing your best possible self. At that point, be at peace with where you’re at, and then go boldly forward with developing your story, and don’t sweat the score, once you’ve maxed it out.
5. Research Schools Smartly
This isn’t what you think. And your end goal here has nothing to do with improving your understanding of the schools themselves. I mean, if that happens, great? Who cares? But we have a better reason to offer you:
What you research about a school, and how you go about doing it, and then finally how you convey all of this in your essays can telegraph who you are as a person, and say a lot toward your Future Potential. The person who tends to succeed “at things in life, in general, at all” is rarely a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants type. More often than not, they are the ones who plan. And plot. And execute. If I can see that you are thoughtful and methodical about your approach to “everything you touch” it fills me with confidence that “you’re the kind of person who, in the business realm, will likely carry these habits over, and therefore will be more likely to succeed.” See how that works? Your school research can be another ‘prover’ of your Most Likely To Succeed superlative effort. With that in mind, let’s get practical.
- Visit Schools – A tall order for many, but if you can swing it, there is no substitute for getting a school into your pores through a physical visit. You’ll interact with students, and professors, and get visceral reactions from the experience itself. Capture all of those and then convey it by the way you write about it. It’s hard to argue with an emotional response.
- Network with Alums – Between now and when you click submit, there are plenty of ways you can leverage your own current network but also scour the internet (LinkedIn, Facebook, whatever) to reach out to alums, start conversations, collect insights, and make new connections. The act of doing so telegraphs desire and thoughtfulness. What is it you’re after here? Let it be about something meaningful to advancing your knowledge, rather than “just to be able to say I made contact with…” (that second version is dead on arrival). Determining what you’re after to occasion the outreach can take time to think through. Hey I have an idea! “Start early.”
There’s much more to say on the topic of what to do today in preparation for your eventual business school applications, but if we were to leave you with one unifying concept and thought, it would be to develop an understanding of what an ideal MBA candidate looks like—-and WHY. (It’s all about the
bass why.) Then work backwards to wherever your starting point is and start building. But, don’t just do it the way you would tee up a grocery list and go up and down the aisles just grabbing what you need and call it a day. You’ll want to really think about the why underneath it all. If you get that stuff to click, you’ll find that everything you touch will be more intentional, more sincere, and all of that will ring out when you ‘tell someone about it one day’ (i.e., on your applications).