To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the fifth—will provide a year-by-year guide to what you should be doing and thinking about in building the sort of rÉsumÉ and skill set that will be attractive to MBA admissions committees.
By the end of Year One, you had launched your career and found a mentor. In Year Two, you began taking on more responsibility at the office and in your extracurricular activities. Year Three brought a promotion or a move to another company. You made your mark on the job and started preparing for the application process in Year Four. Now, your life is about to completely change. You're ready to actually apply to graduate business school and become a student again. This year will fly by, so let's get to work:
Aspiring MBAs, who have one foot out the door of their office during the application season, tend to catch senioritis, a disease that grips folks leaving their jobs, as well as kids graduating from high school and college, and has them doing little to nothing in their final weeks. Don't be among the ill. This is a great time to make yourself invaluable, says Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. "You don't want to put yourself in the position where you burn any bridges before going to business school," she says.
Even if you probably won't return to the company where you're working now, you still want to keep your options open, and to do that you must continue to give it your all on the job. Lengthy assignments that might not get completed before you leave for business school are less than ideal and should be avoided if possible. But smaller projects, as well as work that has you testing the waters of functions that might interest you in your post-MBA career, are worth taking on, says James Frick, director of admissions, operations, and recruiting at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business. Besides keeping you in the good graces of your employer (who probably is writing a recommendation for you), these assignments can help you weed out post-MBA career goals you may not be suitable for or interested in, and provide fodder for application essays and interviews.
On your way out of the office, you should also make it clear that you're going to business school to expand your skill set and not because of dissatisfaction with your job (even if that's the real reason you're leaving), says Mae Jennifer Shores, assistant dean of MBA admissions and financial Aid at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
In Year Five, you also have to reflect on what you've accomplished in your career so far. Besides keeping a leadership journal and evaluating how far you've come, both of which are recommendations from Year Four, you should also determine quantified outcomes of projects, suggests Dan Bauer, founder and managing director of The MBA Exchange, which is headquartered in Chicago but provides consulting services for MBA applicants around the world. Both you and your recommenders will want to point to numbers, such as process improvements or sales growth.
Still, not everyone is seeing roses and rainbows at work these days. Applicants who think they might get laid off or already have been laid off because of financial woes don't have to run and hide from the admissions committee. "It's the reality of our economy right now," says Hargrove. If you're out of work in Year Five, you might consider taking on volunteer or freelance opportunities to hold you over until entering business school. Just be sure to tell the admissions committee what you've done with this additional time, what you're learning about yourself, how you made a difference despite losing your job, and how the school and the MBA will help you.
Ultimately, you are looking to gain closure at work in this final year before entering graduate business school. For starters, you should make yourself accessible for questions after you leave, says Shores. You'll want to wrap up projects, tie up any loose ends, pass things off to others who will be taking on your work, communicate your plans to colleagues, supervisors, and clients, create ways to stay in communication with those you'll be leaving behind, and say good-bye at least for now.
MAKE NEW FRIENDS
Saying good-bye at work does not mean the end of your relationship with your colleagues. A wise, aspiring MBA knows that you don't just throw away business contacts. You should devise a plan for keeping in touch with your mentors, those you are mentoring, and other important colleagues and clients while you're at business school. You might send out an e-mail once a month or keep a Linked In or Facebook page.
Your network will be the first place you turn when looking for recommenders for the applications. At this point, you can flat out ask all your recommenders—even employers who you might have waited to tell about your B-school plans because they would know your departure was imminent. Pay attention to their response, warns Bauer. If the person says no or offers a lukewarm yes, you should consider someone else, he says. "If he or she doesn't give you the warm feeling that you can count on this person to write about your wonderfulness, then you have time to cultivate a new recommender," adds Bauer. Giving your recommenders an overview of what you've accomplished and reminding them of your contributions and goals and their feedback is a must that will be appreciated, says Hargrove.
Once you have a short list of business schools that you'd like to attend, then you can start to expand your network even more. You should reach out to the schools and ask to be put in touch with alumni in the industries that interest you for your post-MBA career, suggests Frick. Head online to find business school forums with other applicants, current students, and alumni who can answer your questions about the schools that interest you. Bauer suggests reaching out to people you already know in the regions where you might attend business school to get a feel for the community and to feel less alone when you first arrive. He adds that applicants with significant others or spouses might get in touch with the presidents of the partners' groups at the campuses on their short list to inquire about the social network and opportunities for their families.
As you take this next step, you'll be leaving behind some loved ones. Bauer suggests reaching out to family and friends where you are living now to prepare them for what's coming. "You'll be vapor once [the application process] is over," says Bauer. Let them know that you have some seriously hard work ahead of you and that you might not be able to get in touch as often as you'd like, but it doesn't mean that you're not thinking of them.
Throughout this series, you have heard from admissions committee members and admissions consultants who have told you to get involved and be active in at least one organization or hobby about which you are truly passionate—and to stick with it. Some of you have taken this advice and are organizing food drives, building homes for the less fortunate, performing in a band, or helping to clean the parks in your community. Kudos to you. Be sure to mention all this—and demonstrations of your leadership in these activities—on your application.
Others, however, might not have taken this advice. Although admissions committee members admit that people who sign up for community service or other extracurricular groups six months to a year before applying to business school seem like half-hearted, just-in-time participants, they also say that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. "We want students who want to change the world," says Hargrove.
You could always get involved in community-service opportunities at work. Many offices have a community-service day or some sort of fund-raising drive in which employees can participate, says Frick. He adds that you could even take the initiative to start something of that sort at work yourself, especially if working long hours is among the reasons you haven't gotten involved already.
Having activities outside of work under your belt is just one way to show that you are well-rounded. Shores says that she is looking to see that candidates have a broad perspective of the world and get along well with others. If their activities can't show her this, then she will look to the applicant's letters of recommendation, essays, and undergraduate studies (a nontraditional major or a few electives in the arts, for example) to reveal how they view the world and what they are interested in beyond business.
This is the year that you will complete your business school applications. One of the first goals on your agenda should be to demonstrate why you are a good "fit" for each of the B-schools on your short list. To do so, you should visit the campuses. "Essays become more robust and sincere when you talk about what you saw and who you met, rather than what you've read," says Bauer. Some experts suggest visiting campuses in the spring, rather than the fall, because there are fewer applicants on campus then, and you can get more face time and attention with everyone.
Still, if it is impossible for you to visit the school, you must immerse yourself in the online community for that school, know its Web site inside and out, and talk to current students, alumni, faculty, and administrators. Your main goal, with or without a visit, should be to become an insider at your top-choice schools, says Bauer. To do this, he suggests also setting up Google Alerts for the schools that interest you most, so you never miss the latest news on campus, and reading student and alumni newsletters and other publications regularly.
Another component of articulating fit is knowing exactly what you want to do and how the MBA and a particular school's program will help you do it. By now, you should have completed your soul-searching and have some sort of career path in mind that you can outline in your essays and interviews. "Business school is not the place to find yourself," says Hargrove. "You have to come in with a plan." Although many students are career changers, you have to enter the program with a pretty firm idea of what you want to do after graduation, because of the pace of the job-search process, which will begin in the fall of your first year. You don't want to get left in the dust by your classmates, which could end up intimidating you and putting you behind in your post-MBA life.
Once you've visited a school and know it well and you have a career path in mind, you can start thinking about your essays and interview. This is probably the most important part of the application, say admissions consultants. "You're entering into a lifelong partnership," says Frick. He suggests writing a summary of what brought you to the application process in the first place, what you value, what you want to do with your life, the skills you need to accomplish that goal, and how this program and the MBA will help you.
One warning as you sit down to complete your application: "Avoid a lot of what you hear on the street," says Shores, who adds that you should stick with the advice you get from admissions consultants about the application. Her main reason, she says, is that sometimes alumni and students don't really grasp the process that the committee goes through to choose and create a class. Therefore, they can't really give you tips you can use. There's no set profile, she adds. "Be genuine, authentic, and let us get to know you as an individual," she says. By now, you should know who you are and what you want (more or less), so it shouldn't be hard to let that shine through in your application.
If you're still dissatisified with your GMAT scores, now would be the time to retake the test. To give yourself an edge, consider one of the many test-prep services that specialize in the GMAT, such as Kaplan, Manhattan GMAT, or Princeton Review. But be warned: they can be pricey—more than $1,000 in some cases. If you're considering an admissions consultant, you should make decisions about whether to use one early on, so you are getting your money's worth, says Bauer. If you wait until the last minute, you may be competing with others for time with your consultant. Also, think about what the schools to which you are applying would say about you having an admissions consultant before deciding. No schools ban them, but some—including Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford—have been openly critical in the past.
Another suggestion that Bauer has for clients is to conduct a background check on themselves. Schools will use online services and research to find out about your past. He says some online companies will do this for you for less than $100, so you can see what the schools will see before they see it. The best place for an MBA applicant to go, writes Bauer, is the member directory of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS). Then, when schools ask about indiscretions, you'll be prepared to explain that driving violation from freshman year, he says. You might not even remember some of the things that can come up in these checks, so it's best to be prepared.
Finally, take a step back, suggests Frick, and put yourself in the shoes of the admissions committees at the schools to which you are applying. What will they see as your perceived weaknesses? How can you help them understand those weaknesses and how you are overcoming them? Explain all of this in the application and elaborate if it comes up in the interview. Use the optional essay. "It's optional in name only," says Frick.
LIVE ON A BUDGET
You should have been saving money and starting to live like a student again all along. As you're applying to business school, you should decide about whether you're going to sell your home or if you will need your car at school. Bauer says that these kinds of things are important decisions because they will be factored into your financial aid packages. He also tells his clients to increase credit lines while they're still fully employed because it will be harder to get credit once you are back at school.
Creating a two-year budget, based on being without an income, is a great idea, says Frick. He adds that along with your budget, you should make it a priority to help your partner (if you have one) find a job and to learn about other ways you can make money while studying full-time. He says that students can serve as teaching assistants or give admissions tours to help offset the cost of their studies. Every little bit helps.
BY THE END OF YEAR FIVE…
You should have:
Wrapped things up at work in a way that leaves you in the good graces of your former employer
Become an insider at the MBA programs at the top of your list
Come up with a clear-cut career path to share with the admissions committees
Addressed your weaknesses as an applicant in the application
Found a way to explain why you're a good fit for the schools on your short list and completed your applications
Started to live—and feel—like a student again. The MBA is, after all, just around the corner
Di Meglio is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in Fort Lee, N.J.