Powering Your Application

Officials at The MBA Exchange, answering questions from MBA hopefuls, tell how to get into the program that's right for you

The MBA Exchange> is a Chicago-based educational-counseling firm that advises applicants to top B-schools. Launched in 1996, the organization's main goal is to help prospective students strategize in planning their education and careers. Dan Bauer (BauerDan), managing director, and Kimberly Raynor-Smith (RaynorSmith), senior admissions consultant, of The MBA Exchange recently fielded questions from audience members, BusinessWeek Online Consulting Editor Jack Dierdorff (BWJack), and reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW). An edited transcript follows:

captainbbls: I'm still at the earliest stages of applying. What are the most important factors one should consider when choosing a business school?

RaynorSmith: There are numerous factors. Look at your background and where you'd like to go in the long and short term, as well as what you hope to get out of business school. Once you've narrowed that down, try to figure out what school is going to help you get there. Visit the campus, and talk to alumni and current students to get a feel for the place.

BauerDan: Some of the early criteria that you should consider would be the international vs. national vs. regional focus of the school. Other factors would be the size of the program, as well as the industries that tend to recruit heavily or to ignore a particular school. As Kimberly said, this requires some sense of where you want to be post-MBA.

nlele: Can you provide some suggestions on how to tackle the "Why XYZ institution?" part of the application?

BauerDan: The main thing to keep in mind when answering this question is that all applicants have access to the same basic data on the school. So, the uniqueness of your response comes from linking your background and your goals with what that particular school has to offer. Merely cutting and pasting from the Web site is not going to do it.

Those schools that give feedback to rejected applicants typically cite a failure to convince the admissions committee of the fit between school and applicant as a reason for rejection. Be sure that you're answering this question from both the head and the heart.

FrancescaBW: I have a question from someone who was not able to join us.

Is it bad to present different aspects of a candidate's personality in one application essay?

RaynorSmith: I think that it's good to present a balanced candidacy by talking about multiple sides of your personality, which would include leadership and personal diversity.

FrancescaBW: What advice do you have for prospective students on writing the all-important application essay?

BauerDan: Obviously, the essays represent your first and best chance to make a positive impression before you're even invited to sit down with an admissions officer. Probably the first choice is to avoid using your essay as a "narrative résumé." The reader is probably tired and busy, and thus needs some motivation to drill down into your story.

Only by being revealing and comprehensive, and keeping their perspective in mind with everything you write can you capitalize on every opportunity. Again, write from the head and heart.

BWJack: Here are two similar questions.

TNaughton: I'm 32 years old. How much is age a factor when B-schools look at an applicant?

vivekkarol: I am 33 now, and will be almost 34 if I get in next year. Does that matter?

BWJack: Also, are any schools especially favorable to older candidates?

BauerDan: Actually, age can be turned into an advantage, as long as you can convey to the admissions committee how the additional experience and maturity are going to be assets to your classmates. You should have a good case. The key is to confront it.

FrancescaBW: Again, we have two guests with similar questions. Here goes:

Publius17: Can work experience offset a subpar undergraduate GPA?

MM123456: What's the best way to address a mediocre GPA in the optional essay?

BauerDan: You're right in focusing on the optional essay as the place to deal with this issue. Fortunately, a subpar GPA alone can usually be neutralized. Factors such as the academic major, the caliber of the institution, and external factors, such as part-time work and extracurricular activities, are all things that you should share with the admissions committee -- not as an apology but as an explanation.

Furthermore, duration and quality of professional experience can definitely help offset a soft GPA, especially if you have more than three or four years of full-time experience.

eliseorios: With your successful candidates, what is the range of GMAT scores? In your experience, what's the best way to prepare for the GMAT?

BauerDan: We have had successful clients whose GMAT scores have ranged from 580 to 780. As with GPA, this is just one element of a candidacy that can be transcended or neutralized by other components of the application. Again, the optional essay is the right place to discuss this.

As far as GMAT prep, the first question to ask yourself is how you learn best. By considering one-on-one tutoring, classroom, or remote preparation, that will be a huge step ahead in improving your score. For those with particular problems on the quantitative side, taking some basic extension classes would probably be a wise first step, before formal GMAT prep.

FrancescaBW: This comes from a user who couldn't join us for the chat:

How much of a factor does work experience play into the major one pursues? For instance, if I worked at an investment bank and I want to pursue a major in management, would that hurt me in the application process?

BauerDan: No. The important thing is to have some relevant exposure -- whether it's personal, professional, or academic -- to the industry you're interested in. As long as there's some connection to your proposed goal, and you convey that in your essays, then you should be fine.

vivekkarol: My résumé includes four jobs and three startups in my 12 years of experience. Does it make me look like a job hopper?

BauerDan: There's certainly that risk. However, this is the reality of your candidacy, so the key is to confront it and present it as a plus. We tell our clients that the most important aspect of having multiple jobs is to identify the "thread" that connects them and then to align that with the attributes that a strong candidate should have. The other thought to keep in mind is the relevance of your jobs to the post-MBA goal that you have in mind.

BWJack: The job market for MBAs is a key factor for applicants. How is that looking to you at The MBA Exchange?

BauerDan: We have found that the demand for graduates from the top business schools is almost a constant. In a down year, that could mean one or two offers instead of five or six. That aspect of the motivation for pursuing a top MBA is really a given. For second- and third-tier schools, the market becomes more of a factor.

MaxFischer23: As of late, many schools have been stressing how their programs focus on innovation-driven sectors or companies. How does that play out practically in the classroom or other activities, and how much of this is simply a marketing tool?

BauerDan: Although it may seem new, an emphasis on "innovation" has been part of the decision criteria at top schools for many years. We consider this to be one key element of leadership. Therefore, in evaluating your professional, personal, and academic background in essays, the key is to find those situations, whether formal or informal, where you were the champion for new thinking. If you can substantiate this with examples, your essay should resonate with schools that emphasize this concept.

Marcus2119: What are common mistakes that people make when they rush to apply in round one?

BauerDan: There are a few. One is a structural mistake. They lose several valuable months that they could be using to improve their professional profile, such as taking on an international assignment or advancing their leadership role in a community organization. There are also mistakes in terms of presentation, namely rushing through essays and missing significant aspects of their candidacy by not taking the time to think and plan before they write.

We have found that the most valuable step in essay development is the initial outline. That's where the right ideas and structure take shape, but that takes time. A quality application in the second round will always beat a subpar application in the first round.

NP2013: Could you discuss the significance of recommendation letters? Since at least one has to come from a supervisor, I don't feel as if mine will be particularly strong. How do I mitigate that up-front?

RaynorSmith: The letters of recommendation are what we sometimes call a necessary evil. They are a great way for the admissions committee to get a different perspective on you. In terms of dealing with a potentially questionable letter of recommendation, we would suggest talking to the recommender up-front and prepping them on your background, your post-B-school goals, and what the school is looking for.

TNaughton: Because I'm self-employed, letters of recommendation are hard to come by. Should I get one from a client?

BauerDan: Yes. Recommendations from clients can actually be the best of all because those from supervisors and peers tend to be more predictable in their praise. A customer or client judges you more critically on an everyday basis. Therefore, the examples they use in assessing you can have even greater credibility and influence.

nlele: How strongly is the role of community service emphasized in admissions decisions? What if you do not have any significant involvement in such activities?

RaynorSmith: Community service is definitely important to the committee's decisions. They tend to look at community service as a potential predictor of teamwork and leadership. Additionally, community service is a great way for the admissions committees to see another side of the applicant.

gedmay99: Do you have any advice for prospectives who may be applying to a school for the second time?

RaynorSmith: Most schools look at reapplicants favorably. As a reapplicant, you should think about how to discuss the improvements you've made to your candidacy since you last applied. I would also suggest applying in the first round if possible. Additionally, you may want to look back on your old application and think about ways to further strengthen your goals, and why you want to get an MBA from that institution.

smkt075: What are your thoughts regarding online MBAs?

BauerDan: We believe that it will be a long time before the marketplace gives an online MBA the same credibility and confidence as the traditional programs. We anticipate the growing online component for traditional programs, however the human factor of interaction with classmates and faculty continues to be critically important to the value of an MBA education.

MM123456: Do you think MBA applications will be down again this year?

BauerDan: So far, we've seen the volume as flat again this year. However, I must say that the quality and passion of the applicants we're seeing are as high as ever. To either rush or delay an application based on the expected volume of candidates would be shortsighted. Timing in that sense should not be a driver of whether someone applies for fall 2006 admission.

Marcus2119: What are the advantages of seeking a MBA/JD degree?

BauerDan: The decision to pursue a joint degree begins with the applicant's goals. For instance, if you're planning on a career in the entertainment industry, there would be clear relevance to a joint degree that enables you to deal with contracts as well as management. However, the case for such a degree starts to weaken without such relevance.

RaynorSmith: From an admissions perspective, most schools view the applications separately.

MaxFischer23: How are the programs abroad viewed generally, and how specifically are the shorter programs stacking up to the two-year programs in terms of output quality?

RaynorSmith: I think that the MBA programs abroad are getting better and better, with some stacking above the rest. The output is generally strong based on what I've seen. However, many applicants want a summer internship, and the one-year program doesn't offer that. I think that an internship is a great way to figure out what you want to do post-MBA.

chico261: How do B-schools value entrepreneurship? My partners and I just sold our startup for a few million. Is this a plus?

BauerDan: The key to an entrepreneurial background is to make it as credible as a corporate background. The best news is that you are not constrained by the typical corporate structure in terms of your responsibilities and impact. With that in mind, the key will be to present your entrepreneurial past with a structure and a focus that is at least as convincing as that of your corporate peers.

You would do that by breaking down your experience into easily understood components, such as analytical ability or leadership, just as a corporate applicant would. However, your examples should then reveal how you exceeded the predictable scenario that a non-entrepreneurial applicant might use. Take full advantage of the open-ended nature of entrepreneurship to convey a candidacy that would add even greater value to your classmates.

gedmay99: How many schools do you typically advise applicants to apply to?

RaynorSmith: Typically, we advise applicants to apply to about six schools.

BauerDan: However, it really depends on applicants' ability to put together a quality application, so if they feel that they can do more or less, then we would support them 100%.

The wisdom behind applying to multiple schools is to bracket yourself with some that are more aggressive choices and others that are higher probability choices. There's no shortage of programs out there with the quality and focus to deliver long-term value.

MM123456: When prospective applicants visit a school, what should they do to get remembered?

BauerDan: Being gratuitous or forced is unwise. It would be important for you to first think through your candidacy and identify one or two aspects which you feel are most distinctive or memorable about yourself. These should be somewhat anecdotal rather than a line item from your résumé. Think of it as the kind of conversation starter that you might use at a cocktail party when meeting someone for the first time. The value of this is to give you a hook for your subsequent communication with that admissions officer.

BWJack: Do you sometimes advise clients frankly that they should not aim for a top-tier school or perhaps not apply at all?

RaynorSmith: We will be as honest with the candidate as we can and talk through [his or her] options based on [that person's] complete profile. Not every school is right for every candidate, but we have yet to tell a candidate no. Additionally, we might advise them on how to improve their candidacy and wait a year or so to do that.

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