Amanda Brown, a former Stanford law student, voice actor, and author struck a hit with her debut novel, Legally Blonde. A film adaptation, a sequel, two Golden Globe nominations, and a hit Broadway musical later, the film was the unlikely subject of conversation between my brother and me as I drove to my interview this past summer. With my car radio out of order and excitement about the day mounting, I called my brother Ray (a graduate of Yale and a professor of history at Cornell) for a last-minute pep talk.
As we spoke, I jokingly told him I was feeling a little like Legally Blonde protagonist Elle Woods, the untraditional candidate applying to Harvard Law. I had great transcripts, recommendations from professionals who knew me and my academic ability, and essays articulating who I am and the woman I would like to become. I didn't know how those aspects of my application would stand up against my unbalanced verbal and quantitative scores on the GMAT. Being a little different from the rest of the crowd does indeed set you apart…but a quantitative score short of the stratosphere when applying to Yale is probably not the best way to do it.
My brother, never missing a beat and always being supportive, dismissed my worry. Elle, he reminded me, was a success not only because she was smart, but also because she was simply herself.
How can anyone possibly talk about the grad school admissions process without mentioning the trials and tribulations of their GMAT experience? The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) administers the test and asserts on their Web site that the test is only one measure that schools will use to consider your application.They also say the GMAT does not measure "subjective factors important to academic and career success, such as motivation, creativity, and interpersonal skills."
For weeks and with an almost morbid fascination, I read online blogs and commentaries of individuals questioning if they were "competitive" with GMAT scores of 700+ (92nd percentile). Were they kidding? On virtually every business school Web site there is an assertion that mirrors the GMAC statement: GMAT scores play only a part in admission decisions. Who knows if that is true across the board? Having never been a fan of standardized tests as an indicator of ability or success; I will only disclose that I'm living proof of the GMAC disclaimer.
Once I decided to apply to Yale I had less than 12 weeks to learn all the math I had forgotten since a 1979 high school algebra class in order to meet the third-round cutoff. Time was so tight for me that I scheduled my exam just one day before the deadline to give myself more time to study. It goes without saying that I wouldn't recommend trying to learn the content or the test format under that kind of time constraint, and I was fortunate to not have to spend much time studying the verbal and analytical subject matter the GMAT measures.
On a positive note, I was fortunate to have found a wonderful teacher, Ryan Licwinko from Veritas. Ryan was not at all daunted by my 20-year lapse in formal math education and he actually tried to use it to my advantage when teaching me how to approach the test. He worked with me privately and I attended his intensive quantitative class over a long weekend in New York City.
Be sure to leave yourself time to cancel your test and reschedule if need be without the worry of missing deadlines. Fate has a way of interfering with your best-laid plans and your ability to rest and concentrate on the task at hand; I lost my beloved grandmother in England just two days before my exam and took my test with a heavy heart. Having pushed everything to the absolute last minute, there was simply no time left to reschedule.
I don't know too much about marketing and I can't wait to learn. My experience with this aspect of business is limited to a small company I started while I was a student at Mount Holyoke. After spending a summer in Paris studying couture embroidery at the atelier of François Lesage, I began to create couture gowns for infants based on historical paintings. I included a name and a story with each one-of-a-kind piece and started marketing my product as an exclusive work of art. Within three months (and in between classes) I had developed a business relationship with Liz Lange Maternity on Madison Avenue and I had met with Town & Country magazine about the dresses; eventually a small article featuring my work appeared in the June, 2001 issue. What I learned from this very fun experience was that people love a story, history, and meaning.
It seems to me that the interview for any business school candidate represents the most important marketing campaign of your career. To that end, I would say that your best bet is to have your own wonderful story and to articulate it as if you were selling a beautiful and rare work of art. Be insightful about your shortcomings, be prepared to answer tough questions, and never make excuses. My three interviews were conducted by three men with very different styles and levels of formality. Being able to adjust your style in response to the tone set by your interviewer is a given.
There is no telling what they will ask. The past and the future are all fair game. I was asked about my choice of art history as a major. Anticipating that there may not be many students applying with an art history background, I came to my interview ready to discuss my honors thesis: a study of how global economic changes, cultural undertones, and the rise of the merchant class affected the creation and marketing of textiles, lace, fashion, and style in 17th century France. My year-long project explored what may be considered one of the greatest marketing campaigns in history…the establishment of French style and quality as the international gold standard.
Invariably the topic of conversation during my interview turned to mathematics. The decision to delay admission for a year in order to shore up my quantitative foundation was an easy one for all involved. For more than 20 years, math has been my bête noire; there was no more running from it. Two weeks after my interview I started an intensive statistics course at the University of Connecticut. Statistics two nights a week from 5 p.m. to 9:30 after working all day was tough, but it was time well spent and I did better than I expected. Next month I will finish pre-calculus and I've actually enjoyed learning about logarithms and trigonometry; I have a wonderful teacher who doesn't believe in calculators and corrects everything in bold red ink. It is just what I needed.
Unlike Elle Woods arriving at Harvard, I will not arrive at Yale with a small dog and a pink computer. I will arrive as a student who is excited to learn and who has spent time preparing for success. I feel clear in my mind about my motivations, my sense of purpose, and my eventual goals. And if that isn't enough, I am now a woman who can solve a differential equation with the best of them.