To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the second—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.
If Year One is about getting your feet wet, then Year Two in the five years leading to business school is about coming into your own. Now is the time you will start to take more initiative and create a more definitive career path. You will likely be better acquainted with your adult self and your job. Your personal life might be flourishing as well, which will give you more insight into the future you'd like to create. This is the year that you will put the wheels in motion for your application.
The five years leading up to entering an MBA program will fly by, so let's not wait. Here is what you should be working on in Year Two:
Take on More Responsibility at Work
In Year One, you found a job and learned how to do it well. With a bit more experience under your belt, you are now beginning to take on more responsibility and finding ways to have an impact beyond your everyday tasks, says Judith S. Hodara, senior associate director in the Office of Administration and Financial Aid at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. Your comfort level and confidence, says Hodara, should be rising. Use this to take initiative. Make suggestions for projects that you think would benefit the company and offer to take a leading role in executing them.
Of course, you should also take advantage of any opportunities for promotions or leadership roles that come your way. "Don't just wait for the yearend review," says Hodara. Step up and volunteer to do additional work. Take on responsibilities outside your job description. Go above and beyond to prove yourself, stand out, and demonstrate a solid work ethic.
At this point, you should be showing evidence of progression in your career—even if it's in practice and not in title, says Graham Richmond, co-founder and CEO of the admissions consulting firm Clear Admit, which is based in Philadelphia. Although you should try to stick it out for one more year at the same company, you can start thinking about what you'd like your next move to be and what you need to do to arrive at that point. Planning ahead is the key to fulfilling your MBA destiny.
For those aiming for the top 20 business schools, finding international experience should also be a priority. "Even if it's just meeting with a client in London or doing a project abroad, you should do it," says Richmond, who adds that there is more competition than ever from international applicants who have a slew of experience in different parts of the world. Showing you're prepared to take on the challenges of a global economy will give you an edge.
Build and Strengthen Your Network
Finding at least one mentor who could help guide you through the initial stage of your career was near the top of your to-do list in Year One. By now, you should be developing those relationships by scheduling lunch two to three times per year with your mentor.
For these meetings, you should prepare questions and follow up on goals you previously set with your mentor. If he or she suggested you read a particular book or contact a particular person, you should have completed the task and be able to discuss it. The point is to show your mentor that what he or she says matters to you and that it is making a difference. Be sure to keep in touch, says Hodara, even when you don't need anything from your mentor. Taking advantage of people's kindness and not making good on your promises will never get you anywhere.
In Year Two, you will start to build a professional network in addition to your mentors.
"Expose yourself beyond the five people you see everyday," says Hodara. She says most people will be flattered if you approach them to check in or get more information about the roles they fill on the job. Keep a log of their names and contact information. Every once in a while, drop them an e-mail or give them a call to see how they're doing without necessarily creating a formal relationship like the one you have with your mentor.
Professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, where 30 million professionals have logged on to exchange information and ideas, will come in handy because it makes it easier to keep in touch with your existing network and find new people who might have similar goals, interests, or roles. What's great about professional networking sites is that they help you control your professional identity online and avoid gaffes, such as that MySpace photo of you doing a keg stand during your undergrad days. In fact, if you haven't done so already, now would be a good time to remove any unprofessional or unflattering online content about yourself.
Once you have established contact with a number of people, you can start setting up informational meetings to learn about jobs that interest you. When you apply to business school, you will have to be very specific about your career goals and how the MBA will help you achieve them. Now is the time to start giving thought to whom you'd like to be when you grow up, says Richmond. Talking to people and reflecting on your likes and dislikes is the best way to start developing your career plan.
Get More Involved Outside of Work
Joining organizations or participating in activities outside of work for which you were passionate was a year-one goal. Now that you have been involved in these activities for a year, you should be taking on a larger role, such as chairing a committee, running for an office, or helping to recruit other members. Richmond says this is even more important for those who are struggling to get promoted or noticed on the job.
An organization or project outside of work is a great place to show off your leadership skills without feeling encumbered by bureaucracy or office politics. Without even being part of a formal organization, you can organize a charity run or plan a recycling program, suggests Richmond. At this stage of the game, you should be making your mark in your community as well. Use your creativity and moxie to come up with ways to improve the world around you.
But community service isn't the only way to flaunt your talents. "We don't care if the activity is altruistic or totally selfish," says Hodara. "We're looking for people with more to offer than the ability to run a spreadsheet." For instance, Richmond, who is a Wharton MBA, played an instrument and was able to discuss this during the application process.
Follow your heart—what do you love to do with your free time?—and do it well. For this to count, you must really devote a part of yourself to the activity. A year into these pursuits, you should know which ones you will stick with until the MBA application process and beyond. It might be just one passion, and that's all right. Quality wins over quantity in this case. If nothing else, these activities will add color to your application essays and interview and make you a bit more interesting than the same old candidates running past the desks of the admissions committee.
Polish That Academic Transcript
You might already be thinking about, studying for, or perhaps even taking the GMAT. But you should also be thinking about an enhancing your transcript if you did poorly in your undergraduate program, or your performance was less than stellar. Now is the time to take courses at a local university, especially quant courses, and to perform well enough in them to make up for sins of the past.
Having new grades (a B or above) combined with a strong GMAT score could wipe away a low undergraduate GPA in the minds of admissions committees. They will be looking to see that you can handle the academic rigor of their program.
Having strong quantitative skills is a must because a school such as Wharton, says Hodara, expects applicants to be in the 85th percentile on the GMAT quant section. Study up!
Some applicants also spend time studying and taking exams for certificates such as the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst). While this doesn't hurt, Richmond says that becoming fluent in a foreign language might be a better use of your time. Again, this will help you compete with an ever-increasing number of international applicants and make you more appealing to admissions committees—and employers facing a global economy. Speaking another language is a skill that will remain on your résumé long after you graduate from an MBA program.
Investigating the MBA application process is an appropriate task to take on now. Surf the Internet to check out programs that might interest you and align with your career goals and where you'd like to be geographically. You might visit forums, such as the ones on BusinessWeek.com, to get in touch with other applicants, MBA students, admissions consultants, and alumni.
Talk to people in your office who have an MBA about the process and the options available to you. Consider visiting campuses that are of the most interest to you. "I visited Wharton my second year out of college," says Richmond. "It gave me something to look forward to. It planted the seed." Seeing the school for yourself helps you imagine your life there, and it could motivate you even more.
Start Socking Away Your Pennies
You should continue to strive for a well-rounded life. That means that you can not work all the time without taking time for yourself. While you need to be a devoted and dedicated employee, you also must show the admissions committee that there's more to you than your résumé. One way to fix this is to actually use your vacation time. Traveling, especially if you are lacking in international experience, can also provide you with interesting anecdotes for essays and interviews, says Richmond. It can open your eyes to other cultures and pique your intellectual curiosity.
In Year Two, if not sooner, you must begin to save money for your MBA education, which costs upward of $80,000 for a top full-time program. Add in living expenses and the salary you'll give up while hitting the books, and the price tag can easily top $200,000 or more. "Scholarship dollars are few and far between," says Lawrence Murray, program director of the BSBA Program and former associate director in MBA Admissions at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School. "Going into Year Two, you must have a savings strategy that gets more conservative as you get closer to entering a program." Put away those pennies, start packing your lunch, and live humbly, so that you can afford two years of paying tuition without earning an income.
Exceptional students might actually start applying to business school in Year Two. Schools, such as Harvard Business School, have begun accepting students with extraordinary backgrounds earlier than the traditional five years. Some of these programs entice women, who might want to start a family five years out of an undergraduate program, to earn their MBA sooner rather than later. These personal goals must be weighed in tandem with your career goals when deciding the time line that is right for you.
By the End of Year Two…
You should have:
• Shown progress in your career
• Received a promotion or taken on a project or assignment that had you in a leadership role
• Started thinking about your next career move
• Taken on more responsibility for your relationship with your mentors and built an even larger network of professional contacts
• Demonstrated initiative in one of your extracurricular activities and continued to pursue your passions whatever they may be
• Worked on any weaknesses in your academic record
• Gained either exposure or experience internationally
• Begun to save money to finance your education