By the time I graduate with an MBA from UCLA Anderson in the summer of 2010, five years will have passed since I first contemplated going to business school. Five years!
In the beginning, I had more questions than answers. I wondered why working adults might interrupt careers to go back to school for two years. I also pondered what a successful application to business school looked like.
To find answers, I visited schools, interviewed MBA candidates and graduates, and spoke to admission representatives. Since I live in Los Angeles, I visited local schools, like Drucker, Anderson, and Marshall, and attended MBA fairs. But my search begot more questions. Soon I was flying out-of-state to visit East Coast schools to learn what other programs had to offer. In the beginning I knew this much: Business school could push me through the glass ceiling at work and even offer me an opportunity to reinvent myself should I choose to go that route instead.
I spent 10 months preparing for and taking the GMAT. I did not think it would take so long, but I wanted to be well prepared. For this reason, I hired Kaplan and twice completed their GMAT classroom course followed by private tutoring. Their programs forced me to study and prepared me through simulated test environments and test questions.
Three months remained between completing the GMAT and the application deadlines I set out to meet. (On the advice of several admissions representatives, I chose to apply in the second round, which usually closes at the beginning of January.) If I could do it again, I would complete the GMAT in the summer months and spend more time on the applications, since the essays seem just as important as high GMAT score. Since I had limited time to complete and submit five applications, I went back to Kaplan to hire an admissions consultant. My consultant, Dr. Tony, offered sound advice on how to structure and refine my admissions essays and kept me on assignment.
Choosing what schools to apply to was an easy decision since I wanted to stay in Los Angeles. Most of my pre-GMAT research had been focused on the program at UCLA Anderson. That strong bond came across clearly in my application essays and, I think, helped to win over admission committee members. But I also applied to other programs in and outside of Los Angeles and California, such as Darden, Ross, and Stern. Like Anderson, these programs offered powerful learning environments within a diverse context.
Completing the applications was no easy task. On a technical basis, this was an exercise in attention to detail—cross the Ts and dot the Is. But, below the surface, any successful application demands a deeper understanding of the fit between you, the applicant, and what the program stands for. Fail to articulate this relationship, and your chances of getting accepted will be diminished. I know this because it happened with some of my applications.
With my successful applications, I had all my ducks in a row. I personalized essays to reflect my contribution to the school's culture and mission. More important, I made sure to tap serious and relevant recommenders—former colleagues who could write meaningfully about my work ethic and back up the claims in my essays about fit between applicant and program.
Meeting with Recommenders
My recommenders were people who either supervised my work, including my most recent supervisor, or people familiar with it. Whenever necessary, I offered writing points to my recommenders, which they may have employed in their recommendation. Plus, I also met with each one to highlight the themes of my applications to ensure they were familiar with my admission strategy.
After my applications were submitted, the only task left, whether or not I gained admission to B-school, was to pay off all or as much debt as possible. The last thing I needed was to have to worry about paying off debt without an income.
Now fast-forward past the inevitable anxiety produced by waiting for an answer, which came to me most intensely while driving on one of Los Angeles' murderous freeways, to the last day of a two-week orientation. The fall core professors visited our classrooms, one by one, to introduce themselves, make clear the objectives of the course, and, on some occasions, deliver homework assignments due in three days time.
At UCLA Anderson, classes begin several weeks after most other programs, at the tail end of September. The school operates on a quarter system, so courses are 10-weeks long, except for two five-week courses that must be completed during the first-year's fall quarter alongside three regular classes for a total of 20 units. Such an intense schedule makes for an immediate test of a student's time-management skills. Among the courses I'm taking this quarter, I have already completed two (Leadership Foundations and Marketing Management), and I am just past the first half of the first quarter. The remaining courses, all part of the core program, are: Data and Decisions (Business Statistics), Financial Accounting, Managerial Economics, and Financial Markets.
Forget a Personal Life
The case-based approach to teaching has thus far only surfaced in the Leadership course and, most prominently, in Marketing. The first term offers an intensive beginning, even without taking into account club- and career-placement initiatives. Personal lives get shoved aside, at least for the first quarter.
In the final two quarters of the first year, the remaining core courses are completed, except for a field study course during the second year. This project lasts two consecutive quarters and represents a focused opportunity to a team of self-selected MBA candidates, advised by a faculty member, to place newly acquired management skills in consulting with a real-life company/organization. Some other core courses include: Corporate Finance, Business Strategy, and Managing & Leading Organizations. Elective courses make up part of the first year during the second and third quarters and almost all of the second year. To learn more about the Applied Management Research (AMR) project or the Core course program, visit UCLA Anderson at: www.anderson.ucla.edu.
Team learning holds a special importance in the strategy of UCLA Anderson. The Student Services Office each quarter creates new student study groups required to work together in all the core courses (except AMR). This quarter, my student team includes two women and two other men. Of these, two are foreign-born and one is a joint-degree student (JD/MBA). Our work experience is as varied as our characters. Overall, tackling homework as a group shows us how to learn to work equally well with people we like and people we like a little less.