B-School or Bust

He could be just another jack-of-all-trades ex-military guy, or he could address his weaknesses, hone his story, and prepare

My journey to B-school has been interesting thus far. In my last journal entry I mentioned a lot of obstacles on the path—the looming GMAT and live mortars from Iraqi insurgents were just a few. Well, to sum it all up, I was wily enough to dodge the Iraqis but the GMAT nailed me, at least the first time.

During the long walk home after sitting for that first GMAT, I reflected on the crossroads I was at, and Michael Jordan came to mind. His words, "I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed," served as my personal inspiration until almost six months later, when I would revisit the Frankfurt (Germany) testing center and show them who was boss. Yet, getting to that point took more than just a few inspirational words.

Not only did planning ahead become a key factor, but I simply had to realize that my official and practice test scores weren't flukes. Once I understood this, I was determined not to retake the test until I hit key percentage benchmarks. As a military guy, I normally love to plan for the worst contingency, which all too often becomes reality. However, in this case, another GMAT disappointment would have meant applying for business school a whole year later.

Failure Is Not an Option

To hit my personal scoring benchmarks, I relentlessly reviewed the Manhattan GMAT content and applied it to the Official Guide's questions, carried flashcards everywhere I went to memorize key formulas and concepts, consulted the GMATClub.com wizards, and pestered my friend about his success (he had just scored in the 90th percentile). It may seem a laundry list, but these are the keys to my success on the test:

• Review every missed practice question until you understand the concept and not just the answer

• Become disciplined in your timing strategy—even the best scorers make educated guesses for the sake of timing

• Tackle the toughest questions when you think you've mastered a test area—push your limits

Long story short, having researched the top-tier business schools and the overall application process since September, 2005, I conquered the GMAT on my second try. But just when I stopped to take a breath, I realized how much work I had to accomplish in such little time. Essentially, I had a whopping 26 days to submit second-round applications to Columbia, Harvard, NYU Stern, and Wharton, four of the most selective business schools in the nation. No safety school here—I refuse to think that my business-school choice is a two-year decision. I think of it as a lifelong investment that you associate your name with and expect significant yield from.

Address Your Weaknesses

With this philosophy, I wanted to make sure that a ranking wasn't my No. 1 consideration. Then again, I'd heard the horror stories of bright, ambitious MBAs who found it difficult to break into a certain industry simply because of their school's name. My criteria included a major metropolitan location and a reputable program that would open doors wherever I went in the world. So I hunkered down; it was business school or bust.

Despite my unorthodox application timeline, I had done my homework for tackling the essays. My GMAT score had to show an admissions committee that I could accomplish the work—simply because my transcript didn't. Everyone I'd talked to steered me toward addressing my weaknesses head-on and counter-arguing why they were no longer a threat to my potential. They were on the money. Without a convincing story, I was just another gruff military applicant hefty on troop leadership and war stories but essentially a bull in a china closet stumbling through the business world.

Crafting a story is probably the hardest step for those making the transition from the military since we are commonly known as jacks of all trades. For a few months, I could not for the life of me decide what I wanted to do. I've debated fields from management consulting to investment banking. But looking back, the debate was worth it. At the end of the day, B-school is about employment. If you haven't researched what interests you and what doesn't before school begins, you will be a very unfocused student: sampling everything and lost in the recruiting sauce.

Getting back to the essays…the first crucial mistake I made on the first application was not openly addressing my personal weaknesses. I'm convinced I paid the price for it with a familiar applicant term: "ding!" It's a lesson learned now, but of four applications, I was invited to interview with three schools.

Do Your Homework

Reaching out through my alma mater network, I found students and alumni from each school to which I applied. Without their candid feedback on mock interviews, essays, and my résumé, I can't say I would have been as successful in the process. My advice to applicants: Don't be shy—introduce yourself via e-mail to a student club or two.

Let them know in advance that you will be applying and ask whether they know any students from your undergraduate school or industry background. You'll find that current students are naturally compelled to give back. They are all too familiar with the application anxiety and generally seem to love to offer as much help as their busy schedules allow.

Although I could have done a better job of reaching out to the admissions departments earlier, I based my decision on visits to each school. For the most part, students and faculty bent over backwards to answer my questions and I found it hard to negatively stereotype any school. Until those visits, I thought it comical that every top business school boasts that there is such a thing as a fit. I believed that an applicant who is successful before business school will generally be successful after business school.

However, I found that each school indeed has a unique culture based on the campus and curriculum structure and locales. By mid-March, Columbia reaffirmed why it was my top choice. On my visit, it just felt right. The alumni and staff are genuinely helpful, New York City is bustling with career opportunities, and the students strike just the right balance between working hard and playing equally so. I'm honored, excited, and a bit anxious still. But most important, I'm ready and I can't wait to begin.

More Admissions Tips

• Academics: Pull your undergraduate transcript out and scour it for weaknesses. If you aced your math classes, great. Otherwise, you'll have to explain why not or point to your stellar quantitative GMAT scores. Even so, if you aced math and bombed English or the soft-skill courses, make sure your GMAT verbal and AWA scores compensate.

• Research: Know why you chose X school, what your concentration or major would be in, what clubs you'd join, what electives you plan to take, and identify your short- and long-term goals.

• Networking: You'd be a fool if you didn't contact the alumni from your alma mater who attended or are currently attending the business school before you apply. They are one of your best resources.

• Recommendations: Don't fumble them—cordially manage them. The week that most of my applications were due, one of my recommenders had the flu with a 103-degree temperature and the other was pregnant, with morning sickness!

• Résumé: Polish in advance and show it to current students. Treat it like a one-page advertisement that markets you.

• Essays: Gather essay questions for your target schools once they're published and brainstorm your thoughts for each essay. Days before the deadline is not the time for writer's block.

• Interviews: Practice makes perfect—the AdCom liked your story on paper so don't lose any ground in person.

Here are some links and books I found useful throughout the admissions process:

• GMAT.com and GMATClub Forum—free and invaluable

Getting the MBA Admissions Edge by Matt Symonds

Your MBA Game Plan: Proven Strategies for Getting Into the Top Business Schools by Omari Bouknight

How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs by Richard Montauk

• Clear Admit's Wiki

• Free blogs, essay tips, and advice written by peers

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