B-School Tales from the Front

BusinessWeek opened the flood gates of communication when it launched the series, "Five Years to B-School," which offers a year-by-year road map to preparing for the graduate business school admissions process—everything from choosing schools to taking the GMAT to completing the applications. Readers and experts alike chimed in with advice and stories of what they wish they had known in the years before sending out their applications. They mentioned these tips in phone interviews and on the Business School Forum. Here is a compilation of some of the best advice they had to share with aspiring MBAs:

Timing is everything. Anyone who has read "Five Years to B-School" knows that making the most of your time will improve your applications and therefore your chances of getting into a top program. While not everyone will need a full five years to be MBA-ready, pacing yourself, and reaching certain milestones are a must for all. "This process is not geared for procrastinators," writes applicant GeneralDills in the Business School Forum. "If you know that you procrastinate, then do whatever you can to build and stick to an application project plan."

You need time to do everything, from getting comfortable with the GMAT and the scores you earn to writing application essays. "Everything takes longer," says Jim Ward, an applicant in Washington, D.C. "If you think you'll finish X by the end of the month, it will take two months. You need to start earlier than you think you should."

Get started young. Some readers say that most people don't know five years beforehand that they're going to apply to business school, and it's unrealistic to expect young people to know exactly what they want so soon. Others, however, think it pays to start thinking about the MBA even earlier than undergraduate graduation. "When I was still at school, I had no idea that I'd apply for an MBA and my grades at school would matter," writes AusRules on the Business School Forum. "I had too much of a good time at university, and my transcript will show you that I was quite aimless." The sooner you start thinking about graduate school, the sooner you can start improving yourself and demonstrating leadership. The more examples you have for the application, not to mention your rÉsumÉ, the better off you will be.

Address your weaknesses. Having a lot of time before you apply to business school also gives you the chance to address perceived weaknesses proactively. "I had very few extracurricular [activities] while completing my undergraduate studies, and I could have taken on more after college," writes LeeHHa on the Business School Forum. "Also, I could have taken on more projects or directed my career more toward activities that counter the stereotypes of my background (engineer), [such as] taking on more leadership roles that involved people, management, and communication."

Plan to pay. Graduate business school—and higher education in general—is a hefty investment. Saving money is always a good idea. "If I had known five years ago that I would go to business school, I would have put less of my earnings in the stock market and my 401(k) and kept them in CDs/money market funds to save money for school," writes rbacon in the Business Schools Forum. Finding a way to pay off debts, live on a budget, and save money to afford the possibility of education can't hurt. If you decide not to go back to school after saving up, you can always invest that money in a house or your retirement.

Write right. The essay is probably one of the most important components of the MBA application, and you need to accurately express yourself, engage the admissions committee, and make key points about your qualifications, potential, and individuality. "My sole advice is to write the application to your first-choice school last," writes hherdav on the Business Schools Forum. This member adds that you get the hang of it as you go through the process a few times, and your top choice should benefit most from your improvements.

You want your skills and personality to shine through. "If you write a boring essay, they will more likely think you boring, not the subject. If your essays are unskilled, they will think you to be unskilled, and if they appear rushed, the briskness will leap off the page in a way you cannot imagine," writes RubyDoomsday on the Business School Forum. Make sure you not only dot your Is and cross your Ts but also that you put a bit of yourself into what you write.

Set your own schedule. While BusinessWeek focused on a five-year plan, you have to realize that everyone has his or her own schedule. Maybe you'll apply right out of an undergrad program, or maybe you'll wait six or seven years to throw your hat in the ring. Sometimes sticking too much to a plan might hurt you. GeekMBA360 writes in the Business School Forum that being fixated on creating the perfect MBA application can cause people to take the safe road without considering nontraditional avenues, such as startups. "I'd advise future applicants that it's good that you look far ahead and have a five-year plan," writes GeekMBA360. "But don't over do it—make sure you balance the plan with exploration and risk-taking.'"

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