MBA Application Timeline & Guide

Excerpted from How to Apply for an MBA, by Tyler Cormney and Christopher Aitken of MBA Prep School, Published November 15, 2011

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Applying to competitive MBA programs requires a lot of work.  Some experts recommend that you start preparing for the application process about 12 months in advance. This MBA guide offers tips to help prospective MBA students prepare themselves to apply to their top choice MBA programs.

6-12 Months Before Application Deadline

Increase Your Self-Awareness

Succeeding in the MBA application process requires a high-degree of self-awareness, so self-assessment exercises can be very valuable. Starting a journal and committing to making regular entries will increase your self-awareness as well as provide much-needed practice expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper. In addition to recording thoughts in your journal about daily experience and career goals, explore what motivates you, where your strengths and talents lie, and what you truly value. Self-assessment takes time and effort to yield results.

Build Relationships

Developing deeper relationships with mentors and superiors and building connections with current students and alumni from the schools you’re interested in will pay major dividends when it comes time to apply. Some candidates feel that there is something disingenuous about systematically cultivating relationships that will help their chances of acceptance. Our belief is that if you wait until you need these people to start connecting with them then it can be disingenuous. Instead, you want to develop these relationships over time, so that you can be of service to these people long before you ask them to be of help to you. This isn’t just about increasing your odds of getting into business school; it is a key step in building the foundation for a successful career.

Research Career Options

You’ll want to start your career planning work long before it’s time to sit down and write a career goals essay for your business school applications. Of course, defining your career goals is one of the first steps to deciding whether or not to pursue an MBA degree in the first place. At this stage, start to think about your short-term and long-term career goals and research industries and jobs that peak your interest.

Assess Your Candidacy

In the months and years before you apply, you need to start thinking like an admissions officer so that you can identify the strengths and weaknesses in your MBA candidacy and take proactive steps to reinforce your strengths and counteract your weaknesses long before it’s time to assemble your application. With advance knowledge of your potential weaknesses, you can take steps to mitigate your shortcomings whether they are in your academic profile, career story, or portfolio of leadership experiences.

Research Schools

While cultivating self-awareness, you should also start to build “school-awareness.” Too many candidates rely exclusively on the rankings and what other people have to say about MBA programs. Start learning about the schools before you start working on your application and when it comes time to answer an admissions officer’s question about why you are applying to their school, you will have plenty of points on which to build a convincing case. Time invested in school awareness means that you’ll be making the best-informed choice of programs when the time comes time to apply.

Complete Standardized Tests

Finally, we think it’s best to get the GMAT completed early in your preparation process. GMAT scores are valid for five years for most MBA programs, so you can start studying and complete the test at any point within five years of when you plan to apply. You definitely don’t want to be worrying about the GMAT, while holding down a full-time job and engaging in the heavy lifting required to assemble a top-notch application.

School Research and Selection

In choosing your final list of schools, attend information sessions and, if at possible, visit the schools on your short list. School visits are critical because things like culture and campus dynamics are difficult to ascertain from afar. By the way, if you’re applying in Round 1, then conducting your school visit in the academic year prior to submitting application is necessary if you want to visit while classes are in session.During this six-month period, it is time to intensify your school research and select the schools you’re going to apply to. It’s important to go beyond magazine rankings and stereotypes and find the schools that are the best match for you.

Keep a journal of all your school research and take careful notes about whom you meet, what you learn, and what impresses you. First hand observations are far more powerful than quoting the websites and reciting other people’s opinions. The case you build about why you have decided to apply to a particular school will be central to your essays and interviews because admissions committees are going to ask you to explain the reasons you want to be part of their specific program.

Exercise Your Writing “Muscles”

We often compare an MBA application to a marathon. 6 to 12 months before the applications are due, you want to progress from general conditioning to building specific “muscle groups” that will get you to the finish line. The most important of these are your writing muscles. If the last essay you wrote was in college, it’s time to start hitting the “writing gym.” Hopefully, you heeded our advice in the prior article and started writing in an application journal to limber up well in advance.

Application essays for the following season will be released in June or early July, but the questions don’t change much from year-to-year so you can start familiarizing yourself with past years’ questions. Even when the questions do change, the thematic categories generally don’t. We recommend that you start drafting possible answers to the classic MBA essay questions such as the “Career Goals Essay” and the “Why Our School” essay during this 6 to 12 month period. As you will see, trying to express yourself on paper will reveal holes in your thinking that need to be closed via further research or deeper meditation on the subject.

Sign-Up for Email Distribution Lists and Online Accounts

The application marathon’s starting gun really sounds on the day you sign up for your online application accounts. We suggest you create your online account as early as possible so that you will be notified about school events in your area.

Another good move is to sign up for electronic newsfeeds and admissions officer blogs. These sources will keep you informed and provide answers to many of the questions you have about the application process.

3-6 Months Before Applying

Three to six months before the deadline, you will take definitive steps toward creating your application by formulating your application strategy. In addition to making some key strategic decisions, there are a number of things you should check off your “to-do list” in this period so you’ll have them out of the way before the home stretch to the application deadlines begins.

Formulate your application strategy

Formulating your application strategy starts with defining the “Fit Qualities” for each MBA program you will apply to. Fit qualities are the attributes and strengths that each program values most. Having the right qualifications, such as a strong academic record and a high GMAT score, might earn you an interview invitation, but proving you are a great fit with each school is the secret to earning an acceptance letter. Your application strategy is effectively your marketing strategy. It summarizes how you plan to differentiate yourself from the competition. The Fit Qualities are a reminder that to do your marketing strategy job effectively you need to carefully study what attributes your customer (i.e., the admissions committee) values most.

Choose your references

If you have followed the advice in the first article in MBA Prep School’s application timeline series, then you’ve already established excellent relationships with your superiors and mentors. It is time to inform them that you’ll be applying to business school in a few months. One caveat: you need to proceed with caution when telling people you work with about your MBA application plans; don’t jeopardize your job, your annual bonus, or an upcoming promotion.

If you’ve developed a trusting relationship with mentors at your current job, you’ll probably be able to speak with them off-the-record about your plans. Candidates who haven’t been building these relationships over time will have a much harder time with this step. Meet with the people on your reference letter short list to gauge their enthusiasm for your plans and determine who would be willing to write a Rockstar Recommendation Letter. Until you’re certain you’ll be asking a particular person to write your letter, we recommend that you keep the first conversation exploratory and high level. The outcome of these meetings will allow you to finalize your list of recommenders.

Create your application resume

The first step in implementing your application strategy is to begin drafting your MBA application resume. Resume experts advise job-seekers to tailor their resume for each job they are applying to – similarly – you want to tailor your MBA application resume to each school you’re applying to. You want your resume to feature the school’s specific Fit Qualities identified in your application strategy.

Broadly speaking this might include placing more emphasis on your analytical abilities for a school that values quantitative skills and your team leadership experience for schools that prize collaboration and teamwork. Resume real estate is precious so you want to make sure you allocate space in a way that supports the themes and qualities you want to feature in all elements of your application.

Draft Your Career Goals Essay

You can bet that at least one of the MBA Programs you’re applying to will ask you to connect the dots between your career progress, career aspirations, and motivations for pursuing an MBA. Even if the application essay questions have not yet been published, you can get a head start on you Career Goals essay.

Study application policies and procedures

Three to four months before the first round deadline, the moment everyone’s been waiting for arrives and the applications and essay questions are published. Before you plug the deadline dates into your calendar and start writing your essays, read the fine print on the schools application policies as carefully as a tax lawyer looking for a loophole. It would be tragic to have all your preparation work and brilliant application strategy go to waste because you didn’t follow directions.

Follow the application rules and policies to the letter and stay on top of deadlines both self-imposed and school-imposed. Create a calendar for yourself and a checklist with due dates and stick to it.

3 Months Before Applying

Write your “Fit Essays”

When it comes time to write a complete set of application essays, you’ll use the school’s “Fit Qualities” you identified in your school research to select the essay topics and stories you will write about. With the knowledge of the strengths and attributes the schools you are applying to value most clearly in mind, identify the personal and professional stories that feature those valued qualities and start drafting. Remember that the secret to effective writing is rewriting. Plan on doing at least four drafts of every essay, and seek editorial feedback from a couple of people you can trust to ensure that your stories are clear and the messages you are trying to send are getting through to your reader.

Collaborate with your references

Regarding your recommendation letters, great process management leads to the highest quality output. Admissions officers fully expect the recommendation letter process to be a collaborative one. You’ll probably be asking your references to recommend you to more than one school; so you need to give them plenty of support and plenty of time.   Most schools ask specific questions on the recommendation forms and they want those specific questions answered. Tell your recommenders about the Fit Qualities you want to emphasize in each application to help them to tailor their letters in the same way that you’re tailoring your resume and essays.

Assemble/Submit Paperwork

One housekeeping detail that trips some applicants up is submitting all the required application paperwork to the schools on time. You, on the other hand, should already have your transcripts in hand, your test scores submitted, and any other administrative tasks close to complete.

Prepare for admissions interviews

Although most schools don’t interview candidates until after the application deadlines, a handful of programs, such as Kellogg and Tuck, interview some candidates prior to or closely following the application deadlines. If you are applying to one of these programs, then you need to prepare for your interview at the same time that you are in execution mode on the rest of your application.

The Final Month (a.k.a “the Last Mile”)

The final four weeks to the deadline will be intense. Even if you’ve built a strong foundation, followed every step MBA Prep School has recommended, and executed your application strategy flawlessly, pressing the submit button is sometimes the toughest step of all. There are a few things you can do to reduce your anxiety in the last mile of your race.

Triple-proof your application

Have every component of your application proofed at least three times by three different people. A typo or two is not going to sink your chances but a sloppy application will seriously  hurt you. Your application package is a representation of you – and you want it to sparkle. By  this point, you will probably be too close to your application materials to see the minor flaws, which is why you need to enlist the help of people you trust. You may even choose to enlist the help of professional editors and proofreaders. MBA Prep School does provide these editorial  services if you’re so inclined.

Submit your application early

Another way to ensure that your masterpiece isn’t left on the virtual loading dock is to submit everything a couple of weeks before the deadline. Not only will you avoid the possibility that a school’s overloaded servers somehow prevent you from uploading your work,  you might even get an early read if the school practices a first-in-first-out application review process.

Ensure recommendation letters are in

Once you’ve submitted your application, you want to check in with your references to ensure  that they’ve submitted their letters. We suggest you set early deadlines for your references. Presumably, because you started working with them weeks in advance they won’t feel rushed at all. One other note, these folks have worked very hard for you. At a minimum send them a thank you note – but a thank you gift is probably in order.

Take a 2-week vacation

Okay, so you’re done. Did you press send? Good. Now take a couple of weeks off, relax, and reconnect with family and friends. Then, get back to work – you have admissions interviews to prepare for.

Prepare for admissions interviews

When the interview invitations start arriving, you’ll only have a few weeks lead time; so you should start preparing for interviews a couple of weeks after sending in your application to ensure that you’re fully prepared by interview day.

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