Part 1 out of 2

With the final round of MBA applications for almost all of the top schools upon us, we can take a brief moment to reflect on the main story of the year thus far: application volumes are up significantly as a result of economic turmoil. So, with the promise of increased competition for a finite number of spaces going forward, it is best that prospective MBA applicants who are targeting admission for next year (or even beyond) start working to improve their chances now. Further, regardless of this macro-trend, by being proactive, candidates can remove a great deal of stress from the process and ensure that in July, when the 2008 applications appear, they can simply focus on mastering the applications. We at mbaMission have several big picture recommendations for candidates to consider so that they can be as competitive as possible. 

Few realize that there is a tremendous opportunity to visit campuses now to learn about and establish interest in specific schools early on. It is important to note that campus visits are not just opportunities to register with the Admissions Committee, but are also a time for you to gain an intimate understanding of various academic methodologies and social environments. However, on a less idealistic note, these visits will certainly help you frame your thoughts and write far more personal essays when the time comes. After all, there is only so much you can learn about a school from its website. So, we advise early campus visits, as they will allow you to experience the true character of your MBA program of choice, absorb the information and then discuss your connection to the school in a profound way. 

Beyond campus visits, by meeting with alumni or current students now, you can gain a more intimate understanding of your schools of choice. Current students in particular will have an awareness of specific programs and classes that may not be prominently featured on a school's website, but that may be quite appealing to you and may enable you to strengthen your case for attending that particular school. By meeting with students and alumni and by visiting classes, you will collect a variety of data points that will serve as a foundation for you to persuade the Admissions Committees that their school is ideally suited to you, in a way that few others will be able to do. 

While the steps discussed thus far are somewhat subtle, you can take more overt measures to bolster your candidacy. For example, if you have not yet taken a leadership role in your community, you still have nine months in which to create a track record and show that you are a substantive individual outside of the office. If you were to start volunteering in September, your gesture would seem far less sincere, and you would lack the profound experiences to explore in your essays. 

When selecting volunteer activities in which to involve yourself, you should - first and foremost - join organizations about which you feel passionate. If you are excited about your volunteer experience, you will be more committed, enjoy a more profound experience and have a far more genuine story to tell. Ideally, you will create a record of community experiences that will both complement and supplement your profile: the accountant who volunteers with Junior Achievement is complementing his existing profile by showing a commitment to his professional path and the desire to give back in this area; the accountant who coaches soccer in his community is supplementing his profile in that he is offering a new window into his personality and abilities. Your community activities have the power to reveal a true passion for your field (complementary) or to shift the Committee's perspective (supplementary) on you and thus differentiate you from many others. 

In the examples above, we use Junior Achievement and soccer coaching to illustrate our point; while a solid commitment to any organization will be helpful to your candidacy, the more esoteric the organization, the more distinct you become. While you should not volunteer for a completely obscure organization just to be different, if you are truly passionate about both soccer and antiquities preservation, for example, you should consider volunteering in the latter field, thus increasing your opportunities to discuss this unusual hobby/interest. Regardless of the organization you choose and the nature of your activities, if you can (to cart out a cliché) make a difference within your organization and show true leadership in doing so, you should be able to add an entirely new dimension to your application. 

Similar to immersing yourself in community endeavors, by advancing personal achievements, you have the power to differentiate yourself from the indistinguishable masses. While every candidate has his/her work experience and academics, you can offer a far more diversified and remarkable picture of yourself through your volunteer and personal accomplishments. 

In terms of personal achievements, you should focus on accelerating the timeline of existing endeavors. If you have always intended to publish a certain article and have almost finished a final draft, then finish it. If you have always intended to earn your CFA and only have Level Three of the exam left, then take the final test this year. If you can run 20 miles and have always dreamed of completing a marathon, do it this year. We are not suggesting that if you have never run a mile in your life that you start training for a marathon now; however, if a goal is in sight and will be otherwise achieved after your applications are due, you should accelerate your timeline to ensure that you have completed it before the first-round deadline. 

While it is important to build up your personal and community profiles, it can be equally important tobolster your academic profile through additional coursework. Many candidates fret about their poor undergrad performance and feel that they are powerless to change the Admissions Committees' perspectives on their academic aptitudes, but MBA programs are actually far more forgiving of previous academic problems than other graduate programs are. For most candidates, their academic experience is far in the past, and their GMAT score, references and work experience are better indicators of their potential for success. This is not to suggest that poor grades do not matter; however, poor grades can be mitigated. 

If your academic performance is worrisome to you, you should certainly consider enrolling in additional coursework immediately. In particular, if you did poorly in math courses (even if your overall GPA is quite high), you may raise concerns about your ability to manage a heavily quantitative workload. Thus, you should consider taking a calculus or statistics course. Furthermore, in order to show an aptitude for management studies, you might consider taking an accounting, economics or corporate finance class. Of course, it is important that you get As in these courses to show that you have an aptitude for this kind of work and that you take your academics quite seriously 

It is also important to recognize that additional coursework is not solely the domain of the academically challenged. Even those who did quite well in their undergrad classes might explore the option of taking additional coursework. Liberal Arts majors with 4.0s and no quantitative background can benefit from two As - one in a math discipline and one in a management discipline - which will allow them to make strong statements about their competencies for their coming studies. 
In Part 2,  we will focus on some of the more technical issues that you can consider to get a head start on your applications.