Having successfully gone through the business school admissions cycle last Fall 2008, I wish to share a few surprises I encountered from the process. As the founder of Beat The GMAT, you would think that I would have known a lot about business school admissions by the time I applied-I thought so too. From my perspective, applying to business school was much more challenging than I had anticipated, but as a result, getting in was much more rewarding too.
Here are my top five surprises from the MBA application process:
1. It's more time consuming than you think.
When you start your MBA applications, prepare to treat the task like a second job. It will take up a significant portion of your free time. In my case, I was devoting anywhere from 10-15 hours per week for four months. By my last count, I was required to write about 16 essays total (for 4 schools), and I wrote 5 drafts of EACH essay. For those of you who have GMAT math skills, you will see that this calculates to 80 drafts!
Be prepared to take a lifestyle hit for a few months and accept that you will not have much leisure time while you are writing your applications.
2. You can't reuse your essays-sorry!
I had this fantasy that I would be able to spend a lot of time on my first application and then re-use those essays again for subsequent schools. A nice thought, but not a wise strategy at all.
No two business schools are the same, and for each school you apply to you will have to craft a response that tailors a perfect fit between yourself and the unique programs that the school offers. Thus, your essay responses have to be different from school to school.
Moreover, business school admissions folks are savvy and read other schools' essay questions. They can absolutely tell when an applicant is re-using an essay from another school's application, and that's a potential red flag.
3. Recommendations may matter more than your essays (or not).
This insight is surely going to stir up some controversy. Early in my business school application process, I was struck by an interview I read featuring Stanford Dean of Admissions Derrick Bolton. He states:
If you asked me 'could I make a decision on an application without essays?' I would say 'absolutely', but 'could I make a decision without recommendations?' 'No way.' To me the recommendations are more important than the essays, but the essays get more attention.
- Derrick Bolton, 'Faculty Spotlight: Interview with Derrick Bolton,' March 13, 2006, The Stanford Business Reporter.
This perspective may not be shared across all business school deans, but the principle makes sense to me. While it is possible to manipulate what your recommender writes, the recommender in theory has free reign to write a truthful profile about the applicant-especially since it's absolutely critical that all applicants waive the right to review their recommendations when applying. Requesting to review your own recommendation may raise red flags for admissions committees.
I recently spoke with Clear Admit Co-founder Graham Richmond about Mr. Bolton's position on the importance of recommendations. Graham reminded me that while leading schools may vary in their weighting of essays vs. recommendations vs. interviews, etc, all components of your application matter at the end of the day. It's important to remember that business school admissions is a holistic process, and obsessing over one part of the package (like I did with recommendations) is not productive.
4. It's not all business-be well rounded.
When I was applying to college, I was involved in a laundry list of extracurricular activities. As my high school guidance counselor told me, by pursuing outside activities I could present myself as a well-rounded person (e.g. someone who is passionate in a variety of interests, or generally an interesting person) to prospective schools.
It turns out business schools also want interesting students (surprise)! Although MBA programs tend to be realistic about the limited time that people in careers have, so demonstrating a few clear passions is sufficient.
The person who volunteers her evenings mediating rival gangs in Skid Row doesn't necessarily have a better edge than the person who enjoys playing jazz music to senior citizens. Don't pursue an activity simply because you think business schools will value it. Business school admissions committees are very keen about sensing insincerity. Just be sure to nurture one or two outside-of-work passions.
5. You will learn a lot about yourself-really.
Applying to business school was one of the most difficult challenges I've had as an adult. It's not easy to sit down and seriously examine your life. Some of the questions, like Stanford's What matter's most to you and why?, required tremendous effort to answer. I had to consult with family and friends frequently to discuss and analyze my life experiences.
Despite hating my existence for four months, I feel very fortunate to have gone through the application process. I believe I have come out of the experience more self-aware. Furthermore, the application process allowed me to reach an excruciating and ironic personal conclusion-that business school is not right for me at the moment. Despite gaining admissions into a great business school, I've opted instead to continue building my career for another year or two.
Hopefully, applying to business school will be easier the second time around. At least I'll know what to expect.
Eric Bahn is the founder of Beat The GMAT, a GMAT and MBA community serving over 100K+ visitors/month. Visit the newly re-launched Beat The GMAT site and get business school advice from top experts like Clear Admit.