Going to Business School Next Year? Here Are 3 Things You Can Do Now to Prepare

The decision to go to business school is a big one. Earning an MBA can accelerate your career, improve your professional network, and provide exposure to a myriad of new experiences. However, it’s also a time-consuming (and in some cases, expensive) endeavor. Below are some suggestions to help you make an informed decision on whether or not business school is for you, and—if it is—which program(s) to consider:

1. Understand what the MBA is (and what it isn’t) – Some people think an MBA is their ticket to a six-figure job, while others pursue the degree because of the success their family members, business associates, or colleagues have had with it. In my experience, those looking for a managerial or leadership role, those looking to change careers, and/or those looking to start a new company can benefit tremendously from an MBA—both from what they learn in the classroom, and from the experiences they’re provided with. To learn more, I recommend talking with people who have earned the degree, as well as those in careers you aspire to obtain. Try to ascertain whether or not the degree was necessary, helpful, or extraneous, and why. It may also make sense to explore alternatives to the MBA (including online coursework, bootcamps, professional masters programs, and rotational management programs at your current company) before deciding to pursue the MBA.

2. Find the right format for you – Assuming business school is a good option for you, the next step is to find the right format for your lifestyle. Full-time, part-time, accelerated, online, online-hybrid and executive MBA programs are all designed to meet the needs of different types of professionals. Understanding the pros and cons of each format will help you choose a program most likely to help you meet or exceed your postgraduation goals.

3. Rank the Rankings – Many prospective MBA students use the rankings as their primary decision making criteria without really understanding what comprises them. To make a more informed decision, I recommend researching the criteria utilized by US News and World Report, Financial Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, The Economist, Princeton Review and others to determine which ranking is most helpful to you. You may find the ideal program for your needs by creating your own ranking criteria, as opposed to making your decision based on the sometimes arbitrary criteria used by some of the major ranking agencies.

What Donald & Hillary Can Teach Us About MBA Admissions

Now that both the #RNC and #DNC are behind us, it’s full speed ahead to election day. And, while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spend the next few months touting their accomplishments and bashing their competition, those seeking admission to business school this year can learn a few things (both good and bad) from the process.

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Just as our esteemed politicians tailor their campaigns to the voters they are trying to reach, you should consider a similar strategy with your business school application. Including precise reasons why a particular school is the best fit for you (and vice versa) is always a smart strategy. When possible, try to include the names of specific professors, classes, centers and clubs you see aligning with your business school goals. As an admissions officer, I can tell you it’s pretty easy to see when an applicant designed their application specially for our school vs. cutting and pasting the name of our program into their application. For more applicant tips, click here.

  1. The Truth Matters

Telling a whopper or two may not disqualify you from the presidency, but it can harm your chances of admission to the MBA program of your choice. There are plenty of fact checkers in the admissions office, and applicants who intentionally misrepresent their academic and professional accomplishments may find themselves being denied from programs they are otherwise qualified for. Worse yet, those who are admitted based on dishonest applications could see their admission and/or scholarship offer revoked after the start of the academic year. Unlike what we see from our presidential candidates, it’s best to take ownership for any shortcomings – like lower test scores, bad grades in your undergraduate studies and/or a spotty work history – in an honest and thoughtful manner. Bonus points often go to applicants who (instead of covering up their failures) talk about what they learned from them and how those lessons learned have made them a better professional. *Imagine if we saw that level of maturity from those who want to run our country!*

  1. Storytelling creates engagement

Sometimes our politicians go too far with this one (see above) but, in general, it’s better to provide rich and compelling context in your essays and letters of recommendation than simply listing accomplishments. Keep in mind the whole reason we ask for qualitative components in the application is because we want more than good students and good test takers – we want those with leadership skills, communication abilities and a strong ethical compass. Be sure to use all aspects of your MBA application to tell a unique story of who you are, why you want to earn your MBA and why the program you are applying to is a great fit for your goals.

3 Things MBA Admissions Officers are Looking For (Besides your GMAT Score)

Ask a typical MBA applicant the most important determinant of admissibility to business school, and you’re likely to hear “GMAT score” (along with a lengthy commentary about how hard the exam is, how it doesn’t predict success in the business world, and/or other reasons why the GMAT is the worst threat to modern civilization since Pokemon). And, in fairness, the GMAT is definitely an important component of the MBA application—it’s applied uniformly to all applicants and gives the admissions committee some level of comfort with the applicant’s quantitative and verbal problem solving abilities. However, while GMAT scores are positively correlated with academic success in business school (particularly in quantitative courses), they give little insight into important characteristics of the applicant. Most business schools employ a holistic admissions process and are looking for evidence of the following traits in their applicant pool.
Not all MBA applicants have extensive work experience, and that’s ok. So, rather than looking at the quantity of work and other experiences, I look for evidence that the applicant has made an impact in their professional, social and volunteer endeavors. In essays and letters of recommendation, I’m looking for specific, tangible actions the applicant has taken which has improved or enhanced the situation that existed prior to the applicant’s involvement with the organization. If I have a choice between an applicant who has simply showed up to work for five years vs. one with no professional work experience but who started a successful charity in college, I’m going to look very closely at the potential of the younger, less experienced applicant. Tip: Be sure your application highlights the impact of the organizations you have been affiliated with. Simply listing a bunch of clubs, charities and jobs won’t cut it. It’s particularly helpful if the letters of recommendation reinforce these themes. 
Business schools train future leaders, and one of the most important traits of good leaders is a strong character. We want to know that someday you will be a proud representative of our program—not an all-too-familiar headline about an unethical business leader ruining an organization. Honesty and integrity throughout the application process is paramount. Even white lies and small misrepresentations on your application can hurt your admissibility. People who fabricate letters of recommendation or hire someone else to write their admissions essays are almost always denied if caught. Tip: Use the essays to discuss a difficult ethical situation you’ve faced in the past. Explain the problem, as well as your thought process, the actions you took, and the results of your actions. 
Communication Skills
Business leaders aren’t test-taking robots. They need respond to ever-changing market conditions and motivate, train and manage diverse teams (often across multiple time zones). Both oral and written communication skills are of upmost importance during the application process, in business school, and—most importantly—in your post-MBA career. Use your application to demonstrate your ability to clearly tell your story in writing, and ensure that during all of your conversations with the admissions office (phone calls, recruiting events, and interviews) you speak in a polite, professional and articulate manner. Tip: Bringing samples of previous work product (particularly written communications) to your MBA interview can be very helpful to the admissions committee. 
As someone who has read over 1,000 MBA applications, I can tell you firsthand that incorporating these elements into your application helps the admissions committee gain a more holistic perspective of each applicant and may improve your chances of admission and/or a scholarship.

Ten Ways to Guarantee a Lousy Business School Experience

Earning an MBA can be a transformative and life-changing experience—one which leads to a better career; a broader and more powerful professional network; and enhanced managerial, interpersonal, and leadership skills. It can also be a huge waste of time and money.

In working with hundreds of prospective and current MBA students over the last 6+ years, I’ve consistently found those who do the following set themselves up for a bad business school experience:

1. Make faulty assumptions about the purpose of the degree

Students who pursue an MBA solely for financial reasons (“An MBA is my ticket to a six figure job!”)—or because a friend or loved one told them it advanced their career—often learn the hard way there is no “magic pill” (or degree) that guarantees a high salary or fulfilling professional life.

In fact, an MBA is a broad degree that can help early career professionals, career enhancers and career changers achieve their professional goals. It can also provide entrepreneurs with the skills and experiences required to bring a new product or service to market. However, just getting into b-school (even at a top program) doesn’t guarantee a good job. To be successful, students should understand the purpose of an MBA, choose the right program and format (more on this below), and take advantage of all learning opportunities—not just those that happen in the classroom.

2. Pick the wrong format for your needs

Over the last 20 years, the proliferation of several new MBA formats (online, blended, accelerated, etc) has made it easier for students with different academic and professional backgrounds, career paths, and budgets to earn an MBA. However, with these new options comes greater confusion. Some students are tempted to look for the program with the shortest duration, or least-stringent admissions standards, or lowest cost.

While this strategy may work for those who only need an MBA to check the box, those looking to start their career or transition into a new industry may find that selecting a program which lacks academic rigor, experiential learning opportunities, and a broad and diverse alumni network leave their career aspirations unfulfilled.   

3. Use rankings as the sole determinate of program selection

Many students decide to enroll in the highest-ranked program to which they are offered admission. While this strategy works for some, I’ve seen it backfire quite often.

In fact, students tend to quote rankings without really understanding their underlying composition (those who do dig into the components of the rankings are often amazed at how arbitrary they are). This leads to a false sense of security about which program(s) are really the best fit. Additionally, students who employ the “top-ranked program or nothing!” approach often overpay for their education—sometimes dramatically. More savvy students understand they can often receive substantial scholarships by attending (slightly) lower-ranked but still competitive programs in which they are overqualified for admission.

4. Make a bad impression at recruiting events

MBA programs spend a lot of time, money and effort hosting recruiting events for prospective MBA students. These events—which may include campus visit days, information sessions, or social gatherings—are great opportunities for both the student and the program to explore fit. Those who show up unprepared, act unprofessionally, or treat those they perceive as not important to the admissions process disrespectfully (ex: other guests, reception staff, student workers, etc.) may find they just made their path to admission (and scholarships) much more difficult.

5. Submit a poor application

Creating a great MBA application requires a lot of work. It necessitates thorough introspection of why the applicant wants to earn their MBA, and why the specific program they are applying to is a good fit. It requires a compelling narrative—which is supported by various components such as letters of recommendation, resume, and transcripts. And, it takes a lot of time; each submission should be highly personalized (if not completely customized) for each program the applicant is applying to.

Unfortunately, many applicants don’t take this approach. They cut and paste the same essays, changing the name of the school (sometimes they forget to even do this!). They write generically, omitting details about specific programs, centers, and professors they hope to interact with. They sometimes forget business schools are looking to train future leaders, and thus completely omit examples demonstrating leadership capability or aptitude. They submit generic letters of recommendation that offer no helpful information about the applicant. Worst of all, they sometimes hire someone else to write their essays and personal statements for them.

When we see that an applicant hasn’t put much effort into their application, we assume they aren’t genuinely interested in us (and our decision usually reflects this assumption).

6. Don’t negotiate for scholarships (or don’t do it well)

While most programs typically have some specific and objective requirements that must be considered when awarding a scholarship, there is often a lot of subjectivity in the process.  Students who ignore the advice in paragraphs 3-5 and demand instead of negotiate for scholarships often find themselves empty handed. Conversely, those who understand their value to a specific program—and negotiate the right way, with reasonable expectations—are often surprised with their financial aid package.

7. Spend all your time studying

Yes, like all graduate programs, it’s important to go to class and earn good grades. However, an MBA is a highly experiential degree; most people pursue it because they want to start, manage, or lead an organization. You can’t learn those skills solely by sitting in class.

Students who forgo opportunities to lead student organizations, study abroad, participate in project-based work, or compete in case competitions often have a hard time articulating to future employers how they have the experiences required to be successful at their organization. Those who fail to genuinely connect with classmates, faculty, career service staff, and alumni also create self-inflicted barriers to finding their dream job.

8. Cheat

The old adage “cheaters never win” couldn’t be more true in business school. In over six years, I’ve seen it all—from the lazy students who think they can get away with copying content directly from the internet, to the slightly more creative ones who continuously come up with more and more innovative ways to cheat on tests (some of which require more thought than simply studying).

While those who are caught are usually dismissed from the program (sometimes with a police escort—a story for another time) even those who get away with it eventually lose the respect of faculty and fellow classmates. This negates one of the biggest advantages of earning an MBA: the opportunity to develop a deep professional network.

9. Expect career services to find you a job

Students who don’t understand the distinction between using the career services office as a resource vs. expecting career services to find them a job are in for a rude awakening. Most programs dedicate vast resources to helping students develop and execute a solid job search strategy. These resources may include resume reviews, mock interviews, professional development workshops, and/or personalized coaching. However, students need to own their job search and may need to go beyond the services offered within their program to land their dream job.  

10. Ignore your alumni network

Those who don’t stay connected with their program after graduation do themselves (and their program) a disservice. Alumni can be a great resource for job leads, new customers, and for hiring top talent. Furthermore, successful alumni who stay connected can be of great assistance in recruiting prospective students, mentoring current students, and connecting them with job and internship opportunities—all of which contribute building a great culture which benefits everyone.

Brian Precious is the author of “Get In, Get Connected, Get Hired – Lessons from an MBA Insider” – a book geared towards helping prospective and current MBA students get the most out of their graduate school experience. He has managed the admissions, recruiting, and marketing teams at three major MBA programs—Oregon State University, Purdue University, and, his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Throughout his career in higher education, he’s helped thousands of prospective MBA students navigate the challenges of business school.

Utilize and Nourish Your Alumni Network 

Today, we’ll conclude a special series outlining various lessons from my new book.

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, understanding and using rankings appropriately, how to make a good impression during the recruiting process, and how to develop a high quality application that differentiates you from others with similar grades and test scores. We’ve also discussed how to effectively negotiate for scholarships, and how to maximize the experience once you are admitted to the program of your choice. Then, we took time to cover an important tip for what NOT to do: cheat in any way, shape or form. Last week, we touched on am important distinction: effectively utilizing career services to land your dream job (as opposed to simply relying on them to “find you a job”).

In Chapter 10, we discuss the value of your alumni network. I’ll share examples of students and former students who have leveraged alumni to:

  • find a job or internship
  • get acclimated when moving to a foreign country
  • do business in a new city or country
  • find talented employees

We’ll also discuss giving back to the alumni network. I’ll share why this is important, as well as some easy ways to do so, including:

  • setting up a recruiting pipeline at your organization
  • completing all surveys from the ranking agencies in a timely fashion
  • speaking with prospective or current students about your industry
  • mentoring current students

After reading this chapter, I’m sure you’ll agree that your alumni network is one of the most long-lasting and valuable benefits of earning your MBA.

For more information, check out the early reviews or subscribe to my newsletter. If you have already read the book and have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

Go Beyond Career Services (i.e. Own Your Job Search)

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, understanding and using rankings appropriately, how to make a good impression during the recruiting process and how to develop a high quality application that differentiates you from others with similar grades and test scores. We’ve also discussed how to effectively negotiate for scholarships, and how to maximize the experience once you are admitted to the program of your choice. Last week, we covered an important tip for what NOT to do: cheat in any way, shape or form.

In Chapter 9, we discuss the importance of going beyond career services and owning your job search. The chapter opens with a story of a student who found herself unemployed at graduation, and believing the career services team was responsible for her unfortunate predicament. While she ultimately found a job by leveraging her alumni network (more on this in the last chapter), she graduated without understanding the critical skill of how to conduct a successful job search. Yes, students can (and should) utilize all services provided by the program and its alumni network, but—at the end of the day—they need to be driving the search, not sitting in the back seat waiting for someone to find a job for them.

Chapter 9 works to define the efforts provided by career services and offer some tips for successful interactions with career services professionals (hint: have a focused plan, be professional in all interactions and never, never miss a scheduled interview with a potential employer!), but—more importantly—offers some suggestions for going beyond career services to land your dream job. Networking tips, suggestions on how you can market yourself via social media, and connecting with students in other programs within your school are covered in detail (for instance, if you are in a full-time MBA program on campus, be sure to meet your classmates in the part-time and executive programs. Often, they are great sources for insider job tips).

Next week, we’ll cover the final lesson (don’t cry): maximizing the value of your alumni network.

Until then, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, which will release updates as we near the publication date!

Whatever You Do in B-School, Don’t Do This!

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, understanding and using rankings appropriately, how to make a good impression during the recruiting process and how to develop a high quality application that differentiates you from others with similar grades and test scores. We’ve also discussed how to effectively negotiate for scholarships, and how to maximize the experience once you are admitted to the program of your choice.

In Chapter 8, we talk about a dirty secret prevalent in many MBA programs—that far too many students cheat on assignments, projects, and exams. Some do it because they’re lazy, some have a hard time juggling academic and extracurricular demands, and some can’t keep up with the numerous reading and writing assignments inherent in most MBA programs. Whatever the reasons, cheating can be disastrous for both the cheater and the program in which they’re enrolled.

The chapter opens with a moderately humorous story of a student who copied his assignment directly from Wikipedia and—when he got caught—tried to play it off like it was a coincidence. We then define the various types of cheating (there are several) and lists some possible consequences for those caught in this unfortunate situation. More importantly, the chapter discusses how to avoid academic dishonesty in the first place. Specific suggestions for handling group assignments, written assignments, and exams are provided.

Next week, we’ll cover a much more upbeat topic…how to go beyond career services to find your dream job!

Until then, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, which will release updates as we near the publication date (which is just around the corner)!

You’re Admitted to Your Top-Choice MBA Program…Now What?

Do More Than Study

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, understanding and using rankings appropriately, how to make a good impression during the recruiting process and how to develop a high quality application that differentiates you from others with similar grades and test scores. Last week, we covered how to effectively negotiate for scholarships.

Chapter 7 shifts gears from “Getting In” to “Getting Connected.” The chapter opens with a personal story about the first week of my MBA program. I learned—through an exercise that seemed silly at the time—that the most valuable experiences I would have in my program would happen outside the classroom. Sure, academics are important, but for me the skills and experiences that put my career on a new trajectory didn’t happen in an Accounting class. Instead, they occurred in China, during case competitions, serving as an elected class leader, and through some of the work I did with our internal consulting company.

Throughout the chapter, we’ll discuss why extracurricular and experiential learning opportunities are important, as well as how to gain them as an MBA student. I’ll share specific examples (both from my own experience and from student’s I’ve worked with) of how to use your non-class time to set yourself up for success in your career and beyond.

Next week, we’ll delve into what not to do in an MBA program: cheat.

Until then, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, which will release updates as we near the publication date!

The Easiest Way to Lower the Cost of Earning Your MBA

As you probably already know, Get in, Get Connected, Get Hired – Lessons from an MBA Insider goes on sale at the end of the month. The book reviews some of the most important insights I’ve gleaned from working with prospective and current MBA students over the last 6+ years. Each week between now and the launch, I’ll preview a chapter.

Lesson 6 – Negotiate Like a Pro

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, understanding and using rankings appropriately, and how to make a good impression during the recruiting process. And, last week, we discussed how to create a high-quality application that will help you stand out (in a good way) when reviewed by the admissions committee. Now, assuming you have been admitted to your top program, we discuss how to appropriately negotiate for scholarships and other types of funding.

Chapter 6 begins with a contrast of two conversations I had with admitted students. Both were hoping for additional funding. One choose to demand it in an aggressive and rude manner, while the other choose a more professional approach. Guess who received the extra funding…

After reading Chapter 6, you should have more clarity on the following questions:

  • When should you negotiate for additional funding? For instance, if your qualifications have changed since you applied, then you likely represent a more enticing candidate and have a demonstrable rationale for requesting more.
  • When shouldn’t you negotiate? Calling the admissions director and asking for additional funding because you don’t like debt isn’t likely to yield a positive outcome. Other poor reasons to negotiate are discussed.
  • What is the most effective way to negotiate? In this section we’ll discuss both what to do (set expectations, schedule an appointment, and keep it professional regardless of the outcome) and tactics to avoid at all costs (ultimatums, threats, and comparing offers between schools).

My hope is that the advice in this chapter will help deserving applicants maximize funding opportunities as they pursue a degree. After hundreds of conversations with admitted students about scholarships, I’ve witnessed effective approaches, ineffective approaches and disastrous approaches (in one case we revoked an admission offer to a student who was verbally abusive after not receiving the increase he was hoping for). This chapter will steer you to the former.

Next week, we shift gears – from “Get In” to “Get Connected.” In Chapter 7 we’ll talk about maximizing your experience as a student by doing more than just studying. We’ll also discuss how you can positively differentiate yourself by what you do outside the classroom.

Until then, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, which will release updates as we near the publication date!

Grab a Seat at an MBA Admissions Committee Meeting

Lesson 5 – Understand and optimize the admissions process

So far, we’ve talked about understanding the purpose of the MBA, picking the right format, using rankings appropriately, and how to make a good impression during the recruiting process. Now, it’s time to create an application that will impress the admissions committee.

Chapter 5 opens with a story about “Jane”—an applicant to our MBA program a few years ago. Jane had great grades and a solid GMAT score, but had a hard time communicating soft skills (leadership, communication, selflessness) on her application and during her interview. Using Jane’s application as an example, I walk readers through the eight questions I ask—and why they are so important—each time I review an application or conduct an interview. These include:

  1. Will the applicant be successful academically?
  2. Are the applicant’s postgraduation goals clearly defined and in alignment with our strengths?
  3. Can the applicant communicate effectively?
  4. Does the applicant demonstrate leadership potential?
  5. Does the applicant’s conduct indicate ethics and a sense of honor?
  6. Will the applicant be a good team member? Would I want to be on a team with him or her?
  7. Will the applicant be employable by the end of the program?
  8. Does the applicant specifically want to attend our program? Will they stay involved after graduation?

Unfortunately for Jane, the answers to most of these questions were not good, despite her stellar grades and test scores. The admissions committee debated her application for a long time, but—in the end—we offered her spot in the class to applicants with higher emotional intelligence, more leadership potential, and better communication skills.

After reading this chapter, I hope you’ll have greater insight into how I evaluate applications, where I look for answers to my questions and how you can optimize your application to any program. Next week, we’ll cover another critical topic – negotiating (effectively) for scholarships.

Until then, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter, which will release updates as we near the publication date!