Top 7 Steps All MBA Applicants Should Be Taking Now

Have you ever heard the old adage, "Complacency breeds mediocrity"? While it is appropriate for a variety of different situations, it is especially applicable when applying to MBA programs, as complacency here breeds middling or merely adequate applications. We recommend you take the following timely steps in the month of May to best position yourself for MBA application success.

1. Answer these three questions: Why an MBA? Why now? Why that particular school?

We cannot stress enough the importance of being able to answer these three questions easily, effectively, and comprehensively as you prepare your MBA application materials. It is well worth spending some time by yourself considering your answers to these three potentially life-changing questions. Is an MBA truly worth your money and time at this point in your life? What impact will attending an MBA program have on you personally? How do you imagine obtaining an MBA will help your career? Are you hoping to use the advanced degree to change careers altogether or are you seeking a promotion, pay raise, or opportunity to increase your business knowledge while strengthening your professional network? What if you postponed attending an MBA program for a year or two? How would your life look?

It is crucial to think through all aspects of attending an MBA program in order to make the decision that is best for you. Knowing why you wish to obtain an MBA at this time from a particular program can help direct your focus and allow you to set measurable goals. You will likely also be asked to answer these or similar questions either on essays or during interviews, so having your answers prepared and ready will not only make you feel more confident in your decision, it will set you apart as a serious candidate ready to fully participate in an MBA program.

2. Increase your score.

Did you take the GMAT, GRE, or TOEFL? One way to give your MBA application a boost is by improving your test score. If you want to raise your initial score, you still have plenty of time to retake the test, and it is worth considering attending a preparatory course or participating in one-on-one private tutoring prior to retaking your exam. This can allow you to address specific areas of weakness while not wasting time on areas you already excel in. Preparing for an exam takes time, but since you have already taken the exam at least once before, you will be familiar with the test and aware of where you can do better, ultimately resulting in earning yourself a higher score. We strongly recommend working with a testing or admissions expert to set a study schedule, assess progress, and ensure you are ready to raise your exam score, thereby strengthening your MBA application.

3. Nurture your recommenders.

It can be daunting to ask someone to write a recommendation letter for you to include in your MBA application, and this is a part of the application process that benefits from an investment of your time. The best recommendation letters do not come from someone who simply agreed to write you a letter because they are your friend or colleague; the best recommendation letters come from someone who has acted in a mentorship capacity towards you, who has guided you, assisted in your education and/or training, and is aware of your professional abilities and aspirations. It is never too early to start having conversations with people about your plans to attend business school. As you share your own hopes and dreams, take the opportunity to ask questions of your prospective letter writer: What business school did they attend? What do they wish they had known before applying to or attending an MBA program? What would they have done differently? What advice can they offer you?

Having these types of conversations not only allows someone to get to know you better, it also allows you to find areas of commonality that can be expanded upon in a recommendation letter. Perhaps you and your mentor share a passion for international business, or you are both dedicated to improving your local economy through strengthening cooperation among family-owned businesses. Before anyone can write you a strong letter of recommendation, they need to know you, your plans, your values, and your work ethic, as these are all things admissions committees will be looking to see addressed in recommendation letters.

4. Get to know the MBA programs and players.

To be a successful applicant, you must be able to demonstrate deep knowledge of the MBA program to which you are applying. A good place to start is with the program's website. Spending time perusing the website will give you an initial feel for the program, as well as its focus and what the school values in incoming students. At some point, however, you must go beyond the website to learn more than the basic, most readily accessible information.

As much as your schedule and finances will allow, consider attending any introductory or information-sharing sessions, as well as tours or other MBA program-related events sponsored by the admission office. While some events may require traveling in-person to the campus, many MBA programs offer virtual events, allowing you to increase your familiarity with the program from the comfort of your home or office. It is important to treat online events with the same level of regard as in-person events. Ask questions whose answers cannot be found on the website and demonstrate your interest in learning more about particular aspects of the overall program. Be polite and professional and practice introducing yourself prior to attending any event, whether it be in-person or virtually.

5. Make a personal connection.

As you are preparing your MBA program applications, take the time to reach out to friends, alumni, professors, and colleagues to get their views on the schools to which you are applying. Conversations over coffee or a meal can allow you to learn more about these programs from people with first-hand knowledge and experience. Ask them questions about their time in the program, what they liked or did not like, how the program met or fell short of their expectations, what they wish they had known before attending, etc. Those who attended a particular program can offer you their honest opinion of their time in the program and share how their professional life has fared since graduation. These conversations will help you determine whether you are truly a good fit for a given program and if a certain program is a good fit for you, greatly streamlining your focus when deciding between various prospective MBA programs.

6. Sharpen your school list.

When it comes to applying to MBA programs, we recommend you invoke a 3+3+3 rule:

  • Identify three schools that are your reach schools

  • Identify three schools that are your target schools

  • And identify three schools that are your likely schools

Reach schools are your dream schools, the top-tier or highest-ranking programs that are the most competitive and accept the fewest applicants. Target schools are those where you stand a good chance of being accepted; some people say a target school is one where you have a 50/50 chance of being offered a place as an incoming student. And likely schools are those you should easily be accepted to or are more than qualified to attend based on test scores, GPA, and other application materials.

When you are applying to MBA programs, it is best to cast a wide net and not focus exclusively on any one school. While it is always important to dream and do everything you can to ensure acceptance to a reach school, it is also important to have options when the time comes to make a decision about an MBA program, allowing you to make the best choice for your professional and personal life.

7. Commit and go all in.

At the end of the day, only you will know if the time is right to apply to an MBA program this year. If you feel confident this is the right time in your life to extend your business education, if you have the financial means to attend a program, and if you are able and willing to relocate to a new city or state, then you should pull out all the stops and commit whole-heartedly to the application process. Make this process a priority and treat it as such, as the more seriously you take applying to an MBA program, the better your chances of successfully being admitted into one. If you decide now is not the right time to pursue an MBA, consider plotting out a schedule that will allow you to apply when it makes better sense for you.

By taking the seven aforementioned steps in the month of May, you will be prepared for the next phase of the MBA application process, and you can go into this phase confident in your preparation, your recommendation letters, and your knowledge of the individual programs to which you are applying.

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