MBA applications are NOT something that you can “throw together” in a week (or even two). From needing to sit the GMAT or GRE (not to mention the time required to prep for THOSE), to writing essays, and asking for (and getting) recommendations, there’s a LOT to prepare!
In this episode of Business Casual, you will learn straight from the pros how long THEY think you should plan on spending to apply to Business school.
(And spoiler alert – if you’re thinking about applying this fall, you’ll want to be getting started ASAP!!!)
[00:00:07.150] – John
[00:00:07.210] – John
Hello, everyone. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Welcome to Business Casual, our weekly podcast with my cohost Maria Wich Villa and Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline, as you should know by now now is the former director of admissions at INSEAD and a co founder of Fortuna Admissions. And Maria is the founder of Applicant Lab. Now that most of the round three deadlines are pretty much over. And while the official season to apply isn’t completely done with because some schools have round four and round five, and there are often extended deadlines that go into the early summer, it is that time of the year when people who want to apply for admission not this coming fall, but the following fall should be thinking about putting together their application and getting prepped and ready to actually do a solid application that would get them into a highly selective business school. So we want to talk about the timetable for studying for a standardized test, for the things that you need to do now, not later, so that you’re not cramming for your application deadlines, be they in round one of this year or round two in early next year.
[00:01:26.060] – John
Caroline, what’s your basic advice on the timetable?
[00:01:29.110] – Caroline
Yeah, it’s great to start early. So I do think too many candidates start prevaricate and hesitate trying to figure out where they’re going to apply and thinking about taking the test and so on. And don’t start thinking about their research and their application until they’re further down the line and perhaps have finished the GMAT or the GRE. So now is definitely a good time to get into serious preparation mode. If you haven’t taken the test or you haven’t yet got the test score that you’re happy with, then that should be a key focus right now. And in parallel, candidates should be doing plenty of research and exploring which schools would be the best fit for them and not just jumping to a conclusion based on rankings and where their colleagues have been to business school, but really doing some serious research into the programs and the different elements of the curriculum, the job placement opportunities, et cetera, and figuring out given their career goals. And maybe that’s also something that you need to spend some time on delving into career goals and career vision for post MBA. But on the basis of that, figuring out which is really the best program fit.
[00:02:45.850] – John
And that really does start with research. So, yeah, I know that most people start the process by looking at rankings and getting a sense of what are the possibilities in many schools, obviously will fit profiles of individual students based on either the areas that they cover that they’re strong in, meaning a given discipline, or where they place students or where they’re located, or frankly, again, where they’re ranked. These are all important elements of looking at the landscape of schools to decide to do further research into their programs. Who gets in what the cultures are like and whether or not you will feel like you’re a fit for a given school. Maria, any advice on doing that deep dive?
[00:03:33.710] – Maria
Yeah. I mean, in the many years that I’ve been doing this, no one has ever once said to me, you know, I started this process too early. No one’s ever been like, you know, Maria, I started a year ago, and I really wish I would have waited until no one because there’s so much you could be doing, even if you’re not even doing anything about your application itself. First of all, I think preparing the application is a lot more work than people estimate. But Caroline mentioned things like researching career paths. I mean, you might even want to try to find a pre MBA temporary job or a pre MBA internship if you are trying to move career paths, because if you put that on your application, if you say, look, I’m in the military right now, but I think I want to go into investment banking and I have a six month internship at Morgan Stanley through their Veterans program. How much more credibility do you now have in your career goals? I think regarding test taking, I think getting the test out of the way is just like a cloud that hangs over your head.
[00:04:37.280] – Maria
And if you get it out of the way as soon as possible, it’s not going to be hanging over you. It’s not going to be stressing you out. And to be honest, obviously it’s a holistic process. But sometimes if you cannot get a good test score and your test scores are terrible, there’s not even any point in thinking about the rest of the application because you may not even be at the level that would be compelling academically for some of these programs. So regarding the test, one thing I would say is instead of just like, in addition to just to get it out of the way early, take practice tests of the GMAT and a practice test for the GRE and see which one feels more comfortable to you. As we’ve talked about before, getting in a higher percentile on quantity for the GRE is usually seen as easier given the broader test taking population, as they have. Now. If you’re interested in a merit based scholarship, then you may want to try to take the GMAT because schools, I think, care more about their GMAT, average GMAT than they do about their average GREs.
[00:05:33.320] – Maria
But in fact, Poets and Quants just published a couple of days ago a report on how the GRE test has become so much more commonplace in MBA admissions. And so you no longer need to worry about like, oh, if I submit a GRE, not really. So if you’re just at the beginning, take some practice tests, be honest with yourself. If the quantity is the thing that’s holding you back, consider taking the GRE. And I think now is a good time to start thinking about your recommenders. I would not approach recommenders just now, but start thinking about okay, I’m going to need at least one, possibly two people who have been in a position of authority over me, who think highly of me, but have also seen me grow, who have given me advice on things I should be doing better, keeping in mind the questions that are asking the recommendations. And so let’s say you have a mentor that you think would make an excellent, really excellent recommender. But maybe it was at a previous job and maybe you haven’t kept in touch with him for a couple of years or things like that, like now is a great time to reach out and start just planting those seeds.
[00:06:40.820] – Maria
Right. I’m not thinking about next steps for my career, thinking about long term investment in my education. Maybe an MBA is a good idea. What do you think? And then you start teeing up that conversation now. And by the way, if you’re panicking right now and thinking, oh my gosh, I don’t have anyone in a position of power over me who really would be willing to go to bat me, now is the time. You still have a few months. Try to identify some people who could become your champion at your current job. Right? I mean, I don’t want to say butter them up. Butter them up. Right. Start. Hey, what can I help you with? Hey, do you have any feedback for me? What can I be doing better around here? How could I be helping more around here? That’s something you can absolutely start as soon as possible.
[00:07:22.810] – John
Hey, nothing wrong about buttering up your recommenders. I think that’s a fine strategy. Now let’s go back to the standardized test. Caroline, how much time should a candidate spend practicing and studying to get a good score? What do you tend to recommend to your clients? And I should put out there that so many people retake the test. So don’t think that when you schedule your test, that may be the end all of the process. It could very well be that you’re going to be taking the test. Two, three. I know candidates who have taken four to six times to get the score to put them in the position to get into a business school. So what’s recommended time that you think someone should set aside to study for the exam before they actually sit for it?
[00:08:11.730] – Caroline
Well, it’s as long as a piece of string. Right. Some people need much more time than others. But the typical thing is that people underestimate how much time that’s going to be. And sometimes people do very well on the practice tests at home, and then they actually do the real test and they’re very disappointed with their performance for whatever reason.
[00:08:29.410] – John
[00:08:29.620] – Caroline
You can have a bad day or just be unlucky with how things go, and that can really happen to anybody. So you should build in plenty of buffer time to your testing schedule.
[00:08:41.630] – John
Caroline, I just want to make one point about the practice test. I strongly suspect that the practice tests are legitimately. No, not legitimately. Intentionally easier than the actual test, because if you do the practice test on the GMAT, they want you to their actual test and they don’t want you to go to GRE and vice versa. So I would argue that in general, people take the practice and the score higher than doing the actual test, in part because it’s a marketing game. I don’t know if I’m wrong. I don’t know candidates who have done surprisingly well in the practice test who fell far short on the real test.
[00:09:22.980] – Caroline
Yeah, John and his conspiracy theories. But just to give some examples of timelines. So I was talking recently with Scott Woodbreet, who is the founder of Target Test Prep. I think TTP is a great platform for GMAT prep. And he says that he thinks people need to dedicate six months of preparation. And he says you should plan on, I think, 400 to 500 hours.
[00:09:51.950] – John
[00:09:52.700] – Caroline
So that’s a big chunk of time, right? No one can crank that out overnight. And the vast majority of people who are working on test prep have very busy day jobs and not nine to five jobs either. So you’ve got to find time around a very busy schedule. So I think the earlier you start, the better. And something that he suggests is rather than leaving it to the end of the day and I can remember doing this long day in the office and then coming back home and you’re feeling exhausted and have some dinner. And then, oh, great, I got to get my GMAT test prep books and plowing through that. It’s pretty gruesome and you’re pretty exhausted and tired already. His suggestion is just get up a bit earlier and do something every morning. Just build that into your schedule. And while your brain is not yet exhausted from the demands of your day, build that prep into your morning schedule. So that’s quite an intimidating number, right? 400, 500 hours. But that’s I think a great guideline to think about. And six months is if you’re starting now, probably too late for round one.
[00:11:07.570] – Caroline
It might be more a case of round two if you’re just starting your test prep now and you haven’t done any work on it yet.
[00:11:12.960] – John
And I imagine if you’re an engineer or have a Stem background, you’re logically going to perform better on the quantity. And you may not require that much time and effort. But if you are a bad standardized test taker, if you are a poet who has had little exposure to quant work, you’re probably going to need a lot more time, maybe even six months. That’s really true. Okay. So you do your deep dive on the research of the schools to get a sense of where you want to go, then you prep for the standardized task, you begin to cultivate your recommenders. What else?
[00:11:51.430] – Maria
Maria, I think as you start narrowing down what schools may be of interest, I think now is a great time of year to start to reach out to current students, especially because students have not yet started, the graduating students have not yet graduated, and the first year students have not yet started their internships. So now is a great time to reach out to the current student clubs, particularly in the professional club that relates most of what your career plans are and just start asking them questions. Right. Start figuring out, especially if you’re trying to think about a career switch. Right. You can ask them things like, hey, have other people with my background been able to successfully get jobs in consulting or hey, when private equity hires at your school, do they hire people who are former engineers or do you need to work in banking first? So that can also be a great way to not only learn about career paths, but also to learn about schools to learn about culture. Right. If a student it’s not the stereotype. But if someone from a tuck calls you back right away and spends 2 hours with you on the phone, that’s going to give you a much better impression of what the tech culture is like versus perhaps other schools where they may not be as responsive.
[00:12:59.790] – Maria
Not that you can take one student’s lack of responsiveness or excessive responsiveness as a metric for the whole entire culture, but it can start to give you a sense of what the different schools are like as well from a cultural perspective.
[00:13:14.370] – John
Yeah, that’s really true. Now, in fact, Caroline, when you were head of admissions at INSEAD, I’m sure you had ambassadors for the program. We spoke to candidates. Did you have guidelines as to how long it should take for them to get back to a potential applicant?
[00:13:31.860] – Caroline
Well, as soon as most of the inquiries were handled by staff, because it’s a one year program, the students are incredibly busy. But we would definitely use students for on campus events and meeting campus visitors, but not so much for just fielding emails unless there was something, unless they were part of a club or something and they were representing something specific, and then they would handle that directly. But most of the inquiries that came into the school were directed to staff initially, right?
[00:14:03.610] – John
Yeah, that’s understandable because it is a ten month program. People are very intense. People are very.
[00:14:12.670] – Caroline
So they just have less time for helping out with other things like marketing activities. But as we’re talking about campus visits, I mean, that’s something that people may be able to do now, right? I mean, some schools are opening up for campus visits. Now, not everybody is open, but that may be feasible for some candidates. So if that is an option for you definitely try to do that, because I still think that there is no replacement for actually getting onto campus and soaking up the atmosphere and having lunch in the canteen and sitting on a class and really soaking up the atmosphere and getting a feel for whether that’s the right place for you. And the schools totally understand that it’s not feasible for everybody. Some people are applying for a very long way away. But if you do have the option to do that, I would definitely encourage candidates to make every effort to visit campus, if at all possible.
[00:15:08.730] – John
And the admissions team likes to hear about stories where an applicant visits a campus and was turned on by a class or professor or sat down with students and immediately loved what they said about the culture, the collaborative nature of the school, et cetera. Because it just shows deeper interest. And the admissions staffer might think, okay, this person is far more likely to attend based on the experience that they had visiting campus. Is that right?
[00:15:38.490] – Caroline
Absolutely. You shouldn’t feel that you’re at a disadvantage, right? If you haven’t been able to visit campus, they’re not going to hold that against you. But particularly at the interview stage, you’re going to be grilled about why you’re applying to that particular school. It’s easier to sort of gloss over with a superficial knowledge of the school in your admissions essays on paper. But when you get to the interview stage, you really have to be able to tell, as you say, a bit more of a substantial story about your motivation and how you’ve learnt about the school and what has impressed you. And it gets very repetitive for the interviewers when candidates are just sort of regurgitating some of the key messages that they’ve read on the website. Right. So it’s very helpful for you as a candidate, as you say, to have some good anecdotes to tell about your interaction with a school, your campus visit, or the chats that you’ve had with students or alumni. That’s going to differentiate you more than just regurgitating some of the data that you’ve read on the school website.
[00:16:46.420] – John
Which is just going to make your interviewers eyes glaze over how far in advance of the deadline should one begin to draft essays?
[00:16:56.970] – Maria
Maria so that’s a great question because I think the essay writing process can be broken into two very large chunks. One is assessing your career to date, maybe even things beyond your career in your broader life, perhaps significant moments from your life, things you did in College, and to really start to take stock of. When have I been most effective? What are the things that have driven me, et cetera, et cetera? That way when you sit down to write the essays, you have a sort of a quarry. I don’t know if that’s the right word. You’ve got a bunch of things that you can mine. And so that way you don’t have to start or restart the thinking process from scratch every time. So right now, what you can start doing for sure is to start thinking about like, okay, what are some experiences I’ve learned from? What are some experiences where I’ve really made a difference? You can also look at the school’s previous year’s essays. Sometimes the schools will pull a complete 180 and completely change what their essays are. But for the most part, many of them stay the same. And even if the essay changes, what the school is looking for is pretty similar from year to year.
[00:18:04.680] – Maria
So I think those are things you can start doing now and then in terms of actual drafting the essay. Please don’t go completely overboard just because realize that a lot of the essay questions come out in June or July, at least for the US schools that are on the typical round one, round two calendar. And so I would hate for you to spend a ton of time drafting an essay for a school. And then, oh, sorry, we changed it. Okay. But again, as with before, I don’t think anyone ever said, oh, man, I wish I would have, man. I really spent too much time on my essay. I think it’s possible to spend too much time tinkering at the last minute to say, like, oh, should this be a semicolon or a dash? If you get to that point, then you’ve gone too far. But in terms of the broad points you want to make and how you can best describe those, you can start that right now. You can start years in advance. Honestly, keep a little Journal somewhere, a Google Doc.
[00:18:59.520] – John
There you go. Caroline, you agree?
[00:19:02.140] – Caroline
Yes, absolutely. It’s a great opportunity to take a step back. Right. And sort of assess what you have achieved so far. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your opportunities for development? And that reflection is really useful input to the application process. And the application process shouldn’t just be a hoop to jump through. Ideally, it should be an opportunity for you to learn about yourself and benefit from that reflection process. And the essays do require when done well, they do require you to think quite deeply about where you’ve come from and where you’re heading. And so rather than just do that in a superficial manner, really try to dig into that and take advantage of that reflection process. Because what we see is often candidates who invest in that reflection and take it seriously. They actually benefit from that during the MBA program because they have a much better sense of direction. They have a much better sense of what they want to get out of the program, of the skills they want to build, of the network that they want to build, and the direction they want to head in post MBA. So all of that effort will not be wasted.
[00:20:20.850] – Caroline
It’s not just about jumping through the hoop to get into school. It’s about preparing yourself to be a good MBA student as well.
[00:20:26.590] – John
Okay, so we are now a little more than five months away from round one deadlines for the US schools. It’s not too late, right?
[00:20:35.730] – Caroline
No, absolutely not. But if you haven’t really thought about it yet, you definitely need to get into gear with doing your research, with preparing for the test and so on. So it’s definitely time to get serious about the process.
[00:20:51.690] – John
All right, Maria, do you have any motivating work? Get people off their butts and get working if they’re going to flush.
[00:21:00.330] – Maria
When you say motivating, it sounds like you want some sort of encouraging warm and fuzzy thing which I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning to turn that side of my brain on. But I think especially if you are from an overrepresented group for nothing else like applying for round one versus round two, I know that there’s no difference. But if you’re from an overrepresented group, it does benefit you to apply in round one. And if you’re from an overrepresented group, I think you should realize that your competitors in this process, many of them probably started a year, if not two years ago, preparing for this. So hopefully that helps get you jumping out of your seat and starting to sprint forward with what you’re doing. I don’t mean to discourage people but there are people who have been preparing for this, I like to joke since kindergarten. So think of it. Keep your competitor. Keep your competition in mind.
[00:21:53.350] – John
Maria, that would motivate me right now because I’m such a companion. I would be jumping off this podcast and diving into doing the research and signing up for a prep course for my GMAT or GRE and getting the ball rolling immediately. If I had any hope of applying in round one, a lot of people apply to, let’s say, one or two schools in round one, see what happens and then apply to a greater number of schools around two. That’s a typical strategy for many people. And getting that round one application off is I think the more applications you do, the better you become doing them. Because practice does lead to, if not perfection, it leads to a better result. So for all of you out there, I hope we’ve been helpful in talking a little bit about the steps that you really need to take and the timeline involved in applying to a great business school. This is John Byrne with Poets and Quants. Thanks for listening.