Saturday, August 30, 2014

Factors of my admissions experience

I originally posted the below post on GMAT Club, under the title "Trying to Defy Gravity." As Round 1 deadlines for the Class of 2017 loom closer, I've been receiving emails and comments from several applicants asking for my thoughts on what led to my admissions success.I think this post summarizes the main points:

Trying to Defy Gravity

In 2012, I made the decision to apply to business school in 2013 to hopefully matriculate in 2014. I am the type of person that likes to plan things in advance. I've spoken with several other applicants who decided to apply just 6-8 weeks before deadlines. That would be my worst nightmare.

My journey, of course, began with the GMAT. I've always been naturally strong in verbal and I am a native English speaker, so I focused 100% of my prep on quant. The GMAT was not easy for me. I performed well on practice tests, but bombed my first official test. Ultimately I took the test three times to land a 730. I would have loved to join the 99th percentile club, but I was content with my score and decided to move on to other aspects of my application.

Additional Coursework
I come from a less-traditional background and didn't have any business-related courses in undergrad, although I took a couple of calc and stats classes for my major. Still, I wanted to make sure that b-schools knew that I could handle traditional business classes, so I took a financial accounting and a microecon class to boost my background.

School Choice
I spent a significant amount of time defining my career goals and determining the types of things that I do and don't like. From there, I looked at the top 20 schools and quickly noted which ones I was not interested in. That was easier for me than deciding which programs I was interested in. For example, NYC is too hectic for me and also freakishly expensive, so Columbia and Stern were crossed out. I also prefer the east coast, and decided that there were only 2 schools that would be personally worth it for me to leave the east coast -- Stanford and Kellogg. I also focused a lot on the community of the schools and the program offerings.

My Recommendations for Current Applicants:
I spent an insane amount of time researching everything I could about applying to schools, but of course, there is always an element of luck involved in admissions. I have met some incredible people during this process, and there are way more qualified people than spots available.

A couple of things that I found most helpful:
- Starting early
- Chatting with anyone and everyone -- current students, alumni, admissions officers, fellow applicants, etc... I tried to find any hidden insight I could for each program to which I applied.
- Knowing my story: Coming from a less traditional background, I really had to prove that my story made sense and that an MBA was critical to my next steps. I practiced my pitch repeatedly and even did mock interviews with some friends.
- Writing articulate essays that answered the question, while simultaneously highlighting my differentiating factors, my personality, and my passion.

A few things that I may have changed:
- Applying to school is ridiculously expensive. I only thought about the cost of applications and failed to factor in flights and hotel rooms for visits and interviews, $750 for the 3 times I took the GMAT, plus GMAT study resources and the 2 additional classes. I wish I would have saved more. Especially now that I am seeing the cost of attendance for top MBA programs.
- There are probably some other things that would have made the journey easier, but since it's all worked out, I guess I wouldn't change them. I don't know if the additional coursework helped and it was really time consuming, but whatever, I'm sure it didn't hurt my app.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Week 1 at HBS

I just finished my first week as a Harvard Business School MBA candidate!... Wow, that feels pretty cool to say.

This week was a mix of every humanly possible emotion. I began the week with extreme excitement and a bit of anxiety, wondering what this adventure would hold. At 7am on Monday morning, we were given our section assignments. Sections are a defining aspect of the HBS experience, and how the program is able to feel close-knit and intimate, in spite of the fact that there are 900+ first year students. Each student is assigned to a section of about 90 people. We will stay in the same section for the entire year, taking all of our courses with the same group of people. We stay in the same room for all of our classes, while our professors rotate.

In addition to the sections, we are also all assigned to discussion groups of 6 people. The discussion groups are a cross-sectional mix. We meet every morning at 8am to discuss the cases for the day. The discussion groups are essentially a microcosm of the section experience, as they are composed of a diverse mix of students with varied experiences and backgrounds. By meeting daily with this small group, I've already been able to form bonds, which I'm sure will only deepen as the semester progresses.

Overall, I had a great week, but holy cow, I'm beyond tired. I was up until around midnight last night preparing cases for today's classes. The workload is pretty intense. That's why it's Friday night, and while many of my classmates are going out, I'm excited to relax in my on-campus apartment, watch mindless television, and go to bed early.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

FOMO is real

Classes haven't even started yet, and I'm already experiencing FOMO.

The number of events that I've already received invites for is mind-boggling. Should I go on that Cape Cod retreat, attend the Gatsby party, Color Block party, cocktails and networking event, yacht day, dinner with ECs, etc???... oh yeah, and at some point between those events, I'll also need to read a bunch of cases, be prepared to be cold-called, familiarize myself with campus, try to meet new people, and get re-adjusted to living with a roommate.

Holy crap, this year is going to be crazy...and amazing... but definitely crazy.

So anyway, I'm learning that HBS is a very social place. Last year, when researching MBA programs, I heard so much about the fun activities and parties that pervade Kellogg and the friendliness of students at programs like Tuck and Fuqua. HBS was designated as the uber competitive, suit-wearing "bro." But, so far at least, I haven't experienced that at all. Everyone I've met has been super supportive and down to earth. We'll see what happens once classes start, but I'm feeling very happy about my decision to matriculate here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How to Prepare Your Recommenders

Have you seen the new blog post from the Tuck adcom about recommenders? If not, check it out now. It answers a lot of frequently asked questions and gives some helpful advice. I've recently been asked by a couple of blog readers some similar questions, and I think Pat Harris (Tuck adcom) answers those questions well.

But anyway, if you've read that post and still want my advice, then keep reading. Once you've decided who to choose for your letters of recommendation, it's not enough to just send them the online link and leave the rest up to fate (well, it's probably enough for some people, but if you're reading this blog, then it shouldn't be enough for you). However, you absolutely can not (and should not) write your recommendations yourself. Nevertheless, you can provide guidance to your recommenders to steer them in the right direction.

I created individual Recommender Packets and set up coffee chats with each of my recommenders. During our meetings (and in the packets), I noted my career goals, explained why I wanted an MBA, and then reminded them of some of my major accomplishments (i.e. "Remember how awesome I am and all of those great things I did!") I don't know if they chose to describe those things in my letters of recommendation, but it was a helpful starting point to get them brainstorming. I also let them know about particular areas that would be helpful for them to address. For example, coming from a less traditional field, I needed the adcom to know that I do actually have strong analytical and quantitative skills, and I can really compete with the finance kids. I let my recommenders know that this was an area of concern for me, then I asked them to comment on some of the major initiatives that I've led that highlight those areas. Your recommendations should reinforce the strengths and stories highlighted throughout your application, while also providing additional insight into your candidacy.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What questions to ask admissions officers

I was recently sent a message from an applicant regarding what questions to ask current students, alumni, and admissions officers. If you follow my blog or my posts on GMATClub, you've probably noticed my repeated advice to network, network, network. Reach out to people to truly learn about each program, beyond what's on the school's website. But, what should you actually ask them?

I had this same question myself last year. And when I asked, I was told to just ask whatever you want to know to help make the best decision about where to apply and ultimately/hopefully matriculate. That advice was incredibly unhelpful. I already knew where I wanted to apply. By that point, I just wanted advice that would help me get in. I was past the stage of trying to determine "fit."

I can write a post later about finding your fit, but this post is for those of you who fall into the latter category and just want advice to make yourself stand out.

The point of asking questions to admissions officers (in my opinion) is to start to establish a connection and hopefully leave them with a rough memory of you.

  • Briefly share something interesting about yourself (this is basically your elevator pitch)
  • Connect your personal details to your question (this is how you can share your elevator pitch without sounding obnoxious. There has to be a reason that you are sharing this info. The reason, if you've prepared well, is that you have a relevant question to ask.)
  • Show that you have already done some research about the program (For example, if you were interested in international development, you could ask a Duke Fuqua admissions rep about the new campus opening in Asia)
  • Be sure to follow-up with a "It was great meeting you at XYZ event" type of email. Later, if you have other questions, you can continue to reply through the same email thread. This will help the adcom gradually start to remember you, or at least to have a record of you. For example, if you meet an admissions officer from Cornell at a Forte Forum in September, then in October, you could send the rep another email letting them know that you will be visiting the school and perhaps ask for recommendations on what to see/do while in Ithaca. 
  • Ask a question that could be answered with info from the school's website
  • Ask a question that doesn't positively support your candidacy 
  • Ask questions that can be quickly answered with a "Yes" or "No" response. Rather, aim for open-ended questions that will stimulate a (brief) discussion.
  • Lastly, be respectful of their time. Once you've asked your questions and shared a bit about yourself, kindly excuse yourself.
A few question ideas:
  • If interested in entrepreneurship, you could ask a HBS admissions officer about the Rock Center or the Harvard iLab.
  • If interested in management consulting, you could as a Darden admissions officer about the new careeer service partnership with McKinsey.
  • If interested in a non-traditional field, you could ask about opportunities for students to take classes in other departments/programs while enrolled at the b-school (be sure to only about about programs that are a strength of the university. For example, HBS and the GSB both have world-class schools of education. Since I'm interested in business and ed, this was a great way to mention my unique career goals, while gaining more info about the programs). Or ask, what career placement resources are in place for students interested in pursuing non-traditional post-MBA positions, i.e. opportunities within the education sector?
  •  If you can't think of anything more original, you can always ask what advice they have for applicants and what they think is the biggest misconception of the program.

These are just a few ideas to help structure your questions.