June is typically a month of transitions and new beginnings. Along with graduation addresses come lots of advice and guidance about what you should be doing moving forward. If getting an MBA is in your future, every day counts as you build your business school profile. Whether you intend to apply to MBA programs next year or several years from now, you should take time NOW to plan your next steps so your profile will be competitive.
Here are 12 tips to guide your decisions before you apply to business school:
1. Prepare for the academics.
MBA cohorts bring together students with a very diverse mix of academic backgrounds, and this diversity creates a robust learning environment. Although applicants who have studied economics, business, engineering, or accounting are often well equipped to perform in a business school classroom, students who pursued degrees in the humanities may need additional preparation. If you haven’t taken a math class since high school, consider enrolling in a pre-MBA math course so you can dust off your quant skills and be ready to hit the ground running. If your undergrad performance was less than stellar, look for ways to show the admissions committee that you will be a more confident student in their MBA program. (See “Can I Get into a Top MBA Program with a Low GPA?” for insight on demonstrating your preparedness for the rigor of an MBA program.)
2. Put the GMAT/GRE behind you.
During the pandemic and the related disruption at testing facilities, several top MBA programs offered potential applicants an opportunity to request a standardized test waiver. Don’t count on this to be the case moving forward. You don’t want to be preparing your applications while taking your standardized test. Test scores are valid for five years, so don’t worry about taking the test too early. Nearly all MBA programs are truly test agnostic, so you should take the test on which you will perform the best. Create a study plan and then execute it—and remember that there is no harm in taking the test more than once! (See “GMAT, GRE, or Even EA—Which Test Should I Take?” for more information on selecting a standardized test.)
3. Strive for outstanding performance at work.
MBA admissions committees will evaluate your professional experience based on the number of years you have worked as well as how you have progressed, what skills you have developed, and whether your experience will add a valuable and/or unique perspective to the business school classroom. What does this look like in real terms? Be prepared! If you need extra help or don’t understand what is expected, ask for support. Make sure you are delivering everything that is asked of you. Identify what matters most to those who matter most in your company, and then figure out how you can become a subject matter expert and add value in that area. Keep in mind that this may be above and beyond your “day job,” at which you must excel.
4. Be open to new ideas and perspectives.
Take advantage of opportunities to meet new people and learn about their backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives. This could be at work or through outside activities or travel. Learn to look at challenges and opportunities through the eyes of others. Engaging with individuals who are different from you will allow you to build your EQ (emotional quotient), which is valued in business schools because it is essential for becoming a business leader. Business schools want to assemble diverse cohorts of students who value the perspectives of others and will ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. In fact, many programs have introduced essays or questions in their recommendations that seek to understand your openness to diverse perspectives.
5. Take risks and seek growth opportunities.
Self-awareness is an asset. If you feel yourself stagnating in your role, this may be a sign that it’s time to move on. If you don’t feel prepared for business school yet, look for growth opportunities either within your current company or outside. Perhaps you want to try out a different function. Alternatively, explore another industry in which the skills and knowledge you have developed would be valued. Failure is not the end of the world; don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. If you stumble, find resources that will allow you to recover and learn from your missteps.
6. Consider the impact you hope to make.
Think about what you love about your work and what you would prefer to do less of. Set up informational interviews to better understand what those in more senior roles in your organization do, or look beyond your current company and investigate an industry or function that intrigues you. Find out how your current skills and knowledge might be used to add value in alternative roles. Take time for introspection and self-reflection. What motivates you? What impact do you hope to have in the world? These are big questions that you can’t answer in a single sitting. An MBA can serve as a way to bridge the skills and knowledge you have developed in your day job as you transition to a role about which you are more passionate.
7. Ask questions and listen to understand.
Be an active participant in meetings. Take notes so you can ask clarifying questions. If you are not engaged, your manager may sense that you are not interested or don’t understand. As you listen to others, don’t just listen for the purpose of responding to what they are saying; listen with the intent of truly understanding their perspective. Flexing these skills now will help you to develop as a leader.
8. Observe and make note of leadership qualities.
Pay close attention to leaders in your organization. What traits do you admire? What do you wish they did differently? Look for ways to develop your leadership skills. You don’t need to have a formal leadership role; you can lead in a variety of ways. Perhaps equally important, be aware of leaders who are less effective and understand why. Document what you witness so you can avoid similar behaviors.
9. Ask for constructive feedback.
Your recommenders will be asked to share details about a time when they offered you constructive feedback and how you handled it. Make a habit of asking for feedback, internalizing what you hear, and making a plan to address it—and then follow up to confirm that you have addressed whatever you needed to improve on. Thank those who offer guidance on how you can improve. Some may not deliver the message in the most eloquent way, so learn to discern constructive criticism when it is poorly communicated, and don’t take the feedback personally. If you are early in your career, you might be comfortable leaning on your peers for insight with respect to how you can improve. Take a look at the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Common Letter of Recommendation to understand how your recommenders will be evaluating you.
Crafting a compelling narrative for business school doesn’t happen overnight. Take time in the months and years leading up to building your MBA applications to document your short-term goals, accomplishments, achievements, and failures. Reflect on what you have learned and how you might improve. Having notes that highlight your motivations, passions, interests, and goals will enable you to quickly develop an application strategy when you get closer to applying.
11. Use your free time wisely.
In business school, you will need to juggle classes, club activities, and recruiting. MBA admissions committees will be looking for evidence that you have been able to find balance and are not one-dimensional. Working long hours can be par for the course for recent college graduates. In your limited free time, be mindful of what you do. Perhaps you want to pursue a passion project, or maybe you are committed to making a positive impact in your community. Consider the company you are keeping.
12. Start exploring MBA programs.
It’s never too early to begin researching business schools. As a result of the pandemic, there are seemingly infinite webinars, coffee chats, and other events that prospective students can attend. Think about what resonates with you as well as what doesn’t. For now, just listen and take notes. If you find yourself near a business school that is on your radar, just swing by campus, walk around, and observe!
Not sure how to start? Connect with Stratus for a free consultation to discuss where you are now and where you see yourself in a few years.