The Fine Art of MBA Application
With nine (9) fully-funded offers, 5 out of which also included monthly stipends, from fourteen (14) applications to top 10 – 50 MBA programs in the US and Canada, I have learned that business schools’ MBA application is a fine art that should be honed. If you are not new to Firmsconsulting, you will have heard Michael talk about how networking isn’t different from dating. The same is true here. Now, before you call me Casanova (I assure you I am not) who courted fourteen different ladies, let me tell you a story. A story that puts the above in context.
MBA Application: my first attempt
Late 2018, I had applied to six MBA programs – Harvard (HBS), MIT (Sloan), Michigan (Ross), Toronto (Rotman), Washington (Olin) and Maryland (Robert Smith). I applied to HBS and MIT because I didn’t want to live a life wondering if I could have gotten in (looking back now, I guess I applied for the honor of getting rejected. hahaha). It didn’t take long for me to get a response – NO.
Maryland, I suspect, didn’t think I was going to accept their offer after I told them about the schools I applied to (wrong move). I knew my journey with Olin ended when I attended my admission interview with a baseball cap and polo shirt (I was as unprepared as anyone could have been; I should have just postponed the interview). I got into Ross with a 40% scholarship long after I had said Yes to Rotman’s 20% scholarship offer. Who does that?
Rotman stood out majorly because Canada, in my opinion, is a calmer society compared to the US. Now I know that that is opened to debate depending on how you define “calm”, but let us try not to argue because that is not the essence of this article. Remember, we are discussing the fine art of the MBA application? Right, let’s stick to that.
So I approached Prodigy Finance, an international loan company, to cover for the rest of the funds I couldn’t raise on my own. And they said yes. I quit my job to be a primary caregiver to my ailing mother. That way, my siblings could focus on their education while my mom received the medical help she needed. Everything seemed set until in June 2019, the Canadian Embassy said NO. They didn’t think I was going to return to my home country. Being my first visa denial (and hopefully the last), I was devastated. After a week considering all my options, including re-applying for a study permit, I decided to wait one more year and expand my list of schools using a different strategy.
I think the above story is very important because it taught me two hard lessons: one was on the significance of bottlenecks outside of your control. A beautifully crafted plan that doesn’t take into consideration that one piece you can’t control is bounded to fail. So when I applied again, I carefully considered the bottleneck to my MBA application – the Embassy.
In factoring the embassy into my application, I asked: “what does the embassy need to be convinced of, to know that I want to study and not migrate illegally?” The answer? You’d have to fund your MBA through scholarships and not loans. Now, I understand that not everyone can relate to this, but in my case, I had no rich parent or a well-paying job for that matter. Also, a few Nigerians had set unfavorable precedence that raised the bar for obtaining visas. Which leads me into the second lesson: in life, your actions will undoubtedly affect those that come after you. You create an impression that either aids or inhibits those behind you with a similar profile. The impact of your actions often goes beyond you and your selfish needs.
My MBA Application profile for context
Here is a brief overview of my pre-MBA application profile. I believe it is important that you know this as it would allow you to put this article in perspective.
Name: Chinedu Adegoke (Real name withheld)
GRE: 321/340 (V: 159; Q: 162)
Highest Academic Qualification: BSc. Civil Engineering
Grade: First Class Honour (Magna Cum Laude, top 15%: class of 32)
Pre-MBA Experience: Equally distributed between Tech entrepreneurship, Civil Engineering Consulting
Years of Work Experience pre-MBA: 5 years
Why my first MBA Application attempt failed
My first business school attempt failed not because of the visa denial. It was only a symptom of a flawed strategy. In retrospect, my first MBA attempt failed because one, my strategy was shallow, focused heavily on the business school’s brand. Second, I also didn’t understand the fine art of MBA application. I will briefly discuss the first reason before attempting to address the second reason later on.
Reason 1: I focused heavily on the business school’s brand name
Now, there is no problem doing this if you are in the 1% bracket of intelligent people, or if money isn’t a problem for you. In my case, my profile didn’t match my level of intelligence (which I do judge to be uniquely high). Also, my parents barely finished high school and that heavily limited their earning capacity, and in turn, my earning capacity (working hard to change that narrative).
Focusing on school’s brand also propagated a subtle but self-defeating misconception – success was only guaranteed at a top 10 business school. I am glad that Michael helped uproot that misconception in many podcasts and articles. I wish I found out about “Firmsconsulting University” before my first attempt. I would have realized that top 10 MBA program in US/Canada/Europe wasn’t the only way to get into MBB, and certainly not an assurance that I will get the job. I soon realized after reading many FC’s article and listening to many podcasts (some of which I list below), that I would only end up paying >150k for a consulting interview. A move that made no sense to me after listening to alternatives Michael presented.
This article titled “Is Harvard MBA enough for McKinsey?” also completely changed my outlook on the concept of elite schools, addressed many inherent misconceptions I had, and laid bare the reality many current and past MBA candidates at elite schools rarely talk about.
Reason 2: I didn’t understand the fine art of MBA application
I didn’t fully understand the benefits of networking and attending business school fairs; I didn’t reach out to admission officers/current MBA students in the program; I didn’t carefully evaluate the funding limitations each school had; I trusted MBA ranking – perhaps, I should call it advertisement – with all my heart; I didn’t follow-up with my application; I didn’t even try to negotiate offers. I was what you call, a perfect MBA novice: applying to schools people and ranking system say are great schools, hit submit, wait, get decisions and just say yes without attempting to negotiate.
The fine art of MBA application: it starts with the strategy right for you
I believe I succeeded in my second attempt because I immediately said goodbye to brand names and focused on schools that could provide full MBA scholarships. If they couldn’t, I didn’t bother applying. It was as simple as that and it made my life easier.
Now I understand that this strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all. I have friends who have rightly argued for the benefits of taking a loan to attend an M7 business school. There is no right or wrong strategy. What many fail to understand is that the enemy of better here, is not bad, but what is good for everyone. You are not everyone, you are YOU. I hope that by sharing the thought process behind my MBA decisions and choice, you may be able to fashion out a strategy that works for you.
I call it “fine art” because it takes some level of finesse to apply successfully to an MBA program. Every single part should be controlled, nothing within your sphere of influence should be left to chance. And that starts with the factors that influence the kind of school you apply to.
MBA Application Step 1: think deeply and categorize factors that affect your MBA program choice
Yes, split it into primary and secondary factors (you may even add a tertiary list!). In my case, I split it into two buckets: primary and secondary factors. On no occasion did I wavier on my primary list: if a good school (and there are many of them if you open your mind beyond top 20 business schools) fail to check the box on all my primary factors, I wasn’t going to apply. It was a no-brainer.
It is important that you first compile all the factors that will impact your MBA decision. Once that is done, critically examine each, based on your peculiarities, and categorize them into the primary and secondary categories.
Below is what that list looked like for me. I then used each of these factors to create my ranking pulling data from numerous ranking sources. My favorite being the Poets and Quants ranking system.
Despite having a very strong consulting post-MBA goal, I didn’t list it as a determining factor on my list. The reason is simple: I am already attending the “Firmsconsulting University” – renowned for its practical education on problem-solving. What else do I want if I carefully follow the well-curated courses it offers? In another article, I will expound on this for those who are not subscribers yet.
MBA Application Step 2: identify the shools and decide on whether to apply
I admit this involves a lot of research. Research that could span into months if you are looking to increase your odds by applying to many schools. In my case, I identified a ridiculous amount of schools – probably about 23 of them. And this spanned one (1) month and three (3) business school fairs: the MBA Tour, Education USA Fair, and the UK Business Schools’ fair.
Of these 23 schools, I streamlined it down to 15 and eventually applied to 14. The number of Reach, Match and Safety Schools I applied to were four (4), nine (9) and two (2) respectively.
If my profile was significantly lower than the school’s profile average/mean in GRE/GMAT, Academic grade, and age, such school was considered my “Reach School”. If it was slightly lower or higher, those schools became my “Match Schools” and if it was significantly higher than the school’s average, it became by “Safety School”.
I went for the >5 business schools strategy because my first attempt taught me that 7 MBA applications could quickly, in a matter of weeks, become only one (1) real option, with no room for you to negotiate and make choices. I wanted to have options right down until the end.
MBA Application Step 3: now its time to start courting the admission officers and current students
You see, this is where the date nights start. There are many ways to approach this. You could decide to go via LinkedIn (this article explains how to leverage LinkedIn for this), or actual MBA School fairs (or in this case, virtual webinars), or you email the school directly and ask them to link you up with an admission officer and/or current student as you would like to learn more about the MBA program and MBA application process.
This process is incredibly important as it does two key things for you. One, it shows the school that you are genuinely interested and trust me, an MBA application is indeed a very personal process. With all the objectivity schools claim to have, there is a significant amount of sentiment/subjectivity involved in the decision-making process. Secondly, it also allows you to get a feel for what the admission committee is looking for in a candidate. This makes your life easier. I once spoke to a student who told me if I failed to mention the school’s location in my essay, my chances of getting in will get slim. In another conversation, I learned that if I failed to use the word “innovation”, or its variation, in the interview, I will lose the interviewer quickly. You don’t get this information online. And yes, I got into both schools with the best scholarship offer they could give.
MBA Application Step 4: continue to engage
Even after your application, continue to keep the admission officer and students posted about the progress of your application and important milestone or achievement at work. Don’t wait for the final decision before you engage again. In another article, I will explain the dos and don’ts of these calls. You don’t want to sound needy in these calls. Instead, approach it from the genuine stances of wanting to learn more about the program. And even when you get waitlisted or rejected, still email and thank these contact people for their effort. I once learned about an aspiring MBA candidate who did this after being rejected from a top 30 MBA program. She emailed her contact people and thanked them for the help. This contact person (funny enough, a student) walked up to the admission office to enquire about the candidate’s candidacy. You can guess what happened next.
You just never know, always stay in touch. Don’t be a pest, but stay in touch.
MBA application Step 5: you are allowed to negotiate. It is expected
This is where your multiple offers come in handy. I was spoilt for choice that I negotiated freely with the schools I wanted to attend. Now, here is where many people miss it. When they here negotiate they think I am referring to that proud approach where you say “give me more or I leave”. Nahhh, that’s never going to work. If for some reason, it does, and you would have still successfully alienated people who would otherwise be very useful to your overall MBA experience. In a different article, I can expound on how to negotiate, without negotiating. But know this, let the negotiation be about what the school wants, and not what you want. Show them how what you want can help them get what they need.
MBA Application Step 6: speak to more students before you decide
I always go for a fellow country/continent person, where I can. There is some level of subtle understanding of a shared background that allows the conversation to be down-to-earth. Now I am not saying that someone with a different experience from you can’t advise you well. They can and I have received great advice from someone from a different alignment. What I am saying is try both sides, but if you only have one shot, go for the former.
This is especially useful for International MBA Candidates who don’t have the luxury of flying to the school’s location to experience its campus and people. If you have been already speaking to these students, you will have no problem getting them to tell you the truth about their experience. I once spoke to a candidate in an MBA program I liked and was considering. He said to me “If I am going to be honest with you, diversity is not as great as the school claims on its website. They are not even make any effort.” My decision was easy afterwards.
To round up this article, success at MBA programs is heavily influenced by your networking skills, this is even more important if you hope to become a management consultant at the Big 3. There is a fine art to these things, horn it even from your MBA application process. Start early, learn as you go and constantly evaluate your successes and failures for lessons you could use in future. There is a finesse to networking that is applicable everywhere. If you already know how to network in a different scenario, bring that fine art into your business school MBA applications. And if you don’t, I hope this article exposes you to just enough to get the admission and scholarship offer you so desire.
Succeeding as a Management Consultant
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