Seven Steps before you Start your MBA Application

FYI: Each year approximately 250,000 students sit for the GMAT. Not all of them will be interested in your programs, but using reasonable – if broad – cuts, let’s say 10% of those students are interested in the top 10 programs. That leaves us with approximately 25,000 candidates for maybe 5000 spots. 

Top 10% on the GMAT means a score of 700. So there are 25,000 people with 700+ overall score. That’s includes some of the 25,000 interested in Top 10 programs but is not a complete intersection. So, your competitive field is between 25,000 and 50,000 potential candidates. Broad Strokes, for sure, but you get the idea. Half-assing the application is a bad idea.

Score alone does not make for an interesting candidate.

Thank heavens! And that’s where your pre-work, the 7-steps, comes in. You need to shine on the application. No metric can carry you all the way at a top program. At more middle-of-the-road programs you may find them very receptive to your 700+ (you do have that, right?) because you can help them boost the overall GMAT average which helps in the rankings, but top programs have plenty of stellar GMAT scores. Yours won’t make or break the program rankings.

Follow these 7 steps to get your materials ready before you even start your application. Do the work. Be outstanding.

Step 1: Awareness

Self-awareness is critical to creating a compelling package. Any idiot can apply. And some of those can get in. If you want the best shot, you need to be self-aware. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

SIDE NOTE: If you try to come up a weakness that can be spun up as a strength . . .


Just no.

I don’t want to hear about your faux weakness. “Oh I work too hard.”

OMG, no you really don’t.

If you don’t realize that you – as a most likely 24-28 year old – have had but a mere glimpse on the world of work, prepare to meet the 2×4 of knowledge between the eyes.

You don’t yet know the meaning of working hard. Hours are not enough.

Especially you, Finance Jocks.

No, you aren’t the smartest kids in the room. You’re the loudest. Volume does not equal intelligence.

So step 1 is to gain a deeper self-awareness.

HINT: When I ask someone about a weakness, your answer tells me a lot about your depth as a person and as a professional. Because – I promise – my follow up question is how do you mitigate the risk that your weakness exposes. You jump from common 20-something to smart, smart when you understand how important risk mitigation is and you have an answer to my follow up.

Step 2: Explore

Okay, you’ve looked at websites, dug through the rankings, talked with your buddies, etc. Sure, that’s exploration. But it’s superficial unless you are exploring based on who you are today and where you are taking yourself through this experience called Business School.

See step 1.

Once you understand what you really need to get out of a program – do you need a network, do you need exposure to new ideas, do you need a new job/new industry/new region – then you can start digging on the programs that fit. Which ones fit what you need? Ranking won’t tell you much and nor will most of your buddies. They’re not trying to deceive you – for the most part . . . but serious finance kids, watch your back – but they don’t know anything useful about this process. Having success with your one shot doesn’t tell you how to cause success. Not enough raw data.

Imagine if you walked out the door in NYC and a cab pulled up before you could even flag for one. Are you a cab-hailing genius? ​ Maybe, but try that again at 3:45p in the rain…. I dare you.

So let’s not tie your last major educational stamp on the resume to your buddy’s best guess at how to get into bschool. Let’s focus on a plan based on data from hundreds of real applicants at the same programs you are considering. With a 97.8% success among my students, I can’t claim to have all the answers, but I have a pretty good idea of what works. So. Let’s talk exploration.

Exploration means visits with professionals who hire the pros who come from that program – even if you plan to build your own company (and therefore job) after graduation. You can get a much more clear understanding of a program – it’s reach and limitations by talking to the people who hire from it. How do they perceive the candidates out of that school? You’re not asking them if you should go to that program, you’re getting an understanding of how the program is perceived by real people with real hiring dollars. You’re polling the program’s clients (one type of client).

This is important even if you are planning to start your own thing.

Your own thing might tank sending you back into the marketplace.And even more importantly, perceptions drive a lot of interactions in the market.​

While a strong person can get past many hindrances, why create extra hurdles for yourself unknowingly?

If your favorite school is known for consumer products marketing and you want to go into healthcare finance . . . well, you’ll just have to explain the healthcare and finance strengths of the program in every interview. Not a deal breaker, but it is some extra weight around your ankles.

When you ultimately choose programs to pursue, there will be some trade-offs. It’s important for you to understand where/when/how you are making those trade-offs so that it’s a choice not a burden. You can make any choice you want, but you cannot choose the consequences. So know why you made the choice and you’ll feel more in control later.

Not sure which choices work for you, ahem, step 1. Don’t skimp.

So explore. Go off the grid. Get away from media about the programs. Find out what your ultimate market thinks about it. Find out the good, the bad and the ugly.

Step 3: Engage

This is where you start to talk to your network, and the alum from the school. Now that you have a decent idea of where you want to go and why that school is so relevant for you, now you engage people who can support your vision.

Talk to alumni about experiences pre/post business school. What would they do the same way, what would they do differently?

Talk to the local representative. Go to the local alumni happy hour. Visit campus. Engage the admission committee representatives. This is the more obvious engage stuff. It’s the kind of thing many students do before they’ve considered much more than rankings. Don’t be that guy. Engage is step 3. Steps 1 and 2 come first.

Step 4: Decide

Now is time to choose programs and deadlines. Will you apply round 1 this year or do you need to get different professional experience before you apply so you’re considering applications 1-2 years from now?

For some Steps 1-3 will send you in unexpected directions. You may not be ready to decide on programs. If not, go back to step 2; revisit explore.

If you are ready to choose the programs for you, move to step 5.

Step 5: Get Excited!

So the MBA application process has many moments that can be demoralizing: GMAT prep – for some that seems like years of agony, rejections, interviews that go poorly, and seeing all of your friends get in while barely lifting a finger.

If my students are any bellwether, colleagues who take the GMAT after “one weekend” of prep and score 740 are a giant kick in the gut.

If you are genuinely excited about the program you are pursuing, you can be happy for your colleague without feeling the kick in the gut. Again, it boils down to how well you did the work in Step 1. (You knew that was coming, right?)

So you’ve really dug in on step 1, found great opportunities in step 2, engaged successfully in step 3, are solid with your decision in step 4. Now get excited about your path.

Feeling good?


Step 6: Prepare

Now you need to check the boxes. This is a bit more procedural. You need to get the GMAT done. Gather transcripts. Write your resume. Pull together all of the materials you will need to present your case to an admission committee. Step 5 – Excite – comes before procedural because . . . well, sometimes this stuff can be a bummer. But with the right motivations, you’ll sail through.

Do you need to get additional work experience before you go? Should you change jobs now to get that experience internally? Can you get enough relevant – legit – experience before you start writing applications? Do that now. Or go back to step 2 with the application process while you make bigger job shifts.


Once you leave step 6 you start the footrace to the application finish line.

Step 7. Advocate

You need to find some advocates. These are people who will support you through the MBA application process. You might lean on your sister for story structure support – not to write it for you, but to help you get your thoughts straight. You will need 2-4 letters of recommendation across your work and community experience. The number and selection will vary based on the program. You may need a buddy in the trenches applying the same round you are. It helps some students get their competitive juices flowing. You may want to surround yourself with friends who are definitely not applying to business school so you have some mental space to not focus on applications. And maybe all of the above!

You probably want to talk to your boss.

Most schools ask for a direct manager to write a letter of recommendation. This is not the CEO who plays tennis with your Mom. This is the person who interacts with you most often and gives you feedback on behalf of the company. This person should be on your side in the application process. If he/she isn’t or is only lukewarm (the worst! Fake support), you need to find an alternate who can vouch for you. If he/she is on your side, this person can help you in many, many ways through the application process. Perhaps you need a writing day and don’t have a vacation day left. Maybe you need to shift your work hours so you can do GMAT prep first thing in the morning when your brain is at it’s spongiest best. (Teacher approves!)

There are several ways you may need to lean on your advocates through this process. Find them before you start. No one wants to be “that guy” who comes running up for a favor with 3 days before deadline. Seriously. Don’t. Be. That Guy. Even when you do want to help, if you box Advocates in, there’s not much that they can do. Let them know in advance that you are grateful for their interest in your candidacy and support as your advocate. It’s better than mentoring. When you are an advocate for someone you feel compelled almost like a parent to help. Consider your advocates cool older cousins and favorite aunts and uncles.

Your 7-steps Before you Start Writing MBA apps:

Step 1: Get Aware – self-aware

Step 2: Explore – get behind the scenes, dig, get dirty

Step 3: Engage – similar to explore, but less dirty

Step 4: Decide!

Step 5: Get Excited!!

Step 6: Prepare – Gather materials, make sure everything is ready to go

Step 7: Advocate – find your people

Get the printable PDF in the 1-yr and 3-yr programs.

This form is creating a student account and making sure your email address is for a real person all in the background. Unfortunately it may look like it’s just hanging. Fret not, it’s working! It can take a few moments. Thank you for your patience!

Now it’s time to write….