Good luck to everyone interviewing for R1. I thought this might help those still in the running for R2...
Here are the top 8 most common mistakes I have seen military applicants make this season. The good news is that just about all of these can be addressed...8. Not coaching their recommenders sufficiently
It’s the applicant’s responsibility to coach and educate his recommender, but often this is a senior officer, and doing so is contrary to the military chain of command and protocol. This awkwardness often leads to miscommunication and a “hope for the best” approach that won’t cut it.
Recommenders should ideally show new perspectives on the applicant, reinforce key applicant value propositions, and shore up perceived weaknesses. Often none of these happen in a military letter of recommendation. Some senior military leaders have written many letters, and are familiar with the process. Others however may not have a clue for what makes a good LOR, and may revert to language found on an applicant’s military performance report, which is often vague and full of not very useful hyperbole.
Applicants should coach their recommenders by making sure they understand what it is business schools look for, and educate them on their own applications and aspirations so that the recommender can do his part.
Lastly, applicants should follow up regularly with the recommender to make sure the LOR is turned in on time, as late recommendations are unfortunately more common than they should be. If a recommender is waiting until the last minute to write your letter, that is also a bad sign he is not investing the time and thought necessary to write a compelling recommendation.7. Thinking that they shouldn’t try to communicate specific career goals because they don’t know business well enough
“I don’t know anything about business, so I can’t write a specific career goals essay.” This is an initial approach taken by many military applicants. Showing that you have sufficient introspection to know what kind of career you want to pursue, and the ability to follow through with research as to what that actually means, is part of the point of a career goals essay. Not having business experience is not an excuse.6. Not having enough non-military people review their application
A military applicant can write an essay that he is in love with, and all his military peers may also love it, but it might be confusing, offensive, or just completely incomprehensible to a civilian reader who has never met anybody from the military. If you have ever returned to your hometown after losing a member of your unit on a deployment, and heard for example, “Afghanistan? Oh, do we still have troops there?” – Then you already know what I am talking about. There is a large part of America that is largely insulated from the military. While we should give the admissions committee the benefit of the doubt, it is still to your benefit to get people who you would never otherwise engage with to provide feedback on your essays. I mean people who live far away from military bases, who don’t know anything about the military, and are a different gender and generation from you. Getting their perspective may point to serious holes in your assumptions about what some people actually know.5. Writing a resume without a civilian perspective
This one is pretty straightforward. Translating your military accomplishments into civilian friendly language, getting rid of all jargon, and emphasizing what is important to a civilian reader necessitates help from a civilian who knows how to write proper resumes. Make sure you have a trusted advisor for this step.
4. Underestimating the GMAT
Never count on a GMAT score until you have taken the official test. I’ve seen applicants who sometimes consistently score 700 on practice CAT exams end up walking out of the testing center with something in the high 500s. That may be an extreme case, but it’s not uncommon for applicant to score 50-100 points less than they hoped for on the day of the actual exam. The reasons for this are outside the scope of this article, but the point is that don’t count on a score until you have an official one in hand. This means that you shouldn’t go forward with your application with a plan to just take the GMAT late in the ballgame and assume a top score. Taking such a strategy has caused many to delay for a later round, or force an application with a poor score.
The best thing to do is to take the GMAT well in advance…. Well before even starting applications. Having a score in hand will free you up to completely focus on the application itself, and give you a better idea on which schools you should apply to as well. If it’s too late to take it well in advance (at least 6 months prior to the application), then at least leave time to retake the exam a second time after 4-6 weeks if needed. One’s first shot at the GMAT really ought to therefore be an absolute minimum of 10 weeks prior to the application deadline. I also advice applicants not to work on their GMAT prep and essays at the same time if possible. Either is difficult enough on its own and takes a full commitment.3. Underpreparing for the interview
Most military applicants have never had a b-school style interview in their lives. Knowing how to properly handle insightful questions, awareness of how to read and communicate body language, engaging the interviewer in conversation (not just monologue), feeling confident speaking about your history, your future plans, your familiarity with the school, and current market events, all take some serious time and effort.
Between the GMAT and essays, some applicants may spend hundreds of hours towards their application. With the interview weighing in as much as a third of your overall application, spending an hour or two in preparation shows a complete asymmetry in one’s planning. It would be like spending 200 hours preparing for ingress and egress on a mission, and spending 2 hours for actions on objective. Make sure you get the support you need to prepare if you are unfamiliar with these styles of interviews.2. Assuming their military experience is unique
Military applicants sometimes think that their international, Pentagon, or MOS experience, by themselves, makes them unique enough to stand out from the crowd. Similarly, some applicants with weak GPAs from a service academy think/hope they will be cut a break from schools because life at a service academy is more demanding than non-service academies. All of the above are poor assumptions to make.
Of all the military applicants at a school like HBS, it is unlikely any MOS or deployment experience is the first they have seen. It is likely there is at least one, if not a half dozen or more other applicants with a similar enough profile. Furthermore, there are plenty of applicants with top GPAs from military academies, so the thought that attendance at a service academy, by itself, will mitigate a low GPA, is also a poor assumption. In other words, one should not over-assume strengths or underplay weaknesses in comparison to his competition.
None of the above implies that one’s military or undergraduate experience cannot be leveraged to deliver a great application. Certainly some experiences can be very compelling; they just can’t be assumed to be enough. It will still take a lot of effort to find your voice.1. Self-selecting out of top schools
“I don’t have the stats for my dream school, so I’m not going to apply.” – More often than not, this is wrongly assumed. GPA and GMAT are not the only criteria… and why would you ever self-select yourself out anyway? At worst case, you lose the application fee and spent some time adjusting/improving your portfolio of application essays. Why not let the school make the final decision? The only way to guarantee you won’t get in is not to try.
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