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A Chinese Finance Professional’s Path to Kellogg, UCLA, and UC Davis with Substantial Scholarships

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MER (myEssayReview) student Katherine pursued her Master's in Accountancy from UC Davis after completing her bachelor's in business administration. She began her professional career at PwC as an Assurance Associate and was promoted to Senior Associate within two years. Katherine decided to pursue an MBA with just two years of work experience to fulfill her aspiration to become a consultant for a top consulting firm. She turned to MER for assistance in applying to three schools (Haas, CBS, and Wharton) in Round 1 and received interview offers from CBS and Haas, but she could not secure admission.

Following our advice and encouragement, Katherine identified her weaknesses, worked on them, and applied to more programs in Round 2. As a result, she received multiple offers with scholarships, including $120K from UCLA Anderson, $70K from UC Davis, and an admission offer from Kellogg. She was also waitlisted by Booth. Katherine has accepted UCLA Anderson's admission offer. She is also selected as a Forte fellow.

In a conversation with Poonam, Katherine shares her journey and successful turnaround from Round 1 rejection to Round 2 acceptance.

Talking Points of the Conversation

  • Academic and Professional Background 01:30
  • Why MBA/ Career Goals  04:08
  • GMAT/ GRE Prep  Journey  08:12/ 10:33
  • Reasons for R- 1  Outcome  13:12
  • R- 2 Strategy /Interview Tips  17:05/ 19:20
  • Challenges She Faced with Recommenders  21:30
  • Preference for UCLA over Kellogg and UC Davis  26:27
  • Essays She Found Most Challenging  28:26
  • How R- 1 Prep Helped with R- 2 Application  30:22
  • Volunteering Efforts/Interests and Hobbies  32:23/ 36:53
  • Advice to prospective younger applicants  39:53
  • Suggestions about School Selection  44:38

And now presenting Katherine………

Poonam: Hello, Katherine. How are you doing?

Katherine: Hi Poonam, I'm good. How are you today?

Poonam: I'm doing well too. Thank you for your time today for this conversation.

Katherine: Thank you for having me, too.

Poonam: Congratulations on receiving multiple admission offers from top schools, two with scholarships. How does it feel?

Katherine: I was thrilled when I received my first offer from UC Davis, especially because it came with a scholarship. Then I received offers from UCLA and Kellogg, both of which were better options. UCLA even offered me more scholarships, which increased my excitement. Obtaining all these results made me feel like our collaboration since last July had yielded positive outcomes. I'm really excited about it and looking forward to my new life.

Katherine's Academic and Professional Background

Poonam: Can you share with our viewers your academic and professional background? Where are you from originally? Where did you complete your undergraduate studies? What do you do now?

Katherine: Sure. I am a Chinese student from Xi'an, a city in northwest China, where I lived until I turned 18. My parents always encouraged me to pursue my interests, so after graduating from high school, I went to Temple University in Philadelphia to pursue my bachelor's degree. After that, I pursued my Master's degree in accounting at UC Davis. Studying in the United States helped me become more open-minded. Living in a completely new environment gave me the courage to solve problems and pursue my passions. After graduating from Davis, I moved to Hong Kong to work at PwC as an auditor. My main focus as an auditor is on financial service practice, working with clients in insurance, investment banking, and asset wealth management. After three years of working in this field, I have decided to embark on a new chapter in my life by pursuing an MBA program. Additionally, I have been actively involved in volunteer activities throughout my academic and professional journey, which have significantly impacted me.

Katherine's Rational for Pursuing an MBA with Two Years of Work Experience

Poonam: Thank you for sharing. You have gained experience in three different countries, and moving to the US as an undergrad gave you international exposure at a very young age that enriched your personality. So, you decided to apply for MBA programs with only two years of work experience, whereas most people apply after gaining 4-5 years of professional experience. Can you explain the reasons behind your decision?

Katherine: In the summer session of 2021, I had the opportunity to work in the consulting department of PwC on an acquisition case. During that time, I realized that the team environment in consulting was quite different from that of accounting and auditing. The consulting team was more dynamic, with everyone actively collaborating and combining their ideas through brainstorming sessions. We would conduct calculations and research to find the best solutions for our client's problems. This experience energized me because I saw how my suggestions could influence a company's future. This was the turning point when I decided to transition from auditing to consulting. That's one reason why I chose to apply for an MBA program at an early stage.

Another reason is my personal interest. I have a strong desire to focus on the metaverse and data transformation after graduating, as this area is currently gaining momentum. I aim to become a consultant specializing in this field. In the long run, I aspire to establish my own consultancy. Starting early will allow me to secure a position in this evolving field without waiting too long, as the competition may intensify in the future. These two reasons justify my decision to apply for an MBA program with only two years of work experience.

Katherine's Short-Term and Long-Term Goals

Poonam: Wonderful. You seem to have valid reasons for pursuing an MBA early in your career. Thank you. You have already discussed your goals, but could you please elaborate on your short-term and long-term goals?

Katherine: Certainly. My short-term career goal is to become a consultant at a top consulting firm such as BCG, Bain, or McKinsey. I want to focus on digital transformation and gain experience in a large company to learn effective consulting strategies. By working on data transformation projects in a big company, I will gain valuable insights into how consultants tackle problems in this area. After gaining three to five years of experience, I aim to establish my startup, a consulting firm specializing in digital transformation. With my startup, I want to assist small companies requiring guidance in their transformation efforts. So, essentially, these are my short-term and long-term goals.

Katherine's GMAT/GRE Journey

Poonam: Thank you, Katherine. You achieved an outstanding GRE score of 335. Can you share your GRE preparation strategy with our viewers? Which resources and methods did you use to achieve such a strong score?

Katherine: No problem. My GRE preparation story is a bit different because when I applied for a master's program after completing my undergraduate studies, I took the GMAT and didn't achieve a perfect score. Even with multiple attempts, my highest score was only around 710. It made me lack confidence in this type of exam. When I decided to apply for an MBA, I wanted to try the GRE instead, as I didn't want to attempt the GMAT again in my life. My work experience played a significant role, and this time, I found the verbal part more challenging, especially as English is not my native language. So, I focused on extensive vocabulary memorization.

Additionally, I found that my logical thinking skills were enhanced through my work experience. I can't explain why, but it was amazing. When I encountered the same questions again, they felt much easier and more logical than before. Therefore, vocabulary and improved logical thinking were key factors for my success. However, I must mention that the quantitative section of the GRE is more difficult than that of the GMAT. But I believe it's still manageable for Asian students, though it may have some tricky elements.

Her Suggestions on GRE Prep

Poonam: What advice do you have for applicants preparing for GRE?

Katherine: I would advise starting early. As soon as you decide to apply for a top MBA program, you should be aware that you need a high GRE score. Starting early allows you to have more attempts if needed. However, when I say starting early, I don't mean spending  excessive amount of time on it. For instance, studying one hour a day for a whole year may not make sense. It's a personal preference, but I believe in short and manageable study sessions. If I can dedicate three to four hours a day, it helps me progress more quickly, and my memory remains fresh.

Another important point is to set a study schedule. Having a deadline pushes you to finish your preparation faster. If you have an entire year, it's easy to procrastinate by saying, "I can do it tomorrow." So, it's crucial to have a well-planned preparation timeline that allows enough time for your scores to be released.

Poonam: It was smart to get the GRE out of your way before starting your application process.

Katherine: Indeed, it made my application process feel a bit easier. Writing essays can be quite stressful, especially at the beginning. It would have been overwhelming if I had to juggle work and exams simultaneously.

 Reasons for Her Round 1 Application Outcome

Poonam: You approached me in the first week of July, and we collaborated on your applications for Wharton, CBS, and Haas for Round 1; you received interview invitations from CBS and Haas, but unfortunately, you couldn't convert them. Could you share with our viewers what went wrong?

Katherine: I believe the main reason was personal. We had prepared well for the applications. They decided to offer me an interview based on my strong application. However, my work schedule was quite tight during that period, and I also had a business trip to Japan. Firstly, for CBS, the interview was scheduled with an alumnus. Our communication was somewhat difficult, as he would reply to my emails a week later, and he also had his travel plans. So, setting up the interview happened quite quickly. He would email me, and we would settle on a date the next day. As a result, I didn't feel like I had enough time to go through all the questions. I remember we did a mock interview after completing my CBS interview. This made me somewhat unsure and less confident about my CBS interview. However, it provided insight into the type of questions MBA interviewers might ask.

Now, for Haas, I felt quite disappointed because I wanted an in-person interview, which would involve a full day of activities. When I had the interview, it went relatively smoothly, and I had control over the questions. However, upon reflection, I realized I hadn't prepared as well as I could have, especially for behavioral questions. I had attempted to use the STAR methodology when telling my stories, but practice would have made it much better. I now know how to make my stories more coherent and relevant to the question. So, overall, the main reason for not performing well in the interviews was my lack of preparation.

Poonam: Yes, instead of flying from Hong Kong to the US for an in-person interview, if you had opted for an online virtual interview and prepared well, the outcome might have been different. So, the key takeaway is to thoroughly prepare for the interview because the fact that Haas and CBS, a top business school, invited you to interview indicates that they were interested in you.

Katherine: Absolutely, and it's also possible that my nerves played a role since it was my first face-to-face interview, and I really wanted to get into Haas. The nervousness influenced the results. I completely agree.

How Katherine Improved Her Interview Skills in Round 2

Poonam: True. So how did you change your strategy in Round 2? Your interview skills improved, but were there any other changes you made to your applications in Round 2? The results were phenomenal.

Katherine: I knew that my shortcoming in Round 1 was a lack of preparation for the interview. So, for Round 2, I made sure to invest a lot of time in preparing for it. I used the feedback form you provided me after our mock interview, and I also considered the experiences shared by other students. Additionally, I thoroughly read the interview recommendations you shared with me. The most crucial point was to approach everything logically. It was different from the first round, where I would think about the answer in my mind and then speak it out.

In Round 2, I realized the importance of writing and preparing my answers beforehand. I would practice in front of a mirror with a timer, going through each question one by one. With each timed practice session, I improved. During the first-round interview and the mock interview session with you, I had many relevant stories in mind for the behavioral questions. Still, I struggled to present them logically. In Round 2 interviews, I felt confident that the stories I shared best fit each question. The key was the practice I put in, which helped me transition from being nervous about the interview to feeling confident about my experiences and why I deserved an MBA.

Poonam: I remember you telling me that after each interview, you kept getting better, and you were at your best during your UCLA interview.

Interview Tips

Katherine: Yes, I was quite confident during that interview. I felt that I performed well and deserved the opportunity. I don't know how the decision will be made, but personally, I believe I am good enough for it. Your personal feelings can also influence how the interviewers perceive you. If you are confident, convincing them to trust your story becomes easier.

Poonam: Absolutely. Your confidence can be a deciding factor in how well your story resonates with them.

Katherine: There's one more point I would like to add, which is different from the practice aspect. I believe a crucial question to prepare for interviews is: "How can you contribute to the school?" It's important to showcase your differentiators and explain how you can enhance the school community. In all my interviews, I felt that the interviewers paid close attention to this question more than any others. Whether you're interviewed by second-year students, alumni, or administrative officers, they all care about this question. So, it's essential to carefully consider your response, as it will help you stand out.

How She Approached the Challenges Regarding Recommendation Letters

Poonam: Absolutely. Schools want to admit students who can contribute to the program both in and outside the classroom. That's why they ask this question, and I completely agree with you. Now, let's talk about recommendation letters. Who did you ask for your letters of recommendation? What challenges did you face with recommendation letters, and how did you approach them?

Katherine: The first person I approached for the recommendation letters was my career coach because most of the requirements asked for someone who has directly coached you. When I informed my career coach about my MBA application plans, she supported me and agreed to write a recommendation letter. Another person I considered was my manager, who was pursuing the part-time MBA program at Wharton. Since we had similar experiences, I thought it would be easier to ask him. Unfortunately, he declined because he had already reached a senior managerial position after eight years of work experience, while I only had two years. He suggested I gain one or two more years of experience before applying. However, I had already decided to apply at that point.

So, based on your advice, I changed my recommender and found another senior colleague who held a slightly lower title than the senior manager but had played a significant role in my career progression. After discussing it with him, he agreed to write a recommendation letter for me. This was the challenge I faced, and we addressed it by explaining the situation in the optional essay. The outcome was positive, and the schools accepted the explanation without any negative impact. Another challenge I faced was that both my recommenders left before I submitted my Round 2 application. Initially, I was nervous because they were no longer with the company, but with your help, I wrote an explanation letter in the optional essay section. This helped clarify the situation and didn't adversely affect my application.

Furthermore, the MBA recommendation letters have specific questions to answer, which differs from the general Master's program recommendation letters. Initially, we had some formatting issues, but you provided a helpful link and guidance on answering each question, including the word count and strategy for each. This collaboration with my recommender and your support improved the recommendation letters significantly. I'm grateful to you for offering the format and guidance, and I would also like to thank my recommenders for investing their time and effort in helping me write strong letters.

Katherine's Preference for UCLA over Kellogg and UC Davis

Poonam: Of course. Moving on, you received admission offers from UCLA Anderson, UC Davis, and Kellogg. UCLA and UC Davis also offered you scholarships, with UCLA offering $120,000 and UC Davis offering $70,000, right? And you decided to attend UCLA. Can you share why UCLA is the best school for you?

Katherine: The primary reason is its higher ranking compared to UC Davis. I made my decision based on the ranking. Additionally, UC Davis has a more focused agricultural approach in its programs, and the career opportunities are centered around the Davis community, including Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose. On the other hand, UCLA offers more opportunities in the Los Angeles area, which aligns better with my goal of working in consulting, specifically in the technology sector. I aim to work at a top consulting firm, and UCLA provides easier access to such opportunities. That's why I chose UCLA.

Poonam: That makes sense.

Katherine: Kellogg is an excellent school, and I was thrilled to receive their offer. And I know Kellogg is renowned for consulting, too. However, the $120,000 scholarship from UCLA was a significant factor. It covered around 90% of the tuition, making it a more financially attractive option for me.

Two Most Challenging Essays for Katherine

Poonam: Yes, that makes sense. Regarding the essays, which one did you find the most challenging?

Katherine: Can I mention two essays that I found most challenging? The first would be the Haas essay, specifically the question about what makes me different from others. I don't recall the exact wording of the essay prompt, but I remember struggling with it. The question asked, "What makes you feel alive?" It was quite difficult because it was different from the essays I had written for my bachelor's and master's programs. Those essays focused on short-term and long-term goals, with a clear direction and personal statement. However, this essay required a different approach, with a 300-word limit. I felt overwhelmed trying to condense my story into 300 words. I remember going through two drafts, one about my involvement in the green team and another about my weight loss journey. Eventually, we decided to go with the green team story, but it was the most challenging point for me. I had never attempted an MBA essay before, and this one surprised me. I remember that we spent significant time working on it, including a Zoom meeting for discussion. After that, I became more comfortable with the essay writing process, especially with CBS and Booth. The second most challenging essay was the one for GSB.

Poonam: Yes, GSB essays are known to be demanding.

How her Round 1 Prep and Stanford Essays Helped with Round 2 Essays

Katherine: Exactly. GSB's essays were also challenging. I don't recall the specific details, but I remember that the brainstorming questionnaire of 25 questions you provided was extremely helpful. Some stories that came up during the brainstorming process were not initially on my radar, but your suggestions and our discussions during the Zoom meetings inspired me to think differently. I realized that certain stories were relevant to specific parts of the essay. The brainstorming exercise you gave me benefited me greatly during my Round 2 applications. I worked independently for the other Round 2 schools as we only collaborated on the GSB in Round 2. However, the insights gained from working on GSB's essays and the first Haas essay helped me structure and answer questions for other schools.

Poonam: Yes, the brainstorming questionnaire, our collaboration on three schools Round 1, and Stanford in Round 2 provided valuable insights that benefited you when you worked on other essays individually.

Katherine: Even though the schools asked different questions, the brainstorming exercise and collaboration made me aware of what I needed to convey. I began to understand the MBA perspective and where the focal points of my essays should be. It has definitely helped me improve my essay-writing skills.

Katherine's Volunteering Efforts

Poonam: That's fantastic. Now, let's discuss your contribution to PWC's green team. Could you elaborate on how you initiated and executed the environmental sustainability project?

Katherine: Yeah, sure. I joined the green team because I enjoy volunteering, and this opportunity focused on environmental sustainability. We organized weekly activities and lectures related to the environment. For example, we conducted donation drives for the homeless and discussed recycling in the fashion industry. We also addressed issues such as waste pollution in the ocean, particularly the impact on dolphins. One activity that significantly influenced me was the pilot recycling program, which I initiated myself. I came across a report stating that a considerable amount of waste is generated in offices daily. This prompted me to research how I could improve the environmental practices in my workplace. After conducting the research, I prepared a report and presentation for my colleagues and obtained their support. We collaborated with a consulting firm specializing in NGOs and environmental sustainability to set up recycling bins in our office. We also posted guidelines on waste classification, educating people about which types of trash should go where. To my surprise, within a certain period, until last October, I believe, we had already collected over 1600 kilograms of office waste. I'm sure the number has increased since then, although I haven't checked the latest figures.

The most encouraging aspect for me was that our activities changed people's thinking about environmental issues in their daily lives. They not only adopted these practices themselves but also shared the idea with others. It's amazing to see how a small idea can bring people together and inspire positive change. This energy motivates me to continue my focus on environmental sustainability and volunteer work. I also encourage others to get involved in volunteer activities because you meet incredible people and experience the positive side of life.

Poonam: Absolutely. We have highlighted your contribution to environmental sustainability in several essays.

Katherine: I have also used this experience to answer questions about community contribution. While it may not be specific to environmental sustainability, this topic is attractive to the interviewers and provides a more genuine response than something that feels forced.

Katherine's Other Interests and Hobbies

Poonam: Yes. Saving the environment is the need of the hour. Now, could you tell me about your other interests and hobbies?

Katherine: I enjoy going to the gym. I used to go before work or during my lunch break. It helps me relax and find some happiness amidst the stress. It also clears my mind and enhances my focus. Another hobby of mine is watching movies. I am a big fan, and even now, I try to go to the movie theater at least twice a week. The reason behind this is that the working life, especially in Hong Kong, is fast-paced. Sometimes I feel lost in work stress and don't have much time for myself. Watching movies in the theater allows me to spend a couple of hours solely with myself. I don't check my phone or reply to messages during those hours. I find inspiration in the lives depicted on the screen. I mentioned this hobby in one of my CBS essays when I wrote about the movie Nomadland.

Poonam: I remember watching that movie specifically to assist you with the essay because I wanted to provide you with the right guidance. So, I watched the movie before working on your CBS essay.

Katherine: Oh, thank you. Did you like it?

Poonam: Yes, I did.

Katherine: OK, then, that's worth it. I wouldn't want you to help me with my essay and watch a movie you didn't enjoy. I would have felt like I had done something wrong.

Her 3 Tips to Prospective Applicants, especially with less work Experience

Poonam: I liked it. We have covered a lot about your application experience, successes, interests, and hobbies. So, in the end, would you like to provide some advice to prospective applicants, especially those aiming to pursue an MBA program with only two years of work experience?

Katherine: Sure, my first advice is that if you have limited work experience, it may be viewed as a weakness, but you must have strong reasons to convince yourself why you want to apply for an MBA and why now. As you mentioned in our first meeting, the MBA application process is an opportunity for self-reflection. That's something I learned throughout the process. Initially, consulting was just an idea for me, but now I know it's what I truly want to do. So, you must have compelling reasons to convince yourself, which will help others trust your decision.

Another suggestion for top MBA programs is to allocate enough time for preparation and aim for a good score. A good score is important, whether it's a language test or the GRE/GMAT exam. It would be unfortunate if you have an impressive essay, strong qualifications, and good interview skills but cannot showcase them due to a low score. A good score ensures that people can see your capabilities.

The third point I want to highlight is the importance of having a support system. The MBA application process can be challenging and time-consuming. It's possible to face failures, like my experience with the first-round applications. Having people who support you is crucial. When I was disappointed with my initial applications, you encouraged and reassured me that I could still succeed. It gave me the courage to persevere and eventually achieve positive results. This support is valuable for all applicants, as it can help them continue even when they feel like giving up.

Poonam: Yes, I remember. It was important for me to let you know that there was a reason why you couldn't convert your interviews. Your application was strong, and your profile was impressive. That's why top schools invited you for interviews. If you didn't receive admission offers, the only reason was that you couldn't make a strong impression during the interviews.

Katherine: Yes, exactly.

Poonam: That's when you prepared more, gained confidence, and practiced extensively, which led to your success. I still remember the email I sent you during Round 1 when you doubted your abilities. It wasn't easy, but your courage and determination to apply to other schools paid off. We achieved good results in the end. If applicants don't give up and continue pushing forward, a positive outcome will await them. So, perseverance is the key. Don't give up, right? Katherine, it was wonderful talking to you. Is there anything else you wish I had asked that you want to talk about?

Katherine's Suggestions on School Selection

Katherine: Yes, I would like to talk a little bit about school research because I believe it's an important aspect of the application process. It's where everything starts and ties into my previous suggestions of having a specific goal and knowing where you want to go post-MBA. Different schools have their own strengths and focus areas, so it's crucial to conduct thorough research. Firstly, you can determine which schools are a good fit for you and which will provide you with better post-graduation work opportunities. Additionally, researching the schools will help you understand them better, which is valuable when writing your essays. Many schools ask why their institution is special to you. By conducting research, reaching out to students, and carefully reviewing the website, you can identify the key points you need to address in your essay.

The third reason for conducting comprehensive school research is that it increases your chances of admission. If a school's focus areas don't align with your career goals, it may diminish your opportunities. I learned this from my experience with GSB. I didn't conduct thorough research for GSB because I was attracted by its prestigious reputation and its proximity to my boyfriend. But after being rejected, I realized that many GSB applicants already had consulting experience, and the school preferred students interested in entrepreneurship immediately after graduation. My short-term career goal didn't align with their expectations, and my long-term goal should have been my short-term goal. This mismatch resulted in wasting a lot of time and effort on GSB. I might have received another offer if I had applied to a different school that aligned better with my goals. So, it's important to ensure that the schools you apply to align with your career aspirations.

Poonam: But GSB's essay, 'What matters most to you,' helped you with your personal stories, which you also used for other essays, especially Kellogg's values essay.

Katherine: Yes, I agree that essay was helpful, and I don't regret applying to GSB because it allowed me to complete applications for the other four schools in the second round. But as a suggestion for other students, I would advise them to conduct thorough school research instead of solely focusing on prestigious names. It's essential to be more careful in selecting schools based on a deeper understanding of their programs and alignment with your goals.

Poonam: That's absolutely true. Katherine, thank you so much for your time, for sharing your application experience, and for advising prospective students. I'm certain they will greatly benefit from it. It has been a pleasure assisting you with your applications.

We have been in touch since July last year, and now that you're moving to LA, California, which is close to Phoenix, I hope we can meet someday. Good luck with your time at UCLA and continued success in your career. Thank you.

Katherine: I feel lucky to have found your blog, reached out to you, and worked with you. Looking back at my experiences over the past year, I want to express my sincere gratitude for your assistance, support, and encouragement throughout the application process. I am certain I would have given up after the first-round failure if it weren't for you. Thank you for helping me and being there for me. I'm pretty sure that I will come to visit you in the winter or summer break.

Poonam: Sure. I would love to meet with you.

Katherine: Thank you. Bye.

You can connect with Katherine via Linkedin.

Click here for Katherine's testimonial of MER Services

Click  here for Katherine's Review of MER on the GMAT Club

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About Poonam, Founder of MER (myEssayReview),

Poonam Tandon, the founder of MER (myEssayReview), is a Ph.D. in English with three decades of teaching experience in India and the US. In 2011, Poonam launched myEssayReview (MER) to provide highly personalized and dedicated consulting services to Business School applicants. A master storyteller, Poonam has helped hundreds of students worldwide gain admission into top MBA, EMBA, part-time MBA, and specialized Masters's programs in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia. She is a full-time consultant and is passionate about her work. In over four decades of professional career, she has reviewed 10,000+ essays written by native and non-native English speakers. Poonam is among the top 5 most reviewed consultants on the GMAT Club. Click here for her 141 GMAT Club reviews.

You may email Poonam at poonam@myessayreview.com with questions about your application for the 2023-24 admission cycle.

This blog was first published in myessayreview.