Let me preface this by saying, this is going to be a fairly long post. I am attempting to capture every lesson learned, the nuances, the mistakes and the feedback I received during the application process. Why am I doing this? Well, one of the biggest reasons why I have an admit is due to GmatClub. I have learnt a heck of a lot through this website and this is my way of paying back. Let me also say that the views expressed here are solely mine and while many may challenge them or ignore them, this is simply my viewpoint on what works and what doesn't.
Who am I?
I am your plain vanilla Indian/IT/M. I am fairly young (<25). While, I reside in the US and did my undergraduate here, I am still part of this dreaded pool of Indian applicants. On the surface I have mediocre credentials - a mid 3 GPA and less than average work experience in terms of years and while my GMAT (750) may seem good, the truth is that its just another checkpoint and does not set me apart. However, I was still able to get into my stretch/dream school (Wharton), an admit to Cornell with some scholarship and although I did get dinged from Columbia (more on this later), I managed to snag interviews from all the schools I applied to (five of them). Here is my debrief...
1: Start Early
I cannot stress this more as I think this is simply the biggest difference between admits/rejects. I started thinking about an MBA in Summer 07 and started studying for the GMAT in Fall 07. Yes - a year before.
Now let me say that I have heard of a lot of people who went like "Mr. X did his GMAT in the summer, and started on his apps a month before they were due. He got into <insert dream school>". Yes. Mr X did it. Mr X is brilliant and Mr X deserves it. The truth is I know myself. I know that this was never going to be an easy or quick process for me simply because I was Indian. Which meant I had to start on the process earlier so that I could capture the nuances and learn quickly from my mistakes.
Some people are simply born brilliant. I am not. So if you are Mr X - well then lucky you! But if you are like me, a fairly average candidate applying to a dream school, then start ONE year early (i.e Fall of the previous year). Why one year, you ask? Well, you want to give yourself this timeline.
-Fall of previous year (by Dec) - GMAT
-If GMAT score is acceptable then move onto research. If not acceptable, give GMAT again by Feb/March.
-Research phase starts in March
-Essay writing starts in May
-End essays by August (yes - give the essays that long)
-Apply in R1
Starting an year early simply gives you the leeway to give your GMAT again without interfering with the Research and Essay phase. The GMAT is JUST a datapoint (yes, I know you have heard this a million times, but its true) and therefore, you want to achieve that datapoint earlier and move onto bigger and more difficult things asap.
Another reason to starting early is that you want to be able to submit your apps in R1. Now as much as people say R1 = R2 (and yes it may be true), it is simply beneficial to get that admit as soon as you can and come across fresh to the adcomm.
I cannot say more here than what already exists on this website, but my only lesson here is to study SMART not HARD. I know many people who spend months on this test only to end up with a less-than-desirable score. The trick (if you can call it that) is to
A. Do as many CATs as possible (MGMAT, Princeton, Kaplan
- whatever the heck you can get your hands onto)
B. Leaving the GMATPrep for the end
C. KEY - Understanding your strengths and weaknesses as early as you can. For me, my SC skills were horrible at the start but I practiced them to a point where towards the end they were my strength! I ended up with a V44 score - something I had never even achieved in my practice CATs.
I won't spend too much time on the GMAT here as there are incredible gurus on this site that could give you much further insight than I ever could. But here is my take on the scores (just my opinion)-
If you are applying to any of the M7 AND you are an Indian applicant - aim for a 710+ score. Yes - I truly believe that. Will a score of <700 keep you out? No..but as an Indian applicant realize that you are already starting at a disadvantage and you need every single application element to be in your favor. Think of it this way - the GMAT should be your STRENGTH, not just another datapoint..
So hopefully, by February, you are all done with your score and are happy with it. Be ready to move onto the most important part of the process - the research phase. Why do I call this important? Well, simply put, what you do in this phase will determine the quality and depth of your essays. Most people BREEZE past the research phase, but I would tell you to give it a good 2-3 months (until April-May).
Here are the key things in the research phase-
A. Story Outline - Before you even jump into school selection, spend some time in introspection. Why do you want to do the MBA? What do you want to do? What are your strengths/weaknesses? You don't have to write these down, but you should be thinking about these things every single day subconsciously. Now in all honesty, you probably know WHY you want the MBA.. to get that banking job or that consulting job or that GM job that you are vying for. But go a little deeper. Speak to the people in the industry to understand what they do...read up on the the Vault guides to understand the day-to-day duties and skills that this job equates to. All of this will help to create "depth" in your essays later on. For a wannabe banker understanding what valuation means or what a due-diligence report looks like is important to your goals and will come in handy when you want to discuss your goals in detail in the essays. You want to come to a point where in the essays you dont have to resort to generalities such as "As an investment-banker, I will be learning M&A skills" but instead replace that with more specific information such as "As a first-year M&A associate in the Energy division, I will be learning financial modeling skills and creating valuation reports to assess the feasibility of the transaction" - doesn't that sound much better?
B. School selection - Once you have your target industry set and now that you are now armed with your GMAT score, GPA etc - you have the raw data to see where you can fit. Create a list as follows: Dream School, Target School, Safeties.
Analyze everything - you location preference, the schools' middle 80% GMAT and GPAs and finally (and one that most people miss) the EMPLOYMENT REPORTS! Pull every damn school's employment and placement reports that you can fine. Analyze them like you would audit an SEC filing! If a school says they place 75% of their candidates in banking and banking is what you want to do, dig deeper..how many people does that equate to? Yale for e.g has a high placement in banking but when looking at the raw # of jobs it is significantly lesser than some peer schools (such as Stern, Johnson etc.) This may not be a bad thing as it may mean there is simply less competition in that school..but seriously, look at every things. How many people got their job using the school's career services vs. their own networking?
Your aim is to find that school that will give you that dream job AND grow you as a person..so look for the right "fit" before the schools do! At the end of this process you should narrow down your selection to a total of about 7-8 schools. Now here is the clincher - don't fall in love with one school As hard as that may sound, try not to. Because you don't want to get too attached to a school before the admit..sure you may like a school much more than others, but keep it simple and unbiased.
C. After you have your 7-8 schools down (hopefully by April).. you can now start interacting with these schools. Visit them obviously, but I also think that visiting schools is more overrated than people realize..why do I say that? Because people think that visiting schools will give them an extra insight into their programs, but what they don't realize is that you don't get that extra insight by simply sitting in on a class or asking questions...you have to be proactively curious to find out more about the school by other means. A class visit is absolutely useless (IMO), if all you do is follow the herd and drink the cool-aid..you wanna know the inside details, what are the upcoming programs that the school does not have on its websites? What are the case-studies that some of the classes you are interested in delve into? If you can find those out through a class visit, then by all means DO IT.
Don't get me wrong - you NEED to visit the schools to have a feel of the "softer" factors - the location, the culture, the people etc. But don't believe for a second that visiting a school should be the be-all and end-all of your interaction with the school. If anything, its just the start.
I personally visited all of my schools, but the data that I ended up using in my essays came from other interactions rather than the school visit itself. Here is how I collected my school-specific information-
-Create a questionnaire email to be sent to students. the email should start with a 2 sentence overview of your goals and story and then simply ask for some of the classes that the student remembers vividly, some case studies that stick in their mind, how succesful the school has been in placing people in your desired target industry, what clubs did the student participate in..what are some of the future plans for the club..and finally..a professor's contact that the student recommend I reach out...and then an open-ended question: How has your experience been at XXX so far?
-Who do I send this email to? I don't know anyone at school X". Simple...based on your target industry, you know what clubs may cater to that. Every school has a Investment Banking club, IM club, consulting club etc and the websites should have the contact details for the club's presidents and board. That's your go-to list!
-I must have emailed about 30 people in 5 schools with this same questionnaire email and I was surprised to find out how helpful they were! I recieved a reply back from every single person and some even asked me to talk to them on the phone (don't forget to take notes when talking to them!).
By the end of this massive interaction phase, you will be ARMED will so much data that the Why School X section in your essays should become almost trivial. Also, when speaking with these students and presidents, LOOK FOR INSIDE INFO! For example, I came to know that one of my schools was starting a new club next year in an industry that I am interested in. No website talks about this and I could not have come across this info if I had not spoken to the students. I was able to weave this into the essays saying that "I know XYZ is starting the ABC club next year and I plan on doing blah blah blah at this new club)
Another advantage of speaking with the students is you get to understand the programs at the schools. Stern has an EMT program, Wharton has a Energy program, Yale has a Media program....which you can find on the websites, but by discussing with students who are in those programs you get a feel of the classes and the matter being discussed in these programs..an invaluable element in your essays.
Before I jump into the essays phase, let me re-iterate that by the end of the research phase, your mind should be inundated with little trivias from every school. I personally prepared a research document for every single school and just filled it up with my notes based on my interactions with the students, the class visits and regular website info. I would put the student interaction as the most beneficial phase in my entire process as sometimes the student's replies would be so insightful and specific that I could almost use their words in my essays verbatim! (I did not do that , but I could have!)
Finally, another added advantage to the student interaction is that you now have a contact at that school! Hopefully, if you didn't piss them off, some may even offer to proof-read your essays. If not, feel free to ask them if its OK for them to do so when you get to that stage. Some may say yes, some may not - regardless, its better to have them look at your essays and give feedback than anyone else.
Give yourself a pat on the back because you have made it this far. You have successfully navigated the GMAT, have a good outline of the story and no-one can trump you in b-school trivia. So here is my take on the essay portion. I am lumping all the essays into this brief lessons learned bullets...
Note: Start on last year's essays as they don't change too much. At least the goals essay doesn’t that much. From April - July, this is all you should be doing. Essays Essays Essays.
Know the basics - You need to cover, short-term goals, long-term goals, why you want an mba? why that school? why now? and....the implicit question at every school - What will you bring to the table that another student does not?
The first thing in answering these questions is to be as SPECIFIC as you can. Avoid the generalities such as "building on my analytical skillset" or "School XYZ,s reputation and alumni network" - such sentences should never be written and the adcomm knows well enough what such a sentence means...a lack of depth.
You want to give an "illusion" that you have a plan. Don't get me wrong, I know you have a plan. But take it a step further by saying what your 3-year goal is, what your 5-year goal is and what your long-term plan is..instead of lumping it all together as short-term and long-term goals. Sounds trivial but I think it makes a difference.
Be specific (again)! - Call out the SPECIFIC position that you are aiming for - an associate in the M&A division for the Energy division? Say that. A Senior Consultant in the Retails division? Say that. Then move onto to explain what exactly you will learn in this position (your vault reading and research phase should help you here). Say that you will build on your modelling skills, say that you will learn how to create project proposals or whatever that may be. You want the adcomm to know that you know what you are getting yourself into.
I honestly believe that most applicants make the mistake of being too general. You want to write every single sentence of your essay in such a way that that same sentence can NOT be used by someone else...it should be that specific to you and what you are.
Have an epiphany - What that means is show a "turning point" in your story that motivated you from your current position to achieve your new goals. Preferably, this could be a single incident or a series or incidents, but its important to buy your reader into this epiphany. He/she should be fully engaged WITH you and WANT you to achieve those goals. It is also important to show here that this is not just a whim or a fancy, but part of a long drawn out process of introspection that has led you to want those goals.
Keep it simple - I am no creative writer, but try to not to be TOO creative with the essay introductions and endings. This is a judgement call at the end of the day, but most people start with a saying or some specific incident that was impactful in their lives (which is what I did).
Create an "arch"- An arch is a popular concept in storytelling whereby the author connects the introduction to the ending. This could be done in a multitude of ways but simply put, your ending should hark back to the introduction to give the illusion of a perfect completion. Obviously, it doesnt HAVE to be that ways and plenty of successful apps don't, but its just another way to connect the reader.
Why School X? - Call out the names of people you have talked to. I have heard varing theories on this, but I simply believe that if i have done that research, I am showing that adcomm that I did so. So out of all the people you reached out to in the research phase, select a few of them (whose responses you are using in your essay) and say them by their name! Be careful here though - make sure you check with them if its OK to use their names to show your research in the essays prior to doing so. Also make sure you don't across as just name-dropping.
This section should really be a breeze for you if you have been thorough in the research phase. Instead of saying "I plan on taking class XYZ" you can now say that "I understand class XYZ deals with a specific case study of Enron's failed transaction. I was also excited to hear how this class led a discussion on the Bear Stearns fallout this past semester..." - once again make it specific!!
What will you bring to the table? - Whether the schools asks for this or not..make sure you SAY it! If you feel that the consulting club could do some new things next year, say that you plan on being active in the club and taking it to newer places by doing blah blah blah. Show that you are there to CHANGE it, not just to be a part of it.
Past Experience - This can get tricky, but make sure that the "tone" is correct. You don't want to sound too pompous but at the same time be able to highlight your achievements. Select a key set of experiences that you want to allude to instead of becoming too detailed or too generic. Also make sure you show GROWTH! Show how the first experience you talk about grew you into the next and then the next and then the next...
Conflict - KEY KEY KEY! and one that so many people miss out on. Make sure all your essays talk about how you OVERCAME something. Whether its your age, your co-worker's disbelief ..whatever. Show what steps you took to overcame it and (this is important) LINK it with what you will do with this new found lesson at the dream school!
Show your weaknesses! - You may shrug at this with disbelief, but actually showing what you are not good in once again gives the illusion of you being "frank, open and introspective)..in short everything that the adcomm wants. So show that how one aspect of your personality is under-developed and how you have been working to improve it..and then (AGAIN!) LINK it with how your dream school will help you develop even further!
Failure Essay - Choose a REAL failure. Not one that "subtly highlights your success"
"I learnt..." - The adcomm has a soft spot for applicants that start their sentences with this phrase. My rule of thumb (really) is that EVERY achievement I call in my essays absolutely MUST follow with a sentence on what I learnt from this achievement and then once again LINKING it with how I will use this new found knowledge at my dream school!
Drafts and redrafts - Keep your essays in your head every day. Let them season for a while before coming back to them for another draft. To give you an idea, my goals essay had about 41 drafts between April and August...and I realized that I didn't even use a single sentence from my first draft to my final essay...yes, thats how much they can change!
Work vs non-work - Keep a balance between what professional experiences you choose to highlight vs personal ones. The goals essay for example is all professional (atleast 90% of the time), the rest of the essays could go either way.
Databank - Once you are done with your first school's essay, they are part of the databank. You should have a goals essay a leadership essay, a failure essay and then a "wildcard" essay (describe yourself etc.) This set should be good enough for you to re-use for other schools BUT, make sure it doesnt come across as being re-used!! You absolutely need to be able to tailor it for every school's needs and tastes. So make sure you are answering the question.
Forward-looking vs backward-looking goals essay - Some goals essay are forward looking. For example Columbia's,
What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals (Recommended 750 word limit)?
...and some are backward looking (like Stern's):
Think about the decisions you have made in your life. Answer the following:
(a) What choices have you made that led you to your current position?
(b) Why pursue an MBA at this point in your life?
(c) What is your career goal upon graduation from NYU Stern? What is your long-term career goal?
Make sure you know the difference!! The tone of the entire essay could change due to this difference. What this also means is that for Columbia's essay you can tone down and trim down your past experiences and focus more on your goals. The adcomm is smart enough to figure out when you have blatantly used another school's essay by simply looking at whether its forward-looking or backward-looking. Also every goals essay has a twist. For Stern - they are asking for CHOICES..so make sure you address that. You cannot simply use another school's backqard-looking goals essay here, unless it speaks to your choices. Nuances like these need to be identified and then fulfilled so make sure that the school feels that the essay was written solely and only for them.
ECs - If you have it, flaunt it. But as you already know, don't rush to save the world at this very moment..the adcomm is really not looking for that..all they are looking for is whether you have a life outside of work. So if you have a hobby, show your passion for it. Hopefully, its an hobby you have been at for years and can show significant work for.
Parallel applications - Many people say that your first app should not be your target school as it is usually the worst app. I tend to agree with that theory. However, I cannot just work on one app at a time. I am usually working on the goals essay for schools that have "similar" essays (such as both being forward-looking) at the same time. While this could be a logistical nightmare (you change one sentence..you have to change it twice in another doc)..it saves a ton of headache later on and actually allows you to avoid blatantly re-using one essay for another. This is just my way of doing it and many people are better off doing one app at a time. I just found using this method to be a little more intensive but the rewards of it were that by July, I had almost ALL my essays for the 5 schools down along with specific nuances captured for every school.
This approach also eliminated the "first-app-sucks" syndrome..because you are constantly working on the essay for different schools....but now you have the time to come BACK to the essays later on for re-drafts.
FOR INDIAN APPLICANTS:
1. Do not talk about being a Cricket Captain - everyone does that
2. Do not talk about organizing a Diwali or Holi event - everyone does that
Dig deeper for more leadership experience. Remember that leadership does NOT equal to an assigned position. it could be an informal leadership role that you took.
Finally - Ignore everyone's opinion. Let me clarify. If you are applying to b-school, every tom dick and harry is going to have an opinion on what you should say, your friends, family and people you don't know. They may all mean well, but at the end of the day you want to come to a point where your research is so strong, that you should be confident enough to follow your opinion. Take everyone's inputs into consideration, but trust your own judgment. Keep this in mind when having people proof-read. Only have people who KNOW something about the process (like the students you interacted with in the Research phase!) read your essays. As only they can understand the intricacies of it. The rest of the world will mean well and provide you some input, but really, it’s not relevant.
Recommendations - Create a "Coaching" document for your recommenders. This should highlight your story, and what you want to do along with the schools you are applying to and the deadlines. Give the recommenders a deadline of a week BEFORE the actual deadline and be frank with them as to why you are doing that. Tell them that you plan on submitting the app a week earlier than the deadline and therefore you want them to track that date as well. Then have a sit-down with the recommender and walk them through the story. Discuss your strengths and weaknesses and then ask them what they think! Don't go into the recommendations cold - make sure your recommenders know how invested you are in the process and how much it means to you so that they are emotionally invested in your success as well.