2 Years, 8 Dings and 2 Scholarships Later — My Reflections on the MBA Application Process
I decided a long time ago that I would need to get an MBA to jump to my desired industry: Management Consulting. After making the decision, the process put me through the ringer. After it was all said and done, I had been declined from 5 schools, waitlisted at 3, and accepted at 2 (one being a full scholarship). There are a number of tips that I think are well written about from engaging with the schools you are applying to accentuating impact / leadership on your application, but I would like to focus on two aspects of my journey: perseverance and refining my story.
I’d also like to recommend a key resource during my process that should be a go-to for anyone thinking about getting an MBA:
Darren Joe, a former MBA Admissions Director runs the site and does an excellent job in his podcast (AMAZING) and posts discussing issues that will resonate with any applicant. I found the interviews with Admissions Officers as well as the topics related to positioning applications really useful when I was making my school list and thinking about what kind of applicant I was. Check it out!
Declined: Northwestern Kellogg, UVA Darden, Duke Fuqua
Accepted: Cornell Johnson (20K Scholarship), Emory Goizueta (Full Scholarship)
Waitlisted: Duke Fuqua, Michigan Ross, UT McCombs
Declined: Northwestern Kellogg, UVA Darden, MIT Sloan
Career: 3 years in Account Management / Client Service at GLG ($500M professional learning company), 3 promotions.
Academics: 740 GMAT, Economics Major at Birmingham-Southern College (3.2 GPA)
Extras: Collegiate Athlete (Basketball), fair amount of community involvement in College (Fraternity, Orientation, Teaching Assistant, etc)
Post-MBA Goals: Management Consulting (McKinsey, Bain, BCG)
MBA Admissions Story
I took the GMAT in December of 2016 in anticipation of the 2017–2018 application process and got a great score (740). After the test, I decided that I should apply to a few schools at the top of my list despite being a very young applicant (2 years work experience) as I thought it would help refine my story / give me application experience at the very least. I applied to UVA Darden, Northwestern Kellogg, and Duke Fuqua and was declined at all 3. While I knew I was a long shot, I have to say that getting a “No” after you spend so much time figuring out and explaining WHY you want to go to a school and WHY you deserve to get in is very difficult.
This lesson would be fully hammered in during the 2017–2018 cycle. I received a promotion in January 2017 and had a stronger application overall by R1, so had high hopes when re-applying to Kellogg and UVA in addition to UT-McCombs and MIT Sloan. UVA also allows feedback sessions after being declined, so I was able to address their major critique effectively: “Get more professional experience making an impact as a leader and individual contributor.” I considered UT more of a safety school based on my profile and thought there was a good chance I would get into one of the others. I also got promoted again to a unique role just before the decisions for R1 were released (early December), which I thought materially improved my profile. Despite the positive momentum, I was declined from UVA and MIT without an interview, declined from Kellogg after interviewing, and waitlisted at UT. It was the about the most disappointing result I could have imagined. The decisions shook my confidence in a major way and I began reconsidering if an MBA was meant to be. To that point I had received 5 outright no’s and an extremely precarious maybe (which is all a WL is, despite what schools say).
After R1, I took a few days off. I tried not to think of the admissions process, schools, or anything related to an MBA. It was during the Christmas Holiday, so I was able to spend time with family and friends. They were very supportive of me and definitely helped restore some of my confidence. I also had a very important conversation with a mentor and colleague that had gotten into Darden in R1 with significant scholarship- she had no doubt that I would get into a great school and asked that I not give up so soon. This re-set was probably the most important time in my entire experience applying to B-School. Afterwards, I was able to re-evaluate my profile and results with a more objective view, trying to separate my emotions from the decisions. I came away still perplexed, but not distraught. Despite the results, I still felt my profile was up to snuff to get into a great program. I buckled down and got to work on 4 new applications: Duke, Cornell, Emory and Michigan.
I wrote all the applications in a 3 day span and honestly they came incredibly easily. The hours I had spent on previous applications, agonizing over the positioning of my profile, my essay stories, etc had given me incredible clarity on my story. I knew what kind of applicant I was and why I needed an MBA. A good way to tell how well you “know your story” should come from your reaction to each essay prompt. If you have done the work on your profile and know the why’s, then the story used for each prompt should be apparent within an hour of brainstorming. If you are agonizing over how to best answer a prompt for days / weeks, it would likely be beneficial to go back to the basics on your overall story.
The work paid off as I was invited to interview at each school I applied to in R2 and was given a chance to interview for Emory’s Woodruff Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship with a 10k stipend. The results were the polar opposite of R1.
After interviews (which included one massive coffee spill all over myself prior to the Michigan interview), I was placed on the WL at Duke / Michigan and given scholarship to Cornell / Emory (including the Woodruff). I committed to Emory almost immediately. It was really an amazing outcome- better than could have possibly been hoped. Not only would I not have to go into debt to pay for an MBA, they would pay me!
Takeaways: Persevere and get your story straight!
The ups and downs of my process gave me a few moments in which I considering giving up my MBA goal. After hearing “no” multiple times, my mind began doubting my credentials and profile. It took a mental re-set and serious re-evaluation of the admissions process before I regained my resolve. What made me decide to persevere was a simple realization: MBA Admissions is a crap-shoot. Unless you are a bonafide super star with a killer GMAT mixed with blue chip work experience and extracurriculars, you will always have more in common with your competition than you think. I believe my early results were somewhat unlucky, but within realistic bounds given the limited data points.
In basketball, there is a common confidence-inspiring phrase used by coaches to shooters when they have an unlucky streak of missed shots: “keep shooting.” I simply had to keep shooting my shot and let the law of averages take over. Sure enough, I was rewarded in R2 and even got lucky! If I had been admitted to my R1 “safety” school (UT McCombs), I would have happily attended without knowing that a full-ride was out there waiting for me.
With the understanding that applicants are more similar than dissimilar and that there are only a few numbers most decisions are made on, you cannot take any single (or even handful) of admissions decisions personally. Stick with it and try to focus on what is actually different or unique about your profile.
My own rollercoaster ride of an admissions process also showed the importance of knowing your story. While I spent a ton of time on my first few applications, I was often playing the game vs actually saying who I was and what I wanted to do. The rejections hammered home the common advice: “just be yourself.” I recalibrated for R2 and was able to tell my story more efficiently while being true to myself. I think the major piece of advice on this front is to get started on your story (Why MBA? Why Now? Why XXXX Business School?) early and be solid on what your answers are to your core. Once you have the backbone of your story down, everything else will come naturally and it will become a narrative rather than a few written answers on an application.
The Admissions process can be a difficult journey — but taking the steps early to prepare yourself and your story will make your application stronger and prepare you for the inevitable twists and turns of the process. Good luck, it is worth the effort!