News, advice and resources for business school applicants

Planning Tips


Admissions Tip: Addressing Unemployment or Gaps in Employment

planclockGiven the emphasis that schools place on a candidate’s work experience, it is important to be proactive in addressing gaps in employment.  When applying to business school, many candidates worry about how the adcom might perceive gaps in employment.  We would like to take some time to discuss strategies for addressing this issue.

It’s not unheard of for an MBA candidate to have a gap in employment, and this will not necessarily make a negative impact on someone’s candidacy.  Gaps might be due to anything from lay-offs to periods of travel.  As a rule of thumb, applicants should explain gaps in employment that are three months or longer in an optional essay or, if instructed, on their data forms. The adcom will not want to play detective with vague dates on an applicant’s résumé or large chunks of unaccounted for time.  As the adcom will simply want to know what an applicant was doing during a period of unemployment, applicants should show that they made productive use of this time.  It is important for applicants to be open and clear about extended gaps to show that they were not simply spending the time to look for full-time employment.

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Admissions Tip: Selecting Your Recommenders

interviewSince many of our readers are just beginning the business school application process, we wanted to offer some basic tips on a critical variable in the MBA admissions equation: recommender selection.

When choosing your recommenders, remember that it can be seen as a test of judgment – selecting a recommender whose letter is ineffective or who appears dubious about your qualifications may raise doubts about your ability to judge your interactions with others or to select the right person for a job.  In order for your letters to be as effective as possible, you should look for several qualities in a recommender.  First, your recommenders should have greater seniority than you unless the school specifically asks for a peer recommendation.  The adcom gives greater weight to statements made by your superiors rather than by a peer because a peer is assumed to be essentially a friend and therefore predisposed to write a positive recommendation.

As we discuss in greater depth with our clients, the most persuasive recommendation letters are those which contain specific examples and anecdotes.  Because of this, you should select recommenders who are very familiar with your work and with whom you interact(ed) on a regular basis.  This usually means that you should choose current or former direct supervisors, rather than someone whose title you think will impress the adcom.  Choosing a recommender based on their name or title can imply that you put an undue emphasis on such qualities instead of thinking about who would be the best person for the job.  In addition to picking people who know you well, you should also pick recommenders with whom you have a positive relationship, since if they like and respect you, their letters are likely to be much more positive and persuasive.

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Admissions Tip: Avoiding Red Flags

Triancular_red_flagWhen applying to the top schools, it is important to avoid “red flags” in your application.  For the uninitiated, red flags are negative items that stand out in your file and may result in rejection from business school.  While most applicants understand the basic red flags, like a 2.4 GPA or a recommendation letter that raises serious concerns about the candidate’s maturity, there are many less obvious triggers.

Some time ago, an Admissions Director Symposium organized by the Graduate Management Admissions Council produced an interesting publication on the subject of admissions policy and red flags.  Here is an excerpt from their report:

Identifying ‘Red Flags’ in the Application Process

The Directors Symposium participants found that many of the markers of less successful students can be identified in the application process but are often overlooked – everything from numerous job changes in a short period of time to strange personal interactions or difficulty communicating.  These signals should not be ignored, said participants.  It may be useful to discuss any ‘red flags’ with other colleagues, to determine which shortcomings can be mitigated by other qualities and which should be reasons not to offer admission.

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Admissions Tip: Addressing Academic Strengths

1803276939_c8fcfb050f_mWhile we devoted time last week to advice on addressing weaknesses in one’s academic record, today we wanted to explore the other side of the issue: the strengths that lie in your undergraduate record.

Beyond issues of aptitude or previous achievement, there are a number of other things that your academic profile might say about you.  For instance, if you have a range of quant-focused classes in your record, this might create the impression that you are well prepared for the sort of coursework you would undertake in business school.  Meanwhile, if you have pursued extensive coursework in an area beyond the more traditional disciplines of economics, business administration or engineering, this could indicate some unique interest or perspective that you would bring to the classroom.

For example, applicants who pursued significant language study or took a number of classes in disciplines such as sociology, psychology, art, etc., will stand out among candidates who focused primarily on math, engineering or business courses in college.  Along these lines, applicants whose transcripts show they studied abroad as undergraduates may be seen as more globally aware or as better prepared to work with an international student body.

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Admissions Tip: Addressing Academic Weaknesses

300px-Inside_a_Harvard_Business_School_classroomTo follow up on last month’s advice about GMAT preparation and timing, we wanted to offer some general comments about the role of academics in the admissions process.  Many candidates considering business school focus on the credentials they will hold and the network that they will join upon graduation, but it is important to keep in mind the academic experience at the heart of any MBA program.  Because a business school is, after all, a school, it makes sense to begin your consideration of your profile by thinking about your academic aptitude and track record to date.  Your performance in your educational endeavors up to this point will be treated as a predictor of your success in business school.

While this is all well and good for applicants whose undergraduate GPAs and GMAT scores are close to the average of students at their target schools—about 3.5 and 710 for the top programs—things become a bit trickier for candidates who fall below the pack in either or both of these categories.  Retaking the GMAT is always an option, but this can become counterproductive after the first two or three attempts, and there is obviously nothing to be done to alter one’s college marks.  If the other aspects of your candidacy are strong and you’re only lacking in one of these two academic areas, an effective strategy is often to use an optional essay to acknowledge that one of these numbers is below the school’s average and assure the adcom that the other is the more accurate indication of your academic ability.

Meanwhile, applicants who fall short in both of these measures—as well as anyone who simply wants to strengthen his or her academic profile or falls well below the average in GMAT or GPA—should consider putting together an alternative transcript that demonstrates a track record of As in quantitative coursework, e.g., in basic classes in accounting, statistics, calculus or economics.  These classes can be taken at any community college or even through an accredited online program.  This is a particularly sound strategy for candidates who focused on the social sciences or humanities in college and do not have a record of demonstrated success in quant-heavy disciplines.  Applicants can then point to this as a more recent—and therefore more accurate—reflection of their present abilities in a classroom setting.  While one or two classes can suffice, keep in mind that the more classes one takes, the more convincing this argument becomes (assuming strong performance in these supplemental classes, of course).

Still, these are general guidelines about the ways that one might address a shortcoming in a single element of the admissions process.  For a more detailed evaluation of your entire candidacy and more comprehensive advice about your applications, contact us for a free initial consultation.

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Admissions Tip: Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular - VolleyballBecause it’s the time of year when applicants aiming for Fall 2015 intake are just beginning to think about the admissions process, we wanted to focus today on one element of the application that candidates often underestimate: extracurricular activities.

In order to understand why this category is important, candidates should keep in mind that the adcom is responsible for crafting a dynamic class each year.  The aim is to admit individuals who will support a vibrant campus community and step into leadership positions.  In other words, as admissions officers consider each applicant, they ask themselves “what’s in it for our school?”  An applicant who has previously demonstrated a talent for writing, for example, by contributing to a nonprofit’s newsletter, will really catch the adcom’s attention if she also expresses her intent to contribute to a specific publication on campus.

Volunteering is of course a great way to expand one’s Continue reading…

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Admissions Tip: Planning for the GMAT

For all you “early birds” who are planning to apply to business school this fall, we wanted to offer a few tips on managing your time as it relates to the GMAT exam.  Because this is an important element for many applicants in determining at which schools they will be competitive, it’s best to prep intensively and get this out of the way early in the process.

You should ideally be finished with the GMAT by mid-summer.  The reason for this is that you will want to reserve the months of August, September and October for essay writing, school visits, managing your recommenders and other miscellaneous application-related tasks.  The last thing you want to be doing in September is juggling the demands of GMAT prep alongside your MBA applications, your responsibilities at work, your extracurricular involvements, etc.

Of course, putting the GMAT to rest by mid-summer is much easier said than done.  Given the strength of the test-taking pool and the importance of earning a high score when targeting a top program, in order to be successful, you should ideally budget time for a GMAT prep course or 8 to 12 weeks of solid self-study.  You should then consider the fact that you may need to take the exam more than once.

Given these considerations, here is a rough schedule to follow:

April, May: Attend a GMAT prep class and spend as much as 2 hours each weekday doing problems; use the weekends to take full-length tests (under realistic, timed conditions).

June: Take the GMAT early in the month.  If you are unsatisfied with your score, work towards taking the exam again.  Ideally, you’ll take a short break of one to two weeks (to clear your mind) and then leave at least four weeks to prep for the second sitting of the exam.  Consider hiring a tutor to address your specific needs.

July: Take the GMAT again, hopefully achieving a score that is within the range of the MBA programs on your list.  If your score doesn’t improve, it may be time to reevaluate your target schools and expand your roster to ensure that your selection is realistic.

In some cases, it may make sense to mirror your work on the GMAT by simultaneously enrolling in a calculus or statistics class at your local university or community college.  While this is especially true for applicants who have a weak track record in quantitative subjects and need to build an alternative transcript, in general these classes can often help applicants get the most out of their GMAT preparation.

Good luck!  For more information about how the GMAT fits into the application process and on business schools in general, feel free to contact Clear Admit to learn about our early bird planning services or set up an initial consultation.  You can also download Clear Admit’s independent guide to the leading test preparation companies.  This FREE guide includes coupons for discounts on test prep services at 10 different firms!

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Admissions Tip: Late Round Considerations

After a relatively sleepy February, March will soon be upon us with its extensive list of application deadlines and decision notification dates.  Let’s take a look at part of the long list of Round 3 (or 4 or 5) deadlines spread over the next two months:

March 3rd: Ross R3 (11:59pm EST)

March 5th: INSEAD R3 (11:59pm CET)

March 7th: Judge R3 (5:00pm UTC)

March 12th: Haas R3 (11:59pm PST)

March 14th: UNC R4 (5:00pm EST)

March 14th: Oxford R4 (11:59pm GMT)

March 15th: Tepper R3 (11:59pm EST)

March 15th: Stern R4 (11:59pm EST)

March 20th: Fuqua R3 (11:59pm EST)

March 27th: Darden R3 (5:00pm EST)

March 27th: Wharton R3 (5:00pm EST)

March 27th: McCombs R3 (11:59pm CST)

April 1st: Georgetown R3 (11:59pm EST)

April 2nd: Stanford R3 (5:00pm PST)

April 2nd: Tuck R4 (5:00pm EST)

April 2nd: Kellogg R3 (11:59pm CST)

April 4th: Booth R3 (5:00pm CST)

April 7th: HBS R3 (11:59pm PST)

April 9th: CBS Regular Decision (11:59pm EST)

April 15th: Anderson R3 (11:59pm PST)

April 24th: Yale SOM R3 (5:00pm EST)

April 25th: Judge R4 (5:00pm UTC)

April 25th: Oxford R5 (11:59pm GMT)

May 30th: Oxford R6 (11:59pm GMT)

While it’s always best to apply as early as possible, the difference between applying in Round 1 and applying in Round 2 is, for most applicants, a marginal one.  However, the later rounds are a very different game.  Because most of the seats in the incoming class will have been given away by the time Round 2 decisions are released, the acceptance rate in the third round is dramatically lower than that for the first two deadlines of the season.

To maximize your chances of a later round acceptance, demonstrating your interest in the school and submitting thoughtful and error-free written materials will be crucial.  Applying in Round 1 is generally taken as a sign of interest in a given program, and by the same token, applicants submitting their materials in a later round need to work extra hard to convince the adcom that they are genuinely interested in the school and are not simply applying as an afterthought because interview invitations didn’t come through in Round 2. Demonstrating that you would make a valuable contribution to the community and providing evidence that you have taken steps to engage current students and alumni will work to your advantage.

As always, we’d like to recommend the in-depth Clear Admit School Guides to those applicants who are targeting the later deadlines and just beginning to investigate certain programs, and we encourage those who’ve visited the campus and interviewed to share their experiences in Clear Admit Interview Reports.  Potential R3 or R4 applicants are also welcome to contact Clear Admit directly to discuss the strength of their later round candidacies and learn more about our one-on-one counseling services.

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Admissions Tip: Drafting A Resume

As candidates tackle interviews and preparation for Round 2 applications, we would like to revisit an important aspect of the application: the resume. Given the many roles that the resume plays in the business school application process, drafting a resume (or CV) is an excellent starting point for someone embarking on the next round of MBA applications. Here are several reasons why now is the time to focus on polishing your resume:

1) Crafting a resume can serve as the creative starting point for candidates trying to develop their positioning strategy and career goals for the MBA admissions process. Distilling all relevant educational, professional and extracurricular experiences into a coherent one-page document can be an eye-opening exercise. This step is helpful to many applicants because it can reveal overarching themes in their work and activities or bring to light key selling points in their profile.

2) Nearly every top school requires a resume. This is usually requested as part of the written application. Even if the school does not request a stand-alone resume, they will usually solicit similar information within their application forms (employment history, educational background, etc). In addition, candidates are often required to bring a resume to their admissions interviews as a starting point for conversation.
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Admissions Tips: Common Recommendation Dilemmas

As many of our readers are aware, letters of recommendation are a central part of the application process.  We would like to take a look at how to handle the snags that often arise for applicants in unique employment situations.

The applicant who is most likely to have trouble finding a suitable recommender is either self-employed or works in his or her family’s business.  First, self-employed entrepreneurs by their very nature do not have a direct supervisor.  Similarly, an applicant who works for the family business may have trouble finding a non-related supervisor, or someone who can offer a truly objective opinion. Continue reading…

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Admissions Tip: Applying to Business School as a Younger Applicant

As many of our readers know, it has become increasingly common for younger individuals to apply to MBA programs.  Whereas the average age and years of work experience at the leading business schools has traditionally hovered at around 28 and five respectively, many programs are now carefully considering the more youthful end of the applicant pool.  Of course, the fact that admissions officers are taking a closer look at younger applicants does not mean that getting accepted to a top program is easy for this group.  In fact, it may be difficult for younger applicants to present themselves as fully prepared to contribute to an MBA program because they often lack leadership experience and extended business exposure.  This is especially true as they will be compared to their fellow applicants who have more years in the working world (often translating to more leadership experience and professional accomplishments).  With this in mind, we’d like to offer a few tips that will help younger MBA candidates leverage the strengths of their candidacies and become increasingly competitive applicants at their choice schools.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we’ll define “younger applicants” as ranging from zero to two years of experience (i.e., undergraduate seniors and folks who are one to two years removed from their college graduation).

1) Have an exceptional academic profile. Ideally all MBA candidates will be able to present stellar GPA and GMAT scores, but for younger candidates this is especially crucial.  If younger candidates are likely to fall short in the “work experience” category, then their academic profiles are all the more important to show that they are prepared for the rigors of an MBA classroom.  Continue reading…

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