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Considering an MBA? When should you get started?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Considering an MBA? When should you get started? Applying to business school is both exhilarating and daunting. It’s a competitive endeavor and every year, after watching talented friends go through their own application experience, people are curious: “How do I improve my candidacy?”

This is such a terrific question – one that is best asked long before you apply to school. When you’re asking yourself this question, you’re ready to grow.

It turns out, there are many ways to grow. While it’s never too late to start, there are some steps that require LOTS of time and others that require only a few months. We’ve structured our advice below based on your possible timeline. All else being equal, the more time you leave yourself to improve your candidacy, the more likely you will succeed, both in getting into a school that excites you, and thriving once you are there.

Still in college? It’s never too early to prepare for an application – the great news – the same things that will prepare you to be a great candidate for any graduate school are often the same things that make you a successful job candidate or thriving young entrepreneur.

  • Nail your GPA: this is one factor in the admissions process that cannot be changed once you graduate from school. Been doing well this whole time? Great! Don’t slack off during the final semester! It’s harder to explain down the road!

  • Deepen your impact at school: Thought of organizing something for a club you are a part of? Do it, and document the results. It will help MBA admissions committees extrapolate your future leadership potential.

  • Try something new: If you have time, consider a study abroad, start a venture (i.e. business, student club), or take a casual hobby to the next level (i.e. record a song if you’re into music, complete a half-marathon if into running, enter a creative writing contest). It will lend new credibility to your existing passions.

Applying in 2-3 years? Start preparing now! This time offers the most potential to impact your candidacy – determining what schools are “target” schools for you. It offers time to achieve some great things at work and in the community, with a focus on leadership. Some of the more effective things to do to improve your candidacy include:

  • Join 2-3 community organizations, and aim for 1-2 tangible impacts through your community involvement. This can include organizing fundraisers, mentoring someone through their college application process; one of our clients wrote about just trying to keep a troubled teen out of jail.

  • Join school email distribution lists and start following the news flow from schools you are targeting. It will provide an early guide on which schools will be the right fit for you. This should help get you started.

  • Search your network for people at your target schools and reach out to learn more about their experience. It is never too early to see if a school is a right fit for you and to build your nuanced understanding of how a program will help you to achieve your goals.

  • Consider ways to push beyond your comfort zone including a transfer to a new region, an expanded role, or a volunteer role that requires you to lead.

  • Add another dimension to your life. If analytical, consider mentoring others to showcase your softer leadership skills. If transitioning from the military, consider activities that highlight your empathy.

  • Study for standardized test (whichever one you are targeting for school) and consider taking your first test.

  • Identify 4-5 people you could convert into being advocates on your behalf, and craft an action plan to turn them unto people.

  • If your GPA is below 3.5, consider continuing education to expand your quantitative and analytical skills. Further, consider taking more analytical projects at work to improve confidence with admissions committees that you will be able to handle the quantitative and analytical rigor of top MBA programs.

1-2 years before applying When in this period, you still have plenty of time to fill gaps in some weaker areas, such as community service, workplace awards, and strengthening relationships with recommenders. However, it is important you take the opportunity to do so in order to adequately differentiate yourself from other applicants.

  • Connect with those you know at your target schools, and consider visiting those schools (especially if you travel for work and happen to be visiting those cities).

  • Narrow down your list of potential recommenders, and consider introducing the idea you will apply. They could be an important source of stretch projects for further bolster your candidacy. Craft what you would want them to say, and create an action plan to make that hypothetical recommendation a reality.

  • If already involved in 1-2 community organizations, find one way to deepen your impact. This could include organizing a new fundraising event, finding someone to mentor, or creating a new partnership that expands the organization’s scope or deepens its impact.

  • Aim for a tangible achievement outside of work. If you’re a runner, aim to complete a half-marathon. If a musician, consider organizing a performance to benefit charity, even if just for friends and family. You’ll be amazed how many of these activities turn into interesting stories during interviews!

  • Complete your first serious attempt at a standardized test. If you have taken it 2-3 times and are not happy with your score, create a plan to change your preparation strategy (i.e. consider hiring a coach).

  • If you don’t believe you can improve your standardized test score, begin preparing a list of target schools in-line with your standardized test scores, and seek to bulk up your other attributes that you will use to offset your below-average scores with stretch schools.

  • Attend at least one admissions event amongst any of the schools you are interested in.

  • Identify a “stretch” project at work that will expand your skillset and offer a unique result/achievement you can highlight in your applications vs. your other work accomplishments.

Within 1 year of applying If you are within one year of applying, your focus should be on execution and finding opportunities to strengthen your application’s foundation rather than engaging in a broad range of new experiences.

  • Finalize your standardized test scores. If your score doesn’t align with your target schools, be mindful that those schools will be stretch schools, and you should be prepared to re-apply next year if you strongly feel you want to go to one of those programs.

  • Visit each school you plan to apply to, even if just virtually, in order to assess the school’s fit within your overall plans.

  • Finalize your list of recommenders, and formally ask them for recommendations.

  • Attend at least one admissions event amongst each of the schools you are interested in. If you connect well with someone at the school, plan follow-up interactions to deepen the connection.

  • Update your resume with your latest accomplishments, making sure that you highlight impact/results/achievements throughout it.

  • Connect with 2-3 current students or recent alumni at each school you are targeting, to deepen your knowledge of how the school will help you achieve your goal, beyond what you can learn on the website.

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