When I first started researching MBA programs, I reached out to everyone in my network who was at that school to chat about their experiences. I’m not sure why I did it – perhaps I thought that the admissions committee would somehow find out all the effort I was making and take it as a sign of my commitment. Boy was that wrong. Now that I’m a student at Harvard Business School who is constantly bombarded by requests from strangers to “pick my brain” about MBA programs, I understand just how annoying and pointless such conversations can be.
School research is a critical step on your admissions path and students can be great resources. But recognize that arranging phone calls with MBA students and alumni will not in and of itself improve your odds of admission or reveal to you what you should put in your application. Instead you should have specific goals that you want to accomplish by reaching out, which I outline below.
Okay to reach out:
To get a feel for the school culture
Admissions websites are full of hard information about the school: graduation requirements, curricular opportunities, and admissions criteria. What they often can’t capture is the soft information of the school – those elusive hard-to-define experiential aspects we call culture. Culture is an incredibly important part of any matriculation decision and it is something that current students feel constantly. Not only are current students most attuned to the school’s culture, they are often the ones most interested in talking about it.
To plug into an affinity group
Affinity groups for veterans and ethnic minorities are often plugged into the admissions department. They help with outreach in the community to broaden the applicant base, and they host special events for prospective students on campus. Using official channels to connect with these clubs and their “admissions ambassadors” can be a great way to get on the club’s email distribution list for admission events, access to any official club admission advice, and see what support resources exist at the school of someone in your community.
To make sure your application “speaks the school’s language”
MBA programs have unique vocabularies. Admissions committees and students alike can easily identify outsiders by the odd and foreign way they talk. For example, no one at HBS call it the “first year curriculum” – it’s the “required curriculum” or “RC”. Being able to talk about a school using its own language is essential to presenting yourself as a credible candidate.
To know what you get out of specific classes
Many applicants try to show off their knowledge of a school by talking about what unique benefit they seek to get out of specific required and elective coursework. I thought about it when I was applying, but there was only so much I could tell about what I would learn from a class by its title. Looking back, my intuition was WAY off and I’m glad I didn’t say anything about those classes. Anyone who has taken them would have immediately seen just how little I knew. Conversations with current students can help close this knowledge gap.
To verify likelihood of career transitions
Everyone goes to business school to make some change in their career. But is the transition you seek to make common or likely at the school in question? For example, if you want to work at an elite Venture Capital firm and are thinking of applying to a less competitive school, does that firm even recruit there? If you want to pursue a really non-traditional job, is that even one that an MBA will help you get? Having realistic career goals is an absolutely essential part of any application and current students (usually second-year students) will know best what career transitions are feasible – and at that school in particular.
To find compelling ways of giving back to the school
The best applications will argue why the candidate will actually improve the school. What clubs will you seek leadership positions in? Which positions are even available? Current students can be very useful in helping you find the best place for you to leave your mark.
Don’t reach out:
To have them lobby the admissions department on your behalf
Individual students do not carry much sway with the admission committee. Unless they know you extremely well, they also would find it extremely awkward to vouch to the committee on your behalf. Paradoxically, the admissions committees will see such endorsements of close friends as biased anyway and discount what they say. Either way, it is a lose-lose except that by asking them to lobby, you spend up any social capital you may have.
To get them to read your essays
MBAs are busy and reading someone’s essay is a huge favor. If you box them into reading yours, they will likely give you short shrift without much actionable improvements. Furthermore, they may have made it through the process, but they are probably not experts at the admissions essay writing process. Finally, a stranger may be able to tell that an essay is bad or even why they dislike it, but unless they work with you closely and understand your narrative intimately, they won’t know what the range of options are for you to improve your story.
To chit chat / “pick their brain”
Again, MBAs are busy. They barely have enough time to hang-out with their friends at school let alone random people who want something from them. If you are going to ask for their time, make sure you respect them enough to have a definite purpose in mind. Send good questions in advance to show the MBA that you have done your research and are asking questions that only someone like them could answer
To collect names to drop in the application
This is probably the biggest abuse of informational chats. First of all, if this is your motivation you are using someone as a means to an end and will likely not even listen to what they say. Second, Elite MBA programs do not care how many people you spoke with before applying. Talk is cheap and there are better ways to show commitment. Third, if namedropping in conversation gets annoying, the same is true for your essays. Keep the focus on you and your story.