How to apply as a re-applicant


Not everyone get’s into business school on their first try. Don’t worry if that’s the case for you — many business schools explicitly welcome and encourage applications from re-applicants. But what can you do to make sure you' don’t set yourself up for the same disappointment?

Step 1: Gut Check

Before you invest any more time, make sure that your MBA school selection is reasonable based on the raw statistics of your profile. For example, if you are applying to the M7 and are not an underrepresented minority, is your GPA at least above 3.0 and your GMAT above 700? If not, I probably wouldn’t waste the application fee. If you need any help determining whether you have the raw stats for your choice of schools, feel free to fill out our What are my odds? form and we’ll have a conversation about it.

Step 2: Focus in on the Story

For every candidate, the area of the application that has the highest return-on-investment for admissions odds is the story. Everyone will tell you to write a good story (which isn’t very helpful, right? Why would you intentionally tell a bad one?). Essays that are fun to read are good. But the real key is in understanding the next level deeper of what other objectives you want your story to accomplish.

Step 3: Autopsy

What went wrong with your last story? The short way to accomplish your task at hand is to run a ding report to understand where your last story broke down last time:

  • Was it too complicated?

  • Did your goals lack credibility?

  • Did you fail to connect your candidacy to a larger cause or problem to solve?

  • Did you fail to create resonance through emotion and values?

  • Did you fail to articulate the urgency of your candidacy?

Many schools ask re-applicants to submit essays explaining what has changed in their life and career since their last application, so it is imperative to understand where you fell short so you can then show improvement.

Step 4: Tell your Narrative

When we lead our clients through the Narrative Bootcamp portion of our Complete School Packages, we start from the facts of their life and build an argument from the ground up as to why this background is the ideal preparation to solve a particular problem. We then explain how our client is on a mission to solve that problem, starting from an emotional origin story and proceeding to some important vision for the future. We then show how they are prevented from accomplishing that mission in their current position, but how business school will allow them to achieve that mission if admitted. We call this specific structure of story a "Narrative" and you can read some posts about it here and the process we recommend using here.

The Eisenhower Matrix: A Five-Star General’s Application Strategy


Want to apply to business school like a master strategist? How about like a five-star general?

General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, led the allies to victory in World War II not necessarily through the innovative tactics of Omar Bradley nor the personal ferocity of George Patton, but rather through superior planning. By staying focused on the most important tasks on his plate, keeping track of other tasks on the back burner, and removing unnecessary distractions, he developed what we know today as the Eisenhower Matrix.

On one axis, the question is asked whether a task is important – as in "how essential is this task to mission victory?" On the other axis, the question is asked if the task is urgent – "is this task time sensitive and does it have a deadline coming up soon?" Tasks are arrayed on this matrix according to the answers to these two questions.


Eisenhower would start with tasks in the top left box and accomplish them immediately. His goal was always to keep his top left box as clear as possible. He would then move to the bottom left box and quickly delegate those tasks to his subordinates. These were tasks that needed to be done, just not necessarily by the General. His key contribution here is picking the right person to accomplish the task, and following up to make sure it is completed. He then moved onto the top right box and decided when in his schedule he would get to these important, non-urgent tasks. If he didn’t plan them correctly, these tasks could quickly become urgent and fill up his “Do” box. Finally, if any tasks fell into the bottom right, he would simply cut them out of his calendar completely. His time was simply too important to be spent on things that did not add value.

We recommend building two Eisenhower Matrices during your application process. The first is for your GMAT study regimen. While your GMAT score is just a single data point in the over-all application, it is a necessary component and in part determines the strata of schools where your application will be competitive.


The second is for your MBA application process itself. Applying for your MBA is a marathon, and if you don’t sequence your priorities correctly it is highly likely that you will not sequence your work correctly. For example, filling out your application forms and asking for letters of recommendation before developing a narrative almost guarantees that whatever you produce will lack the thematic clarity and focus of a good application. It’s the equivalent of filming a movie without first writing the script. Another pitfall is to do the same before you decide whether to hire an admissions consultant and which one. Starting on applications before finalizing both decisions can lead to a lot of wasted effort before the consultant can find and fix the flaws in your story, and refocus you on higher-value parts of the story.

Dinged Without Interview from HBS? Find Out Why


Today the deans in Dillon House (see left) release interview decisions for the last batch of Round 2 applicants at HBS. Some will be among the lucky few to score one of the few remaining interview invitations with the admissions committee (in which case, talk to us about how to prepare!). The rest will get the "ding", or in HBS parlance, "be released from consideration so you can move ahead with your other applications."

Getting the ding can be a real bummer. You might think, was my application really not good enough to make it to the interview phase? What would have happened had the Adcom actually met me? What does this mean for my other applications? Does this mean that I don't have a chance if I reapply next year?

You shouldn't give in to such negative feelings. In reality, schools like HBS are super receptive to re-applicants; the key is that you need to dispassionately evaluate what exactly went wrong in your application and -- most importantly -- use that information to put forth an even more kick-ass application in the future! That's our objective when we run our Ding Reports on clients. Below are some of the most common areas of improvement that we find:

Unimportant narrative - HBS wants students who are going to change the world, not just change their job. Ask yourself this: would the Adcom feel that they are making the world a better place when they admit me? If not, then you have failed in this dimension.

Not credible in mission - Maybe you have a good mission in life; the challenge is why should I believe that you are the MBA who is going to accomplish it? As important as it is to pick a good mission, you also have to choose where to place the goal posts. A mission that is too broad or not aligned with your previous work experience may appear too unrealistic to be credible.

No cohesion in life story - No one likes a flip-flopper. Sure your career can take twists and turns, but can you argue that everything is all a part of a singular overarching mission? We can, and you should.


Not aware of / not addressing weaknesses - Everyone has weaknesses. Good leaders show self-awareness about their weaknesses and consciously work to improve them. If you don't, you might not fit in with the continuous self-improvement mindset of HBS.

Never answered "why HBS?" - MBA applications should be like love letters - they need to be personalized. No other school should be able to read it and fall in love with you. HBS wants high commitment individuals that will thrive in its on-campus, case-discussion dominated environment. To get in, you really need to show the Adcom what you are going to do with that spot that you can't do at another business school.

The wrong recommenders - Business schools prioritize work experience above all else, and the single biggest champion for your work experience is your recommender. The challenge is that if you pick someone who is too far in your past, or too senior to have directly observed your working behaviors, the vivid recommendation you need will come out blurry.

Aiming at the wrong tier of business school - If your GPA and GMAT are not in the ballpark, you might not have a chance no matter how good of an application you have. Reach out to us here and we'll help you determine your odds and which schools you should be targeting.

Podcasts to listen to as you apply to your MBA

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin. (~2 min per episode)

  • Good for: studying vocabulary
  • The narrator of this podcast, Peter Sokolowski, combines wordplay and interesting facts in every one of his expositions. For the vocabulary-intensive GRE, I can think of no other podcast to listen to on the go that will expose you to a greater number of obscure and arcane words that you might encounter on your test. Sometimes you'll even encounter a word or two that will perfectly explain a concept that was previously ineffable
  • The episodes are interesting and very short, making them especially easy to binge consume when you're waiting for something -- like deboarding an airplane.

Finance Career Launch

David Mariano is a Director with Western Reserve Partners, a middle market investment bank in Cleveland, OH. David has spent most of his career working with business owners, CEOs, CFOs and Heads of Corporate Development as an advisor, part-owner and/or business leader. David has served in many other capacities, including Manager of Financial Planning & Analysis, VP of Finance, Head of Marketing and General Manager, and has made the transition from an entry-level, analytical role to one focused on leadership and business development. You and I and everyone else in the first 10-15 years of their career (and beyond, for those willing to admit it) would really like to be mentored, but mentors are impossible to find. I am frequently asked for advice about careers in finance and can do some of this in person or over the phone, but nowhere near as much as I'd like or as often as I'm asked. Finance Career Launch fills this void.

  • Good for: exploring careers in finance
  • Each episode gives an insight into what it is like to work in or recruit for traditional jobs in finance. Worth listening to as you do your due diligence on the future career you want to have.

HBR IdeaCast

A weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in business and management from Harvard Business Review. Produced by Harvard Business Review. (~15 min per episode)

  • Good for: interview prep, understanding the state of business research, due diligence on Harvard Business School
  • Articles from the acclaimed (and expensive) Harvard Business Review magazine come to life as the staff of the publication sit down with the authors and thought leaders behind the main articles of each issue. Topics are wide ranging, but can veer on the dry and academic side of things. These podcasts are great for finding topics to bring up in your MBA interview, especially if at HBS. You'll have a great answer if you ever get asked about the research you've done on the school.
  • Great for plugging in on long commutes.

a16z Podcast

The a16z Podcast discusses tech and culture trends, news, and the future -- especially as ‘software eats the world’. It features industry experts, business leaders, and other interesting thinkers and voices from around the world. This podcast is produced by Andreessen Horowitz (aka “a16z”), a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. Multiple episodes are released every week; visit for more details. (~30 min per episode)

  • Good for: understanding the VC, tech, and start-up industries. Specifically, what are the latest ideas, companies, and concepts circulating around Silicon Valley
  • Not so much journalism as advocacy, but you're getting it from a market leader in the VC industry. At the very least, it is worth knowing what Andreessen Horowitz is thinking about, especially if your stated goal involves working in the San Francisco ecosystem.

Bigger Pockets

Imagine you are friends with hundreds of real estate investors and entrepreneurs. Now imagine you can grab a beer with each of them and casually chat about failures, successes, motivations, and lessons learned. That’s what The BiggerPockets Podcast delivers. Co-hosted by BiggerPockets’ founder & CEO Joshua Dorkin and active real estate investor Brandon Turner, this podcast provides actionable advice from investors and other real estate professionals every week. The show won’t tell you how to “get rich quick” or sell you a course, boot camp, or guru system; instead, the BiggerPockets Podcast will give you real strategies that work for real people. 

  • Good for: personal finances, understanding real estate and investing.
  • Solid tips and advice presented in a no-frills way. Little frills, little fluff. Mostly conversations with those who have made it in the real estate industry. Criticisms include that the hosts talk too much relative to the guests and that the level of sarcasm becomes grating.
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Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

The DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar (ETL) is a weekly seminar series on entrepreneurship, co-sponsored by BASES (a student entrepreneurship group), Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and the Department of Management Science and Engineering. (~60 min per episode)

  • Good for: those who live on the east coast but want to speak the language of technology, entrepreneurship, and venture capital spoken on the west coast.
  • A good blend of thought leadership, high-information/low-noise conversation, and questions asked by an intelligent business school student body. Packed full of good lessons for tech entrepreneurs and inspiring anecdotes to motivate them when times get tough.

How long should I study for the GMAT?


Many people ask how much time they should budget to study for the GMAT. How much time is too little? How much is too much? Is there such a thing as too much?

Yes. Remember: always in moderation.

Turning to the makers of the GMAT is itself informative. According to the official website of the GMAT, the average test taker spends 4 to 6 weeks studying for a total of 21 to 50 hours. Four out of five test takers study for fewer than 10 weeks and 100 hours.


The bottom line is that if you want to apply to schools Round 1 this year, you have plenty of time to study if you start now.

I like to think of the process of studying for tests like the GRE and GMAT as progressing through four major phases:

Phase 1: Test discovery – This is your first practice test, taken cold. You learn what kinds of questions you will get in each section, get a feel for the pacing required to advance through each section, and condition yourself for the marathon experience that is taking the GMAT, in full, in a single sitting. For many, this experience is a wake-up call to prepare. But for you, this should be your first dip into the waters to understand the feel or the stroke, the temperature of the water, and the distance you will need to swim.


Phase 2: Audit of Weaknesses – In this phase you go through each of the different types of questions in each of the sections to understand where you are strong and where you are weak. Once you’ve separated them, you should start by trying to improve your weakest subsection first. To do this, you should employ a mix of authentic practice problems and mental exercises that touch on adjacent skills – for example, speed algebra problems, geometry exercises, and vocabulary flash cards.

Phase 3: Gaining a “Feel” for the Test – Once you cross a certain threshold of studying, you will see how the structure of problems will repeat themselves. Usually most problems have a fast way of solving them, and one or two slow ways of solving them. Once you reach this point, you should be able to recognize how a problem is similar to one you encountered in the past, and apply the “fast” solution that you learn by checking the answer previously.

Phase 4: Test Day – There is a wealth of science on how mental acuity is affected by sleep, diet, exercise, environment, and time of day. In the lead-up to test day, you should work to give yourself an advantage on every one of these dimensions. Why would you not? Normally, you do not want to cover any new study material on test day. Instead, you should just practice by solving a few easy problems of each type with which you are already familiar. This will boost your confidence and set your brain back in that “groove” you got a feel for in Phase 3.

Should I take the GMAT or GRE?

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There are a growing number of business schools that now accept both the GMAT and the GRE -- HBS, GSB, Booth, Wharton, and Tuck, to name a few (click here for the full list).

Many students ask, which should I take?

  • Amazing at math? Take the GMAT.
    • The quantitative portion of the GMAT covers a broader set of mathematical topics and offers more complicated problems than the GRE. Additionally, in the GRE you can use a calculator--not so for the GMAT.
    • However, because those who take the GMAT (namely, business school students) score higher than those who take the GRE (general graduate school students), it is harder to get a high percentile math score on the GMAT than on the GRE.
    • For example, a scaled GMAT quantitative score of 51 (i.e. no wrong answers) puts you in the 97th percentile and a score of 50 (only one wrong) puts you in the 87th percentile. On the GRE, a perfect quantitative score or one off would both put you in the 97th percentile.
  • Bad with time pressure? Take the GRE.
    • In the GRE you are given a certain time allotment per section (30 minutes for 20 Verbal Reasoning questions or 35 minutes for 20 Quantitative Reasoning questions) and you are free to go back and forth answering questions within a section. The GRE even has a function that allows you to "flag" questions that you would like to return to. This allows you to calmly budget your time according to the difficulty of the questions and not waste your time on one impossible one.
    • The GMAT on the other hand only presents one question at a time. You can't go back or advance to the next question until you answer the current one. The test does this because the difficulty of later questions depends upon how well you answer earlier ones. People who stress out on standardized testing may spend the GMAT fretting about each question they get and second-guessing their previous answers if they see an easier question later in the test.
  • Not a native English speaker? It depends. 
    • The GRE has a very heavy emphasis on vocabulary. Even native english speakers have to build up decks of flashcards to study the arcane words that the test loves to use.
    • The GMAT emphasizes grammar logic. Pick your poison.
  • Bad at test taking in general? Take the GRE.
    • Some business schools, usually the ones who are fighting to maintain or move up the MBA rankings (e.g. Wharton, Columbia, and Yale), place more emphasis on the average GMAT score of their incoming class, since publications such as U.S. News & World Report and The Economist use that statistic in their annual rankings of business schools.
    • If you are going to get an equivalently low score on your standardized test, it is better to do so in the GRE since that statistic is not as closely tracked and a school may have less hesitancy in admitting you for fear that you will bring down that average.
  • Not 100% sure about business school? Or want to do a Joint Degree Program? Take the GRE.
    • The GRE will get you into any graduate school, and leaves you some optionality.
    • However, certain joint programs (such as the JD-MBA at Kellogg) require you to take the GMAT, so do your research.
  • 100% sure about business school? Take the GMAT.
    • If you feel you're equally equipped to take both the GRE and the GMAT, and you're serious about business school, take the GMAT. It can signal to the Adcom that you're serious about business school, and can even qualify you for some merit-based scholarships. However, if you know the GRE plays to your strengths, go ahead and take it. Your score matters!

At the end of the day, our advice is to take the test where you can score highest. Take practice tests to figure out which is best for you.