How to apply as a re-applicant

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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.

How Admissions Committees Evaluate Candidates - The Problem with "Odds Threads"

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Countless MBA blogs allow applicants to post their admissions profile for others to evaluate their chances of admission at different MBA programs. Usually the criteria asked for will be something like the following:

  • GPA
  • Undergraduate Institution
  • GMAT Score
  • Past employers
  • Extra curriculars / activities
  • Certifications
  • Volunteer work

These “odds threads” fundamentally misunderstand several key parts of the admissions process.

Problem 1: They confuse checkboxes for sliding scales.

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The trouble is that these forums breed the belief that the more “extra” someone is in each of these categories, the better chance they have at admission. Someone with a 4.0 GPA must have a higher probability than someone with a 3.8 and 790 better odds than a 750, right? Not quite. This is because applications are evaluated in a two-step process.

The first step is the sorting. The first four criteria in the list above are “check box” data fields. The admissions committee looks at these criteria first to run an initial screening of the candidate pool. The goal from this initial screening is to sort candidates as “highly competitive”, “competitive”, or “not competitive” for admission at that particular school.

A highly competitive applicant will have a GPA and GMAT that is at or above the business school’s overall average, earned a degree from a school well represented from among the student body, and worked at a firm that either places well at the school or (ideally) recruits a lot of MBAs from that institution to return. A competitive candidate will have most of those criteria. An uncompetitive will have few or none. Once this sorting is done, the top category is fast-tracked, and middle is evaluated, and the bottom is dropped.

The second step in the process brings us to Problem 2

Problem 2: They ignore the key selection criteria of Narrative

Since there are far, far more “competitive” candidates than a school has spots to give in a class, the admissions committee needs a second screening to further winnow the class down. This second step evaluates a candidate’s Narrative. Admissions committees want to admit students who have great personal stories, who are going to make the most of their spots in the MBA class to accelerate their career trajectories, and who will change the world for the better. Once you make it through the first screen, regardless of GPA or GMAT, the best story wins.

Put another way, passing the “checkbox” criteria mentioned in Problem 1 will get the admissions committee to listen to you. The narrative is how to convince them. If your narrative lacks focus, clarity, simplicity, credibility, specificity, emotion, logic, values, and everything else we put into our narrative work, even an 800 GMAT score will help you – you will be denied.

You’ll notice that our MBA Odds Form asks for something not included on the list I pulled from the blogs above: personal narrative. Your personal narrative is the single most important factor for determining whether you will be admitted to an MBA program, offers the single biggest return on your time investment, and is the only part of your application that you control 100%.

In short, if you were to plot out the probabilities on each of these checkbox criteria, you would not see a smooth upward sloping line, but rather a step-function as candidates are first sorted, then evaluated individually on their narrative story, the quality of which has a more random distribution.

Problem 3: They focus on the wrong things

Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember this version of you from your college essay? Cut it from your MBA application.

Remember your college application? Remember how you talked all about your community involvements and extracurricular activities? That silly essay about your love of track & field and how it's a metaphor for your leadership style? Many people who submit profiles for evaluation devote as much real estate to their hobbies as their actual work experience. This is a huge miscalculation because while business schools care a great deal about your work experience, they care almost nothing about your hobbies. Here’s why.

First, strategically, whereas the admissions criteria for college (and law school for that matter) are retrospective (i.e. they ask what have you done to “earn” or “deserve” a spot in the class), business school admission criteria is prospective (e.g. what will you do with this opportunity?). This is because an MBA is an entirely elective degree. Whereas you need a JD to practice law, no one needs an MBA to practice business. Therefore, any good application needs to explain what the candidate will do with the degree on their professional journey, and even insinuate what negative consequences will befall them if they don’t obtain it. The answer to this question lies in work experience and narrative, not in your free-time hobbies.

Second, tactically, extracurriculars are just not as valuable to business schools. Colleges (especially elite colleges) really value the community experience and look for students to take leadership in this important area. That’s why they give steep scholarships to athletes, and little admissions boosts students who will round out difficult-to-fill community positions (such as oboe players in the orchestra). Talking about your extracurricular activities on your college essay made sense because you had something of value to offer to the school. In contrast, the whole point of business school is to secure an internship and later a full-time job offer. Almost all extracurricular activities in business school exist to advance that goal. For example, the finance club meetings will either be to network with prospective banks or to tutor students on building models in excel. Playing the oboe at business school gives you a lot of money in a worthless currency.

In your MBA application, your work experience is king. Give it the real estate it deserves.

If you want an honest appraisal of your Odds of Admission, check ours out here.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

What To Do the Year Before You Apply for an MBA

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
— Abraham Lincoln
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Say you're someone who knows they want an MBA but are not yet ready to apply. You might be a junior with a year to go before you're eligible for Harvard's 2+2 Program, Stanford's Deferred Enrollment, or Yale's Silver Scholars Program. You may have recently started on a new career and feel that you have not yet built up the work experience or credibility with potential recommenders to be successful in the regular application cycle. Older classmates and colleagues are sending in their applications and you may feel nervous sitting on the sidelines. Should you panic?

No. The only thing you need to do is recognize that the year ahead of you is a golden opportunity, which you can use to dramatically increase your chances of admission.

Even if you already have great GMAT / GRE scores in hand, the year ahead of you is your chance to "sharpen the axe" of your resume before you use it to chop through the MBA application. From navigating your career so that it will be in the best possible position right before Round 1 deadlines, to amping up community involvements that will resonate with your narrative and stand-out to admissions committees, to choosing your ideal recommenders and planning out how you can best shine in front of them, there is a lot you can do. We've thought a lot about this ourselves and have crammed all the best services to help a candidate boost their admissions odds in the year before they apply into a package that we call the Early Bird. Through that package, we seek to accomplish four major goals:

  1. Achieve clarity and confidence on your career and personal goals
  2. Discover your authentic personal narrative, and which moves you can make to bolster it
  3. Determine what your resume needs to say when you apply, and work backwards to achieve it
  4. Identify which "portable achievements" are within your grasp, and how to obtain them
  5. Obtain the best recommendation letters by determining who in your orbit could be best positioned to write them, and how win them over
  6. Get personalized coaching and mentorship over the course of the year.

There are many ways to do that. I've included the game plan we use in the Early Bird below, which also comes with 10% off any future purchases of our already lowest-priced Complete School packages, making it quite the valuable investment.

 

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PHASE I: VISION BUILDING

STEP 1: Vision Exercise

We start with one of the most popular career-visioning exercises at HBS and Stanford GSB. You complete two fun, creative tasks designed to illuminate the hidden themes and dynamic tensions in your personal and professional life. The results of these exercises will help clarify pre-MBA career options worth pursuing and will help us understand how to best advise you.

STEP 2: Introduction & School Selection

We then discuss your background, goals for business school, and career aspirations. We offer our insights on what early careers in each field would feel like, and how they would eventually lead to business school. We then suggest a list of MBA programs for you to target, and back into the milestones you would need to achieve in your early career to be competitive at each.

 

 

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Are you thinking of applying to business school in a few years? We can help you use that valuable time to significantly improve your candidacy and raise your chances of admission.

This service starts with us getting to know you and understanding your motivations for seeking an MBA. We then help you determine which programs would offer the best fit, where you need to be in your career and community activities to get admitted to those programs, and then work backwards to develop a game-plan for getting you there. We also run you through our personal narrative boot camp, helping you build a compelling story to tell schools and future employers. After our initial touch point, we keep in touch throughout the year to answer any questions and make sure you are on track.

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NarrativeBootCamp

PHASE II: NARRATIVE BOOT CAMP

STEP 1: Narrative Exercises

We send you a series of exercises based on the Harvard Kennedy School's latest research on personal narrative, political campaigning, and public speaking. These forms are designed to tease out the inspirations and motivations that will make for a compelling personal narrative and, and link them to your future aspirations.

STEP 2: Review and Ideation

We then take your completed exercises and existing resume, and construct a few possible narrative story arcs that we believe will tell your authentic story in the most compelling way. This is a highly personal and creative process. Each narrative is work-shopped one at a time, and is not the cookie-cutter result of some computer read-out. This gives you the confidence of knowing that your narrative will be totally original.

STEP 3: Instruction and Coaching

Over the phone, we walk you through our materials on personal narrative and political campaigning. Through this instruction, you will understand what separates a good narrative from a great one, as well as the psychology of how the admissions directors will read and interpret your application. We then apply these learnings to your particular business school application and future career aspirations, taking your questions along the way.

STEP 4: Narrative Selection and Honing

Together we create 2-3 compelling personal narratives for your unique application. We run through their relative merits, why each is compelling, how each will be interpreted by the admissions committee. We workshop the narratives together over the phone until we decide on the one that is the most compelling and authentic for your application.

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PHASE III: CAREER ENHANCEMENT

STEP 1: Employment Gameplan

We discuss career-enhancing moves and the way in which can weave your new compelling and authentic personal narrative into the applications for achieving them. By working this way, you will ensure you are walking down the most compelling and purposeful professional path before you send out a single job application, minimizing the amount of time wasted in the application process.

STEP 2: Resume Overhaul

We then use your new narrative to overhaul your resume. Where possible, we provide school templates for you to use to emphasize your commitment to your dream school. After initial formatting corrections, we suggest strategic edits that will enhance your ability to showcase your narrative in the most persuasive way. 

 

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PHASE IV: YEAR-ROUND MENTORSHIP

STEP 1: Regular Check-ins

We schedule three follow-up calls in the next year to check-in, make sure that you’re on the right track, answer any questions, and offer advice for any issues in your career that may arise. 

STEP 2: Constant Contact

You will retain email access to both Nate and Anna for one year to ask quick questions related to the topics discussed in Early Bird.

STEP 3: Future Savings

When you're ready to apply to business school, we will take 10% off our already best-in-class prices for any future purchases of Packages.

Impact! And how to include it in your resume

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Some applicants believe that their business school applications are little more than the facts of their resume. And why shouldn’t they be? Many prognosticators of admissions odds ask only for your GPA, GMAT, Undergrad, and most recent employer to reach their predictions. After all, those facts are immutable, admissions committees are familiar with them, and any other attempt to dress up an application is just sleazy marketing, right?

Wrong.

It’s pretty easy to see for yourself why it's not just the facts of the story, but the story itself that matters. Consider the following examples out of news articles:

#1: 36.5% of Americans are obese.

#2: Rising rates of obesity will cost the American taxpayer an additional $200B per year, and reduces available funding for education.

What is the difference between these two statements? In a word, Impact.

While the first statement captures the complete statement of fact, the second captures what it means, what the damage is, and why we should care. Only an educated reader, who knows that obesity is growing, that it is expensive, and that its costs will require tradeoffs in governmental priorities, might be able to read the first statement and infer the rest. But even then, the first sentence does not include enough context to know what point you're trying to make.  Are you telling us about obesity because you want to talk about growing sizes in retail clothing? The need for sturdier cars? Or looming budgetary tradeoffs?

When you write your business school application, it is imperative that you tell a compelling story for why your work is important and why a bystander with little knowledge of the topic (i.e. an admissions officer) should care about it. If can make the admissions officer care about the personal impact you are making in the world, he or she will likely care about you, and whether you are admitted. This is how applicants with sterling credentials can still be denied from top schools when their submissions focus on facts rather than impact. Consider some examples that one might find in a personal essay:

Accomplishment without impact

I am a credit risk analyst at Deutsche Bank, have worked on four deals valued over one billion dollars, and have been promoted twice

Accomplishment with impact

As a credit risk analyst at Deutsche Bank, I developed a new model that helped us better price risk among less credit-worthy customers, allowing the firm to issue more loans needed to grow small businesses.

See how the second narrative is stronger because it not only explains the actions taken but the impact achieved? Of course, we at Ivy Admissions Group don’t just stop there. We’ve argued time and time again that to have a truly exceptional application, one must also tie their achievements and impacts into a broader personal narrative

Accomplishment with Impact and Narrative

My mother was a small business owner, and growing up I saw firsthand both how difficult it was for entrepreneurs like her to get the capital they needed to sustain their businesses. Small businesses are the key to growing the modern economy, with 67% of new jobs coming from small businesses. I joined Deutsche Bank because I wanted to help people like my mom achieve the American Dream, and was able to do that by developing a new risk model that made small business loans more affordable.

Mark Zuckerberg's advice for MBA applications

Facebook CEO and noted dropout Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard’s graduation this year, and he left the graduates with an important nugget of advice for applying to business school. If you weren’t paying close attention, you may have missed it.

Here is the full video. The quote in question comes right after 6:00:

Here is the quote:

One of my favorite stories is when John F. Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

What did the Janitor do in his reply to strike a chord with the President? In a word, he offered a purpose for his work.

Say one of the Janitor’s Window Cleaner peers applied to business school. If we were on the admissions committee and came across his resume, we might see lines such as “expertly cleaned all glass surfaces with 10% fewer streaks and peers” or “implemented new harness safety program, dramatically reducing falls.” 

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Now let’s consider the Janitor. What might his business school resume say? Maybe, “Enabled the success of the moon-landing by providing clutter-free work spaces that enabled calm, decisive mission management” or, “Aided the President’s key national priority by maintaining safe, clean, and functional work spaces that top engineering talent would want to work in.”

Why do we find the second resume more compelling even though they have similar performance in similar jobs? In the first case, the Window Cleaner demonstrates an achievement-orientation and a desire to do his job better than others, but his impact starts and ends with himself. His resume explains why he is a better worker, but it does not explain why we should root for him to be successful. We never learn why we should care about how well he does his job. Meanwhile the Janitor, much like the Third Stone Cutter in an earlier blog post (check it out if you have the time), extends his impact outside of himself. In doing so, he creates a cause -- a vision, a meaning, a mission --- big enough for all of us to root for. The purpose of his work is clear and all of us can feel a part of it.

When we help clients craft their admissions essays, we never lose sight of the fact that Admissions Committees are made up of people who find meaning in their work by believing that it matters on a global scale who they decide to extend offers of admission. Whether at undergraduate colleges or MBA programs, all Admissions Committees want to give those spots to the people they believe will make the most of them. The surest way to make that argument in your application is to clearly explain not only the nature of your work, but its purpose as well. 

How to get off the MBA waitlist (Part 2)

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(Click here if you missed Part 1!)

5. Mount an influence campaign

I would only recommend this if you (1) truly need to be admitted to one particular business school in one particular cycle and (2) you are comfortable taking on the social capital debt of such a favor.

The people who make up admissions committees are social animals like the rest of us and can be influenced by others. Specifically two types of people: VIPs with opinions that the Adcom would respect (e.g. famous CEOs, political leaders, and prospective donors with whom the school is trying to curry favor), and current students whom can vouch for your “fit” at the school.

When it comes to VIPs, either you have one or you don’t. Personal/family connections are often too weak to be meaningful, and the waitlist timeline is usually too short to develop a good relationship with a VIP from a cold start.

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When it comes to current students, start by looking at your network on LinkedIn and see who is currently at your target school. Look for shared connections such as employer, undergrad, or high school. If you find someone you know well, explain your situation and see if they are willing to vouch for your fit at the school to the Adcom, using your new awesome narrative (see point #1). 

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6. Be humble, be positive, be patient

Showing any sign of frustration with your situation is absolutely lethal to your application. Often, admissions deans are just itching to find reasons they can remove people from the waitlist – don’t give them one. Remember: you are the happy warrior, and the waitlist is a marathon, not a sprint.

7. Worst case scenario: use the lessons of the waitlist to make a better application next time.

Many schools look favorably on re-applicants and the classrooms are full of them. Next time, hire us the first time and we will make sure that you put your best foot forward.