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2013-14 Graduate Applicants: What to Do this Spring and Summer

This post is for those of you who are planning on applying to masters level programs for 2014.

While the majority of deadlines are in the fall and winter, preparation for graduate school admission actually takes place almost a full year (if not more) in advance. Below is a checklist of what you will need to start thinking about and planning this spring and summer:

Study for and take your GMAT/GRE/TOEFL

I probably don’t need to tell you that your first major hurdle will be the GMAT/GRE/TOEFL. If you haven’t already begun studying, you should do so immediately. We have had clients who scored impressively well on their first try, but that is usually the exception. The majority of our clients spend a good 6-8 months preparing for the exams, with some needing more than a year.

The scores are not everything, but they are important. At reputable schools, there are always more qualified candidates than there are seats available. You don’t want to give the admissions committee a reason to choose another applicant over you. When there are 8 or 12 candidates competing for each seat, you’ll want to be in the strongest position possible. And while many graduate programs will provide a range of admissible scores, remember that those who score on the very low end are typically exceptional candidates with extenuating circumstances.

And if you have already taken the GMAT, GRE, and/or TOEFL in the past, check the dates to make sure the scores haven’t expired. GMAT and GRE scores need to be no older than 5 years and the TOEFL no older than 2. I have had clients who found out one or two months before their school deadlines that their scores just missed the cut-off by a week or so, and they had to scramble to retake them. So be sure to check now.

Improve your academic record 

Find out what your undergraduate GPA (grade point average) is, or what your average grade or rank was. Unfortunately, the undergraduate academic record is one part of the application that matters but that cannot be changed. While the admissions committee may be sympathetic to the fact that your 2.8 GPA was due to the 70 hours a week you had spent on the varsity football team, another applicant who presents a straight-A transcript and a pattern of intellectual motivation will have an advantage academically over you.

Or, let’s say, you were a straight A student but you’d majored in literature or history, and you avoided anything related to math. If you are applying for an MBA or a masters in public policy, for example, you will need to convince the admissions committee that you are both comfortable with and adept at analytical work.

To help remedy either of the above situations, enroll in some classes this spring and/or summer if you possibly can. Take classes at a local university. If you are deficient in quantitative skills and your target programs require strong quantitative ability, take (for example) an accounting, calculus, finance or statistics class. If your undergraduate GPA is low, take a class (or more) – conducted in English – and try and earn an A. Give the admissions committee evidence that you have the intellectual prowess necessary to do well in a demanding graduate program in English.

Continue to build your leadership

Top graduate programs across the board are looking for future leaders, whether they’re in business, law, international affairs, education or the arts. In your work do your best to seek out opportunities where you can take initiative or problem solve. If you have an official leadership position, great; if not, you can still find ways to go the extra mile in what you do. We had a client not long ago who was working in a rather low level position. However, because of her passion for the field, she continually did more than she needed to do, both on the job and off. At night and on weekends she attended seminars and took classes. At work she learned as much as she could and eventually initiated a proposal which was accepted. Her company will start up a new division based on her idea and they sent her to graduate school to develop expertise to run the new division.

Research schools

You absolutely need to do more than just read the internet. Join information sessions, network, and visit schools if possible.

Of course, you can begin with the internet. Find out when schools will be visiting your city or offering information sessions. Check out The MBA Tour, which organizes multi-school information events in cities around the world. Sign up and attend different sessions even if you are not 100% sure you want to apply. The purpose is to learn more about schools and to have more options. You may find that 7 months later you do want to apply to Cornell after all but there are no more information sessions to attend.

Connect with current students and alumni of schools you are interested in. If you don’t know anyone, ask friends and colleagues and friends of friends for contacts. You can also check the school websites to connect with students through blogs or clubs. Talk to them. Short of visiting the school, this is the best way to get some close understanding of what it feels like to attend.

If you have the resources, it is always a great idea to visit the school. Nothing can substitute the experience of attending a class, having lunch in the dining halls with current students, or attending a party on campus. When scheduling your visit, however, be careful to check the school calendar first; schools tend to enter exam mode in May and will be very quiet over the summer. At some programs, applicants are not allowed to visit classes during the first couple of weeks that school begins in the fall.

The more research you conduct, the better you will be able to make the right choices for your future. You will also be able to express your interest in the school more convincingly in your essays and interviews.

Look for money

Graduate programs can cost up to $100,000. If you are not receiving sponsorship by your company, it may be worth your time to do some research about scholarship opportunities. The Fulbright Foreign Student Program (for international applicants) and The Rotary Foundation (see District Grants and Global Grants) are two of the most prestigious organizations supporting potential graduate students and they are accepting applications now.

Check also on the websites of your target schools. Many schools offer scholarships; you may need to submit additional essays at the time of application or simply check “Yes” in the box where they ask if you would like to be considered for scholarship money.

This article here lists a few resources as well.

Finally, check with foundations in your own country as well as your country of residence. In Japan where most of our clients are, there is the new scholarship program started up by one of our former clients at the Kamiyama Foundation, and the College Women’s Association of Japan (CWAJ), from which another former client had benefited with a $2,000 monthly stipend throughout her MBA studies. The Kamiyama scholarship does not require Japanese nationality status – only a commitment to eventually contribute to Japan – so even if you’re an expatriate, it may be worth it to look into scholarship opportunities in your country of residence.

Think deeply about your goals

I’m often surprised at how many people decide on applying for a graduate degree without having first considered what they would like to do once they graduate.

Spend these spring and summer months solidifying your short-term career goal. This may be less difficult if you are company-sponsored and returning to your employer. If you plan to leave, though, think about what you will do after your degree. In what kind of industry do you wish to be? What kind of responsibilities do you hope to have? What kinds of contributions do you wish to make? What kind of position might allow you to do these things? What gaps or needs in society will you be fulfilling? Why is this goal important to you? Do you have some transferable skills for this new position? How easy or difficult will it be to get this kind of position, given your background and the job market? If you are unclear about any aspect of your future target career, do some networking now to learn more about it. Schedule information sessions with individuals doing the kind of work that you would like to be doing. Learn from them. The more focused and realistic you sound, the stronger your applications will be.

Secure your recommenders

You will need 2-3 letters of recommendation for graduate school. If you are applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, you will also need a recommendation from a peer (someone who’s worked side by side with you – not a superior and not a subordinate). While they won’t need to submit the recommendations now, consider the best mix of recommenders for your applications and ask if they will support you in your graduate applications. As a courtesy to them get their support early and talk to them about your plans, and let them know of the deadlines so they can plan ahead.

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The list is long, but if you start now, you can tackle your applications later this summer/fall with the peace of mind that these other tasks are either behind you or under control.

 

Cecilia Wu Tanaka is co-founder of Reve Counseling and a veteran graduate admissions counselor with 19 years in the field. Prior to starting Reve 8 years ago she headed up a $1.25 million counseling department at the largest test prep company in Asia. In her previous life, she sat on various admissions committees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted interviews for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and directed the interview program at Harvard Medical School.

New York MBA Conference: How Admissions Decisions are Made

The MBA Tour sponsored an all-day MBA fair in New York city on July 23, and we sent our local correspondent to cover the scene:

I arrived at the Grand Hyatt in Midtown at 8:50AM and there was already a line of about fifteen people waiting to get their name tags. By the time I made my way to the front of the line, checked in, and put the lanyard over my neck the Admissions panel at 9AM had started so I sprinted up the stairs to the big Broadway room, which seated around a hundred people. It was mostly already full.

At the front were a panel of three women; I couldn’t see their names because of where I was seated. They had already started talking about the GMAT. I heard one of them mention mba.com as a resource. One said that the GMAT is a good indicator of how a potential student would fare in the core classes but not necessarily the MBA program as a whole. (After having sat through numerous information sessions later on I get the sense that  the schools really just want to make sure you can handle the quant classes in the core.)

The rest of the panel consisted of segments on the essay, letters of recommendation, the resume, and the interview, followed by a Q&A session that I’ve incorporated into their appropriate categories.

The Essay

The members of the panel kept using the refrain “but check with the school” so what they were saying was very general. They offered some basic tips like check the maximum number of words, check your grammar and spelling, and be sure to put the (right) name of the school.

Here’s what I thought was a useful tidbit, on optional essays. You don’t get extra credit so if you don’t have something compelling, skip it. You can, however, also take this opportunity to explain low GMAT scores or tell your personal story. One of the panelists brought up an essay by a student who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. But if you don’t have anything compelling to say, this is just more for them to read.

Letters of Recommendation

Ask for letters as soon as possible. Aside from choosing your writers, you really have little control over this part. Prep your writers–give them your resume. Tell them why you want an MBA. And if your school is asking for a recommendation from your supervisor and you’re uncomfortable with this (as you intend to leave the company), explain this to the admissions office. In terms of whom to ask to write on your behalf, this panel and representatives from the schools whose information sessions I attended later on all echoed the same thing: choose people who know you well, not just people who have a high status and rank. In one example given, one high-ranking executive wrote a one-sentence letter of recommendation (though shame on him, I say.) Another piece of instruction I kept hearing is that the admissions committees want recommendations from people in the workplace. This makes sense; they want to know what you’re like in action. So should you have  professors write letters for you? Only if you’ve worked with them. And what if you’re an entrepreneur? Since you don’t have a supervisor, seek letters from clients, vendors, etc. One last thing they mentioned: If the letters are to be submitted electronically, let your writers now. And make sure they use the (right) name of the school.

Resume

Don’t merely provide a listing but really highlight what the school’s interested in. Know the emphasis of the program–what is your target school looking for? Do you have strengths you can offer to the school?–and the profile of the students. Show results. Show special special projects. Show that each year you’ve taken projects out of your comfort zone. Do you have cross functional work experience? Or team oriented projects and collaborative experiences? The more of this you can demonstrate the better.

In college, what did you do in addition to studying? They want to see well-rounded individuals. Include activities. What was meaningful to you? What were one or two that really excited you? And did you work during school to support yourself? If so, include this as it shows maturity and depth. Include interests, outside work, work at non-profits, sports, travel–they want to see the total person.

Other bits of advice:

– Make sure you can explain gaps in employment on chronological resumes.

– If you have different career paths, address them somewhere.

– Check page numbers. If they say two pages, they may automatically throw out your third page.

– Don’t include your high school. No one cares.

And one general takeaway: The admissions committee wants to know if you have strengths that fit the school. Don’t make them have to search to find out what they are. Make it easy for them.

The Interview

So you got an interview. Congratulations!

From the moment you step into the school for the interview until you leave, everything will be fair game for your evaluation. First impressions are important. This includes not just your professional appearance but how you greet the admissions staff upon arrival. Word gets around among schools, so don’t be rude to the receptionist.

How to prepare:

– In terms of research by now you should have done more than just visit the website. Hopefully you’ve spoken with alumni and even visited the school.

– Call ahead to see if the interview is a panel or one on one meeting. If there are other candidates present you will be observed on how you interact with them.

– Review your application before your interview as they are different between schools.

– Be prepared to conduct a conversation.

– Show your intellectual ability about your sector. Be current on recent events in your sector (read The Economist, The Financial Times, etc.)

– Think about what you want to talk about. What can you contribute?

– Don’t repeat what you’ve already written about (in other parts of your application.)

– Be prepared to talk about weak points.

– Show energy and enthusiasm about their school.

– For international students especially, your communication ability is important.

In the following Q&A session questions fell into the above categories so I’ve already incorporated them here. One question of note was when to apply–in round 1, round 2, etc. While of course earlier is better, especially if you’re applying for scholarships, it is less about the rounds than when you are ready. Apply when you have the best application to present yourself.

Will follow up over the coming two weeks with summaries of some of the individual school presentations.