Business School Timeline

At mbaMission, we strongly advise MBA candidates to start the MBA application process early, using the months preceding the application season (applications are generally released in July) to get organized and proactively take steps to competitively position themselves. Here we present aspiring MBAs with a rough timeline to follow to help manage the process and to ensure that all opportunities are maximized and the candidate is well prepared.

March

Start your GMAT Prep: As an aspiring MBA, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are juggling many aspects of the application process (essays, class visits, supplementary classes, etc.) at once. So, there is no time like the present to start your GMAT prep and thus remove this potentially time-consuming and stressful element of the application process, before the bulk of applications are released in July. We strongly recommend that you enroll in a Manhattan GMAT course in March (April at the latest) so you will have time to complete a ten-week preparatory course and take the exam for the first time before the application season begins.

Contemplate Additional Coursework/Enroll in Additional Courses: We also recommend that you consider whether you might benefit from some additional coursework, and if so, enroll in classes now. Was your undergraduate performance weak (i.e., you had a GPA of 3.0 or under)? Did you perform well but take no quantitative coursework at all? If you answered "yes" to either of these questions, you should identify nearby colleges and inquire about their available introductory course offerings in areas such as economics, accounting, finance and statistics. By taking one or two classes in these areas, you could change the Admissions Committees’ perspectives on your academic aptitude. MBA programs are actually far more forgiving of previous academic problems than other graduate programs are. For most candidates, their academic experience is far in the past, and their GMAT score, references and work experience are better indicators of their potential for success. This is not to suggest that poor grades do not matter, but rather, that they can often be mitigated. Of course, it is important that you get As in the courses you take to show that you have an aptitude for that kind of work and also that you take your academics quite seriously. So, enroll now so you will have ample time to complete a semester-long class and have your academic "problems" solved by the end of summer at the latest.

Contemplate School Choices/Visit Target Schools: A surprising number of MBA candidates define their list of target schools by reading popular rankings, such as those produced by BusinessWeek and U.S. News & World Report. While rankings can provide a good starting point for your research, we recommend that candidates define specific parameters as to what they consider important in an MBA experience (For example, would you prefer a case method or lecture environment? A large class or a small class? An urban or college campus?). As you work to define your parameters, you might consider visiting a few campuses now to learn about their differences and identify what truly interests you. Most MBA programs will facilitate class visits into mid-April; again, by scheduling these visits now, you will be able to complete—and thus eliminate—this time-consuming aspect of the application process that would otherwise demand your attention as first-round deadlines arrive (most MBA programs open their class visit schedules in October).

Of course, beyond the personal rewards of visiting a school and taking time to contemplate whether it is an appropriate choice for you, Admissions Committees generally appreciate when prospective students visit, and your visit will enable you to implicitly describe your fit with the school via your essays.

Accelerate Personal Achievements: By advancing your personal achievements, you have the power to differentiate yourself from the indistinguishable masses. At this time, you should focus on accelerating the timeline of existing endeavors. For example, if you have always intended to publish a certain article and have almost finished a final draft, then finish it. If you have always planned on earning your CFA designation and only have Level Three of the exam left, then take the final test this year—don’t wait! If you can run 20 miles and have always dreamed of completing a marathon, do it this year. We are not suggesting that if you have never run a mile in your life, you start training for a marathon now; however, if a goal of yours is reasonably in sight and will be otherwise achieved after your applications are due, you should accelerate your timeline to ensure that you have completed it before the first round deadline.

Take a Leadership Role in Your Community: In a competitive admissions environment, differentiating yourself from others (almost all of whom will have the ability to showcase their grades, GMAT scores and professional experiences) is important. One way that many candidates reveal more of themselves and their leadership potential is by taking a leadership role in their communities. You might be thinking to yourself, "But there is so little time left, and the Admissions Committee will see through my experience!" We recommend that you commit yourself to an organization about which you are passionate and strive to make a noticeable impact in that organization over the next eight months (which is plenty of time). If you were to start volunteering in September, your gesture would seem far less sincere, and you would lack the profound experiences to explore in your essays. Indeed, it is not yet too late, but soon it will be.

Pursue Firm Sponsorship of your MBA:If you plan to remain with your current firm post-MBA, it is wise to do some research now to find out whether your firm will sponsor your MBA. While the financial benefits of firm sponsorship are obvious, many candidates do not realize that there is additional power inherent in being a firm-sponsored candidate. The Admissions Committees know that these candidates, with their firm’s backing, will be employed upon graduation and that these applicants’ post-MBA goals are thereby "guaranteed." Furthermore, the Admissions Committee will sleep better, knowing that when they report their school’s employment statistics to BusinessWeek as part of that publication’s regular MBA ranking survey, they will likely see a small benefit in the "percentage of candidates employed upon graduation" and possibly even "average starting salary" categories. So, you should find out whether your firm has an MBA sponsorship program and, if so, learn about the process for earning a firm scholarship. We have worked with clients who have needed to apply for such a scholarship within their own company 1.5 years before their proposed programs would begin; obviously, in such cases, you do not want to be applying at the last moment. Similarly, we have worked with clients whose firms did not originally have sponsorship programs, but created them when our candidates brought forth the idea—a process that can involve months of bureaucratic haggling. So, this is certainly a process you should start now.

April

Continue to Visit Target Schools/Contemplate School Choices/Meet with Alumni and Current Students: As you contemplate your school choices and continue to visit schools in April, you might consider your process of a priori discovery by meeting with alumni or current students, so that you can gain an intimate understanding of your schools of choice. Current students in particular will have an awareness of specific programs and classes that may not be prominently featured on a school’s Web site but that may be quite appealing to you and may enable you to strengthen your case for attending that particular school. By meeting with students and alumni and by visiting classes, you will collect a variety of data points that will serve as a foundation for you to persuade the Admissions Committee that their school is ideally suited to you, in a way that few others will be able to do.

Continue with Leadership/Community Work/Continue to Advance Personal Achievements (ongoing basis): We will take it for granted that you will understand that community leadership and advancing personal achievements should be conducted on an ongoing basis throughout the admissions season. However, it is important to note that schools will not be tracking your hours from week to week, so you can dedicate yourself heavily to these activities in the early months and then, as your time demands become more intense in August and September with various application responsibilities, you might shift your focus to other aspects of the application process.

May

Identify Recommenders/Reconnect with Previous Supervisors: We find that one of the most frustrating parts of the application process for candidates is connecting with and motivating recommenders. With some foresight, you can take the time now to identify recommenders (even if you do not approach them for months) and to gather some intelligence on each of them. Has your recommender written letters for anyone else? Is he/she generous with his/her time when it comes to employee feedback and review sessions? One of the best windows into your recommendation process will be the previous experiences of your colleagues, with whom you may want to speak to discover how your supervisor managed their respective processes. By identifying recommenders who will be helpful and generous, you will potentially alleviate the stress of missed deadlines and unpredictable letters.

While you should spend time right now doing your homework on available recommenders, you should also take time to reconnect with previous supervisors who could be strong potential recommenders, but with whom you may have fallen out of touch. You do not want to find yourself in a position where you are calling a former supervisor for the first time in a year and asking him/her for a large chunk of time on a tight timeline. If you can identify a former supervisor whose time you will need, then make contact now and keep the relationship warm for the next few months. You will be far better off when the letter-writing process begins. (Note: In most cases, MBA Admissions Committees have a bias toward current supervisors, but depending on the situation, past supervisors can be acceptable.)

June

Take the GMAT:Taking the GMAT by June is ideal because it allows you to finish one major component of the process just as another—commencing your essays—looms on the horizon. Furthermore, if you take the GMAT in June and do not do as well as you had hoped, you can always take the exam again in July. MBA Admissions Offices are open and even encourage candidates to take the GMAT more than once. Your scores will not be averaged; instead, schools will, forgivingly, take the higher (or highest) of your scores.

Prepare Your Resume: Another simple step you can take now to help reduce competing interests later is to prepare your resume and then make small modifications and updates regarding your most recent position in October, during the latest stages of the first round application process. An added benefit is that you will start the process of reflecting on your accomplishments now and reawakening yourself to certain experiences. In many ways, preparing your resume now will be a primer for your essay brainstorming process, which will be the foundation for your essays.

July

Take the GMAT Again (if necessary): As noted earlier, the GMAT may not go as well as planned on your first attempt. Not to worry—your first attempt can serve as a dry run and can prepare you for a stringer second attempt. Candidates have to wait one month before they can retake the GMAT, so a July test would be the next available option. We recommend that if you do need a second shot at the GMAT, you schedule your next session immediately, while the information is still "fresh."

Conduct informational interviews/job-shadow: At mbaMission, we always emphasize that candidates should strive to differentiate themselves via their experiences and the sincerity of their voices within their essays. With respect to sincerity, many candidates have trouble honestly articulating their post-MBA goals, and virtually every MBA program requires that candidates write an essay on short- and long-term career goals (HBS being the notable exception, as they make a goal statement optional). If you aspire to enter a competitive field, such as banking or consulting, it may be wise to conduct informational interviews or to even job shadow an individual for a day, if possible. MBA Admissions Committees frown on vague goal statements or generic claims that lack a profound personal connection to a position and therefore lack credibility. The sincerity of your interest, magnified and thus better articulated as a result of personal experience, can make the difference for you.

Define List of Target Schools: By mid-July, typically, most MBA programs will release their essay questions for the coming year. So, by July, you should pare down your list of target schools and determine which ones you are going to apply to in Round 1. Generally, we recommend that MBA aspirants apply to four to six schools, targeting a mix of safe, competitive and reach programs. However, you should never sacrifice quantity for quality—you should apply only to the number of schools to which you can commit yourself entirely.

Brainstorm and Start Writing Essays: We at mbaMission always tell our clients, “You can’t turn a bad idea into a good essay.” We insist on taking our candidates through a lengthy brainstorming process (which begins with a thorough questionnaire) to discover the stories that make each candidate distinct. Even as you uncover your stories, it is still important to consider them from as many different angles as possible. While this will help ensure that you understand the various “weapons in your arsenal,” this will also provide you with maximum flexibility (as MBA Admissions Committees ask questions that vary dramatically from school to school).

For example, a simple experience coaching a baseball team at an underfunded high school can actually have multiple dimensions. This may be the story of creatively motivating an underachieving team and changing attitudes, despite losses; of initiating and leading fundraising efforts so that each player can afford proper equipment; of mentoring a struggling player and seeing an improvement in his on-field performance; and more. Your essays will be only as good as your ideas, so do not settle for just the obvious "low-hanging fruit."

August

Complete Additional Coursework: We hope that by August, at the latest, you will have completed your supplemental coursework and earned an A grade (or As). If so, you will have managed to complete another “checked box” and can focus on your essays.

Meet with Recommenders: In some ways, it is never too early to meet with your recommenders, discuss their important role in the application process and even review your major accomplishments with them, so that these elements remain top-of-mind when they write about you and your achievements. Some candidates may wonder whether such meetings are appropriate. At mbaMission, we not only think that they are appropriate, but also recommend them—as do Admissions Officers, such as Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Recommendations are a key part of the admissions process. Although we strongly recommend that recommenders write their letters independently, we suggest that candidates take time to reflect on their relationship with their recommenders to bring long-forgotten stories to the surface and thus ensure that these letters are sincere and powerful.

Continue Drafting and Redrafting Essays: Writing standout essays takes time and patience. We recommend that you really immerse yourself in this process, as it is the foremost avenue by which you can differentiate yourself from other applicants. By devoting the time necessary and writing about your experiences with sincerity—writing about how you achieved, not just bragging about what you achieved—you will enable the Admissions Committee to get a sense of who you are and what makes you special. We recommend that you share your essays with and seek feedback from one or two people—from a professional consultant or an individual who has insight into the application process—but that you limit your feedback loop thereafter. Because the application process is subjective, you will discover that as you add readers, you will also add new and different opinions. Soon, a multitude of alternatives might appear, and while these ideas will not necessarily be “right” or “wrong,” as there are countless ways to market a single candidate’s stories, they can create unnecessary uncertainty. So, we are not suggesting that you ignore critical feedback, but rather, that you not complicate your process and create doubt where it may not be due. If one or two readers support your ideas and agree that your application needs minimal work, you are probably best off ending your feedback loop there and continuing the application process with confidence.

Note: We at mbaMission offer more than 50 free essay tips on our website.

Complete the Short Answer Portion of the Applications: Many candidates will work painstakingly on their essays, prepare rigorously for their interviews and endlessly contemplate their choices of recommenders. However, when it comes to completing the short-answer sections of their applications (the actual application forms), candidates often leave this task to the last moment.

The short-answer sections should never be ignored; they should be completed with the same spirit of diligence that candidates ideally bring to all aspects of their applications. We advise candidates not to paste bullet points from their resumes in the career section, but to contemplate the questions that are asked and write out complete answers in sentence form. (Further, bullets from a resume often lack the necessary context.) While the information conveyed is quite important, we consider the overall message—namely, that candidates are giving care and thought to all aspects of their applications—even more crucial.

September

Follow-up with Recommenders: Experience has shown that many recommenders will not make writing recommendations a priority and will wait until the last minute to write these letters. Inevitably, many MBA aspirants will wonder, "What if my supervisors don’t get their letters done by the deadline?"

In our opinion, the easiest way to ensure that your recommenders complete this task on time is to present them with your own deadline, rather than the school’s. If the application to your school of choice is due on October 10th, tell you recommenders that you are submitting on September 30. By setting this advanced deadline, you can add some pressure on your recommender (if he/she misses the fictitious deadline) and not be forced to deal with a major problem (i.e., if this were to have happened on the actual deadline day).

Continue Drafting and Redrafting Essays(See August)

October

Complete Essays, Follow-Up with Recommenders(See August and September)

Submit First Round Applications: As you approach your first round deadlines, which typically fall in the first two weeks of October, you should of course do whatever you can to submit your best work—but you should also focus on letting go once your application has been submitted. If you later realized that your application had a typo, this is unfortunate, but it is not a reason to panic. Admissions Committees are not looking for reasons to reject you, but are seeking to get to know you through your files. So, press submit, and start to look forward instead of back.

Visit Remaining Target Schools: As we noted earlier, a priori experience is crucial in that in it enables you to get to know a target MBA program better and also to more easily make a case for your fit with the school. Most class visit programs commence in October, just prior to first round deadlines. If you have any additional schools that you plan to visit, you can ideally do so before the first round submission date, so that you can learn from your experience and apply your learning to your applications.

November

Prepare Second Round Essays/Applications: With the first round behind you, you don’t have much time to relax, given that second round application deadlines are only nine or ten weeks away (early January). Get started on the applications for your next few target schools, recognizing that the second round is a de facto final round for most applicants. Generally, most candidates are admitted in the first two rounds, and only truly unique/powerhouse candidates manage to eke their way into the classes in round three.

Plan Interviews with Target Schools: Good news—you have been invited to interview! Some interviews occur on campus with students or admissions staff. Other interviews occur with alumni in your city. Candidates will always fret about whether one kind of interview is better than the other, and Admissions Committees consistently tell candidates that all interviews are treated equally. The interviewer is not as important as you, the interviewee. To prepare for your interview, you should review your essays, and your resume in particular, and contemplate judgments and decisions that you have made. In 99% of cases, your interviewer will ask you questions about your life (never inquiring about the economy, politics, etc.). Although the interview process can seem stressful, you should know the answers.

Complete Campus Visits(See October)

December

Continue Drafting and Redrafting Second Round Essays(See November)

Follow up with Recommenders(See September)

Conduct First Round Interviews(See November)

Follow up with Recommenders(See September)

Await First Round Decisions: By December, first round decisions will start to be announced. Some schools will release them all at once online, whereas others will slowly release them via phone calls or online over a period of a few weeks. If your friend hears and you don’t, there is generally no need to panic. You should avoid the temptation to call the Admissions Office and ask whether a decision has been made about your candidacy. Admissions personnel are easily frustrated by such calls and will not give you the answers you seek. Sit back and try to be patient.

January

Submit Second Round Applications(See October)

Complete First Round Interviews(See November)

Await First Round Decisions(See December)

February

Plan Interviews with Target Schools(See December)

Await Second Round Decisions(See January)

March

Plan Interviews with Target Schools(See December)

Await Second Round Decisions(See January)

Contemplate Acceptances: By now, we hope, you are weighing multiple offers. If you have no definitive “winner” among your choices, it may be time for another campus visit. Now that the MBA Admissions Committees have defined your choices and shifted the power into your hands, you have the opportunity to really spend the time, getting to know your target schools even better and completing diligence that may not have been possible before. For example, a nervous prospective student may not have truly pushed current students to define a program’s weaknesses or may not have felt it appropriate to delve deeply into the recruiting situation on campus. Further, as a prospective student, you may not have felt comfortable experiencing the social environment on campus, preferring to maintain a profile that was strictly professional. Although attending “welcome weekends” will help you get to know your future classmates, visiting (or revisitng) campuses now—while classes are in session and the schools are operating as they will the next year—will provide you with insight that will facilitate one of the most important choices of your life.

Apply for/Leverage Financial Aid: Some schools make their financial aid decisions based on the information contained in candidates’ applications, and others have additional applications that applicants need to prepare to be considered for the funds. Quite incredibly, considering the angst involved in the process, if you have two acceptances, you can diplomatically leverage financial aid offers from one school to influence such decisions at another. Once you have been accepted, your first choice just might not be prepared to let you go. Of course, diplomacy is key in such negotiations. If you make your request in too forceful a manner, you will only alienate the financial aid office, and they may choose to not offer any additional resources to help influence your decision to attend the other school in consideration.

Final Thoughts

The MBA Admissions process is a marathon, not a sprint. By contemplating the many stages of the application process and preparing appropriately for each one now, you will be ahead of the game.