When to Begin MBA Applications: A Different Perspective

I recently hosted a panel discussion in Tokyo with three of my clients from last year (HBS, Wharton, and either Wharton or Kellogg, depending on when you ask her. ;-) ) who graciously shared their time, experience and insights with about 35 MBA and graduate school hopefuls. Between that and my private meetings, the most frequent question I heard was, "When should I start my MBA applications?" While many consultants advise waiting until finishing your TOEFL and GMAT, I have a different philosophy. Understanding that everyone's situation is different, in the early part of the season (like now) I often suggest a "90/10" approach - 90% test preparation, 10% applications (ie., resume, essays, LOR, etc.) for the following reasons:

1) Psychological - Let's be honest. Studying for standardized tests is a boring, non-creative process, with uncertain results and timing. It has to be done, of course, but everyone needs a study break, and brainstorming accomplishments for your resume or developing your goals essay (both of which can easily and steadily be developed in discrete sections) can refresh and reassure you that you are indeed making progress.

2) Strategic - I've had many clients score well on their GMAT in late September. Because we already had momentum, we could easily accelerate to meet critical R1 deadlines while still producing top quality materials. This is much harder to do if you are starting from zero. Also, having your resume and solid goals means you can attend MBA fairs and information sessions as well as speak to alumni with confidence.

3) Linguistic - for international applicants especially, developing application materials can reinforce your TOEFL and GMAT studies. From my own experience, I know there is a big difference between improving "passive" language skills like reading and listening and "active" language skills like speaking and writing. And one of the reasons I keep in such close contact with my clients via Skype, e-mail, or in-person, is that the more we communicate, the more prepared they will be for all aspects of the process, especially the interview.

What else can you be doing while studying? I suggest confirming your recommenders and researching schools.