+ Are my chances for success lower because I didn’t attend a top school or work for a top company or don’t work in a “sexy” industry?

No. Not at all.

MBA schools really are looking for diversity, and not just in terms of your skin color, mother tongue, or birth country; they also want students from “non-elite” and “non-traditional” backgrounds. They certainly don’t expect or want everyone to have the same kinds of experiences and accomplishments. That would lead to the most boring class ever, no matter how impressive the pedigrees of their students.

In my experience, what schools really value are “entrepreneurs”, meaning applicants who have pushed themselves beyond their assigned duties and have tried to make lasting improvements in whatever context they find themselves. Actually, that’s why adcoms ask you for essays and not just your resume, so you can explain those distinctive experiences to them.

+ Should I apply for a Fulbright Fellowship?

Fulbright scholarships are sweet. They can cover a lot of your tuition and put you in an esteemed group of fellow recipients several generations deep. (I was very fortunate to receive one myself.) However, the application process is demanding, which makes the opportunity cost (time taken away from test studies, for example) steep. I recently sent this email to a current client who was considering applying for a Fulbright. This client is based in Japan, but I imagine it applies to other Fulbright offices around the world as well.

“Honestly speaking, it will be very difficult for you to be awarded a Fulbright scholarship, so I recommend spending your time on test scores instead. The reason I say it will be difficult is because the Fulbright committee in Japan looks for applicants whose goals can benefit society in direct and creative ways. My clients who were awarded Fulbrights in the past aimed to: open a new type of school in Japan, continue building a healthcare related NPO, help commercialize Japanese space technology, improve NGO-government relationships to improve education in developing countries, etc. These applicants all had direct and significant experiences in these fields as well. Working in Private Equity (your current goal) does not really meet these criteria. Yes, you could change goals and say you wanted to start an NPO or something similar, but without background experience or education in that field, the committee has no evidence of your experience, commitment or capability.”

I consulted with my colleague Michele Rabin, who was a Fulbright Program Advisor, and she added: “My experience working with successful Fulbright grantees (though they have all been Americans going overseas) is that usually the grantees had a very precisely thought out proposal and most had already had contact with a faculty member at a host institution(s) or organization(s) supporting the goals of the project. In addition, all of them had outlined exactly how they would share what they learned with other educators and/or professionals, both in the host country and once they returned to the U.S. And as you said, most of them had experience studying or working in the field of their proposal prior to applying for the program.”

At the same time, the essays used in the Fulbright application process can usually be adapted directly to personal essays and statements of purpose/goals essays for graduate school/MBA applications, so even if you don’t receive the golden ticket, your efforts will not be completely in vain. However, before you commit to the Fulbright application process, be sure you are not sacrificing time and energy that would be better spent on the big picture of getting admitted to your top choice schools.

+ Should I apply in a late round or should I wait until next year?

If you’re in this situation, the key question to ask yourself is this: if you apply late and are not accepted, will you be able to demonstrate significant improvement by the time you re-apply?

Each MBA program has a different re-application process, but they all expect to see growth between applications (e.g., better test scores, progress towards your goals, job promotions or new work initiatives, social contributions/volunteering, etc.), as the following re-applicant questions from 2009-10 show:

As a leader in global business, Wharton is committed to sustaining “a truly global presence through its engagement in the world”. What goals are you committed to and why? How do you envision the Wharton MBA contributing to the attainment of those goals? How has your candidacy improved since the last time you applied? (Wharton)

Required essay for re-applicants only – Since your previous application, what steps have you taken to strengthen your candidacy? (Kellogg)

We strongly recommend that you submit a statement outlining how you have improved your candidacy since your last application, as the Admissions Committee will be looking for substantive change in your qualifications. (Haas)

In general, if you don’t feel like you’ll be able to improve between applications, then you should wait for R1 and use the time to prepare the best application possible. And if your test scores (GMAT, TOEFL) are questionable or you’re struggling with your essays (which is often the case with late-round submissions), or you’re an international applicant aiming at U.S. programs (since most U.S. programs want you to apply by the January/2nd round), then your chances of a late-round admission are even lower, making the case for waiting even stronger. So if your application profile is weak, you should think twice before applying “just for the hell of it” or “to see what happens”, because you’ll be setting a hurdle for yourself that first-time applicants don’t need to clear and which you might not be able to clear yourself by the time you apply again.

+ Should I send “push” materials?

Push essays and push letters are similar to optional essays in that you have to exercise supremely good judgment when using them. For those of you who don’t know, “push” materials are generally additional essays or letters of recommendation that your target school does not require.

Now sending something sounds like a great idea, except for the fact that every applicant gets the same idea and the result for an MBA adcom is a flood of additional materials that they didn’t request and don’t have the resources to review. Some applicants send these materials even before the initial interview decisions have been announced. Complicating matters further, some programs encourage push materials for people on waiting lists.

The question is: under what conditions should you send push materials? I recommend asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the information new? Is it a new development or has it not been covered anywhere else in your application? In the case of a push letter, can the writer say something that your other recommenders cannot?
  2. Is it significant? For example, did you raise your GMAT or TOEFL score significantly? Did you get a raise or promotion? Did you complete a project successfully, especially one you mentioned in your essays or interviews?
  3. Do you have permission? Did the MBA program OK the additional material or did a personal contact (perhaps an adcom interviewer) recommend it?

The more “yes” answers you have, the stronger your case for sending push materials. But like many things in the MBA application process, you will likely be penalized for poor judgment so think carefully before you send.

+ Shouldn’t I use every word/character that a school gives me in an essay? Is my essay too short?

Not necessarily. As long as you are answering the essay question well and completely, then an adcom would rather read less than more. In those cases, I think a shorter essay shows confidence.

+ TOEFL or IELTS or both?

While IELTS is generally considered easier than the TOEFL, it is not as widely accepted yet as the TOEFL, so depending on your candidate school list you might have to study for both tests. In that case, I generally advise my clients to put all of their efforts into the TOEFL rather than split their energies and distract themselves trying to study for two different tests.

It’s not the easiest system to figure out, but you can check your target schools for IELTS acceptance here.

+ What are the do’s and don’ts of attending MBA information sessions?

  1. Do understand that this is an information session and not part of the application process, so don’t panic and/or become hyper-aggressive in trying to impress an adcom member. Doing so will likely backfire on you.
  2. Do bring your resume and business cards just in case. If you do have the chance to speak with an adcom member, you can offer these things to them. Don’t force your materials on them. These guys are traveling and don’t have a lot of room to carry extra papers. They might refuse politely and just tell you to submit your resume through the normal application process.
  3. Do prepare questions you would like to ask adcom members or alumni. The best and most natural questions will relate to your goals and what resources the school has to help you fulfill them.
  4. Do network, especially with alumni. It’s a great way to learn more about the program and the kind of people you might be associating with for a long time if you decide to attend that school.
  5. Do give yourself objectives to make productive use of your time. For example, for my shy clients, I suggest they introduce themselves to at least two alumni and one adcom rep and start up a conversation. For others, I suggest they raise their hands during Q&A time and ask something they really want to know that they couldn’t confirm elsewhere.
  6. Do be yourself. Do arrive with an open mind and enjoy yourself.
  7. Let me repeat. Don’t panic or get caught up in the anxiety that these events can produce.
  8. Don’t think adcom reps are evaluating you or that you can score extra points by attending.
  9. Don’t feel that you have to attend such events, especially if you think your time would be better spent studying, deepening your essays, or otherwise working on parts of the application that do actually matter. (See also the “School Visits” section of the FAQ.)

+ What do the top MBA programs look for?

A consistent and directed history of excellence that indicates strong potential for future success. (In addition to the normal things like good test scores, GPA, work history, etc.)

+ When should I begin?

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 (about March – June) 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 Verbal 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.

+ With my profile, what are my chances of getting accepted at a top school?

I’ve been trying to find a good and polite way to answer this question for a few days now, but there’s just no nice way to say it: Don’t ask this question to anyone in the admissions business. It makes you look dumb and insecure. Look, if you want numbers, then review the schools’ online class composition statistics (average GMAT, average GPA, average years of work experience, etc.) and see how you measure up.

Other than that, the only people who can give you a meaningful answer are the adcom members themselves, and they’ll give you their answer only after you go through the entire process. Moreover, their decision will be based on subtleties and nuances that they find or don’t find throughout your application, not on a crude assessment of a bare profile. (It’s one of our jobs to help you find and express those subtleties and nuances.)

If you do make the mistake of asking a school rep for your chances, they will hate you inside, but because they are generally nice people they will kindly deflect your question with paeans to diversity and the comprehensive nature of their review process. Then they will tell you to apply.

So what should you take away from all this? If there is a school that is close to your heart but a stretch for your hand, then you should apply, unless doing so would take away too much time and energy from more accessible schools, test studies, etc. “How badly do I want this school?” and “How much will applying take away from my overall chances of success?” These are the questions you should be asking yourself.


School Visits

+ How do I arrange a visit?

Each school will have its own policies and procedures. Please check their websites for specific details.

+ I’ve heard that visiting schools is crucial to being accepted. Is that true?

No. If you think a school visit is necessary to show your “passion” or that it will somehow give you extra “points” on your application, then you’ll be disappointed. A school visit shows that you have time and money. That’s it. In fact, many top schools say explicitly in their admissions FAQ that visiting confers no advantages. So before you decide to visit, ask yourself carefully if that time, money and energy wouldn’t be better spent on strengthening the core aspects of your application.

There are some exceptions to this school visit rule: Tuck and Kellogg. They offer on-campus interviews to all applicants, so if you can afford the journey and you are really serious about these schools, then you should consider a visit.

+ So are there really no advantages to a school visit?

The advantages are marginal and personal. A school visit can help you understand and experience the program, culture, facilities and environment better through tours, class visits, chats and even parties with current students. If that is your main purpose for visiting, and all the other aspects of your application are solid, then enjoy your visit. In practical terms, the experience can enrich the “Why School X?” portion of your typical “Goals Essay” or give you an icebreaker in an interview. Are those things going to make the difference between acceptance and ding? No.

+ What should I do before I visit?

I advise my clients to prepare three things before they visit:

  1. Resume – if you do run into an admissions staff, your resume can come in handy and serve as a “calling card”.
  2. Goals – while they don’t have to be perfectly developed, you should have an idea of your immediate post-MBA goals, since someone during your visit is bound to ask you, “Why do you want an MBA?” or some version of that question.
  3. Questions – Knowing your goals, you can ask targeted questions about courses, programs, professors, etc. that are related to your goals, which will lead to a more productive conversation.

+ When should I visit?

Try to avoid the beginning or ending of semesters, when students, faculty and administrators are at their busiest. Avoid weekends and the days just before or after a major holiday. Summers are also tricky. On the one hand, most students will be gone, but administrators should be there and they might have more time to speak with you. You should also consider visiting after your applications are finished; you’ll maximize your time for studying and essays and still have the advantages of visiting (see previous question). And depending on the school, you might be able to arrange an on-campus interview.


Working With Me

+ Do you consider yourself “conflicted” sometimes if you have candidates with similar profiles targeting the same schools?

Nope. I never consider it. For one thing, applicants change their plans all the time, so even though they say they are going to apply to a certain set of schools, the reality is often different, usually due to an unexpected (either better or worse) GMAT score. More importantly, my job is to help each individual distinguish themself from others through the specific details of their stories, which reveal unique ways of thinking or problem solving. So even though you might share a surface profile with someone, I’m always looking underneath for the things that make you unique. More often than not, I can find them.

+ Do you offer discounts?

No. I’m always confused and amused when someone asks. If you cannot afford my services, how will you afford an MBA?

However, if you are working with me under a Flat Fee arrangement, I will always give you the best price I can (based on the quality of your drafts) and try to work within your budget.

+ How do you get your clients? (Website? Word of mouth? Groups and forums?…)

Everyone’s schedule will be different based on their test scores, work/family situation, when they start the application process, and when schools release their application questions.

Nevertheless, I generally follow the same pattern with my comprehensive clients, which is to start working on core materials that almost all schools will be interested in. In order, these are:

  1. resume
  2. goals essay
  3. leadership/accomplishment essay
  4. personal essay

Time permitting, we will develop long versions of these materials so that we can fully develop your experiences and ideas into rich, personal, detailed and integrated stories. Then, as schools release their questions (usually beginning in May with HBS and extending throughout the summer months) and as your test situation becomes more clear, we can begin customizing these core materials to fit your target schools, as well as build up additional materials specific to each school.

We will start with one document at a time, and use those as building blocks to eventually complete one school at a time, including letters of recommendation (LOR).

When we do choose your first school, I strongly recommend starting with a program that offers basic, long questions that is also not your dream school, as you will be able to refine your essays over time. It takes about two months to complete your first school, including resume, essays, LOR, and the application, but each additional school should take less and less time, as you can build on your previous materials. Usually by your third or fourth school, your materials have reached their peak quality.

While it might seem faster to apply to multiple schools at the same time, especially those with similar essays and LOR requirements, it’s usually less efficient, because every time you make changes, you have to filter them through all the documents. Applying to multiple schools simultaneously also increases the chance of making careless mistakes. The entire application process is a constant battle between quality and speed, but in the beginning, we need to focus on quality as much as possible. Speed should come naturally as we progress.

Please keep in mind that most applicants change their application plans and school portfolios because their test scores are higher/lower than expected, they become busier than expected at work, etc. Some people change their plans more than once. That’s completely normal, so stay flexible and don’t try to over-plan your application schedule; you’ll end up changing it 99% of the time.

+ How many clients do you accept? Is there a deadline to apply?

I don’t really set a hard number because every year is different: people apply at different times and need different levels of attention, and the difficulty of applying changes from year to year. (In 2012-13, for example, many schools noticeably simplified their applications by issuing fewer and simpler questions.) However, I am very good at understanding my own limitations and never take more clients than I can handle. As I’ve said elsewhere, I want my clients to experience the same high-quality level of service throughout the entire application process and especially during the most intensive deadline periods. Having said all that, there is no absolute deadline to apply, but if you would like to work with me the earlier you contact me the better.

+ How/do you pick your clients?

I do pick my clients, but only in the sense of 1) will I be able to help this person? and 2) will I enjoy working with this person? If someone is unrealistic about this process or if they have no self-awareness, then I can’t help them – nobody can really – and I don’t want to take their money. I almost always enjoy working with my clients and I treat our relationship with great respect. I understand how important an MBA is to my clients, and how closely it is tied into their future plans and dreams, both personal and professional. (In my own case, I have two masters degrees and was a Fulbright Fellow, and each of those experiences took my life in a new direction and opened up opportunities that might have otherwise remained hidden.) For that reason, I work with 95% of my clients according to some kind of flat-rate package, so that we can concentrate on producing the best materials, and not on counting minutes or sessions. Sometimes I get burned doing that, but most everyone I work with is highly professional and motivated, and we have a very positive experience.

I’m concerned about test scores, but only as a metric of how realistic someone is. For example, if someone has finished up taking the GMAT with a 520 and insists on applying only to top tier schools with only average work experience and not much of a personal life, then they are doomed. If someone is applying with a realistic plan, then I’m almost always happy to work with them. Some of my most enjoyable client relationships have been with “humble geniuses”, who might not have had the best scores, but who knew themselves inside and out. This self-awareness is the one ingredient that the most successful candidates share. At the same time, I love helping “high fliers” and “thoroughbreds” navigate the process and get into the schools that they should get into.

I do know counselors that will only work with people who have 700 GMATs and 105 TOEFLS, but when I hear that, I feel that counselor might not be ready to work hard for their clients. A good, conscientious counselor should aim to help clients gain admission to schools that are beyond their reach because of their test scores or other application weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong. I love it when my strongest clients get into HBS or Stanford or any other top school, but I feel most satisfied when someone on the margin gets into a school they thought was impossible. In addition, I love the variety that comes from working with a diverse range of people in terms of scores, personal backgrounds, professions, geographic location or goals.

Regarding success statistics, I understand that they are important, but I also know they don’t tell the whole story. My process leads to success about 95% of the time. But more importantly, my clients are almost always extremely happy with my service, and they gladly recommend their friends and colleagues. Even in this highly wired world, that word of mouth is priceless and still the best marketing.

+ What is your success rate? Where are your success statistics? What’s your record at School X or Y or Z?

I don’t really track my success rate except in the most general terms. That means that in any given year, I feel confident saying that 90-95% of my clients are accepted by schools that they’re very happy with.

One reason I don’t track my statistics closely is that I don’t think those numbers mean very much. First of all, I can make up anything and you don’t have a way to confirm it. Also, some of my clients are comprehensive, while others just want a simple edit or interview training, so there is a definition problem. In addition, people use multiple consultants for different things, so there’s no way to break down who gets credit for what. Meanwhile, asking about specific schools pre-supposes that they are looking for the same things in all of their applicants, which they are certainly not. Actually, I’m always disappointed when someone asks me this question, because it means they aren’t thinking rationally about the process.

You can get a sense of where my clients have been accepted on my testimonials page. I think better questions to ask are:

  1. How do you work and communicate with clients? What’s it like to work with you? (To get a good understanding, please sign up for a trial consultation.)
  2. What is your turnaround time on edits? (Usually w/in 48 hours, and if not then I’ll let you know by when.)
  3. What is your availability during deadline season? (Excellent. My goal is for my clients to experience the same high-level of service no matter what time of year.)
  4. What distinguishes you from other consultants? (See here.)

+ What makes you different from other MBA admissions consultants?

  1. My comprehensive approach to your application. I don’t want to just answer individual essay questions. Using all of your application materials and working collaboratively, I want to create a 3-dimensional profile of you that will make adcoms say to themselves, “We have to interview this one!”
  2. I don’t disappear when you need me the most – during deadline season – because I never take more clients than I can handle; I want my clients to experience the same high-level service no matter what time of year.
  3. Insightful questioning that will reveal the unique details of your experiences, and thus your unique qualities.
  4. Fast, clean editing that preserves and accentuates your individual voice.
  5. Constant, professional communication.
  6. I treat all of my clients fairly, no matter their test scores or sponsorship status.

+ What’s your schedule? When are you available?

I work almost every day and you can almost always reach me by email, but I try not to have client meetings on Sundays EST (Saturdays and Sundays EST after January 30th), unless there is an emergency.

I will also take the following US holidays off:
Thanksgiving Day (the third Thursday in November)
Christmas Day (December 25)
New Years Day (January 1)

If I do take any other time off, which is rare, then I will give you as much notice as possible.