Hello all, I'm new to this forum but thought I'd kick things off by trying to offer any advice I can on aspiring b-school applicants preparing for the fall 2016-17 application cycle.
I did consulting at a boutique for several years, was dinged w no interview at HBS, and interviewed at Stanford and Wharton, ultimately getting dinged at Stanford as well. I'm Wharton bound this fall and can think back to this time last year when I was prepping for the GMAT and beginning to think about essay topics and recommendation writers. Some of these tips may be obvious but here's my $0.02
Assuming you know at least a few of the schools you're applying to, look at the applications of the schools right now and understand what the task entails. Now that you know what you have to do (GMAT, essays, recs, short answers, etc.) develop a workplan inand sync it with your personal/work calendar so you're aware of deadlines. With deadlines so far off, it's easy to ignore these reminders so give yourself +50% more time then you'd really need. For me, I gave myself May-June to do the GMAT, then June-Sept to write essays. I told my rec writers of my plans in July, and sent them reminders 3, 2, and 1 week before the school's deadlines.
With the workplan in place, do some high-level reading
Read blogs the free school guides available from the various admissions consultants, chat with friends who are already at b-school, chat with colleagues who have already graduated from b-school... this will give you an initial feel. Some of the stuff the say will be irrelevant (e.g., "I was sponsored at Wharton so I just traveled and skipped class for 2 years") but at least 50% should be helpful in guiding you.
With a general feel of the schools you want to apply to, that's great motivation to study for the GMAT because no you know what you're working towards. You can see the end of the tunnel a bit more clearly. I used the official materials, Manhattan, and CR bible. In short I:
- 2 weeks: Dabbled in all areas (CR, SC, PS, etc.) to understand how the questions are worded
- End of week 2: Took an initial test - got a 650 (average quant and low 30s on verbal)
- 4 weeks: Worked through 30-60 mins of verbal and 30-60 mins of quant everyday (2 and 2 hours each on weekends). I initially used the official materials
- After the 3rd week of studying I began taking Manhattan tests every week. They're notoriously over-difficult on math, which is great. Based on my actual GMAT, my verbal score was in line with reality.
- So I'm 5 weeks in and I take my first MGMAT - 650. Well isn't this great. No progress assuming all tests are created equal. Luckily, they're not. I'd add 20-30 points to your MGMAT scores.
- Fast forward 5 more weeks and I'd taken all the MGMATs (one each week), progressed through nearly all the official guide materials (all 3 books), and was ready to tackle the official practice exams from GMAC
- At this point I knew I was bad at DS and CR, so I dedicated 80% of my prep time to them and 20% to others. Similar to the MGMAT approach, I took 1 exam every Saturday, simulating actual test scenarios (woke up at exact time, ate the exact same meal, etc. all as if it were the test day)
- My scores climbed from 690 to 750 over this period of taking the official exams
- With my last exam on a Saturday and my real exam the following Saturday, I spent the subsequent 6 days reviewing my mistakes in prior MGMAT and GMAC tests
- The day before, I didn't touch anything and just went to the gym
- Test day: 750... 100 points above my initial 650
On to your essays
Felt a bit burnt out so took 2 weeks off after doing the GMAT, then began pondering essay topics.
To be honest, essays are important - hell, admissions consultants have built an entire industry out of them! But I'd say the success of your essays are 80% content and 20% writing ability. So don't feel the need to use these consultants unless you're really struggling on content development.
One interesting fact is you can have free calls with these consultants and they'll flat out tell you what they find interesting about your profile.. which should stoke some content ideas for your essays. In the end, I chose not to use a consultant. Maybe I would have gotten into Stanford if I had.
Your undergrad, company name, and GMAT are far more important factors to the adcom in my opinion. No name undergrad? Better have built some insane NGO... in Africa... by yourself. Mid-market bank? Better get a 790. The fact is there are plenty of people with 720s, mid-market banks / boutique consulting, and non-top 25 undergrads. So in a way much of your application is already created by the time you even consider applying. But to move that needle just a little bit you should either a) read this post 2 years before you're considering applying, or b) try to compensate for areas which are lacking by (assuming you can't redo undergrad or change jobs)
There are initial segments here: people who support you and people who don't. Then there are sub-segments... want autonomy in writing them vs. want you to write them and they'll sign... you're just another rec they need to write vs. you have a strong relationship w them and they care about you... etc. etc.
Figure out early the type of person your rec writer is, because it may reveal a need to reconsider. I had a phone call with a former Partner I thought I was close with, and he basically told me he was too busy. All those late nights realigning autoshapes to fit his 'style' ?? Didn't seem to remember those.
I learned more about the personal aspects of my current and former bosses during the 2 month rec writing process than I did after 4 years of working under them.
Ask them what they want - do they want you to write anecdotes so they can remember that time the client said "Brian this is exceptional work" ?? Do they want e-mail reminders 1, 2, 3 weeks before the deadlines? Do they want you to read the rec before they submit it? These are all things you should spell out with them early on so you're both on the same page. Effectively, it's a mini work schedule.
Adam Markus' blog had some pretty good advice here... don't just memorize answers to questions. Create anecdotes and then fit those anecdotes to the questions asked. I didn't get in to Stanford, but I still feel like this was the best approach.
For Stanford, your chemistry with the interviewer is an outside variable. Get your story sound, have some anecdotes ready, know the program inside out, but understand there are things you just can't control... and get comfortable with that fact.
For Wharton, think about your background - are a banker? a consultant? an NGO? ex-military? Your training is unique so when you're sitting in a room with 5 other applicants trying to solve the question prompt, think about what value you bring. For example, consultants pride themselves on structured thinking. So I basically just structured the entire discussion. Added maybe 1-2 thoughts on things that are unique but I positioned myself as the guy who would summarize all the thoughts. It worked.
That's all I can think of for now. Happy to answer any questions people may have.