After some preliminary reading, I understood that the key to a successful application was to articulate a clear fit between my professional/personal path and my target school. In other words, my application needed to demonstrate two things. On the one side, how the MBA program will represent a solid bridge between my past/present and my declared future goals. On the other side, how the unique attributes of my profile could add value to the program and the community. Easier said than done! My first step towards this complicated goal – before I even read the essay questions – was to do a thorough research on target schools (focus of this post) and, at the same time, build my profile (focus of next post). [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]
Preliminary school selection
How did I select my target schools in the first place? I heard several times that a candidate has zero chances only by not applying, and I agree with this statement. At the same time, the application requires an overwhelming amount of work and a ~$200 fee, so for me it was important to undertake the challenge with realistic expectations. That’s why I even started thinking about schools after a satisfactory attempt at the GMAT.
Before taking the GMAT, I remember browsing through the Harvard and Stanford websites, perceiving both schools like a forbidden dream. I felt I was at a point in my career/life, approaching 29 and with 6 years of work experience, with probably only one last chance at a top MBA program (i.e. I did not want to leave my job after 30). So I consciously chose an efficient approach. I would only take the test once, doing my very best, and I would then consider only schools with a median GMAT max 20 points higher than my score. Otherwise, the (certain) cost / (expected) benefit ratio would be too high.
Let me state clearly that this was a highly personal approach, whereas you might have a different view based on your risk appetite, stage of career, unconditional passion for a specific school, etc. Practically speaking, with a 700 score I would have not applied to Stanford (median score in 2014: 732), Harvard (727), Wharton (725), but I would have likely considered Columbia (716), MIT (714) and LBS (700). However, once I scored 740, I felt confident that I could be competitive at all schools, so started researching more seriously.
This phase was the only time when I paid any attention to the rankings. They simply helped me understand what were, universally, the most highly-regarded 10-15 schools. That is all. I don’t think that a ranking of #2 or #7 makes any difference whatsoever, if you feel you have a great fit to a school. Fit is what I would be looking for in the next phase.
School research and definitive selection
After considering location, area of specialization and prestige of the brand, I narrowed down my choice to 5 schools, usually ranked in the Top 10. In alphabetical order: Columbia, MIT, Harvard, London Business School, Stanford. In the weeks after my GMAT, I spent a lot of time reading through each school’s website: features of the program, stats on current class, employment reports, etc.
Then, at the end of January 2014, I attended an event at LBS, and I had the (with hindsight, obvious) epiphany that physically being there and speaking to current students was simply another level of experience. I realized that I had to go to the US and visit all target schools. Expensive and time-consuming for sure but, on the other hand, an MBA is a big investment: would I buy a house that I have merely seen on a real estate agency website?
Furthermore, 5 applications seemed like biting more than I could chew, on top of work and personal life. School visits would allow me to trim the list further. So I organized a short trip to Boston (MIT and Harvard) and New York (Columbia) for April. It was hard to fit Stanford in the agenda, due to the West Coast location, but I had a stroke of luck.
In March I had to go to Los Angeles for work, so I flew for a day to San Francisco and spent a morning on campus. Given my final choice, I am so glad I managed to do the Stanford visit. I felt absolutely elated, to a level which is hard to explain. I fell in love with the location, I enjoyed sitting in a class and I was truly impressed with the people I met, who were kind, generous in sharing details about their experience and curious about me.
My whole application was shaped by this campus visit, since school culture is not something you can grasp from a website or a YouTube video. I made precise notes about places, names, stories, habits. For instance, one hidden example of the very collaborative Stanford environment is the “blast” email system, which allows a student to ask for help from the GSB community on a specific subject. I absolutely love this concept, as I truly enjoy sharing my knowledge. I immediately pictured myself offering my expertise on licensing of digital rights! I referenced this valuable little detail in my essays, as it made sense in the context of my story and showed to the Admission Committee that I was curious about the school.
When I came back from my US trips, I clearly felt that I wanted to pursue my MBA in the States, after living for 7 years in London. Additionally, MIT Sloan impressed me slightly less (still impressed me, though) compared to the other schools, so I decided to leave it for a potential Round 2. I ultimately trimmed down my R1 list to 3 schools.
In the meantime, I had started building my profile so, after the visits, I felt ready to highlight some specific traits of my story based on what I deemed to be the key application themes of each school. Here is a page from my notes in Spring 2014, with the keywords which shaped each individual application.
To be continued!