Network, Network, Network

Like most things in life, its not who you know; its who knows you.

The same principle holds true in the world of the MBA application process. Every year there are tens of thousands of MBA hopefuls applying to the top 50 business schools and the percentage admitted represents only a handful from that pool of hopefuls. More often than not, these applicants are a cut above Joe Six Pack. They have the high GMAT, strong GPA, good work history, recommendations et cetera.

So what separates the candidates that are marginal from those with a phone call of admittance: face time with Admission reps, alumni and students. The more advocates at the school that can put a face to your application, the better chances you have at getting in, especially if you are competing head to head with someone else. Human nature wins out. People trust people they know and no statistic can overturn that fact.

To be clear, I am not talking about schmoozing at every MBA road show. The last impression you want to make is that of a cheesy salesman. What I am describing is the stage at which you have narrowed down your school selection and you have exhausted every other facet of your application: your story, GMAT score, etc. Your application needs someone to bring your story to life, to give it three-dimensionality. For example, if someone wanted $10000 from you, would you give it to them over a phone call or an email? No. The same is true of your application. These schools are investing tremendous resources to hear your story. The interview is their best attempt to hear that story but all things considered every instance you can sell yourself more is the edge that puts you in the incoming class.

Here are some tips:

1. Go to MBA tradeshows and visit booths with schools you are interested in. Introduce yourself in 30-45 seconds, stating Why an MBA?, Short and Long term? and why this school?, then ask questions. Afterward, get the representatives business card and tell them you will follow up. IMPORTANT: Follow up!. This sends a strong signal that you are serious, have done your homework and will make an impact.
2. Visit the school. This is crucial. Not only will you be able to determine whether the school is a true fit, but you will leave a DNA trail, with the students, faculty, and admission officers in the Admission offices. Most MBA campuses are small and everyone talks. The more favorable opinions and vouchers you can get from various people the more credible you become as a bonafide student of consideration.
3. Meet the decision makers, if you can. Some programs make it hard for you to do that. Their process is not very transparent. HBS, for instance, is hard to crack from an admissions perspective. But regardless, try your best to meet the Dean of Admissions or Assistant Dean of Admissions. Ultimately if they can speak on your behalf at the decision committee meetings, your chances are drastically improved.
4. Go to dinners that programs throw in your area. Many times local alumni will throw a meet and greet on behalf of a program. This is a great opportunity to learn about the program and network and leave a favorable impression with someone connected with the school. Often times you would be surprised, either the host of these events knows someone or can directly say something positive in writing, etc about you to the main admissions office. Its a long shot but depending on how acute your methods are, something good could happen from it.

Like I said, face time is crucial. If you do not put the work in network, it won’t work. You have to be comfortable with yourself, know your story and not be afraid to make an impression. Try it you might surprise yourself with an admittance!

Dancing with the Elelphant in the Room: Low GPA

There is no greater mood killer after deciding to quit your job, start the MBA application process and drink bubbly champagne all night to celebrate than bringing up a low GPA (anything under 3.0) to an Admissions representative. A low GPA is the elephant in the room that no Admission Officer will acknowledge as the dagger in your pinata of dreams, because they do not want to hurt your feelings; but oh, it is bad…. it is so bad. More than any other statistical indicator in your profile, a low GPA signals to Admission officers that either you did not care about school or worse if you did care you could not do the work successfully within a four year time span. Not four hours like the GMAT, but four years. That’s a long time to get it right. And few schools worth their salt and competing for higher rankings in US News and other major business magazines, are willing to take that bet on you and find out which was the case. Let’s face it, beyond the garden of knowledge that academic institutions paint in their brochures, schools are businesses first and where they place in the national rankings matters. Prospective students look at rankings in many cases to determine where they will apply. Thus, admitting any student to a program with a low GPA can drop the school’s ranking 3 to 5 places (depending on how it affects their overall student average) and damage the quantity and quality of their application pool.

So where does that leave the prospective MBA candidates with the low GPA? Should they give up and apply for a master’s in something else like Ultimate Frisbee or Laser Tag. No. Not necessarily. But I will be honest. Your chances at getting into a top MBA program are drastically cut, especially at the so-called top ten like Kellogg, Wharton, HBS, University of Chicago, Stanford, etc. Some of these schools, unfortunately, cannot get around a poor academic undergraduate performance. They see it as settling when there are so many exceptional, dynamic candidates to pick from in the party bag. If I were you I would cry now, get it out of your system and move on….unless you are well connected (like a former MBA US president) and can grease the wheels and pull some strings at the Dean level.

Ok…After you have finished crying, yet like me are still not shaken by the prospect of “NO” from the school of your dreams. It is time to roll up the jean sleeves and get your grind on…To pull off an acceptance letter from your number one is going to take hustle and flow, courage and heart, grit and wild-eyed determination. Be not dissuaded, my friend, it can be done….I have friends at some of the best programs in the world, who were working and dancing with the elephant of a low GPA and jumped over the word “impossible” like an Olympic hurdler to achieve brilliance.

Here are some dance steps to keep in mind:

1. If you have a low GPA from a top undergraduate school like West Point, Harvard, Brown, UCLA, etc. you are still in the running. However your story has to be strong. AO’s are going to wonder what went wrong.
2. If you have a low GPA, but had a tough major like engineering, physics, or computer science, schools will forgive you especially if you knock out the GMAT.
3. If you have a low GPA, but showed improvement with time and ended on a high note particularly in your major, that is a strong indicator of success that you can leverage in your story.
4. If you have a low GPA, but have a compelling reason such as working full time while attending school or family problems, etc., schools will show compassion by listening to your story but you have to be up front and address it in the “Any thing else you want to tell us?” essay. This might be the weakest reason for low GPA so you will have to work hard to offset it with a high GMAT, and good career development, because they will reason everyone has challenges.

Here are some dance moves that will wow AO’s and take away the focus from your low GPA:

1. High GMAT(690 and above). Of course the higher the better.
2. Amazing professional development and leadership quality. At the end of the day, if you graduated with a 2.0 but started a tech company and sold it for ten million, or served in the military in a leadership capacity, saving thousands of lives, schools will overlook your academic struggles.
3. Strong recommendation from an Alumnae that creates a vivid picture of what makes you unique and how you will provide additional value to the program.
4. Any other degrees like Masters or PHds.
5. Killer interview. Don’t talk about how great your interpersonal skills are, show it by persuading them why they have to have you. This is an art form not often seized.
6. Additional course work in business courses (you did not take or took but did bad in undergrad). These courses include statistics, accounting and calculus. You have to get As in all of them.

If in some way you fall under at least three of any of these categories I have listed then you have a good shot. There are no guarantees, obviously. But its the difference between getting on the ding pile out the gate vs. hanging in to the end in the Admissions Board room. And at that point, it truly is a crap shoot. There is no rhyme or reason to why some candidates get selected over others. All you can do is dance with that elephant. Try not to step on its toes or rather have its toes step on you. Just dance. You got this!

Your Story is Your Story

There is a great temptation to ignore our story.

We hype up grad school as some exclusive night club with high barricades and diesel bodyguards who will not let us through, until we have accomplished something of heroic proportions. Its almost like if we did not go to ‘Nam in a chopper and save a thousand soldiers or climb Mt. Kilamanjaro, with one working eye and a club foot, we get writer’s block; we feel we are not worthy to apply. Then we create this fiction in our heads that prolongs the application process and delays it for years. For example, we say things to ourselves like, “If I take some certification in XYZ, then I will be ready”, “If I get a promotion and get a certain title, the admissions people will think my profile is more competitive”, “If I do some community service, that will round out my application” and the list goes on. When does it stop? When do we accept ourselves for who we are and accept our stories for what they are?

Recently, I was consulting with a client about the MBA application process. He was a smart lad, working as a research assistant at a top historically black college. He was nine months out of college and he decided that he wanted to get an MBA in order to career switch from social research into management consulting in international markets. His GPA was a strong 3.5 and he was dead set on a state MBA program. All he had to do was take the GMAT. When I asked him, when he planned on applying he said he wanted to wait and take some pre-MBA business courses in the Fall and get a little more experience working in a different field that was more related to business, before applying. Now to his credit, his logic seems fair. He is a fresh graduate with little experience, so it seems reasonable that he take some business courses and get some more work experience. But here’s the thing: You can do that in business school!!! Part of the opportunity that an MBA provides is the ability to learn and take classes, network and from that experience get a job that suits your industry of interest, which for him, is management consulting. My basic point is that there’s no reason to create more steps when the real step is in front of you. Just take that step, which for him was taking the GMAT!

Secondly, when I asked him to tell me the research that he had been doing in the past nine months, he described a project tracing the development of particular ethnic groups socially, politically and economically inside the education system from high school to college. Bingo! On the surface that might not seem like relevant work experience, but it it is if you know how to frame it as such. If you are able to re-conceive your reality and highlight its virtues and business relevance, then the admission people will care, because they are hungry for different types of stories. For example for his Why an MBA?, he could easily talk about how through his research he discovered a vicious pattern of institutional prejudice that blocked opportunities for certain groups he was studying and how by going to business school he could create a new cycle breaking that old pattern of prejudice.

Your story is your story and it already exists within you. You have to believe it. You have to spend the time to excavate it. Don’t short change or undersell yourself by prolonging the MBA process more than it needs to be. Start with what you have, the rest will take care of itself.

What they don’t tell you about the GMAT

The GMAT is not a unicorn; it is a beast.

It is designed to make you fail on purpose. Make no mistake it is one of the toughest standardized test you will ever take. First reason is that if you are like me, either you have not taken a math course in a while or you have not applied math much in your job. I was a marketing guy so algebra, geometry and number property were foggy, distant concepts that were challenging to master. Second reason, it is an adaptive test. You have to finish a question before going to the next question. You cannot skip around to questions that might boost your confidence. Also, in real time, the test is dumping you in a score range of 500, 600 and 700 before you even finish the test. Therefore if you miss the first 5 questions you will fall under the 400-500 range and no matter how well you do in later questions you cannot lift yourself up. That’s why so many test takers try their best to get the first 15 or so right.

Now for the engineers and computer science majors reading this blog, this is a non-issue. Students that had quantitative majors undergrad will fair well on the GMAT. Their minds are used to this type of adaptive format. They think linearly, clearly and logically. For poets, creatives folks and non-traditional applicants like myself, the test can present a tremendous challenge. Firstly, creative people’s mind work tangentially; it strays and builds context over time. So there are questions that creative people might not be able to do right away but will have answers for later, because things come to them gradually not instantly. However, again with the GMAT, there is no room for daydreaming, where ideas may develop. You have approximately 2 minutes per question to get it right the first time and move on or you will fall victim to not finishing the test on time, which usually prompts a lower score. Feelings and emotions will cloud judgment and deter a successful score. You have to be a cyborg with laser focus and mastery, executing flawlessly in your strengths and protecting your weaknesses.

Here are some suggestions:

1) Take the test early before you do anything else in your application. Your GMAT score will give you a sense of which schools are within reach. If you are in the 700s then the super-tiers (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton) are realistic and you can make a strong case for fit. If you are in the 500s and 600s then you will have to do extensive research and match your score with the schools that are appropriate based on what they list as the range and average GMAT score for their incoming classes.

2) Prepare and train at least 3 months in advance. I repeat “Train.” The GMAT is not a sprint it is a 3-4 hour Marathon. At its core, its testing not just if you can get questions right, but if you have the stamina to get questions right over a long period of time. Your training should include 3 hours of practice problems 5 out of 7 days a week and a full blown test one one day out of the week. So you may get a day off to recoup.

3) Don’t buy too many books, CDs, DVDs or take too many courses. SAVE YOUR MONEY!!!! You can get a lot of this stuff online for free. I recommend just getting the Official Guide to the GMAT, which has problems taken from the real test. Manhattan GMAT has a good series of books which focuses around certain competencies. And when you get good, register with, which is forum of test takers that post problems daily. These guys are hardcore and hungry…and will get you to have your A-game on.

That’s it. Its rather spartan, I know. No gimmicks no tricks. The truth is that if after doing these things, you are still not seeing improvement, then you may have to reevaluate how important returning to B-school is for you. It is very competitive out there. And if you have done that make sure you are picking the right schools for the right reasons. There are some schools that de-emphasize GMAT scores which might be right for you. Find those schools and I guarantee it will be worth the effort you have put into this process.

Gut Check

I learned today that a friend due to extenuating circumstances could not finish his MBA program. His personal life overtook the high academic demands of the program and there was a conflict of interests, which could only be resolved by departure. I felt very perturbed and disheartened by the information because if there was any one who had been supportive of my dream to pursue an MBA, it was him. Even when I was at my lowest last year, stewing in a rubble of B-school rejection letters, he encouraged me to apply again. Short of that, he reminded me that I had the ingredients of fortitude, charisma and vision to reach my life destination without an MBA. In many ways we were running mates. We had very similar backgrounds, attitudes and goals. So I took it personally, when he gave me the news.

If he couldn’t get through, would I be able to make it? I keep hearing that first semester, “The Core”, is a beast and will eat you up if you do not come correct. Not to mention, I’m not just doing this for myself. I have my wife and child to take into account. They need me to succeed as a provider and role model for our family.

However, in discussing his situation with him, it became apparent that destiny has a funny way of manifesting what it wants for you versus the other way around. In some ways, leaving his program has served as a spiritual cleansing and liberation for him to get serious about launching his company and grabbing a piece of success despite personal hurdles. As he explained he already got what he needed from his program, which is the student network to make deals and build credibility for his company. So the rest of what school had to offer would have been a pageantry, a faking of the funk. I have every confidence that this experience will make my friend a strong visionary, business person and leader, because it has forced him to look at himself honestly, to have a gut check.

As you ask the big question of “Why an MBA?” its important that you take a long hard look under the hood of your program and really understand the commitment you are being asked to make. Many of us, think of an MBA as a hood ornament, a nicety that can distract a prospective employer or peer from observing the deficiencies in our make-ups. And for some of us, that is ok. That works. But in reality it is not that at all. It is two years of foregoing an income and career growth. It is late nights with peers constantly reading and busting out case problems using Excel spreadsheets, that might have no relevance to your chosen field. In many ways its not that sexy at all. It is hard work that could pay off or not, depending on your goals.

Know yourself and know why an MBA? It is the most important question you will have to ask and understand fully. In essence, know your gut, and you won’t get kicked in the gut.

Don’t give up on the Dream

Its that time of the season. I smell fear and blood in the changing winds. Some MBA applicants are getting “restricted” calls on their mobile phones from Admission Officers congratulating them on their admittance. Most MBA applicants are getting cold notifications through an email link that jumps to an application portal which says “Denied”. A good friend of mine IMed me that she got wait listed at her business schools. I had to break it down easy for her that the prognosis does not look hot. With application rates hitting record highs, every program is feeling the squeeze and has less elbow room to promise seats to those sitting on the bench, dreaming for a chance up at bat. It hurts. It hurts when a school is “just not that into you.”

I remember last year feeling a knot built up in my stomach from the onslaught of rejection letters I received from every program to which I applied. It was not pretty. I took it very personally. I looked in the mirror at every imperfection and blamed myself for everything I had not done which counted against my candidacy: low grades, bad recommendations, misguided school selection. I cried like a baby onion. I was too paralyzed to sleep for days. How was I going to recover and be there for my wife and my son, who was about to be born? How was I going to be the Man of the household with the weight of their dreams on my shoulders. But I had to do it. I had to delve deep within my alma and ask the tough questions:

1. Why an MBA?
2. Why now?
3. What are my short and long goals?
4. Do I have the guts to face rejection and go for it again?

Once I answered number 4 it was a done deal. I started my reapplication process by talking to the Admission Officers from the schools that rejected me and there was a common conclusion. My GMAT score had to be higher and I had to demonstrate a more compelling case for fit with that particular school. This step of reaching out to your “rejector” is crucial. Do not carry grudges or shrink into the background because of pride. Your MBA dream is far too costly for you to behave small. Rejection is a good thing like spinach. It does not taste good but is good for your heart and muscles. It weeds out the weak from the strong; the fakers from the play makers; the leaders from the bleeders. Therefore, you have to persevere and amplify your glory. You have to believe, because without self-belief you have got nothing.

Once you have gotten feedback then you can outline a plan of action such as study and retake the GMAT and visit schools to get a more vivid picture of whether the school is a fit for you. I did both of these things methodically and rigorously and applied to business school again, getting in. Like I said its hard to find the courage to try again, but who said the MBA journey was easy. Don’t give up on the Dream….

Why an MBA?

There is no greater question in your MBA musings that you must have an answer for than Why an MBA. For years I fought the need to return to school. I had a prestigious undergraduate degree in my belt and I was headstrong with the wind at my back in flouting its relevance to my career development. Artists survive on inspiration and get respect from the perspiration soiling their back of hard work and paying dues beating their craft. At least so I thought. As a street poet hustling my work of words, rhythms and metaphors to anyone who cared to listen on New York’s 42nd street, I never made the connection between personal credibility as an artist and access to power, capital, and institutional resources. I thought lack of power as an artist was a right of passage, a necessary outcome to burning in the crucible of Truth. But the Truth was that on those streets, no matter how much I hustled or screamed or shined talent, no one would listen. My obstacles were not badges of courage. They were blindfolds of naivete. Its hard to be noticed if you are like everyone else, just trying to get through the day, squeezing into a subway car. And so my journey towards an MBA began with the recognition that to make the impact I wanted to on the world creatively, I would have to shout my message from a higher platform; one that valued clarity over vibration, leadership over isolation, and service over fame.