The first time I considered applying to business school was during the summer of 2016. I was working at a big consulting firm, and they had amazing decks with tips and tricks for every big school, internal consultants to advise me, and, of course, several internal mentors with MBAs who could speak about their business school journeys. How hard could it be? I did all the things people recommended – including completing a 20-slide personal deck with my ‘story’ and what I wanted to do after school. To write my story, I took all of my professional experiences, big and small, bucketed them into themes and trends, then found a narrative to tie everything together. Looking back, I realize I did this because I wasn’t ready to tell the truth: “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I applied to two schools that year and was rejected from both without interviews.
Fast forward to a year later. I had moved jobs, and I was engaged and wedding planning. I still wanted to go to business school, and this time, my then-fiancé was applying as well. Furthermore, I had started to get a better picture of what I wanted to do: it included a joint degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. Only a few MBA programs offered the joint degree, and my fiancé and I had also landed on what we didn’t want to do: long distance.
These two revelations meant there were only a couple of schools that made sense for us. Given my experience the previous year, I was terrified. By not casting a wide net, I would be risking my goal of getting an MBA. There were a lot of big questions we had to think through: Would it even make sense to apply again in two years if my partner got in, but I didn’t? What if he got into his dream school and I got in somewhere else? How would we make decisions to balance our professional goals with our personal lives? How would we prioritize schools? What rounds should we apply in, and should we apply as a couple, or separately? How much did I want the joint degree? That might seem like a long list, but it’s actually only a handful of the major decisions my fiance and I had to think through. Plus, add in the demands of piecing together our personal stories / essays, taking the GMAT, and visiting campuses. There was a lot to balance, and the stress accumulated.
Luckily, we got connected with another couple who was a few years ahead of us, both earning their MBA together. They helped us understand the parts of our application that mattered and the parts that didn’t as much, how to prioritize our applications, which schools took into account couple status and which didn’t, and which schools made sense given our respective career objectives. This information was critical to our success; it led to us creating a spreadsheet with 25 tabs, and to planning out a host of different scenarios (e.g., “If this happens after Round 1, then we’ll do this for Round 2”) across 12 schools. Some people wing their business school applications; not us. This was one of the most stressful periods of my life.
But this time, it worked. My fiance and I both got into our dream schools in Round 1 -- and I know we couldn’t have done it without the help and guidance of others. Everyone applying to business school has their own unique challenges. Whether it’s coming from ‘non-target’ firms/industries, a desire to live in a certain geography, a ‘low’ GMAT or GRE, applying with a partner, or reapplying when you’ve already been rejected once, the process is extremely complex to navigate.
I often think back to what I did wrong in my first round of applications, and the biggest thing I’ve realized is that my answers felt inauthentic to me. I was still unsure about what I wanted, and my essays and responses reflected that. A year later, when I applied again, I knew so much more about myself, what I wanted from an MBA, and where I wanted to go afterward. I really think that extra time and self-reflection made the difference.
The beauty of most business schools is they want to see who you are and what you care about, and they make their decision based on that. If you do the work to really think about those things, you can put forward a successful application. That’s why I coach: to help candidates figure out what truly matters most to them, and how an MBA genuinely fits into their narrative. We all have our own unique circumstances; leaning into those and telling an authentic story is how you crack the nut of the MBA application process. I’m excited to help you with that!
Interested in working together on your MBA application? Click here for my Leland coaching profile.