Saturday, June 17, 2006

So what do I do to get into an MBA school?

The title sounds so formulaic that it seems like I am almost giving in to the capitalistic clutter of dozens of books on "how to get into a top MBA". Am I really doing that? I don't know. Is there a formula? Obviously not.

These are some of the questions that I was faced with while applying to MBA and am asked regularly by prospective students. This post, as some others on similar topic, is a modified version of a mail that I sent to an applicant. The questions covered a wide gamut and I thought it might be worthwhile to make a post out of it.

How do I convince the school of my career interest?

There are mechanical/software engineers who claimed to want to do finance in Wall Street. There are lawyers who want to get into tech. marketing, nurses into consumer packaged goods. The list and possibilities are endless. However, there has to be something buried deep inside that motivates you to make such a shift.

I am sure the schools approach with an open mind about your interest and they have certainly seen more weird (and successful) cases than yours. Many people applying for MBA don't get in the first year that they applied. The whole process from first thinking about MBA, to preparing for GMAT, to giving it, to drafting essays, to polishing them, applying and then interviewing takes a couple of years for many. Two years is a long time to think about your motivation and your future career. If you think this sounds abstract, you have no idea how abstract life is for an MBA student. As students, we are actively encouraged to look at things from far above than we ever have. This is what a school is looking for - and let alone school - even your first employer is looking for answers to the same question. It's just the beginning.

Though there are no specific answers, I will try and get into some specifics. In thinking "Why MBA", think of your background, the things you did in college, school, and during work and see how they relate to your goals, whether changing career or not. For example, entrepreneurship requires successful interaction with varied kind of people in life - accountants, lawyers, govt. officials, engineers, managers, building contractor etc. It requires an inherent drive in you. Something that you did or put together completely on your own, regardless of how much support you got from people around you - you just went on. Marketing requires understanding business fundamentally at the level of consumers and their needs. It calls for exceptional teamwork skills. You are after all going to work with people from different divisions to get, launch and milk products out in the market. These are of course, just examples and neither exhaustive nor prescriptive.

So think of stories from your life that provide

a) a sound basis for your interest and
b) proofs or display of the underlying skill required for that interest, from your past life.

This seemingly simple process can actually be quite difficult to pull off. When you plan to make a change in your career, your transferable skills are the ones that will take you there. For example, it's hard for engineers (me being one) to detach and think at an abstract level to make a transition to investment banking or marketing. (Well, what an irony that engineers - the nuts and bolts guys - don't really understand the nuts and bolts of what makes them!) As you think of your transferable skills, there is really no alternative to introspection and almost brainwashing yourself into thinking that you are made for it.

Extra-curricular activities and community service
More than considering them as a "check" in a form, you should try and see what you got out of them. If you were involved in such activities, think why. What do you bring to the school from that experience? Can you tie your career aspirations and future to that? What aspects of your character and personality are attached to your involvement? To make that link (of these activities to your character), you will have to dig deep. You did it for some reason - only you probably don't realize it. Even if you did it only because your parents forced you into it, you would have definitely got something out of it. If you can start thinking on these lines, you can tie a nice story together that portrays your character.

Readiness for MBA
I guess every school has some form of assessing an applicant's 'readiness' for MBA. If they do not understand your short and long term goals, it means you fell short of articulating them. You are in the marketplace to sell an idea. From the time you think of getting an MBA, you need to keep narrowing your focus and building a good story. Talk to your friends and instigate them to challenge your thoughts. Let them poke holes in your idea of your future.

Here's a trick. I am a firm believer of healthy and intellectual discussions - sometimes even just for the heck of it! So when you are sitting at your favourite restaurant for dinner with your friends from office, challenge them about the work you are doing. Say things that are mildly provocative about the life you all are living. ("Doing R&D is hardly a life to live"! "I would rather sit at home than take one more sales call"! :-)) Well they might beat you up... but the more likely outcome is that they will retaliate verbally and you will have successfully instigated a discussion. They will challenge you, try to prove you wrong - all the while defending their own career choices. The more you discuss and argue, the more things will make sense to you. You will start getting more meaningful answers to your own questions and will be able to articulate them better. In the process, you will end up completely convincing yourself about your MBA. After a while, you won't be able to imagine not doing an MBA. That's readiness for MBA.

Lastly, I would say that perseverance is everything. There is no right age for MBA and people reach 'readiness' at different times. An engineer would find it harder to be MBA-ready than a financial analyst or salesperson. You will join school and might see someone much younger than you understands "business" better than you! That's the way it is.

The most important thing to realize is that there is no straight answer to anything in management - and indeed in MBA. Not GMAT, not interview, not essay, nothing can get you in by itself. It's all in the story! Try and make a story and talk to as many people as you can to expand, contract and mend your story as you go along. It's a very enriching experience.

And while you are at it, watch this interesting talk by Seth Godin to Google about marketing and making stories:

1 comment:

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