Application Advice for Younger Applicants
Orientation Cindy Tokumitsu / 02-10-2009
Accepting the offer from the small niche-consulting firm after college over the offer from the big name consulting company proved to be a smart decision. In spite of the lower starting salary, in less than two years you are managing projects and staff, bringing in new business, and influencing the direction of the company.
In addition, the experience has shaped and clarified your goal: joining a company in the fledgling bioinformatics industry and over time helping both the company and the industry dramatically improve healthcare delivery. It's time to move toward that goal, but you need a thorough business foundation and in-depth knowledge of finance and strategy, which neither your undergrad education nor your experience to date has provided. You need an MBA.
Should you apply now? You are a perfect candidate for a top program, except that you only have 1.5 years of work experience. That's less than the average at most MBA programs, even though there has been increasing openness among top programs in the past few years to applicants with one to three years of experience . The answer would have been yes even before this new openness, and is more emphatically so now - if you target the right schools and vividly demonstrate the following five factors in your application essays (primarily) and your resume. Ideally, your recommendations also will reflect these factors.
- Affirmative, practical reasons for applying at this specific time.
- Outstanding professional growth.
- Exceptional impact, leadership, achievement.
- Ability to contribute socially and academically to the program.
Factor 1: Affirmative, practical reasons for applying at this time.
The economy is shaky; prospects for growth in your company or industry have diminished - so you might as well pursue an MBA now, instead of waiting to gain more experience. No! Especially if you are younger than average, your reasons for applying now must be affirmative, not reactive -- based on positive plans and opportunities, not lack of plans or scant opportunities. Equally important, those reasons must be practical, i.e., based on concrete goals. In essence, your goals should "drive" your rationale for applying now.
A slowing learning curve on your current job isn't sufficient; it is essential to delineate in your goals essay how your goals make it necessary for you to obtain an MBA education now. It may be that the market or industry is just ripening and you want to get in early. It may be that your skill set is particularly valuable to a changing sector, industry, or niche. It may be that your company has placed you on a "fast track" and to effectively shoulder the management responsibilities of the next promotion, you need formal business training. Whatever the case, "work back" from your goals to zero in on the reason you must earn your MBA now.
Factor 2: Outstanding professional growth.
Your relatively short professional experience should reflect outstanding growth if you are to be a viable MBA candidate. While the same burden applies to more experienced applicants, you have an advantage in one sense: if you can show that you pack into one or two years the quality that most other applicants stretch out over four, it can make a very exciting impression - you want the adcom to conclude, "If she can do this in one year, imagine what she can do in four!" What constitutes quality experience? Hands-on participation in a broad range of functions. Managing staff. Promotions that skip levels. Leading projects for major clients. Assignments that are typically given to MBAs. When you discuss such growth in your essays, be sure to clarify its unusual nature (i.e., don't just say you were quickly promoted to marketing manager; add that no one before you has ever been given that position without first serving as marketing coordinator). Reinforce this factor in your resume, and ask your recommenders to do so as well.
If you are applying to MBA programs right out of college or as a recent graduate, look to your jobs, internships, and volunteer activities during college for outstanding professional-level growth or responsibility. For example, you were waiting tables and were asked to manage the restaurant in the owner's absence. Or you were interning at an investment firm over the summer and were asked to oversee and coordinate communications for a complex transaction.
Factor 3: Exceptional impact, leadership, achievement.
The more impact, leadership, and achievement any MBA applicant shows, the better. But if you are a younger applicant, exceptional impact, leadership, and achievement carry even more weight, in part because you are young: they seem more inherently a part of who you are. "Exceptional" means beyond what would typically be expected of an actively involved college student or a good-to-excellent performer on the job. If you are applying to top MBA programs especially, most applicants will be in the "good to excellent performer" category, and will have had more time in which to demonstrate this excellence. To be competitive, you must at least equal them in impact, leadership, and/or achievement, but in less time, whether on the job or in your college activities.
- Impact involves the effect you have on the organization. Reorganizing functions to facilitate effective cross-functional operations is worthwhile and smart - but what effect did it have on the organization? Did it save money? Eliminate redundancy? Improve customer satisfaction? That's impact. Initiating a drive to recruit volunteers to help out the local school district that has recently faced severe budget cuts is worthwhile and smart. Signing up enough volunteers for the school to keep its after-care program, sports, and arts activities - that's impact.
- Leadership is more than being named "leader." Say you lead the consulting team for an important client project. That is significant responsibility, but it is not necessarily leadership. Your team discovers the perfect solution to the company's problem, but the company resists and your senior management wants you to water down your recommendations to appease the client. You discuss the matter with your team; all are passionately convinced that the solution is ideal. You agree, and decide to stand by the team. You go back to your and the client's management and argue for the solution. You gain "champions" in your and the client's management, and work with them to persuade the rest. Eventually everyone comes around, and the client now praises your team's persistence. That's leadership. Or say you are elected president of the student government - that's responsibility. Then you start an initiative to improve the school's process for handling honor code violations, to the initial dismay but eventual appreciation of the administration and current honor code committee - that's leadership.
- Achievement relates to impact, but it stands alone in its importance. For example, your company has only had accounts up to $500K, but you bring in a new account worth over $1M. That alone is an achievement. You're captain of lightweight crew team and drive the team to division victory, the first time ever for the school. That's achievement.
When you discuss leadership, impact, and achievement in your essays, don't just cite them as flat facts. Describe them in context - tell a story. If you do, they will not only be impressive; they will be memorable.
Factor 4: Maturity.
Adcoms look for personal maturity in all applicants, but will look especially closely at younger applicants. Thus, it is important for younger applicants to demonstrate personal maturity in three areas: (1) skill in handling interpersonal communications and interactions; (2) sound judgment; (3) ability to self-reflect and self-critique. Your essays and your recommendations are the key vehicles for conveying your maturity in these areas. In each case, use examples and anecdotes to illustrate the point, and detail your actions and thought processes.
Factor 5: Ability to contribute to the program.
The above four factors show the adcom that pursuing an MBA is the right step for you to take now, and that you are capable of productively utilizing the resources of its program. In evaluating your application, the adcom also will weigh whether, and to what extent, you will benefit its program socially and academically. Admissions committees seek applicants who will be vital members of their communities, during the two-year period of study and subsequently as alumni. Thus, it is imperative to demonstrate that your relative youth does not shortchange your ability to contribute. You must show you can contribute at a level equal to that of "average age" applicants at least.
There are two key areas of potential contribution, and you should show how you will add value in both: (1) in the classroom and (2) in the social milieu. Your resume, essays, and recommendations all should convey this contribution, though the latter two will do so more specifically and in more depth. Your application strategy has another key element: the list of schools to which you apply. Seek schools that will meet your learning needs and that welcome relatively young applicants. Luckily for you, this list is growing - and now includes almost all top programs, though in varying degrees. If you have less than one year of experience, check the latest admissions profiles for the schools in question, as some still want at least a year.
As a younger than average MBA applicant, you can outpace your older competitors by creating a compelling portrayal of your ability to achieve, contribute, and learn so much in a short time. Indeed, you may make the older applicants appear rather sluggish!
About the author: Linda Abraham is founder and president of Accepted.com. Accepted.com’s experienced, international staff comprised of professional authors, seasoned admissions experts, and former admissions staff at top b-schools. They have helped applicants gain acceptance to over 100 MBA programs around the globe. Learn how they can mentor you through the grueling MBA admissions process.