What can I do to improve my chances in the next few months?

One of the most common questions I get from readers is “What can I do to improve my chances in the next few months?”

In short, there are really four things:

(1) Get a “good enough” GMAT score. Your GMAT needs to be within range: for top 16 schools plus INSEAD and LBS, you realistically need at least a 700 or greater for it not to be a significant handicap. If it is below 680, your chances at a top 16 are going to be slim. However, trying to eke out 10-20 more points when you already have a competitive score (700+) is a waste of time. For top schools, a below average score is a liability, but a high GMAT is not an asset. Or to put it another way – the GMAT can only hurt your chances if it’s way below the school’s averages, and can never help you if it’s way above average. Focus on “good enough” and move on. However, if your score is below average, do whatever it takes to improve it, even if it means taking it multiple times (although after 3 attempts, chances are your score probably isn’t going to get better).

Again, the magic number for the top 16 + INSEAD/LBS these days is 700 or greater. Move down a tier to the top 30, and the magic number is around 670-680 (in other words, there isn’t much of a difference in GMAT scores amongst applicants to any decent schools these days).

I think the GMAT is a silly way to evaluate career professionals, but it’s a necessary evil. If you can’t get a competitive score for your target schools, then you will either have to reassess your list by including lower ranked schools, or go into it rolling the dice knowing that your GMAT score will be a handicap.

(2) Visit 2 or 3 schools. You don’t have to visit every single school you’re applying to. However, visiting a few of them can give you a real feel for what business school is all about in a way that no website, blog, magazine or second-hand information can do. There really is no substitute for sitting in on a class and seeing how b-school works with your own eyes and ears, talking to current students “off-the-record” about their experiences, and just spending a few hours to a full day just soaking in what it means to be a student at that particular school. This will not only help you with your essays and interviews, but will also give you a stronger reality check for where you feel you stand compared to asking strangers on the Internet for validation on “my chances”. It’s worth the time and money.

In a subtle but important way, when you’ve visited some schools, there’s a tone of authority and confidence when talking about what you want and why you want it in a specific way that just naturally comes through in your writing which others without that experience can fake.

And this is ESPECIALLY important for those applicants who aren’t surrounded by post-MBA colleagues in their workplace.

(3) If your undergrad GPA sucked, take a few extension classes. This is more important for those who went to US colleges. Those who studied outside the US are given way more leeway, and practically a free pass on their GPA, since it’s harder to benchmark and assess — so for those who studied abroad, it really comes down to your GMAT and to some extent the prestige of your undergrad institution in your country. Anyhow, if your GPA sucked and you went to a US college, take 1-2 extension classes, either locally at an accredited college/university or online from an accredited institution (doesn’t matter which one). If your GPA was below 3.1, definitely consider taking 1-2 classes. If it was below 3.3, only do it if you have time. As for what classes to take, so long as it’s a freshman level or 100-level quantitative course (calculus, stats, accounting, algebra, etc.), you’re fine. You won’t get extra brownie points for taking advanced classes.

One last thing. If you studied engineering, adcoms will be more forgiving because they know that engineering programs tend to grade on a much harsher curve. So long as your GPA is above 3.1, you probably don’t need to take extension classes so long as your GMAT is competitive.

(4) Do the best you can on your written application. In short, aside from getting a “good enough” GMAT and visiting a few schools (and taking extension classes if your GPA sucked), all you can do beyond that is wait for the applications to come out in June, and do your best on the essays and coaching your recommenders.

If you’re only a few months to a year away from applying, all you can do is to tell your story about what you’ve done to date. You don’t really have time to create “new” stories that are substantive enough. Avoid window dressing because you’re not fooling anyone. The reason why is that you can’t fundamentally change who you are in just a few months. Real change takes years, not months. If you “start” something, you will have nothing to say about it other than you “started” something, because any significant achievement usually takes time, and doesn’t happen overnight.

If you’ve known anyone who has achieved extraordinary things or are “outliers” – it was often years if not decades in the making. Becoming a nationally ranked athlete is a culmination of years or a full decade of work. Getting admitted to an Ivy League undergrad isn’t some casual thing, but a culmination of healthy school habits and focus since elementary school. No matter what it is (athletic, artistic, academic, career, political, etc), doing something you’re truly proud of usually is a culmination of a LOT of blood, sweat and tears (literally and figuratively), which isn’t something that you casually pick up on the fly. Don’t be arrogant to think you can just turn on “exceptional” when you want it, on demand.

A lot of business school websites now emphasize that they want to know who you really are, they want you to be authentic, sincere, and genuine. Its basically code word for “we have seen so much bullsh*t over the years from applicants. We are not easily fooled – we can detect bullsh*t faster than you can write it.”  Keep in mind the fact that while the adcoms are typically not that much older than you (mostly in their late 20s to late 30s), they are still older than you and likely have more life experience than you – they aren’t absent-minded seniors who will believe everything you say. Don’t bullsh*t them.

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