MBA Applicant Profile: The Soul Searcher

by Vault Education Editors | August 17, 2009

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It's going to be a long, hard road to that B-school acceptance letter this year. GMAC estimates that 265,000 people took the GMAT in the 2008-2009 testing year (which ended on June 30), and attendance at MBA fairs and school information sessions is up by up to 20 percent at some events, both giving credence to the conventional wisdom that business school applications rise in a recession.

To help prospective students in this competitive application season, we've created a new profile series of your fellow applicants. By reading what other applicants have done, what worked and what didn't work, you'll be able to better navigate your own application process. Over the next few months, we'll interview people from all different backgrounds and work experience, with different career goals and aspirations, all of whom share your dreams of cohorts, case studies and Lunch 'n' Learns.

It may be early in the admissions process (first round deadlines are in October), but many prospective students have already started gathering recommendation letters, attending MBA fairs and writing essays. It's OK if you haven't done much more than visit a few websites, but if you're planning to apply for fall 2010, you'd better at least have a GMAT test date coming up soon. Without further ado, the very first profile in Vault's new MBA applicant series.

Last week, we spoke with J (we're going to use Men in Black-style initials to protect our participants' anonymity), a nontraditional applicant who is going to use an MBA for a career move out of the nonprofit industry. It's no surprise that applying to business school from a nontraditional background (i.e., not finance or consulting) is an uphill battle, but J is on top of it, keeping a journal and staying on top of current research and news.

Vault: What do you do?

J: I work as a programs manager at a hybrid professional organization/cultural institution. I manage programs, volunteer activities and education for architects in NYC. The industry is either architecture or nonprofit, depending.

Vault: How long have you been in the workforce?

J: Three and a half years.

Vault: Why have you decided to apply to business school?

J: I work in a small organization that has vastly expanded and changed its mission in the last five years, and where ideas and goals outpace current staffing and funding capacity. As a result, I've developed an interest in organizational management, change management, and cultural institutions' unique challenges at marketing and branding. Because I don't see a clear path forward within my organization (one that would allow me to learn what I want to know about these subjects), I've decided that business school will equip me with the training and opportunities I need to get into a new field. Ultimately, I'd like to work in strategic consulting for cultural institutions, or culturally and socially focused businesses or corporate divisions.

Vault: How has the economy affected your decision to apply to business school?

J: The economy has decreased options, and as I've found there is no real upward trajectory in my current job, the difficulty of getting another one (especially in a new field) prompted me to consider school perhaps a year or two sooner than I planned.

Vault: How do you plan to use the MBA in your future career?

J: I want to use my MBA to gain a solid foundation in business, since my academic and work background has not provided this so far. I hope to use the MBA to get a foot in the door of the consulting world, which I plan to leverage with my background and interests so I can bring much-needed skills and expertise to cultural organizations.

Vault: We understand that you're still in the early stages of applying to business school, but what have you done thus far in the admissions process

J: I've been doing school research for a few months now. I kicked things off by accompanying another prospective student (and friend) on a day visit to the Yale SOM, where I also met with a former coworker who was a student there at the time. Since then I have spent many Saturdays in the library on school research. I have started reading admissions blogs, keeping a career journal, and planning essays, visits, and recommendation requests. I've attended one MBA fair--a Kaplan event this summer.

Vault: How did you prepare for the GMAT?

J: I took a Kaplan course, GMAT Classroom, which is the basic one. It helped tremendously. When I decided to take the test, I was still unsure about B-school, so I knew I needed the structure of the course, at least in the beginning.

Vault: What do you think is the most difficult part about applying to business school?

J: The soul searching. Most people never have to engage very directly in thinking not just about what they want to do, but how and why they want to get there. The fact that I do not have a business background makes me feel even more pressure to have enough clarity of purpose that I can express my goals clearly and convincingly. This is hard to do even to myself, so the idea of building a winning application around it is daunting! But this has also been the most rewarding part of the process.

Vault: What business schools are you considering?

J: Yale, University of Chicago, Cornell, Boston University, Emory, Claremont (Drucker), Duke, Michigan, Stanford.

Vault: What are the factors influencing your decision for where to apply?

J: Prestige is probably the single most important factor, simply because of the upfront cost and debt burden of business school. For me, prestige really means the value of the school's network--its career resources and the reach and dedication of the alumni. Location comes in at this point--not so much where the school is located, but what markets the school is oriented towards. For instance, I've decided not to go to school in New York City, but I want to go to a school with a national reputation so that I can easily come back to New York (or to another major city if I want a change).

I also want to be in a program that has a less traditional curriculum, since they tend to attract more diverse backgrounds. I want to be around people who have work experience that is nontraditional like mine and who want to go into work besides finance or banking.

Vault: Are you using or plan to use an admissions consultant?

J: No.

Vault: Please include any other information you'd like to include.

J: I think that applicants who are "nontraditional" are a huge group that feels especially lost and confused about business school. Though B-schools are starting to attract more of a diverse applicant pool, the process is still very much designed for traditional applicants. Everything from costs, to the intended audiences for fairs and written material. I'm not sure how best to address this, but it's something to remember!

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