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by Mike Chen | July 18, 2007

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Application Timeline: Part I

Essays, GMAT, recommendations, campus visits, and interviews: these are just some of the components of the business school application process.

The process can be a daunting one indeed.  Having a well-organized strategy is important to maximize your chances of admission success.

For those of you targeting the top business schools, below I give a recommended timeline which should give you enough time to put forth your best application as well as have backup plans should you encounter major pitfalls.

GMAT

The first step in the business school application process is to sit for the GMAT.  In fact, even if you are not applying to business schools this year, or are on the fence about whether to go to business school, you should still sit for the GMAT.  Since most business schools accept scores from tests taken up to five years ago, you can complete the GMAT very early with the confidence that your results will be accepted down the line.

If you are applying to business schools this fall and have not completed the GMAT yet, you must sign up to sit for the examination as soon as possible.  With all of the steps involved in the application process, the last thing you need to worry about is taking a test very close to an application deadline.  You are then at the mercy of the ETS (Educational Testing Service) in hoping your score makes it in time to a school's admissions committee to be considered valid.

Furthermore, most applicants sit for the exam more than once in the hopes of scoring better during subsequent attempts.  The time taken between two exam sittings, which includes such tasks as re-registering and identifying and studying areas in which you are week, usually takes a minimum of four weeks.

Bottom line: I would recommend having your final GMAT sitting completed by the end of September.

Academic Records

Once you have completed the GMAT, or even while you are still preparing for the exam, you should start gathering the documents which you will need throughout the application process.  You can do the following even if you haven't decided to which schools to apply.

First, contact your undergraduate institution and order a handful of transcripts.  I would err on the side of getting too many (perhaps 6 or more for typical applicants) rather than too few since it is a hassle to have to secure transcripts again if you apply to many more schools.  Many business schools will require transcripts to be included in the supplementary materials you will send along with recommendations and other documents.

Note that most business schools require you to obtain an official transcript that is sealed with a watermark from the registrar of your undergraduate institution.  If you are an international student from a non-English-speaking institution, you should also include an English translation along with a description of the grading system if it is different from the U.S. four-point standard.

Also, by ordering your undergraduate transcripts early, you have the opportunity to review your record and identify any potential errors.  If something is missing from your record or is incorrect, report it immediately.

If you plan on referencing other academic accomplishments, such as other Masters or Doctorate degrees, you should plan on obtaining the appropriate documentation as well.  However, official transcripts are usually not required.  An unofficial transcript or even a photocopy of a diploma would likely suffice.

Recommendations

At this point, most schools have not released their applications for Fall 2008 entry, which typically includes the documents which your professional acquaintances will use to provide recommendations to you.

This should not stop you, however, from starting the process of reaching out to people who will potentially write you recommendations.  We will discuss the process of having people write you effective recommendations in an upcoming blog.  For now, suffice it to say that you need to at least be speaking to a handful of people to "feel" them out.  Most importantly, you want to know if any of these people can be trusted to complete their recommendations in time for you to submit your application.

Once you decide which schools to submit applications to and are able to download the appropriate forms, be sure to give the paperwork (or web links for online recommendations) as soon as possible to the people who will be recommending you.  As a courtesy, I believe you should give your recommenders a minimum of five weeks notice before you submit your application.

Choosing and Learning About Schools

Once you have gotten the basic houskeeping items out of the way, you should start choosing the schools with which to apply.  Some of you know which of them you wish to target.  Others of you will need to attend business school forums and/or visit the campuses themselves to gather the specific information you will need.

Ideally, you should go to such forums and see schools before deciding whether to apply.  This is the most efficient way to spend your time during the application season.  It will save you money on application fees for schools with which, after making the campus visits, you have no interest in attending.

Once you have picked a list of schools, you should also make a plan of the submission dates of your applications.  If you are applying to three or fewer schools, this should be easy.  On the other hand, if you are like the majority of applicants, splitting up your applications into various rounds (for which this is applicable) is beneficial.

While submitting your application early on in the admissions cycle can help your admissions chances, this is only true if you submit your very best application.  You are highly advised to wait until later on in the admissions cycle if you need the additional time to put forth your strongest effort.

Preview of Coming Attractions

Next time we will continue outlining the application timeline by discussing Essays and Interviews, as well as discussing what to do when your plan doesn't work well.  Later, I'll also give more details on application availability, particularly for international schools.

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