I was dreading this post for a long time, but after I’ve been getting more and more messages from folks asking me about my business school application experience, I figured it might be worth sharing some of my thoughts.
To say it loud and up front: I am not an admission consultant and I am in no way representing the admission office at the Stanford GSB. The following thoughts are all my own – and with that, they are absolutely unproven and only reflect my own experience of applying to business school – I would even say they are baseless and they could even be misleading if you relied on them as your single data point. So have a read, but don’t take it as the single source of truth. Ok, phew, I hope that was clear.
Now let me get started by telling you that if you are looking to learn about the right/best way to apply to business school, there ain’t one. Each year ~8,000 people apply, and ~400 get in. Each of those 8,000 applications is different, and each of those 400 is different. There is no one way, and there is no right way of applying. So please detach yourself from the idea that you will get in if you follow steps A, B, C.
That said, I do have some thoughts, some advise to share with you. I will structure them by application criteria.
Gosh, I hated the GMAT. I carried those books with me for years (I think I accumulated 16 books in the end). I took the test three times, and each time I went through hell. Standardized tests are just not my thing. I always screwed up the quant section, while doing pretty ok on the verbal section. Only on my third attempt I finally got the score I was hoping for. It finally started with a 7, but it was still below the GSB average (737 for this year’s incoming class).
Now, my personal belief is that the GMAT is still a hygiene factor in your application. If you are in a +/- 30 window around the average, you are probably ticking a box and everything is fine. I think only if you are lower or higher than that, it might work for/against you. To be clear, I just made up the number "+/- 30" to illustrate an idea.
With my score, I felt I was ticking a box and I was then able to focus on the other parts of my application. Now, people often ask me how I finally improved my quant score, well, I found this one document that had the hardest quant questions. So I took that document and worked through as many as possible. At least I tried to cover as many topics as possible. Started with the easier ones and then went towards the harder ones until I felt confident with the concepts tested. Here the link to the document.
When to apply
My own application story is a funky one. I applied 2nd round for the Class of 2016 and didn’t get in. I was waitlisted – for like 3 months – and then dinged. Then I first decided to ditch business school all together, but made a last-minute decision to reapply for 1st round for the Class of 2017. I made that decision 19 days before the 1st round deadline and was favored by the fact that both essays and recommendation letters were reduced to two each that year (down from three). Both times I got an interview spot, but the second time around I wasn’t waitlisted but got in straight.
Now one might look at my story and simply conclude that 1st round application was all it took for me to get in, but that would be foolish. I continue to believe that you have better chances 1st and 2nd round over 3rd round, but I would refrain from stating any significant difference between 1st and 2nd round applications. If I had to boil it down to some specific advise, I would say: 1) the sooner you apply the better, but 2) only apply when you are certain that your application is at its best. Example: if that requires you to sit out 1st round to submit a much better application in the 2nd round, I would do that.
You might ask why not third round? There are many reasons for that. First it works against you a bit. You would get notified quite late (June I think it is?) and it gives you much less time to prepare (anything from leaving your current (work) environment to finding housing etc.). Second, by the time 3rd round candidates are processed, most spots in the class have been filled with applicants from the first two rounds.
The GSB essays are quite the essays if you ask me. Especially the core one “What matters most to you and why?”. It took me weeks and weeks to write that essay. I sometimes come across my first versions of that essay and I can only laugh at them – it was quite the process. And even if you don’t get in, writing that essay is so worth it.
First off, I want you to know that there isn’t anything that the admission office “wants to hear.” If you go into your essays with the attitude that you need to say things that they want to hear, you are off to a really bad start. Seriously, don’t think you need to show yourself as a humanitarian, or an entrepreneur, or a risk-taker or whatnot. Just don’t.
What they want to learn about is you. The real you. You and no one else but you.
I wrote my essay about how it matters most to me to live a live beyond my circumstances and to inspire others to do the same. I know others who wrote about their families, about running, about all sorts of things. There is no mold, there is no right way.
The best way is to write about yourself. About the things that make you, you. The things that keep you going. The “whys” behind your “whats” (your whats are listed on your resume, so don’t waste time recounting those) – but do talk about what drove you to make the decisions you made. Show your true you. Make yourself vulnerable, but stay authentic. Make sure it reflects your tone, and not the tone of anyone else.
The one thing I always like to say to folks who ask me about the essay is: it’s not about who you are – all applicants are great and awesome in their own ways – but it’s about can you show who you are. I repeat: can you show who you are? The real question is if you can actually show who you are. If you can open up and dissect yourself with that essay and help an outsider see the whys behind your whats.
By the way .. in your essays, don’t talk about your accomplishments. Don’t sing your own praises, let your recommenders sing your praises. It’s tempting to write about how much of a big deal you are, but it’s much more credible if others do that.
So my key advise for recommendation letters is to ask folks who can best talk about you. At its core, what matters more is how authentically and accurately they can talk about you, not what title or what school’s MBA is attached to their name. Sure, you might not wanna ask your tennis teacher who taught you for 10 years as a teenager, but someone who can talk about you because he/she got to know you really well – the more recent the better. I ended up choosing my then current manager and my former director with whom I had worked very closely and who were able to provide deep insight into how I think and perform.
If the person you are choosing is someone who asks you to write the letter for them to sign, you are most definitely choosing the wrong person. That said, I did send some notes to my recommenders, letting them know about the content of my essays and asking them to focus on certain periods of our interactions that I thought would be most beneficial for the admission officers to know about (and to ensure that there is no significant overlap between my recommenders with both of whom I worked simultaneously at some point). But again, this is very basic guidance and you wanna make sure you don’t do more than that.
The waitlist and my second application
People love to ask about what my waitlist experience was like and how my second application differed from my first one. Let me talk about the waitlist first.
The waitlist was a massive pain. In my mind, I was either expecting a yes or a no, not a maybe. But there it was, maybe. And then again 6 weeks later. And then one more time 6 weeks after that, until a few weeks after that I was “finally” rejected (yes, it felt a bit like a relief after all that waiting). I was not ready for that torturous waiting. So after each time they told me I am on the waitlist, I allowed myself to send them an email with all noteworthy changes and updates (I got a promotion, I started a new project, etc.). After two of such emails, I decided to step things up and got a professional camera studio to do a 90-secon clip. Two days after submitting that video, I got turned down. Now I don’t think it was related to the video, but what I hope it shows you that you can do your very very best, and it might still not be enough – keep that in mind.
And about my second application, the content of my essays didn’t really change that much. I was still the same person with the same things that mattered to me. But I did allow myself to go into even further depth. So I dug deeper and deeper (that was about a 10% change to my essay). Another 10% change to my essay came around the fact that I now had a story that many other applicants didn’t have: I had applied, was waitlisted, was gut-wrenchingly rejected and decided to reapply. I figured that’s something that only I can talk about and that would make me unique, so I spent another 10% of my essay talking about that experience.
I can’t tell you what got me in. Again, there wasn’t significant difference in my applications from one year to the other, but things just worked out. Right timing is a big component that is not in your hands.
I was fortunate to go through two interviews (for each year that I applied). My first interview was very standard. A senior VP of a tech company, met at his home, we talked for 60 minutes, he asked me 10 behavioral questions, we connected super well on a particular mutual friend, and I later learned he gave his thumbs up. But I still didn’t get in.
The second year around, I met the interviewer (it’s always an alum btw) at his office. He started off saying he will only have two main question for me. Both of them were behavioral, and we spent about 30 minutes on each of those. For example, one was about “a time when I clashed with my manager”… yet the amazing thing about that interview was that instead of giving me 5-6 minutes to provide a prepared answer, we spent 30 minutes on it. And we went deep, super deep. He would push me, question me, challenge me. And there is no prep in the world I could have made to give him rehearsed answers. He was really able to access “my thinking DNA.” It felt both vulnerable but also amazing that I was able to show so much of my real self to him – independent of whether he liked it or not. We then spent another 30 minutes talking about business school and life in general. Loved the guy.
Ah, one more thing about interviews, I got my interview invitations at the end of that 2-3 week window during which they send out invitations. Don’t read too much into it if you get your invite towards the end. I think they send those invitations on a rolling basis.
I don’t wanna get into the topic of whether “business school is the right thing for you” – I feel that merits a whole separate blog post (not that I would ever be able to answer that question for anyone out there, you need to know), but happy to share thoughts.
If you have any questions about what I wrote, please leave behind a comment and I will respond to it as soon as I can. I want to highlight once more that all the thoughts I shared here are reflecting my own and that I do not represent Stanford’s admission office in any way.