Thursday, February 28, 2008

Preparing to Apply

If you are thinking of applying to schools for Fall 2009, there are definitely some things you can be doing right now. Presumably you have already started researching since you are here reading my blog, but I will assume you haven't done much more than that and start from the beginning.

Usual disclaimer: my opinions are based on my personal experience only!

  • GMAT. If you haven't taken it yet, take care of this first. You have time. I started studying in February last year and took the test in May. If I wasn't happy with my results I still would have had time to retake at least once before application season. If you think you need help studying, you also have plenty of time to take a class with Manhattan GMAT or Kaplan, etc. I didn't do this, but it seems like a great way to keep yourself motivated by having a structured way to go about relearning high school math and grammar (because honestly, who remembers this stuff?)
  • Research. After the GMAT, or in between study sessions, this is a good time to start researching. The Clearadmit blog is a good place to start. There you can find rankings to help you figure out the types of schools you are interested in. From there you can read some of the postings with news and facts about each school to start to get a feel for them. Each school has a personality, if you will, and it's important to understand it so that you later show these schools how you are a good fit. There are also links to blogs of applicants and students. These can be fun ways to read about other applicants and students and will help you wrap your brain around how the process works by "watching" others go through it. There are also a number of books out there that are good. Montauk's is a great one, and I also liked Your MBA Game Plan.
  • Reflect. This is a really important step in the process that I think many people overlook. I can't stress enough how important it is to have a solid understanding of yourself when you begin writing your essays. Schools say it over and over: they want the essays to help them get to know you. Well to be able to write those essays, you need to go through some honest self-reflection. It's best to do this well before you plan to apply so that you are not under pressure. How to do it? I'm sure it will be a different process for everyone, but I recommend asking the following questions: what is my story? (i.e. how did I get from high school to here?), what have I accomplished so far?, what motivates me at work?, in what aspects of my life have I made an impact, and how? what am I passionate about at work and outside of work? what are my goals for my future? The passion factor is really important. Schools really want to see this in your application because it shows them that you will also approach the MBA experience and your subsequent employment (and hopefully alumni involvement) with passion, and that your fellow classmates will be able to learn from you because you are able to share your passion. It is also very important to understand your goals. If you aren't sure about your short term & long term career goals yet, that is OK. You have time to explore, but you need to have something at least directional when you apply. Try to link your interests and passions to what you might want to do post-MBA. Don't be humble in this step. Top schools want to see that you dream big (within reason of course). The thing about attending a top MBA program is that career tracks that may be unrealistic for you now will not be once you graduate, so you might need to recalibrate how you've previously thought about your career. If you aren't sure, current students and alumni are a great resource, which brings me to my next topic.
  • Network. Start talking to people. People in your company that work in areas (finance, marketing, etc.) that you might want to work. Alumni at your company or within your professional network that went to an MBA school you are interested in (or any MBA school for that matter). Current students if you know any. Use any social or family networks you have access to also. Ask people to lunch or coffee and talk to them about career paths, advice for applying, industry trends, and who else they think you should talk to. You will be surprised how much this helps you increase your knowledge, and it will be invaluable once you sit down to write those essays. Especially if you are contemplating a career change, it's important to show that you've done some legwork and understand what you are aiming for. Schools don't want to get the impression that you picked a career out of a hat and said "yes, that might be fun!"
    For the sake of an example, here is what I did: Talked to my dad's friend who went to one of my target schools for undergrad. Turns out her nephew just got in to the MBA program and she helped him with his application (and yes, she was more than willing to help me with mine). Talked to someone in marketing at my company that I'd been introduced to once. Found out about types of jobs that MBAs get when they come in, and what schools my company recruits at. Joined an industry group for women. Met someone else from my company who met with me later to tell me more about marketing. In a company announcement email, saw that a grad from one of my target programs just got hired in marketing. Sent her an email to see if she'd had lunch with me. Got insight on the school and more marketing insight. On a visit to a school, got a name of the recruiting coordinator at my company. Invited her to lunch to talk about the school. From her, got the names of two others and set up coffee dates with them. Talked to a friend who just graduated from a target school. When I went for a campus visit, he set me up with some 2nd years that he knew that were more than willing to discuss the school with me. Talked to my husband's uncle who hires MBAs, found out a cousin works at one of the schools. Talked to her and she gave me the number of her boss who is a prominent professor. Talked to him and it turns out he used to be a faculty admissions advisor (back when that group existed) and had some advice for applying. My father-in-law found out his golf buddy when to one of my schools and I reached out to him. He talked with me too and offered to send an alumni letter of support.
    Now obviously, everyone's network is going to be different. But you can see that it really only takes a little legwork and the network begins to grow.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wharton Health Care Business Conference

I attended Wharton's Health Care Business Conference last week. The Thursday night keynote was Jim Yong Kim and Michael Porter from Harvard. Yes, THE Michael Porter! It was a really interesting talk on how applying business skills of strategy and execution can help corral the hugely fragmented landscape of world health initiatives in developing countries. Fascinating. Michael Porter's enthusiasm on the topic kinda reminded me of Quentin Tarantino when he talks about movies. The event made me think I may want to consider an international trip that has something to do with world health while I'm in school.

The next day had many more speakers and panels, including the Commissioner of the FDA. The overall theme was Innovation, and many of the speakers talked about how health care needs to evolve to be more personalized or segmented based on DNA, not just demographics. Depending on the speaker of the moment, the industry will be going through a revolution, an evolution, or a revolution of evolution (huh?). A highlight for me was the Focus on Innovation session. Health care related start-ups gave brief presentations on their companies' products and research and why they need and deserve venture capital investment or partnerships. I realized that a lot of the companies operate in the Philly area. In fact, 2 are located in my town! I had not really thought about focusing on the start-up route for my MBA recruiting, but now I think I may at least leave it open to exploration. Surely it will be a vastly different experience than the big pharma world, but the added risk may be worth it with the added excitement.

Finally, I have noticed a few other bloggers mentioning the swag they have received from their schools. I admit I have been a little disappointed to have received nothing swaggy from Wharton, just glossy brochures and informative packets*. That's no fun! But the Health Care Conference came through. We got a nice gym bag full of goodies, including a nice coffee mug (which my husband stole right away), various pens, and a strange t-shirt with a skeleton on it. Very fun :)

*Yeah, they did provide several lovely meals, cocktail parties, a bowling party, etc. I guess if I had to choose, a good party beats branded swag. ;)

Thursday, February 21, 2008

America in Six Words

I'm a big fan of the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times website. It's definitely worth the time of anyone interested in business and economics. The book is also a must-read.

This week they have a contest for the best 6 word motto for the USA. I think they are all awesome, but I'm partial to #5 myself. We Americans are certainly a sarcastic bunch!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Planning Ahead Becoming Murky

I remember when I was a consultant, if friends wanted to plan a trip or get-together and it was beyond the roll-off date of my project, I had to completely bow out of the process since I had no idea where I was going to be physically and if the workload of the project would allow for a social life.
It feels a little like that now. I went to the dentist this morning (one of my least favorite activities to begin with, plus I found out I have two cavities ... but I digress). I'm due for my next cleaning in August. Usually I just schedule the next appointment on my way out the door, but this time I was stumped. In August I'll be smack in the middle of pre-term. I have no idea if I'm going to be busy non-stop during the normal hours of most businesses and health care professionals, or if perhaps I'll have an odd afternoon free. Plus, I'll be selling my car, so I have to figure out if I'll have enough time to take the train out there or if I'll need to do Philly Car Share. Maybe I should get a new dentist in the city to avoid the hassle? It's not really a big deal, but I guess my point is I haven't felt this kind of uncertainty about my availability in a long time. Thankfully it is for a good reason!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Wharton Winter Welcome Debrief

Last week was Wharton's Winter Welcome for R1 admits. It was a whirlwind, but really fun. I met a ton of really cool people, but didn't even sniff meeting everyone at the event. But I am certain that the class of 2010 is going to be really good based on the people I did meet.

Some random thoughts:
-Philly cooperated in true Philly fashion by providing a "wintery mix" storm the night before the event began. I personally had a horrible time getting home from work and ended up with a migraine for my efforts. I'm sure those flying in from all over the world had a lovely time trying to get in to our lovely airport.
-Thomas Caleel has some great ties.
-Follies is really funny and provided a great student view of the MBA life. Even though we didn't get half the jokes, all the admits were quite entertained. It also showed how talented Wharton people are and how much fun the next 2 years are going to be.
-The Financial Aid presentation generated the most questions of any session the whole event. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one confused.
-The curriculum seems designed to make you want to kill your learning team in the first quarter, only to decide you love them by the third quarter. I swear every first year had this same story.
-A club that demands 2 hours of your time a week is not considered a big commitment. I guess that makes sense in the scheme of things, but then you realize that most people are in 5+ clubs and the hours really start to add up. I'm going to have to be careful to prioritize and balance my commitments between academic-related activities and fun ones like Dance Studio (hmmm, hip hop or salsa?)
-Someone at the first Wharton event I attended told me that Wharton is extremely organized and well run in almost everything they do. This was certainly evident during the Winter Welcome. It seemed like they thought of everything. They even put a list of attendees and contact info in our folders so we wouldn't have to scramble to collect it as we met people. My only complaint was the bar for the last party was a bit too loud and crowded and wasn't very good for socializing with people you'd just met.
-I am horrible at remembering names.
-Warning to April Welcome Weekend attendees: the schedule does not allow for a nice 8 hours of sleep each night. Plan to be exhausted by the end.
-Preterm actually sounds really fun, despite the existence of Math Camp.
-Commuting into the city was not fun. I felt like Cinderella having to be home by 12 (because of my train schedules). And my morning commute required getting up a lot earlier than if I lived downtown. We went out on Saturday to look at some Center City apartments. It was really fun and we're both really excited to live in the city. Though it's gonna be tough to downsize from an 1800 sq. ft. townhouse to a 800 sq. ft. apartment.

One last note. I have wondered how anonymous I am going to be once I start to meet people. As it turned out, at least 2 people figured out who I was right away (and there might be more that didn't tell me). Clearly, I give enough personal info on here that anyone I meet and tell my "story" that also reads this blog is going to make the connection. And I'm ok with it. I don't say anything on here that I wouldn't say to my friends. So I'm just going to assume that if you have met me, that you now know that this is me! I'm not going to totally reveal my identity quite yet though ...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Good Point, Anonymous

Thank you anonymous commenter:

The 1st yr I spoke to said I shouldn't waive too many courses... otherwise
I wouldn't have any friends. probably cause the other 1Ys will be taking
core classes.

You are playing to one of my biggest irrational fears about business school - that I won't have any friends! I will add this to my list of arguments against waiving courses. And yes, you can sit next to me in statistics. But since we are both anonymous, this may be difficult logistically.

[Edited 2/11 to include key omitted word: "fears"]

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I Am Jumping the Gun

I realize this. I am already thinking about course waivers. For the record, I haven't worked on my financial aid paperwork OR the essay. But someone posted last year's waiver guide on eTalk (the S2S for admitted students) and I have been obsessing over it.

A few Wharton alumni gave me this advice: waive any core courses you can. However, the tone of the Waiver guide is much more cautionary. It seems to say: you better be darn sure before you try to waive these classes, or you will regret it! Yikes.

Here's an example. I took three semesters of probability and statistics in undergrad, which were taught from an engineering perspective. Surely I should be able to waive the business statistics course, right? First of all, forget about waiving by credentials. Seems like you have to have a statistics degree to do that. Ok, so the waiver exam. There is even a preterm course to prepare for this. Slam dunk! But wait. Waiver Guide says students who pass the exam usually have taken a course in regression in the past 2 or 3 years. Hmmmm, I took mine 7 or 8 years ago. Also, "the focus of their course work has been the interpretation and critique of statistical methods rather than the memorization of formulas and grind-it-out calculation." Well, to be honest I don't really remember what the focus of my course work was. For that matter I am not positive I remember what regression is. This could be bad then: "they are familiar with multiple regression in particular and some features of the analysis of variance." And finally, there is this warning: "the Statistics Department and the Wharton MBA Program Student Advisory Board strongly discourage using STAT608 as a “crash course” to pass the waiver exam. A solid grounding in statistics will be expected in the remainder of your courses at Wharton. Passing the exam without that solid background will only cause you academic difficulties later." Wow. The Statistics Department AND the Wharton MBA Program Student Advisory Board? Am I jeopardizing my entire MBA experience by waiving statistics? Or are they just trying to scare me. Hmmmmm .....

There are also three operations courses that I think could be targets given my undergrad degree, Industrial Engineering. They are Quality and Productivity, Decision Models and Uncertainty, and Supply Chain Management. I’m pretty sure that I’ve had most of the subject matter covered in one of my undergrad classes, but spread out among many classes. To qualify for a waiver by credentials, it seems that I’ll have to provide course descriptions, syllabi, assignments, and maybe even exams so that the powers that be can decide if the topics match. Luckily, I am such a dork that I actually kept that stuff. Finally, my horrible habit of hoarding everything that ever comes my way might actually pay off!

So here’s what I’m grappling with. There are many pros and cons I can think of for waiving one or more classes. Right now I’m not sure where I lean.
Arguments against waiving: If all I do is review the subjects enough to pass waiver exams, am I really going to remember the material? Maybe a good review will be helpful and will prevent problems later. The material might be presented in a completely different way for a business class vs. an engineering class. Shouldn’t I take every opportunity to ensure that I really learn the core subjects Wharton has decided are important? Aren’t they the experts? Besides, since I’ve had some or all of the material before, maybe these classes will be on the easy side for me, and I’ll have a chance to be one of the people who can contribute in class because it’s not a completely foreign subject (unlike, say, Finance).
Arguments against waiving: Who am I kidding? This is Wharton, of course it’s going to be hard, even if I know the material. And if it’s somehow not hard, it will still be a lot of work. And what is the point of spending my hard-earned money and forgoing two years of my working life to get my MBA? Not to be a refresher for material I’ve already learned. Shouldn’t I take every opportunity to free up space for additional electives that really interest me and are new material?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

First Matriculation Check Marked

My Kroll background check has been completed successfully. Phew! Not that I was worried or anything, I just wanted it to go smoothly so I wouldn't have to go through the hassle of tracking down any additional information. Plus, I think it's kinda like when you see a cop and you get nervous, even though you aren't doing anything wrong. Just glad to know they aren't digging into my background anymore!

Financial Aid

We went to our tax accountant on Friday to get an estimate on our 2007 taxes so that I can use it for financial aid paperwork. Even though I consider myself relatively good with numbers, I always come away from meetings with the accountant feeling glad that we pay someone to do this. I've used Turbotax and such before, but it feels like our taxes get more complicated each year, and our accountant just flat-out knows what she's doing.
Speaking of complicated, the financial aid process is confusing and a lot of work! US citizens have to do a federal form and a school form, plus Wharton asks for a 500 word essay:

Describe what you see as the value of fellowships/scholarships to students. [Fellowships and scholarships are valuable to students because they give them money. Money is good. ] Why should you receive one? [You mean getting in isn't enough of a feat? Ok then, I should get one because I'm awesome and I need money! My husband is ready to have us eating ramen noodles in a studio apartment with all this debt looming. Please give me some cash!!] What impact will it have on you and/or your Wharton experience? [Any amount that I can reduce my debt burden will afford me more opportunity to choose the job that I really want, not the job that will help me pay back my loans the fastest. Hmm, I think that was too honest - they want me to get a higher salary don't they? Ok, how about this: any amount that I can reduce my debt burden will afford me more opportunity to give back to the Wharton School of Business so that future MBA students will be able to enjoy the same or better opportunities as me. Beautiful!]

Seriously though, I thought I was done with essays! And this one is weird. I'm not really sure how to approach it other than stating the obvious (as above). If anyone has any advice, please comment.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Another "Recommendation"

Wow, that last post was really long! Here's a nice short and sweet one.

If any of you are waiting for R2 results and need a distraction, or you are waiting for 2009 application season to begin, I recommend Lost. If you haven't watched this show from the beginning, go get the Seasons 1, 2, and 3 DVDs. Then catch yourself up via ABC's website to season 4, which just started airing on Thursday. This show is AMAZING. You will not be disappointed. For added blow-your-mind goodness, check the web for the easter eggs that people find in each episodes. The writers are geniuses!

That is all :)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Choosing and Approaching Recommenders

Since I was applying to two schools, and both required two recommendations, I chose only two recommenders. I figured two recommendations for each wouldn't be too much of a burden!

Recommender A: The first obvious choice was my current boss. I've worked for him the whole time I've been at this company.

Pros: He got an MBA at a top ten school, so I knew he would understand the magnitude of what I was doing and be familiar with the importance of the recommendation to my application. He is also a good writer and is great about seeing the "big picture" in things. I wasn't too worried about whether he could translate my skills and performance into a recommendation for a top business school.

Cons: He is a bit of a procrastinator. Sure enough, he submitted Kellogg a few hours before the deadline (albeit before I did). Also, I don't do a whole lot of work directly for him: there are people under him that I do most of my work directly for, although I do meet with him weekly to go over things. So I was a little worried that he might not have enough in the way of specifics. Finally, I was worried about spilling the beans about my plans to go to school. But this worry dissolved in July before I started my application. I received a promotion (yay!) which meant that I would not be jeopardizing a chance to receive one after my plans were revealed. Also, when my boss told me about the promotion, he told me that management was discussing rotating me to another team to get some different experiences and exposure. This was also good news from the recommendation perspective, because it meant that my boss was likely going to "lose me" anyway soon.

Recommender B: For my second choice, I considered approaching another manager on my team that I've worked with extensively. But instead, I decided to approach a manager at my former consulting company.

Pros: I worked with him three separate times. We worked together really well and his reviews of my work were strong. We were also part of a team that was very social, so I can say that he knows me on a personal level probably more than anyone I've ever (or will ever) work for. I even went to his wedding! He is extremely articulate and I knew he could convey my strengths and weaknesses clearly and eloquently.

Cons: I hadn't worked for him in over 2 years, and we'd kept in touch but not extensively. Also, when I left the company, I was working for him at the time. I didn't think there were hard feelings, but I still worried there may have been. I also worried a bit about the fact that I was very friendly with him on a social level. Anyone who has worked in consulting has probably been on a project where everyone works hard and plays harder. Frankly, the man has seen me (and everyone else on that project team) drunk many times. Again, I didn't think it would, but I hoped this wouldn't cloud his ability to comment on my professional abilities. Finally, he had a new baby and both parents work, so I knew he was probably crazy busy.

I had read Your MBA Game Plan and liked the idea of putting together the "Game Plan" and sending it to the recommenders. I included details like: where I was applying, why, what I wanted to do with the MBA and why, and what I knew about each of the schools and what the adcoms look for in applicants. I felt this would help them say things like "Tinydancer plans to enter the pharmaceutical marketing field, and I believe she will be succesful because ..."

I decided to ask Recommender B first. I'm not sure why I didn't just call him in the first place, but I sent him a carefully worded email first, then waited. For two weeks ... nothing!! So of course I freaked out and convinced myself that he didn't want to do it and was blowing me off. My husband talked me down, and I called and left a message. He called back and said yes, he'd be happy to write me a recommendation, and sorry he hadn't seen the email (duh, I thought, he never read my emails when I worked for him either!). I sent him the details in an email and signed him up on both application sites so he could see the invitations. I also attached the old reviews he had written for me so he would have them handy, my game plan, my updated resume, and a sample recommendation and some recommendation tips from one of my books. Again ... for several weeks I heard nothing. I was worried, but I knew he was very busy. I called once and left a message to say I was just checking to see if he had any questions. About 3 or 4 weeks before the due date, I got notifications that he'd submitted. Phew. He also sent me (short) emails afterwards to confirm. The lack of communication concerned me a bit, but I knew that was probably just him and that it didn't mean anything about what he wrote.

I approached Recommender A a week or so after B. I was really nervous. It felt like the "I'm taking another job" conversation, but a little less bad since it was actually "I'm possibly leaving the company in a year and not for another job". I asked him to have lunch with me, and I'm sure he was ready for the "I'm taking another job" talk, so I think he was relieved when I told him what it was really about! He was really excited for me, really supportive, and best of all, told me he thought I had a great chance to get in. Now, if I were him I would have told me that even if I didn't think it, so I took that with a grain of salt! But I left the conversation feeling very comfortable with having asked him. As I said, he definitely procrastinated, but I wasn't afriad to remind him almost daily in the weeks before the apps were due and he didn't seem to mind. I sent him the same materials I send B, and he said it was really helpful and showed resourcefulness and commitment on my part (yay!)

So, for those of you that are mulling an application run in 2008, here is my advice on approaching the recommendations:

1) Consider how many of these your recommenders will have to write and how spread out the due dates are. I only applied to 2 schools and it seemed like plenty of work. Granted, the second is probably a lot easier since questions may be similar and they can cut and paste to a degree. But you may want to consider different recommenders for different schools so that you know they can devote the time required to write good ones. Or, potentially spread your applications between rounds so you can can spread things out for them. I did warn mine in the beginning that if I didn't get in to my top 2 choices, that I may apply to more schools in the 2nd round.

2) Put together something like the MBA Game Plan that your recommenders can reference to provide details related to your goals and what you like about each school. If you recommenders can say "Tinydancer will fit in well in Kellogg's team-oriented environment because ..." or "I am confident that Tinydancer will be a strong contributor to her Wharton learning team because ...", it will add a little something extra to your application and show that you have truly thought hard about your school choices and shared this information with your recommenders. Doing this also helps them understand your motivations for pursuing an MBA in the first place, which I think can make a big difference in the tone of their writing.

3) Choose recommenders that can really speak to specifics about your skills and abilities. Schools say that they don't want you to choose impressive names for your recommenders just to try to impress them. They say they can see right through this, and I believe them. If your recommender can only speak in generalities, you leave the adcom to draw no-so-good conclusions about your judgement, and perhaps determine that you didn't have anyone that could speak positively about you AND provide specific examples.

4) Luckily for me, my recommenders didn't ask me to write my recommendations. If yours do, I strongly suggest that you don't. Besides questions of ethics, the adcom is going to have a substantial writing sample for you in the form of your GMAT AWA and your essays. They are good at what they do and they will be able to tell if the same person wrote the recommendations. If your recommenders insist, I suggest that you compromise and write an outlined answer for each question with short phrases to suggest subject matter but leave the narrative to them. For example, for a question that asks how the applicant has shown leadership potential, write "ABC project and the way I pulled different groups together, Improvement of XYZ report for management, etc". If they still won't do it, get new recommenders. This is your application and only you will suffer the consequences if they can't devote the time to write a thoughtful document.

5) Give your recommenders plenty of time! 1 to 2 months should be plenty of time, but if you talk to them on the early side, be sure to check in every once in awhile to make sure it stays in the front of their minds. They are surely busy people and may forget when deadlines are, etc. A week or so before the deadlines, remind them again. Make yourself available in case they have questions.

6) Thank them appropriately. I sent B a gift basket ($50 value) and gave A a $50 gift card for a restaurant I know he likes. They will appreciate the gesture and they will remember it if you happen to decide to apply to more schools or need your boss's blessing to attend interviews or other MBA-related events.

7) Keep in touch. When you hear from schools, tell them! They will want to know and might be hurt if they aren't high on your list of people to inform, especially if the news is good. Afterall, they were probably instrumental in the results!