Preparing for Global B-Schools

Welcome to this podcast vCoach Academy. Today we be having a discussion on MBA applications.

Preparing applications to global B-schools requires a deep understanding of the process and requirements of every business school. The process becomes easier with the right guidance and mentorship by experts who've been through the process or have guided successful applicants over the year. Today we have with us renowned Debbie applications expert and internationally acclaimed admissions consultant, Ms. Barbara Coward to share her insights and learnings on how to build a strong MBA application.

Barbara has over 20 years of experience working in this domain and so many students clear MBAs in leading global business schools like Stanford quarter in London Business School NCR Chicago Booth and many more. Her experience and guidance have helped many to realize their dreams and today she's going to share her key learnings with us.

So thanks a lot, Barbara, for joining us in this podcast. We are pleased to have this interaction with you. How is life in the US right now considering the impact of COVID-19 over there.

Barbara: Well, thank you for having me. First of all, it's, it's a pleasure to be here. You know, it's difficult, difficult I think around the world, with a pandemic and the implications. So, you know, over here, it's, you know, the West is a big country and some regions are having a tougher time than others. You may have heard, New York. Previously in the very early stages, having a real tough time and now you know I see that the flare ups and more in Texas and the southwest.

So everyone's keeping their eye on that, but I actually had two college move ins last week for two kids. And I, you know, my own experience of going to college and, you know, moving in and into a dorm and all that. And I have to say it's a very, very different experience in the COVID area, understandably, they're taking a lot of precautions. And rules in terms of being quarantine for for a while. So anyway, it's a new world that we're in right now.

No, that's definitely true. So, in fact on the same note, I’ll just start off by trying to understand the, the impact of covert on B-School applications, particularly so in this period. A lot of people have even lost their jobs over the last six to eight months. And we often hear from an admissions officers that the applicant pool for be schools just keeps getting more and more competitive each year. But especially in this year we've seen students during their MBA admits due to the covert pandemic. What are your thoughts on this particularly?

Barbara: Yeah, so, um, you know, I think. First of all, I can see why there is a perception and worried, to be honest, that, you know, hey, this might be a really challenging year with people which you feel so bad about losing their jobs and applying to business school and making it more and more competitive. I will say that just from my knowledge of, again, having worked in business schools and knowing the people who do work in the admissions offices, you know, there they really, really want to recruit a class of dynamic people and really you know not, you know, it's the term gatekeepers used quite a bit, which is a sentiment of being kind of in your out or whatever. And really, that's not their personality. I mean, obviously, they have a limited number of seats so you can't accept everyone into the program. But nonetheless, they have some flexibility in terms of being accommodating and, you know, HBS did that in terms of allowing deferrals for a year or two years, again this year, really difficult and they only allow them to differ. You know, a year versus two, I've heard examples of some schools who are maybe being a little more flexible and open up some spaces. I just read the other day that Rice Jones Business School just opened up a third cohort, if I have that right. So, you know, I think it could be challenging, but I feel take comfort in knowing that the schools are doing what they can to adjust to the circumstances. I know they feel, you know, really bad about the difficulty in the visa uncertainty and the challenges there and, you know, have taken action terms of, you know, putting letters across to the government and, you know, requesting some flexibility in terms of students who are taking online classes, for example, versus on campus classes and whether they can stay or not stay in the country. So I think the impression I would like to leave is that schools are very much advocates for current students and for prospective students.

Barbara: And so, given the challenges and tough circumstances right now. Whatever is within their power to do, I’m certainly confident that they will be will be doing that, whether you know if they can't expand the classroom and they, you know, they can't. But if they have an opportunity to, they will be looking into that and research what to do right.

And as you said business schools are doing whatever they can to really have the students or in this period, so if reasons have been delayed they're doing whatever they can to ensure that students can get a good experience, either by offering deferred admissions or having online classes at the moment. So, due to the stricter rules for visas that have come out, especially in the US, do you think this could impact admissions in the future as well in terms of the demand from students internationally?

Barbara: I think it will. I don't think it's, you know, kind of all or nothing, because I think there are some individuals who, you know, based on individual needs and wants, where you know if you want that brand, you know if you want HBS or Stanford on your resume, there's no substitute for elsewhere in the world, even though you know this really great schools, for example, in Europe and China. But there's only one HBS and there's only one Stanford. So, you know, some people who will say hey you know I will, there's some uncertainty involved, but to me the opportunity is too big to pass down, to not pursue it, you know, who knows how it will turn out. But I will do it. But on the other hand, I've spoken to people who have said, “You know what, I'm not applying to any business schools in the US” and then apply to Europe because they just don't want to deal with the hassle. So you know, it’s a consuming and intensive process to begin with and then when you add any complications to that. It just, you know, it can make the difference between somebody saying, yeah, it's worth doing this or not worth doing it.

Right. And so business schools have shifted for students who are currently studying they've shifted classes to the online mode of instruction. But we've seen discussions around the value of online MBAs, in general, and with the M7s, or in fact other business schools as well, shifting to online classes, do you think just reduces the value of these MBA programs in any way compared to the online MBA programs?

Barbara: Yeah, so, um, yeah, it's going to be different, you know, that's, that's just a matter. It's nothing like being in a classroom and that kind of impromptu conversation that you have with a classmate before class begins and the energy and bumping into somebody on campus. I mean that you just can't duplicate them the virtual world but and I take assurance that these are you know these are business goals.

Barbara: And their objective and their mission is to teach business and leadership. And so, you know, they walk the talk themselves and so you know if it you know if they do have to go online, they will do whatever they can't make it as and sometimes the students take it on their own initiatives in terms of clubs to make it the best experience possible. So, like I said, even if you're going to be taken. I just saw story the other day about Stanford, you know, perhaps going remote for the first semester. It's still Stanford, you know, even if you you're not going to have that complete experience, you're going to still be in a classroom virtually with a Stanford professor and with other people who have been vetted and we're real, you know, high achievers and really interesting people to have in the classroom. I think it becomes a choice of - are you okay with that, are you willing to make that accommodation to have that experience, or do you want to take the risk and say, you know what I really want the on campus, the whole thing. And you know what, I think I'll wait for another year and different and I'll promise if you wait another year, as we've learned this year. You just never know what's on the, you know, around the corner. Nobody would have predicted that this would have been happening in March and you know all the classrooms will be closing and moving online and all of that. So, you just don't know. And so, I always say it goes back to personal preference and personal needs. You know what, what's your objective. What are you trying to get out of it. And what's your tolerance for, you know, having a good enough experience, you know, versus the perfect experience. And again, there's some trade-offs, too, because I have heard and learned that classes are online. But on the flip side, you know, school Deans have been able to get some pretty interesting guest speakers who normally wouldn't try all the way out to Ithaca, New York or Hanover, New Hampshire, for example. Because it's easy to log on online. So, in some ways experience can be actually enhanced as a result of that, so right.

So that's like a silver lining in the cloud.

Barbara: Right. Yes.

So, I just want to move on to talking about the process itself of applying to MBAs and when we talk about general MBA applications in your experience, are there any typical profiles that you see, making it to the M7 year after year from different regions of the world.

Barbara: Yeah, I mean I think it goes back to, if you think about what's the objective of the admission officer and the admissions office. And that's to have a very diverse class of, you know, diverse nationalities diverse work experiences. You know, I kind of informally say that the job of admissions director is a portfolio manager – you know they portfolio students and you know you don't want to have to me too many stocks in this one, you know, all in energy and not in consumer goods, etc. And so, they're trying to do that. So, it's tough. If you're from an area of the world or an industry that's over represented. That can be more challenging. And then you have to, you know, basically show, what else do you have, how would you, you know, contribute to the program by adding something additional to it either, whether it's through an extracurricular activity or a life experience. Something to that extent, but, you know, schools, again, a very welcoming for international students, despite all the uncertainty that still around. That way, but I would say the traditional, you know, in all honesty, if you're a male engineer from India, it's a little not easy. I always recommend applying an earlier round. Because of that, but you know, then I always stay in touch in terms of what's happening in the industry and I am seeing all these notifications on LinkedIn right now of current MBA students, new graduates getting jobs and there you know quite a number of them from

Barbara: From that background. And so if you look at that, it's you know, it's like okay, it's possible you know it, it definitely happens, but it's just you really have to make a strong case, you know, I always again look at it from the perspective of the admission.

Barbara: Having you know this coveted classroom have only a certain number of seats and which, you know, if six people, for example, that are applying to the same sea at Stanford, who is that one person who deserves it? They're almost like risk managers to it's like which person is going to make the best use of the seat, in terms of, you know, society, in terms of their career in terms of what the between for their alma mater and, you know, in terms of achievements in life. And it's a really tough decision when you have, you know, so many different options and so many great people who could, you know, basically all do the work. You know, but who actually you know stands out. And so, you know, I always recommend to think about it, the value proposition of what you would be bringing into the program, how would others. Learn from your experience. And then, you know, again, it doesn't have to be direct. I mean, you might be working the aviation industry, but you know what you're facing or an issue at work could be the same thing that the, you know, tech industry is facing, for example. So I always think about that. It's not just about you and we'll get to this, I think, you know, maybe a little bit more but it's what you bring to the program and the value

Right and the part you mentioned about how admissions officers look at applications. I think that's a very interesting tip for students to think about. And so, applicants often struggle to, you know, build their story while writing their essays. And some applicants are also often quite uncertain when it comes to choosing the recommender. What according to use the secret sauce, if any, for choosing the right recommender or writing the right essay?

Barbara: Okay, so I'm going to go back to you're probably going to say I sound like a broken record, but that's my generation. So, for a metaphor, probably to come up with something else. But, you know, again, put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officer who has a job to do, you know, has to be able to class.

Barbara: And is trying to make decisions with limited information. Now for the applicant. It doesn't feel like it's limited information when you're writing all these essays and you're taking the G matter Jerry and you know, asking for recommendations, all that. But nonetheless, you know, you're deciding whether the seat should go to this person, or at least bring them in her/him in for an interview. And so you know that you can give an impression about somebody from looking at their resume, you know, in terms of like, you know, the transcript. You know, like, hey, this person, you know, can, can do the work. As quantitative skills, but you don't know anything else about the individual, it's really hard to form an impression about somebody and what their values are and what their characters. Our characters bow and what matters to them and what they're passionate about, without having additional information. And really, that's where the letters of recommendation and the essays come in, you know what, what can be said that will help the reader understand more about who you are and what makes you tick. And again, it's interesting to have your, you know, the perspective from yourself. It's like performance reviews, you kind of write your own assessment and then your boss or supervisor, does the same thing. I mean it's almost like the letter recommendation is a performance review in a way because if there's some consistency, there's some overlap. If you know the essay is talking about, you know, like, oh, one of the things I've been struggling with my whole life is overcoming shyness and then the, you know, letter recommendation comes in and says, oh, this person really needs to work on like not talking so much a meeting. Then it's like something not something is not consistent here. So, you know, really, it is what can they say that's beyond the platitudes because everyone says the same thing, you know, in a recommendation, oh, this person has great work ethic and this person had some great way of solving this problem and all that. And it's like, that's nice but everyone says that give me an example. And I would say, you know, along those lines to the essay as well. Specific examples and stories that support the point that is trying to be made that can certainly go a long way.

Right. And so letter of recommendations or essays are just two components out of a number of components that applications have to fulfil to get into these business schools and so do you think that there are particular elements that are more important in your application than the others, and if so, do you expect a change in these preferences of admissions officers in business schools because of the impact of code.

Barbara: Yeah. So again, it's all about context, you know, if you had asked me this question, a year ago I would have said, you know, they're all equally important, and to some extent, you know, that's what school say it's a holistic process. They're all important. However, given what seemingly incredible shake up we had in the world. And what's been going on. You need leaders we need really strong leaders who are going to tackle some of the biggest and hairiest tortillas problems of our time. And you know, you can't get a sense of that just from someone's transcript of their GMAT score. So, I would say that. And again, this is, this is, you know, this is one perspective, you know. So take that with a grain of salt. But I would say that the essays and the recommendations and the interview, of course, will probably take, you know, even higher precedents than it did before. Now that's not to say that you know you can apply to you know top school with a lower G man. And it doesn't matter that's still going to matter at all, but we’re in a different world. Now this is not hey I want to advance my career; I want to pivot to a new industry. It is more like these are all the challenges and the problems right now. How are you going to make an impact? And I think getting that across and, you know, again, it's not, you know, this is business school not medicine, medical school. It's not like, hey, I'm going to find the vaccine for coven. I mean that's probably not going to be somebody who's applying to business school, but whatever area it's in, you know, even if it's like the retail industry in the mom and pop shops that are having a tough time because you know, Amazon is, you know, doing so well and you know people are buying online versus going to the corner store or a local restaurant or whatever it is, you know, how are you, improving society when society is being challenged the most ever has been in a very, very long time.

Right and so in my understanding, when you talk about leadership. I guess that's best represented through your essays and your recommendations, particularly. And on the same note, do you think the value of something like the GMAT or the GR schools that you submit to business schools, are they are we reducing in terms of importance or do you think they have reduced in terms of importance as well?

I think it depends, because I know that I've seen that with some parts of the world and the test centres are not as, you know, it’s not easy to do that. I know you can take it online, so I think I'm going to say it's easier, but I would think there's probably a little bit more accommodation. You know, I would probably say that you could get a score that isn't what you would hope for, and probably being a stronger position than you would be before all this happened. Now, that doesn't mean that it's a shoo in or you'll get in. But I think there's some there's a little bit more latitude than there has been in the past.

Right. And that makes sense. And so, you know, we've talked talked about these different components of the application and what is it really that business schools will be looking at in the future. Do you have opinions on what really separates a great application from a good one? Andd does this really vary in different B-Schools?

Barbara: Yeah, you know, just across the board. I think one is that it's all about the individual, you know, this is what I want to get out of it. You know, I think of Adam Grant, who teaches at Wharton, and who, you know, has a book ‘Givers and Takers.’ If it's all about giving me taking, you know, I'm going to do the MBA, so I can do this so I can do that. Even when I evaluated essays at Johns Hopkins, I would actually note (it's not like I wouldn’t now), but if I saw a lot of I statements in there, it made me wonder if the person was a team player, because it was all about them. And of course you're writing yourself to business school, so of course going to have to say, identify that. But when there's so much of that. It just kind of raises an eyebrow. So, you know, again, I would say, what do you, what would you, what's the value bring what would you contribute. How would you enhance the learning of others in the program? Again, it's not unlimited seats. It's not a huge stadium. There's a limited number. And so, every person who takes a seat up in the in those classrooms has to be somebody who's going to be valuable to you know to other students can learn from that person's you know unique experiences. So, I think that is really important to get across, as you're writing it is just not like, hey, this is, this is why I'm doing this. This is a transaction. I want to get my MBA. I want to, you know, switch from, you know, this industry to go into, you know, consulting. It's more of a sense of, okay, why you like convinced me, I always wanted to say, but I'm doing it. I say out loud convince me why, you know why you should be classroom. And I think that's really, really important and core schools are, you know, a little different. There are some that are, you know, they're all academically focused. Obviously because they're credited, and you know some of the top ranked ones, you know, very challenging.

Barbara: But there are some that have a little bit of a different you know culture you know somewhere. Again, a little bit more of, you know, like Booth, you know, I think as being very quantitative, you know, rigorous, you definitely want to show your aptitude for data you're interested in that, and that might not be the same if you're applying to, you know, another school, for example, so I feel bad in some ways for prospective students because, you know, our time is limited, and we're all busy. And schools understandably will say, we really want you to get to know us to sign up for this information session or in a non-COVID world come and visit us or to talk to alumni. I mean, that is a lot of work. It really is to, you know, every conference and everything, all that. But I do think that the more that you do that, the more you know I'm a big advocate of like following their social media channels, reading their blogs, you know, reading the faculty research that that they'll publish, you know - does it appeal to you, is it easy for you to understand? There's some that you know have a different perspective on schools. I've seen have had, like, a more just a fillip more philosophical tone, some are a little bit more, kind of, you know, down to Earth, if you will, and terms of being extremely practical with the research was described and so see which one speaks to you the most but you know, that's the, that's the other thing I think you will not be served. If you just say, oh, I want to apply to the top schools because the great schools and I'm just going to apply to them. I mean, you really like if you want to go and work in the agricultural sector, you should take time. Just try to find lumps or students working in that sector or, you know, faculty which have done research in that topic as well.

Barbara: So, the internet is a curse and a blessing. At the same time, because all the information is at your fingertips. But that means you're never done because you can keep researching and researching and researching. But you know, I always where can you get the you know the high-level information that can give you an impression, go to their YouTube channel, see some interviews with the admissions team or students or online webinars. And just, again, it's not something where it's just you do it one day and you check a box and that's done, you know, this is a long process. And so just keep your, you know, antenna up and see what's going on. And, you know, there might be something that just clicks. It says, wow, I never thought about this before but you know if that's, that sounds pretty cool and then you, you know, dive in a little deeper.

Very so you're supposed to really dig into the school to really want to get into and understand what makes them different to what they're looking for specifically

Barbara: Yeah, it's not easy because it's really hard, especially the websites you know I have. I've yet to see a website that says our culture is really competitive, you know, everyone is the collaborative culture. I mean, I would actually kind of like it sounds weird. I'm kind of like to see you. Good to be refreshing Lee, you know, different

But yeah, so they all pretty much so. So, it's a hard task to do with that. And I think to some extent. I think it's, again, when you talk to your current students and alarms and you just get a sense like yeah, this kind of feels right. For me, but yeah, just, you know, to the extent that you can get a feel for it. I know I mentioned earlier about moving my kids into college. This week one went to a rural campus, you know, in Pennsylvania and other one went to, you know, campus in downtown Boston undergrad and in the graduate space management space. But it dawned on me, which I already knew. But if somehow seeing it up close and the combination of the two contrast of the two really made me realize how different your experience can be, based on where you go and the type of school and the size and all that. I mean, it's just it shapes your whole experience. You know it's one thing when you're walking across, across a green leafy tree line quad to get to your glasses. It's another thing when you're crossing a big, you know, busy street with no buses and cars going by and all that. So, you know, that's it's, they're all a little different. I think it's, you know, to be in a place where you feel like, yeah, this just feels right. I remember years ago. I interviewed somebody when I worked in a full time MBA program who came in. I'm like, so why did you choose this program. He's like, well, when I drove to the gates, it just felt right. And again, you could say kind of back. But, I mean, it's just like you almost can't describe it. It just feels right to you. And I would just keep searching until you find the ones that do that. But the challenge is that it's not a one-way street. It's a two-way street. So even if you find the one that, you know, speaks to you the most, there's no guarantee you're going to get admitted. So that's why you need to have a portfolio should applying to schools but, you know, research is never a bad thing.

Right. So those are a lot of interesting perspectives that you just gave us on admissions. So, you know, before we really conclude this. Do you have any advice as a summary to all applicants who aspire to get into some of these top business schools? You've talked about putting in the right research or finding out which one's the right one for you and trying to stand out from the applicants from the, from the pool of applicants, as you mentioned. But are there other things or general points that they should keep in mind as well?

Barbara: Yeah, Dr. Clayton Christensen, who taught it HBS and the father of disruptive innovation, talked about jobs to be done like to think of what you're doing as a job to be done. And so, in that light, I think of going to business school for a year or two, and a full time MBA program is doing a job for you. So, what do you want that school to do for you at the end of it, where do you want to be. And I think if you have, you know, all of us. I mean, there's a reason why so many people go into consulting afterwards because they just don't know if still what they wanted to. And then they hope that gives them opportunities to, you know, experience different sectors, but the more you can have an idea of what you want to do afterwards and what the vision would be in how clear that is I think the more than you can, you know, kind of cross reference that with the school and see if that will get to get you to where you want to go.

Right, that that makes sense and I guess that’s it. Thanks a lot, Barbara, for joining us in this short discussion. Your perspectives and the insights you provided on each component were really quite interesting. And they seem useful for any applicant who’ll be interested in the future as well. And we really enjoyed the session. And before we end, would you like to see anything to us or to our listeners?

Barbara: Oh, I would just like to say one thing that I have come across time and time again are two things. One is the time factor and busy right now. I think we'll do it next year I'll do it. You know, the year after

Barbara: You know, think about, you know, again next year becomes a year after. There's never going to be perhaps a perfect time so do it when you're most ready and then don't scan. There's a lot of people under selling themselves. I mean, it's just society that we're in and especially if you're somebody applying to business school, you probably already in a crowd of high achievers. And so there's doubts of, like, oh, I don't think I'll apply to the school or, you know, look, I got my GMAT score and it wasn't what I had hoped for. So forget that I'm not going to even apply. And I wish there really was a way, you know, just to get the support, whether it's a family member who always believed in you a coach from school, a teacher, you know, a roommate who just really kind of supports your vision and can give you that you know that sense of confidence that you'll need to go through this process because I have seen so many people go through it and it's if there's nothing like it in this oral like doing a, you know, and their part time programs are great and online programs are, you know, are fine, too. But there's nothing like a residential one or two-year program. You just never going to have another experience like that in your entire life. And so it's really hard to even describe if you haven't even if you haven't done that yet so why put yourself out there running, you know, rather than to say, hey, if you have the tolerance for risk tolerance for rejection, because again, the odds are tough. It's not easy. Then why not do it and see what happens? And so that's probably my parting words there to that encouragement of, you know, go for it.