Thursday, May 21, 2009

And so it begins!

HBS is the first of schools I'm looking at to post their Fall 2010 essay and letter of recommendation guidelines/topics. You can find the essays here.

At first blush I am pretty excited about the essay choices - you actually have choices! Allowing us to pick 2 of 5 very different topics to write on (vs. 2 of 3 or 1 of 2 pretty similar questions I think is a great idea (hint hint to Kellogg & Booth). I never understood why such an involved application process at these schools was at the same time so narrow in your essay topic choice. With each AdCon reading hundreds of applications they will still be plenty comfortable working with all 7 essays so why not allow applicants the latitude to present themselves how they think best? In some sense it makes the AdCon's life easier - you can easily weed out & reject anyone with a weak essay because with this much choice there's simply no excuse.

After the choices, the next thing that struck me was the number and length: 5 essays with 4 of them being only 400 words. Structure as interesting to tackle as much as content. Each one needs to be like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan as they assault the beach, instantly powerful and dynamic. With 5 essays over 2,200 total words you're much more writing vignettes than essays.. .and I'll feel right at home having just taken the CFA. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing :)

The next thing to strike me… "I've seen these somewhere before". I like that HBS took the best of other schools' ideas and adopted some of them - in addition to the ubiquitous "difficult decision" & "career vision" essays, you also have a version of Sloan's cover letter, as well as an option time to address your undergraduate experience.

Two things about the Undergrad Experience essay:

  • First is that you'll note it is worded to allow for much broader content than a standard "explain away your crappy GPA" but if that's what you need it for the option is there.
  • Second, and unfortunately for me, the "undergrad weakness" essay isn't an extra/optional essay like at many schools. Instead it takes up one of your 2 "elective" spots in which people with stellar undergrad resumes will instead be bragging about career accomplishments , goals, or their community involvement. Just makes your other essays and parts of your application, including interview, even more important.

Hopefully a few other schools do something similar as HBS did this year - there's no denying this will be a huge help to people spending 70+ hours at work then going home and trying to apply to 5 schools all in R1. Obviously you don't want to select essays simply because they overlap schools, and you also need to make sure they fit both the particular verbiage of each question while focusing your content individually for each school… but a lot of the thought process should be able to bridge the gap between different applications. Ideally it's moving to something like a BSchool Common App, although since BSchools all like to market themselves as very different from one another I doubt it'll go all the way.

Maybe one day we'll see the top schools (then trickling down to the rest) having half of the word count be common across all schools, which still allows for 2-3 short individual essays specific to each application.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Some quick notes

With this year's Round 3 decisions being made and wait list people hearing their fate, we're slowly starting to see a shift in focus to next fall's application season.

  • HBS is going to publish the Class of 2012 essay questions next week (thanks to ClearAdmit's blog for pointing me to the post)
  • There's a new edition of the GMAT Official Guide (12th Edition)... for those of you not yet done with the GMAT, hopefully this new edition fixes some of the glaring errors they've been printing for a few years in the 11th edition

…and along with the general shift to next year's season it's time for me to get my own butt in gear. I've stalled in my (pre)application work the past week so here's a to-do list for the next 2 weeks:

  • I am going to reach out to a few consultants in the next two weeks. I don't know if I'm going to use one but I want to figure it out and, if so I want to get started with them during a time (late May/early June) when I assume I'll be one of their only "active" clients. The main thing I want them to do is help me put a framework around how to best market myself as a complete package.
  • Need to update my BSchool resume so that I can move forward with a consultant if I decide to. A recent reorg at work resulted in a new title (it sounds like I'm more important now). I've got to essentially add a new section to my resume which will be tough since my actual responsibilities didn't change that dramatically.
  • I also took on a real leadership role in one of the volunteer groups I work with. I'm now running events of 15-30 people and organizing social outings for the volunteers. Hopefully my volunteer/community involvement will be something that actually sets me apart from other financial services worker bees
  • Further discussions with the Significant Other, who is also thinking about applying to BSchool this fall, need to happen. We've already had some really long and in-depth talks about this and the likely result is that we're both going to target a single school as our "top" and go above and beyond to get in. At the same time we'll likely have 3 others (which are already identified) as backup that we will also apply to in R1
  • I've already been talking with the leader of the main student group I plan to be involved in at my target school and want to try and set up a lunch over the summer if possible
  • I know at least one person that will be starting at each of my top schools this fall. Contact them and set up a time to pick their brain about the application process / Adcoms they met / interviews / how they presented themselves / etc.
  • Finally, create folders for each of my top schools and get all the preliminary information gathering stuff out of the way: what each school sees as setting itself apart, any special programs or focuses I'd be interested in, club to contact this call, etc.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Opportunity Cost

A very simplified analysis of the price of BSchool (financially at least):

Assume for a moment you and your Significant Other both work. You're in your mid/late 20's and live in a big city. You were lucky enough to graduate college with no debt, and you grabbed a good job where you've stayed since graduation. You rent your apartment and neither of you owns a car. For simplicity say you make a combined $200,000 per year (gross, including 401(k) match & etc.) You each live on $60,000 per year which means you save $80,000 combined.

And now you're both considering applying to top BSchools. What's the true cost if you both go?

(One year all-in $75,000) * (2 people) * (2 years) = $300,000
(Foregone savings $80,000) * (2 years) = $160,000
Foregone 2 years' work experience = ignored for simplicity
Total = $460,000

Let's invest that for 35 years and say you make 7% = FV(.07,35,0,460000) = $4,911,227.48

Woah. Actually let's go with "Holy Shit".

It's sobering to think you're going to be 30 years old with a $4,900,000 gap to make up. That's a pretty large increase in earnings needed in order to make BSchool worth while (financially).

Reviewing my GMAT experience (Part 2)

I don't imagine many people are interested in the minute details of how my test day went. Instead I will lay out some of my personal lessons learned, observations about test day, and other tidbits from my experience.

Some of the points here are highly geared to my personal preferences but the idea is to try and deviate from the more generic advice you've already been given/read.
  • Register early for two reasons. First, it gives you a date certain by which you need to be done studying - this allows you to set in stone a study plan/schedule and acts as a goal to work towards/light at the end of the tunnel. I made the mistake of not registering very early but I already had point one taken care of - I was trying to get it over with before Christmas/New Years travel - what I missed out on is reason two. Reason two is that there are a set number of slots and you want to make sure to get one that works for you. When I registered I think a lot of Round 2 applicants were trying to get in their test as well. The only available time slot was a Saturday 8am (December 20?). Ugh. I am not a morning person.
  • Scope out the test center ahead of time, especially if you're in a city. For me the test center was only a half mile walk, but it was in an office suite, with a pretty much unmarked door (small placard), at the end of a hallway, on a random floor of a nondescript office building I had never been to. Yeah, awesome. Add in a -30 degree wind-chill and 7:30am on a Saturday… well there aren't many people walking around. The building was totally deserted save for a lone security guard by the single unlocked door (of about 10 entrances). If I hadn't visited to make sure of the location ahead of time there's no way I would have found it.
  • This one is more for my own piece of mind: I'm pretty sure they call you in order of when you registered… not when you check in. I had a very unnerving experience of being the first one to check in and the last one called into the testing room. Others seemed to be going in no particular order and the guy at the desk was less helpful than someone at the DMV. He did little to allay my fears that I had been forgotten as I waited until 8:20 to be called for my 8:00am test slot. Just an FYI from my own experience, no idea if it's the norm. I registered really late so I assume this is what was going on.
Now to the actual test experience
  • Sound. I used the headphones provided by the test center to block out the furious keyboard tapping of other test takers. Luckily once I'm "in the zone" I can tune out almost anything. If you're more easily distracted I'd recommend doing practice tests with your own earplugs to get used to them and then bringing those to test day.
  • Keyboard. I have a personal hatred of those seemingly ubiquitous black Dell keyboards with huge spaces between the keys… which is what my test center had. I can't type on them to save my life; probably about 75% of my normal speed which is frustrating during a timed essay. Thankfully I checked out the test center ahead of time and was aware of this so I did some practice at the library.
  • Scratch paper. You would think this knowledge is more prevalent but I didn't find it out until well into my classroom GMAT sessions (maybe I'm just slow). The laminated yellow legal-sized notepad that the prep-class providers all give along with a crappy erasable marker? Yeah, that's what you actually get on test day. If you write small or tend to erase a lot in math, I'm sure this will wreak havoc with your math. It's also kind of awkward working with 6 pages of spiral bound legal paper.
I'll finish with 2 more items that are probably on every other advice article but I believe bear repeating
  • Don't solve practice problems in the practice book! Use scratch paper (or the erasable notepad but you won't be able to review the problems later)! You have to use scratch paper on test day… solving problems presented on a computer screen is VERY VERY different than solving them directly in the practice book next to the problem itself. If you don't practice this ahead of time you WILL be slower and you WILL make stupid mistakes.
  • Use your breaks. Go to the bathroom at each break even if you don’t think you need to. Drink a little bit of water and have a little food (almonds & a chewy granola bar for me). Being thirsty/hungry/gotta pee! are small distractions that are easily avoided - there's simply no need for them. Along with this tip I'd make sure to eat well the day before your test. Your previous day's lunch and dinner will have more of an effect than test day breakfast if you have a morning session.
Good luck!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Reviewing my GMAT experience (Part 1): Preparation

As I mentioned in an earlier post I am done with the GMAT already. I had a few months free at the end of last year before my CFA studying started and I decided to try to get the GMAT out of the way...

I used the following materials to study:

  • Official Guides 11th Edition: Quant (green), Verbal (purple), and the big combined book (orange). These are, in my opinion, 100% necessary and the single best preparation tool. It's unfortunate that there are still number of glaring errors in a book that is now a few years old. I believe I ended doing at least 90% of the questions and all of the "advanced" ones at least twice. See below for comment on how I found which were the "advanced" questions. I think the 12th edition is out or will be soon.

  • ManhattanGMAT classroom sessions: I knew the only way I was going to be able to keep on track with no real deadline was with a classroom package. My instructor was incredible and there is no doubt she single handedly raised my score. I was lucky in that a good portion of my class was aiming for a 650+ score so we were able to move through material quickly and focus on the more difficult problems. One thing I did that was different from what was recommended: I studied a week ahead and covered the next week's topics ahead of time instead of simply doing toe pre-class introduction materials. I was essentially taught the material twice - once on my own and once in class and I think it was a huge help.

  • Manhattan individual subject books (part of the classroom package): I found these really useful. The verbal section of the GMAT is basically a bunch of patterns - each question can be categorized and sub-categorized. Once you figure out the tricks to each and can identify which question type you're facing, actually solving becomes pretty easy. Since my background had a lot of match I probably glossed over math prep more than I should have. One of the best things about the Manhattan subject books is that each book lists which questions in the 3 Official Guides correspond to specific topics. Additionally they list which questions in the Official Guides are "normal" and which are "advanced". This let me tackle every tough question in all the Official Guides and let me skip (when I wanted to) the ones that would be a waste of time.

  • Analytical Writing: I pretty much winged it on the writing section. Just make sure you spend a few minutes understanding the two question types you'll encounter and focus on staying within their parameters. Intro with thesis, 3 body paragraphs, conclusion. Freshman year of high school I had to write a 5 paragraph paper every week and I had a free period right before they were due… I suppose that counts as practice :). Sorry Mrs. Hancock.

  • Laminated yellow paper + erasable marker: You don't get scrap paper and a pen/pencil when taking the actual test in the test center. You get 6 double sided pieces of laminated, yellow, legal sized paper and an erasable marker. They come spiral bound. The test center guy seemed a little pissed when I ripped them off the spiral to make them loose, oh well. I highly recommend you get something similar and use it through your entire preparation process. ManhattanGMAT provided this to me with their classroom & book package. I assume the other prep providers to the same. I've heard horror stories of people who weren't prepared for this - especially if you're someone that writes small or like to do a lot of erasing on the math section (it can get messy).

What I didn't use:

  • Kaplan or Princeton Review: no idea if they're good or not. They're the 800lb gorillas of test-prep so they must be at least okay
  • practice tests: I think you can take 2 of them at They might even be free, I'm not sure.
  • Manhattan online resources and question banks (available to me for free via classroom instruction purchase but I think you can guy them stand-alone): I did take one practice test as a diagnostic before the classroom session started and scored pretty well. I started a few other tests but could never make myself sit there and finish them. A better use of time for me was to focus on a few specific question types I wanted to strengthen my ability with. I think there was also a large question bank you could use that was separate from that used in the practice tests. Data for all problems you solved online is stored and you could slice & dice it any way you want. I didn't use this but some of my classmates found it great.
  • Timing practice / practice tests: Aside from an initial diagnostic I didn't take any practice tests or timed problem sets. This works for me because I've never run out of time on a test, but I know that's not normal. Everyone else I speak to has found practice exams, timed problem sets, and simulating test conditions to be highly helpful.
How did it end up? I hit my target score (and beat my older brother...always a target for the younger sibling!) but unfortunately not 99th percentile. I feel like I spent the right amount of time & effort on preparation - the score will "check the box" in the mind of the Adcom who sees it. Raising my score to the "next level" and getting a 790 or 800 would have taken a considerable more amount of work and I'm not all that sure it would really add much to my application. If I don't get in this year, and my academics are part of the issue it's probably something I will consider working on, but even then there are probably other ways to better spend the time improving myself & my application.

Next time: my test day experience

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Some background

One thing that has always seemed strange to me is how rarely anyone asks the question of "why should I trust you?" when on the internet. I'm not going to get into that discussion :) but here's a bit of background to set the stage on why it may be at least interesting, and hopefully helpful, to listen to me ramble:
  • Years of experience: 5 years at time of matriculation (Fall 2010) excluding internships. Assuming the next 16 months go well this time will all have been within the same group at the same company. I've worked here since undergrad pretty much with the same 5-10 people. That's got to be rare in this day & age, and hopefully my managers can translate the process of having seen me develop over 4 years into writing some good recommendations
  • Profession: financial services - sales & relationship management. Although it's a sales role a large component is analytical in nature
  • Education: undergraduate at a top U.S. university with a B.A. in economics with a heavy dose of math. My GPA sucked - in terms of being an applicant it's my biggest weakness by far and doesn't reflect my (now demonstrated?) ability today to excel. Passed CFA Level I and plan to pass Level II next summer (eg. after admit/deny decisions are made)
  • Extracurricular: During college - almost nothing, same as my GPA. Post-graduate very strong. I'm very involved with significant leadership experiences at my main volunteer organization. Additionally I'm on the local alumni board of my alma-mater despite not being involved much during my undergrad time. I'm also deeply involved in a pretty intense individual sport as well as the local club which adds a bit more leadership & team component. I've been a member of one of my company's diversity groups since I started work and am on the volunteer leadership team for my city.
  • My chances: I honestly think my chances of getting into my top schools this year are fairly slim. I worry my one big weakness (GPA), especially in light of my targeted focus of study, may not have been sufficiently offset yet. I want an Adcom to feel confident fighting for me over someone else. That said I know I'm 100% ready and able to succeed - hopefully that will shine through in my application. If not... some things I'm planning to do in the next 12 months regardless will fix it for next year.
I'll do a post on each of Strengths and Weaknesses at some point in the coming weeks. I've done some thinking on both but never sat down and put thoughts on paper. Once I've had a chance to do that I'll post the results here as a way to hopefully flesh them out even further and maybe get some feedback when (if?) people start reading this blog.

A brief "Why MBA":
  • Primary driver is Career Change: I want to remain in financial services but sales is not where I want to be long term. This Career Change requires a largely different skillset than I am able to develop in my current position, and I believe the best way to demonstratively develop that skillset and get hired into the position I want, is a full time MBA program
  • The Brand. Maybe this speaks more to the Why "Here" question, but for the career change I want to make the Brand is an important and legitimate factor
  • The Network. Being part of a top BSchool network is invaluable in my proposed line of work. Ideally it will also help contribute finding great hires of my own down the road

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Location location location

Since I fond myself thinking about it and scribbling on some scrap pater today at work I figured I'd put up a note tonight...

As I mentioned in the first post I have already done a considerable amount of thinking over the past year but in reality things are even a bit further along than that... Where do I currently stand in the process?
  • GMAT done and I scored well, 700+
  • I know which schools I'm going to be applying to and it's a short & aggressive list although it's subject to change based on where the Significant Other applies/gets admitted
  • Of my top 3 I've already visited 2 multiple times, though none as a prospective BSchool student
  • I've got a good handle on my Strengths/Weaknesses/story. I began working to mitigate & strengthen the weak areas for almost 5 months ago as well as make some of my strengths really stand out