How to talk to business school alums without looking dumb

Right now I’m slowly making my way through both my nonprofit ranks of MBAs but also through my network.  I’m doing informational interviews with alums and current students to get more information about the schools themselves, but also the value alums have gotten out of it.   That and any application tips… never hurts to talk about your narrative 😉

I’ve done four so far, and thought my prep checklist could be helpful.

1.  Do your homework

Don’t show up and ask questions that can be answered from the website.  Do your background research about the school and the program.  There are such things as dumb questions.

More than that, do investigation on the person you’re meeting.  Linkedin, and c-suite bios are all great for this.  The more you understand their career path, the less of their time you’ll make them waste repeating it.

2.  Have clear purpose

This is driven by your research.  Based on their experience and the school, think about what you want to get from the conversation.  Is this person a career switcher into your desired post MBA field?  Well, focus on the the intersection of the industry field and the business school.  Is this person from a similar liberal arts school who went to HBS?  Well, focus on the transition between school experiences.  Having targeted questions not only helps structure the conversation, but also conveys all the research you’ve done.

3.  Roll with punches.

I did journalism in college and have plenty of experience with interviews that go off track.  Be reactive and roll with it.  While an informational interview, it’s also a conversation and a favor from the other person.  Be respectful, and listen to what they are saying.  I talked to someone last week hoping to hear more about how HBS fosters social sector work, but instead got a rave review and deep analysis on the case method.  You never know what you’re going to get and it very well may be a key insight you overlooked.

4.  Say thank you.

Just like your mom always told you.  I’m not talking about a simple “thanks for your time.”  I’m talking about 2-3 sentences that not only say thanks but also say thanks for specific details.  This shows that you were paying attention and is just a professional courtesy.  Send these a day or two after the conversation.

5. Keep the ball rolling.

It’s easy to talk to one or two people per school and call it a day.  If you are doing all of these steps, you’re probably spending at least 2.5 hours per informational interview.  But like most things in life, it’s best to do a little consistently.  I’m staying on track with a simple system: every time I finish an informational interview, I begin requesting a new one within the day or two.  This way I have a varied flow of networking to build more connections, doing research, and talking all at the same time.

Hope this was helpful!  Post in the comments if you have any more tips!


GMAT Tip – Having Fun Reading

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a bunch of compliments on my GMAT and inquiries about how I pulled it off. The most consistent piece of advice I’ve given people is simply READ for pleasure to boost your Verbal score.  This is what I did, somewhat purposefully, in the 6-12 months leading up to the GMAT and ended up with a 95% percentile V with almost no prep.

But when I say read, I don’t mean Harry Potter (though I’m a huge fan).  I mean high quality (mostly non fiction) publications like the New Yorker, New York Times and Washington Post.  And I didn’t just browse occasionally; I paid for subscriptions and probably spent 30-60 minutes per day reading them during my commute.  The Economist, Guardian, Atlantic, and NPR are also good as well.

So what does high quality reading do for the GMAT?  Well it starts by exposing you to more complex and nuanced perspectives on current events.  The opinion pieces always require inferences to understand and to do so, you are unconsciously considering diction, tone, and structure.  This is exactly what you do on any reading questions on the exam.  The publications are also copy edited an ungodly amount of times, and exemplify what grammatically correct and concise English language is.  This will build up the gut check of “does this sound right?” that happens in the SC questions.  Additionally you should also build a great foundational knowledge of  critical reading topics.  The GMAC isn’t making these articles up from scratch, but instead adapting them from real opinion pieces and articles.  It’s always easier to synthesize something if you’ve been exposed to the topic before.  So let me show you some examples.

Here’s a great fiction example – Netflix Love.  An amusing story about how binge watching shows is like an intense romantic relationship, but also a critique (in my opinion) on the amount of time our generation spends on netflix.

And here’s a more recent opinion – Boston’s Winter From Hell.  A serious thought piece about how the record snow is actually a slow moving natural disaster.

You should absolutely avoid the Facebook newsfeed as a way of finding articles.  I’m not an expert at how these articles populate, but I’d guess they are the result of what’s viral at the moment, what your friends like, and what you’ve clicked on in the past.  So unless you’re friends with all academics/activists/etc and immune from trivial LOLs, you’re newsfeed probably looks like mix of gawker, buzzfeed, and elite daily articles.  Sure there may be an article or two from a real news site if it’s a trending article, but the vast majority will be clickbait.  I’m guilty as anyone of continuing the cycle of clicks, but that’s why I made the intentional decision to pay for subscriptions to force myself to check the publication homepages regularly.

Nobody in b school will ask you to deconstruct two sentences for logical argument, but you will be asked to make inferences from case studies and understand what your classmates are arguing.  That’s what the GMAT verbal is proxying for.  So get good at the real life applications in a FUN way  and you’ll get better at the specific skills underlying it.  It’s a lot more fun to play pickup basketball than doing shooting drills and weightlifting.  While the latter is necessary to improve performance, the former is far easier to do on a consistent basis.  I’m sure if you play pickup games regularly, your shooting and conditioning will improve and you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Happy Reading!  Let me know if you’ve found this strategy helpful – it worked for me 🙂  Also let me know if you liked the two articles I picked!

The Schools

Like many ambitious applicants, I began with the entire list of the top 10-20 schools as potential schools.  I then have (with 90%) certainty, pruned the list down to only 5-6 schools.

Location.  Because of personal reasons, I really only have two options: San Francisco Bay Area and Greater New England.  This is a nice filter in that it cuts the number of schools into a very manageable list of six.  Ideally I want to stay in Boston or San Francisco, but Yale, Dartmouth, and Berkeley are all a reasonable driving distance away.  I’m not sure whether I prefer a big city or smaller town experience.

Yale SOM, HBS, Dartmouth Tuck, MIT Sloan, Stanford GSB, Berkeley Haas.

Admissions Prospects.  It’s a crapshoot at any top school, but I know my 3.5 GPA and 760 GMAT stats make me a viable applicant.  My GMAT is above average for every school, while my GPA is right at the median for some (Yale, MIT, Dartmouth) or .1/.2 below the rest (Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard).  So I guess that means my application is going to get read?

So where to go from there?  I’m looking for what feels like only a few qualities right now, though this will likely evolve as I do more research.

Name Recognition.  I’m looking to use the MBA as a means to a career change to consulting and/or technology.  This school has to be a name brand within the world of MBAs.  Starting my list with the top 20 schools pretty much makes this a non issue though.  I’d be ecstatic to attend any of these 6 schools.

Non-Profit Focus.  Some schools have an obvious advantage here.  Yale SOM has made a name for itself in social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management.  Same with Berkeley and Stanford.

However, there are a few more more intangible pieces that I need to do more research in.

Culture.  In laymen’s terms, the “will I have friends here?” test.  As someone coming from the social sector, I really want to find a good social and professional fit.  That and I want to make sure a school is somewhere I could spend 2 years at without going crazy.  School visits and talking to alumni here should help answer questions.

Teaching Style.  In laymen’s terms, the “will I learn effectively here” test.  Some do case, some do experiential learning.  I’ll have to talk to students and attend classes to make a good judgement here.

So a lot of questions and vague generalities.  This is really scratching the surface of what these schools have to offer, and this preliminary write up is really based off word of mouth and some website perusal.  I’ll follow up with thorough analyses of each school as I talk to more alums and current students, attend information sessions, and visit the schools themselves.  Let me know if I’m missing anything though.

Am I unique??? My profile

One major reason I created this blog was because I couldn’t find many nonprofit people like myself.  Everyone applying to business school seems to be a consultant or finance type, and the rare nonprofit folks overwhelmingly seem to be TFAers.  Anyways, here’s my profile – hopefully it’s helpful to someone out there in the interwebs.

Industry.  My entire career path has been in the nonprofit sector.  Out of college, I did an Americorps Fellowship and then worked at an Education non-profit where I am at today.  Though the organization is focused on education, my role is very much behind the scenes.  My title includes the word “analyst” and I spend most of my day working with data and technology (though I’m not a developer).  I’ve been promoted once in the last three years.  Back in college, I worked as a research assistant and at a legal nonprofit.

One major concern I have is the name recognition of the different organizations on my resume.  Both the fellowship and my current nonprofit are national, but neither has the name recognition of something like TFA or Gates Foundation. Definitely will have to strategically think about addressing this in another post.

Undergrad.  I attended a top ten small liberal arts school in the US.  I majored in Economics, with an additional minor in something not relevant to business school (liberal arts FTW).  I wasn’t a standout student at my college.  My GPA of 3.5 (give or take) is about average for my college, though the college itself is known for being academically rigorous.  There isn’t any fancy trends in my transcript (no dramatic upticks, or bombed semesters); no matter how you slice it’s pretty much the same..  Unless you just look at my math classes, then it’s something like a 3.2.  Hopefully they don’t slice that way…

Demographic.  Nothing too exciting here.  I’m an American born Asian male, so that definitely puts me in the over represented minority category.  I am, however, 24 years (young!), so that places me in the sweet spot for age of applicants.

Extras. Not sure how relevant these are in application, but the folks on poets and quants are always raving about these, so I might as well list them.  I serve on my fellowship’s alumni board.  In college, I served on a few different parts of student government.  I’ve played an organized contact sport for the last 6 years, and was the president of this sport club back in college.

All in all, I sound like a pretty normal guy huh?

One Shotting the GMAT

I think I got incredibly lucky with my GMAT experience.   I studied over a period of 2 months, didn’t take a class, took it once, and got a 760.  Here’s my saga:

Summer 2014.  Registered for an August 2014 admin date.  From research of schools’ GMAT ranges, I set the ambitious goal of a 720+ with a plan to retake if I couldn’t clear that bar.

I didn’t have much motivation to start study in the summer, and work got incredibly busy.  While I didn’t start studying, I did start acquiring study materials.  Many friends recommended the Manhattan GMAT tests as being the most comparable, so I went ahead and bought their 6 practice tests.  I also asked around for old study materials.  Ended up getting multiple GMAT prep books (the 2009 section editions, the official 2014 guide, a Kaplan 2014 prep book) from folks who had already taken the exam.  Lots of folks buy the books and either do all their work in a separate notebook (to simulate the actual test) or never get to using all the materials.  Both of which worked out well for me – since I saved a few hundred dollars on supplementary study materials!  Highly recommend doing this.

Anyways, ended up giving the GMAC 50 bucks to push back to December.

November 2014.  Took my first practice exam through Manhattan GMAT.  Did so totally cold, without looking at anything beforehand and did the AWA too.  Got a 670, with a 3 on the IR, which was a shocker since I do a lot of data analysis for work.  My math performance was also definitely a surprise: 65% percentile.  I had taken a fair amount of math in college (mathematical statistics) and high school (multivariable, diff eqn)  This was enough of a shock that I ended up pushing back my test again to the end of January.  Another 50 bucks to the GMAC – you’re welcome guys.

December 2014.  Started ramping up my studying.  After reviewing my responses in the first practice test, I started focusing on my weak spots: Quant and Sentence Correction.  I didn’t have a set schedule, but I started carrying around a study book to bust out whenever I had time.   I used the official GMAT 2014 study book and actually got through almost the entire book during December.  I knew Quant and SC were my major weaknesses, so I finished all of those questions in my study guide.

I also started taking practice tests every two weeks, but my score was relatively stable between 670 and 710.  I started getting worried but tried to stay optimistic because I was only using the Manhattan tests, which I hoped were more difficult than the real thing.

January 2014.  Started taking tests every week.  On my first GMAT Prep test I got 730, which confirmed my suspicion that Manhattan was more difficult, especially for math.  I was pretty confident on my Verbal throughout because of my liberal arts minor, which required lots of reading and writing.  On my final GMAT Prep, I scored 760, which was a major confidence boost, but on my last Manhattan GMAT, I scored a 700, which was a big scare.

I continued doing practice problems for a few hours every week whenever I had time: before work, after work, weekends, the awkward 30 minutes between activities.   I didn’t bother preparing for AWA too much; I just wrote simple outlines in each practice test.  I also spent a good amount of time with IR since my scores fluctuated between 4 (!) and 8.

Test day.  Had trouble sleeping the week before, but managed to get a solid 8 hours in because of a noon test time.  I took a cab to the testing center and got there ridiculously early (like an hour early), so I ended up going to a coffeeshop and drinking a small decaf to pass time.  Once the test began, time just flew by.  AWA was simple enough from all the outlines I had made earlier.  IR was a mad rush to finish, and definitely got me worried because I was forced to make educated guesses on several questions because of time constraints.

During the first break I wolfed down a cliffbar and sipped some water, before trying to calm myself down before the Quant section.  The real thing went surprisingly smoothly at first; the questions seemed easy and I was making good time.  I remember having 12 questions left with 30 minutes remaining, and thinking to myself “slow down and make sure you get all these questions correct.”  Well I went too far in that direction, and next thing I knew, I had 5 questions and 10 minutes left.  It was a rush to finish on time, and I ended up thinking I had really screwed up.  I was so pumped on adrenaline I couldn’t even take more than a bite of my second cliff bar during the next break.

Verbal was a similar situation: I did really well with pacing, then slowed down, then was in a rush to finish.  There were several questions that I spend 3-4 minutes on before hazarding a guess, which led to me doing the last 5 questions in 7 minutes or so.  By the time the section was over, I thought I would definitely need a retake.  To my GREAT surprise, the unofficial score page showed a 760.  Success!  For all you interested in the score breakdown: Q50 V42 AWA6 IR7.

My main takeaways from the entire process: start studying early, take practice tests to build stamina, focus on your weak spots, and keep an eye on time during the test.

Hello world!

I’m a 24 year old Asian male applying to some top business schools in the fall of 2015.  I decided to impulsively create this blog after weeks (or months) of reading other folks mba applicant blogs and lurking on various forums while preparing for my own GMAT exam.  There wasn’t much out there for non profit applicants, so I figured I get myself in the game and share a few insights along the way.

This blog will hopefully be a way for me to stay (somewhat…) productive and organized as I get ready for my MBA applications.  At least in the short term, it should help keep me sane in this East Coast snow storm.   Anyways, look for some upcoming posts about my successful (!) GMAT experience and my applicant profile.