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Welcome to the Financial Times Ask the Expert Q&A series on MBA applications. Are you thinking of applying to study for an MBA? Are you cramming for your GMAT test? Perhaps you are preparing for an interview at one of your dream business schools?

Three of our MBA bloggers answered reader’s questions on Wednesday, 31st July 2013:

Jennifer Soffen

Jennifer Soffen is an MBA student at Harvard Business School. Jennifer has a BA from Cornell University and worked as a product marketing manager at Google. She plans to use her MBA to tackle the digital divide - giving more people the access and ability to use information technologies.

Marco Biava

Marco Biava will be starting an MBA at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in China in September 2013. Attracted by the culture and growth opportunities that China offers, Marco wishes to learn the Chinese way of doing business and to build a network of future business partners, assisting European companies to succeed in the Asian market.

Christine Cheng

Christine Cheng studied finance and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and has been working in the fashion industry ever since. She is starting an MBA in International Luxury Brand Management at Essec Business School in Paris in September 2013.


Why did you choose your business school?

Christine: My undergraduate studies in finance and marketing at Wharton provided an excellent business foundation upon which I wanted to build further.

Wishing to accelerate my career in luxury fashion, I chose Essec for its MBA in international luxury brand management. While other business schools offering luxury courses, certificates or similar MBAs exist, Essec appealed to me most due to its highly specialised programme, strong relationships within the industry, and location by Paris, the world’s luxury and fashion capital.

Jennifer: I thought Harvard would enable me to meet excellent faculty and fellow students. I also liked that they were trying to improve their entrepreneurial reputation. To do so, they put time and resources into helping entrepreneurs. Since entrepreneurship is something I am passionate about, I wanted to take advantage of that.

Marco: I made Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business my first option because I believe it is the best MBA programme in China that can help me successfully transition from the western to the Asian business culture.

How? First of all, the CKGSB MBA runs a one-year, indigenous curriculum not influenced by a western MBA partner. This is for me fundamental to grasp the authentic culture of a Chinese MBA programme in the shortest time available.

Second, at CKGSB, MBA students are encouraged to join EMBA fellow students in various shared activities. This is an amazing opportunity if we consider that the CKGSB EMBA programme is ranked first in China and is attended by some of the most successful business men and women, known for having created large domestic and international corporations.

Third, CKGSB is a private institution, founded by Li Ka Shing – Asia’s wealthiest man, that stresses highly on having top-level professors in the school. Its faculty is mostly made up of Chinese professors who have studied and taught in top western business schools.

How did you plan your application process? How did you research schools and courses? How many did you apply to?

Christine: I had been familiar with Essec’s MBA Luxe programme for a while but it was an informational session last fall that confirmed my decision to apply. After learning more about the curriculum and hearing from alumni, I knew it was the programme that would best suit me and my goals.

I don’t necessarily advise this for everyone, but I only applied to one programme. Essec was my top choice and I applied first round, so if I had not been accepted I still would have had time to apply to other programmes. Again, this strategy is not for everyone; I was just confident in my decision and my candidacy.

Jennifer: I found the process very overwhelming. I started applying (with the GMAT finished) in July, with the intention of applying first round to Stanford, Harvard and rolling to Columbia. I didn’t get my applications in until the end of the second round.

My cousin was very helpful in reading my applications. She would let me know if it seemed like an essay didn’t really reflect who I was.

The best thing I did was try to figure out how I wanted the admissions people to see me. I think we are all much more multifaceted than an application allows. I tried to pick a truthful image within that and fill it out using past experiences.

For example, since I knew I wanted to write about being a tech entrepreneur, I wrote about businesses I helped grow and volunteer activities I pursued in tech. I also asked my recommenders to talk about these things.

I left out other post business school jobs that I might want to have, like VC, which I did this summer, because I thought that would cloud and complicate the picture I wanted to draw.

Marco: During the summer of 2012, I built a comparison chart with excel in order to weigh each programme against each other. I put much emphasis on the feedback of current students, both Chinese and international, on the location, on the career tutoring offered, and how the school is perceived within the Chinese business society.

I eventually set CKGSB as my first choice and kept three other options open. In total I applied to two one-year programmes and two two-year programmes. I then started applying according to deadlines. For my first choice, I applied on the first round to maximise the chance of admission.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the application process?

Christine: For me, the GMAT represented the first, and greatest, hurdle on the track towards my MBA.

Unlike some of my undergraduate classmates, I had not had the good foresight to take my GMAT at the end of college while my brain was still in study and test-taking mode. Not having done any math other than end-of-meal tip calculations for the past few years, the idea of a timed exam sans calculator terrified me. Factor in the essay and strange new integrated reasoning section for a combined three and a half hours of testing and the GMAT seemed an insurmountable task.

I turned to my friends for advice and was given battle plans ranging from two weeks of after-work cramming in the coffee shop to month-long preparatory courses complete with online, classroom, and one-on-one study. Lacking the time and funds necessary for any special courses, my strategy ended up involving two months of after-work studying and taking every free practice exam I could get my hands on.

I downloaded the free prep software from the GMAT website, borrowed study guides from the library, and purchased the official guide to make up my arsenal of study materials. A key tool I used and credit very much for my GMAT success is a laminated notepad and erasable marker set (available on Amazon) which simulates the items provided at the actual exam. Practicing with this notepad helped me get comfortable with the non-traditional materials and the amount of space I had to do my scratch work. It’s these small details that can make the difference between getting a score you’re ok with versus one you’re proud of.

Jennifer: The stress of knowing it’s a zero sum game - you’re either in or out!

I also found the final decision to be very stressful and had developed no framework to think about that. Once I was lucky enough to get into the three schools I applied to, I had to pick just one but they all seemed excellent.

To break the tie, it came down to where I wanted to be after business school. Since I thought that was the east coast (and my boyfriend was going to stay in NYC), Harvard won out.

Marco: I think the biggest challenge was to conciliate my working schedule with my GMAT study plan. I had been away from the books for seven years, and I needed more time to brush up on my weakest points. It is not easy if your job requires you to travel often.

What have enjoyed the most about the process so far?

Christine: I have enjoyed speaking with alumni of the programme and learning about their experiences. Even within this niche programme there are so many different types of opportunities and ambitions; I am most interested in fashion, but the luxury world also includes wines/spirits, yachts, etc. I am looking forward to meeting my classmates and a great year of learning from each other and our professors.

Jennifer: I am really enjoying the case method style of learning, it keeps me very engaged and because it’s so interactive, I often find myself and my fellow students talking about a case after class is over.

I also really feel like I am learning new material. At Google, where I was before business school, I never would have tried developing a discounted cash flow, now I feel like I could do any DCF sent my way.

Finally, everyone says this but it’s all about the people. Section D is my group of 90 classmates I took all of the first year courses with. I really got to know a lot of those folks, and even some of their kids, well. I think we’ll be in each other’s lives for a while.

Marco: With four programmes to apply to I had quite a good number of essays to write. Most people may find essays the most annoying part of the process, but I like to write. I realised that writing about myself so extensively helped me to get to know myself even better. I answered questions about my present self and future self that I had never been asked before and that helped me make my own priorities as clear as ever. MBA application essays serve as a great auto-analysis tool.

How can I show I value a school’s brand and culture?

Christine: To show you value a school’s brand and culture, you have to learn as much as you can about it. This goes beyond reading the brochures and website to visiting the campus, reaching out to alumni, current students and student groups, and finding personal examples such as those shared by FT’s MBA bloggers.

The more you know about academic and student life and how you can fit in and contribute to the school’s community, the better you will be able to convince admissions that you not only value the school’s brand and culture, you embody it.

Jennifer: I think if the schools you’re applying to have very good brands, you don’t, and probably shouldn’t, show that “you value it” or that it’s a major part of your decision in applying. At least by saying, “I value the brand because…”. I think for brand and culture you’ll need to show you value you it through examples.

I talked about the development of the iLab and how I saw that as integral to my learning for my Harvard application (I could test out my ideas before truly committing to them). For Stanford, I talked about an entrepreneurial design course they had.

I also mentioned conversations I already had with professors that I would want to learn from while I was there (this served the double purpose of showing I knew what I wanted and I did my homework by visiting).

Ultimately, I don’t think you can say you value the school’s brand and culture, you need to come up with specific examples of how you would take advantage of it.

Marco: You have the opportunity to show you value a school’s brand and culture anywhere throughout the application process. Show that you made your research about the school in the essays by giving examples. Link these facts to your personal experience showing that you are a good match for the school.

There are some MBAs that particularly stress on group activities during the programme. In this case, you may want to stress your team working capabilities by telling how well you contributed during a shared activity you were part of in the past.

Do you think it is worth re-sitting the GMAT test if you don’t get a high enough score the first time? How many times did you sit the GMAT? Also, do you think the GRE is an acceptable alternative?

Jennifer: I know people who used the GRE. I don’t know how it’s calibrated but I do have classmates who only took that test and got into all of the top schools.

I only sat the GMAT once but I think it depends what your score was and whether you think there’s real potential for improvement. Clearly, if you get a 700 or above, you should probably concentrate on other things. With that score, you’ve demonstrated that you meet the GMAT qualifications for any business school.

Christine: That depends on how you did and how much time you have to further prepare. Check where you fall in the range of scores for your target school(s) and use that as a guide for “high enough.” Are you in the bottom 25 per cent? Above average?

If you got flustered on GMAT day and know you can test better now that you’ve had a “trial run,” and have enough time and money to go through it again, then go for it. If you studied hard and gave it your all, I don’t think it’s necessarily worth the repeated stress, time, and money for what will likely be less than 100 points.

Focus on the other elements of your application because if everything else is strong, an average or minimum GMAT score won’t lock you out.

The GRE was not an acceptable alternative for my programme but there may be schools where it is, you would have to double check with your admissions office.

Marco: I don’t think that re-sitting for the GMAT a second, or even a third time, will hurt your chances of admission. However, sitting more than three times would probably raise a few questions among the committee, but this really comes down to what school you are applying to.

The GRE is becoming an increasingly accepted alternative among MBAs. Most candidates who struggle with the quantitative section of the GMAT may want to consider this option, but make sure what test the school you are considering requests.

I hear the big difference between a US MBA and a European one is that in the US the professors “cold call” on students in front of the whole class, whereas in Europe this is not the case. I think I would find this incredibly hard. Does it really happen?

Jennifer: Yes, it definitely happens at Harvard! It’s usually only the first question of the class, asking you to summarise the case. This can be brutal if you haven’t read the case but most of my classmates are usually pretty prepared and it’s just something that keeps us excited for class.

I love the tradition in this method as it’s something HBS has been doing since day one. Also, the professors are really there to support you and if they feel like you did do your homework but you’re struggling with the questions, they’ll help you out or back off.

Christine: I was not aware of this perceived difference and have been used to cold calls throughout my academic career. While I cannot confirm just yet, I still expect to be cold called at Essec, a European school.

At Wharton, I did have some professors who would cold call, though I would not say it is a core element of the American teaching style. The concept of cold calling keeps you accountable for doing your reading and paying attention in class, it’s not scary or malicious. As long as you pay attention, you will be fine.

Marco: As a European who attended college in the US, I must say that I was rarely cold called by a professor. If I were you I would not leave out of consideration the US simply for this reason. Rather make your choice based on the programme that best suits your future goals.

What is the question you wished you had asked at your interview but didn’t?

Jennifer: Harvard usually gives no time for questions in their interviews. I didn’t have a chance to ask one. In fact, they told me at the beginning that there wouldn’t be time for questions and to email them afterwards if I had any.

My Stanford interview was much more informal with an alumnus. It was a great conversation where we talked about our lives (back and forth) and really got to know each other. I still keep in touch with my interviewer today! I have no outstanding wishes there since we still keep up.

Marco: I had to face four interviews. They ran from 30 minutes up to one hour and a half. They asked me so many questions that I really can’t think of something an MBA should know that was not covered.

Yet, since we are talking about Chinese MBA programmes that expect incoming international students to be interested in learning the Chinese language, I wish they had asked me questions in Chinese. I would have been able to show my strong interest in the language.

Christine: I faced a panel of four interviewers: one professor, one alumnus and two HR representatives in the luxury industry. I actually ran over my one-hour time slot but still wish I had asked more about class structure. I was curious about how classes were scheduled and conducted, though now that I’ve received my calendar for the first couple months, I have a better idea of how my day-to-day life will be.

To read more about other experts featuring in this series, visit our MBA applications homepage.

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