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If you're thinking of applying to b-school this year, you have something right now that is more valuable than you can possibly imagine -- preparation time.  But we all lead busy lives -- what is the best use of that time?  What really matters, and how long will it take to do?

Article by Ben Feuer, Image by Moyan Brenn

We here at Forster-Thomas know that applying to any graduate program can feel completely overwhelming, with a hundred little things to take care of and not enough time to take care of it.  So what should you focus on and when?  Here's a cliff-notes answer to that important question.  Please note -- this is in no way intended to be a comprehensive list, but it should give you plenty to think about if you're trying to maximize your application's chances.

IF YOU HAVE ...

3 YEARS - Congratulations!  You're really into planning ahead.  Keep earning top grades at your school (or if that's too easy, transfer into a tougher school) and tackle meaningful leadership challenges in your clubs and organizations.  If you're early on in the workforce, start building the key professional contacts who can later serve as recommenders or write letters of reference for your target schools.

3 MONTHS - Depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of your application, you could either focus on retaking your GMAT or taking your GRE (standardized test scores are important) or you could look to burnish your resume with meaningful leadership by founding a small business or taking on a big responsiblity for a nonprofit.

3 WEEKS -  Although this can be enough time to do a rushed GRE/GMAT retake, depending on when the tests are scheduled, perhaps the most important thing to think about with three weeks remaining is corralling your recommenders.  Hopefully they already know you're applying at this point, but it's a good time to put in a few gentle reminders, set up any necessary meetings to provide information or just catch up, et cetera.  

3 DAYS - Do a campus visit for the weekend!  Prepare by reaching out to students via Linkedin and asking pointed, thoughtful, comparative questions about their b-school experience thus far.  Invite them to talk about their favorite and least favorite aspects of what they do every day, and what parts of school they got the most out of.  Once you arrive on campus, take a lot of notes -- they'll help you when the time comes to write your "why school" essays -- and shake a lot of hands -- depending on the school, face-time with profs and admissions staff can help your chances of getting in quite a bit.

3 HOURS - Write a first draft of an essay.  Don't try to get it perfect your first time out of the box.  That isn't possible.  Just write something complete, authentic and honest with a clear plan in mind.  If you're going over three hours for your first draft, you're overthinking it!  Relax and wrap it up.  Then hand it to your brain trust (you do HAVE a brain trust, right?) and be prepared to be told it doesn't work at all.

30 MINUTES - Jot down five essay brainstorms for a particular prompt -- one-paragraph reminders of things you've done in the last three years or so.  You can also reformat your resume in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of negative space, compressing to one page, emphasizing recent employment and accomplishments, and purging things that aren't relevant for b-school like technical skills.

3 MINUTES - Take a deep breath and relax.  You've hit submit -- it's out of your hands now.  The best thing you can do is put it out of your mind and wait.

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Applying for an MBA is a big, complicated process.  If you are applying in round two, it means that you can't afford to get anything wrong, because you do not want to slip to round three.  Here are some key things you should be thinking about to prepare. 

Are you rounding out any ongoing leadership commitments?  If you started something earlier in the year, is it close to completion?  If not completion, how about a milestone, something you can point to as a concrete sign of progress?  Metrics always help here.  If you don’t have any, think about how you might be able to get some.

Have you made initial contact with your recommenders?  Although it’s WAY too soon to be bugging your recommenders, it is NOT too soon to be having a preliminary conversation to feel out their eagerness to BE recommenders.  Feel them out in a casual conversation.  Get a sense of how much work they’re going to want to do, and how much will be on your shoulders.  Find out if they plan to be away or traveling at any point, to protect yourself from future faux pas.

Have you thought about your goals?  Most candidates have a general idea of what they want to do with their MBA (although some don’t even have that!), but wherever you are right now with your thinking about goals, you want to push it to the next level.  If you haven’t narrowed it down to one goal, do so.  If you have one goal, what is transformative about it (for the world, not just for you)?  In other words, why should be be excited?  What are you going to do better, or differently?

Are you satisfied with your GMAT?  If so, great, on to the next problem.  If not, do you already know when you are planning to retake?  Have you blocked out time to study?  Have you chosen a test location that will feel safe and comfortable, and protected the week before you have to take the test?  You don’t want last minute bombshells falling in your lap.

Have you blocked out time to visit schools?  Top schools are competitive, and class visits and admissions info sessions fill up fast.  If you can possibly manage it, you should be planning to visit all of your target schools, because it demonstrates interest and strengthens your essays.  To make the most out of your visit, NOW is the time to think about all the problems that might arise.

Have other questions about your application?  Just ask us!