I've got a couple of years before applying to business school, how should I prepare myself?

For those of you that are asking questions like this, congratulations! You’re already ahead of the curve. Our obligated service periods have a way of flying by, and before we know it, we’re staring our transition in the face without a solid plan. This situation is avoidable. Two to three years out from separation is, in my opinion, the right time to begin reflecting on your goals, assessing your options, and positioning yourself for success.

For veterans, and for that matter, most non-traditional applicants, the path to business school is certainly not unheard of, but it’s also not laid out before us nearly as clearly as it is for some other professionals, such as consultants and bankers. In those professions, the default assumption is that high-potential individuals will jump on the MBA train with many of their peers three to four years after undergrad. Furthermore, as they look upward through their chains of command, they have literally dozens, or even hundreds, of exceptionally talented MBAs to use as examples and mentors. This clearly isn’t the case in the military. We have plenty of potential mentors in the military, but the organizational assumption, or perhaps hope, is that top talent will make a career of the military, pursue major command, and maybe even a star. I don’t say all of this to diminish what an accomplishment it is for consultants and bankers to gain admission to top schools. I say it, rather, to draw the distinction between their process and ours. We simply have to be a little more creative, and sometimes more discreet, in how we pursue this path.

In this article, I’ll discuss the three main phases of preparing for this transition. Additionally, I’ll lay out what I believe are the most useful and effective tactics and questions to ask within each phase.

Phase I – Reflecting on Goals and Casting a Vision
This is the softest of the three phases, and it involves something that we don’t do a lot of in the military…reflecting. We’re more comfortable receiving a mission-type order and aggressively putting it into action. I cannot, however, overstate the importance of this phase. Before you dive headlong into the almost all-consuming process of business school applications, you must do your best to make sure this is the right path for you. Though there are many questions worth exploring in this phase, three rise to the surface as the most critical:

  1. What is my career vision? You don’t need to get too specific here (i.e. don’t worry about industry), but you should at least try to provide the broad contours of your vision by answering the following questions:

    >>Is business the best path for me? Or would other options such as law, government, or engineering be more attractive?

    >>What kind of career trajectory am I looking for? Do I really want to take a shot at being a CEO someday?

    >>What kind of lifestyle and work/life balance will I be comfortable with? Do I really want to find myself in a super-competitive environment where excelling professionally could entail travel and long hours? Or would I rather pursue something more low-key?
  2. Is an MBA an important ingredient in my career vision? Business school is a great path, and it certainly opens up a range of new possibilities to many newly minted MBAs. But it may not be necessary for you depending on your vision and career goals. You may be able to jump squarely onto your ideal path straight out of the military, foregoing the two-year investment of time and money that top programs require. You may also conclude that an MBA is absolutely essential to your vision. Regardless of how you answer this question, you’ve made progress. You now have a little more clarity on how to proceed.
  3. What type of MBA program is right for me? In today’s world, there are many different ways to get an MBA. For the purposes of this article, I’ll briefly discuss the two most common, and arguably the most useful, for veterans. 

    Full-time: The first is attending a full-time two-year MBA program. This option is the most intensive and for many veterans offers the most benefits. You’ll acquire an entirely new skill set; you’ll lay the foundation for a robust professional network beginning with your classmates and alumni of your school; you’ll have at your fingertips a range of resources and services such as career coaching and professional development; you’ll be able to take advantage of unique experiences and opportunities such as business plan competitions and global treks; and depending on which school you attend, you’ll have a variety of high-caliber firms and companies eager to make your acquaintance during recruiting season.

    Part-time: Maybe the full-time option seems excessive and a part-time MBA is a better fit for you. For some people this is a fantastic option. In fact, if you land a job with the right company upon exiting the military, the company may have a program in place to put high-potential individuals like yourself through such a program…fully funded. Working full-time while you earn your MBA means a few things. You’re learning a great deal on the job, you’re instantly able to apply lessons from MBA courses to real world scenarios, you’re making money, and you’re building your reputation within your company and advancing your career at the same time.

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider in Phase I. I encourage you to take these questions quite seriously. If you give these questions their due diligence, and you ultimately determine that you’ll pursue a top MBA program, then I assure you that having thought through these issues will serve you well when it comes time to start filling out applications.

Phase II – Assess your Options
For the purpose of the rest of this article, I’ll assume that after completing Phase I, you’ve decided that attending a top MBA program is your objective. This next phase, then, is all about getting smart on those programs, assessing your personal fit with each, and narrowing your list. In order to do that, I recommend doing the following:

  1. Research school websites: It almost seems too obvious to mention, but you’d be surprised at how many people skip this. The fact is that most schools have put a plethora of valuable information on their sites that provides insight into everything from the school’s curriculum and culture to sample student profiles and data that will give you a sense of what it takes to be competitive.
  2. Read MBA sites: There are too many MBA-related sites out there to read them all, but you should find a few that you like and begin to follow them regularly. In addition to our own blog, a few of our favorites here at MilitaryToBusiness are Poets & QuantsClear Admit, and Stacy Blackman’s B-School Buzz. The benefit of these sites is that they serve as an unbiased third party. You’ll find articles and data on a variety of topics such as price comparisons of tuition for top schools, where graduates from each school end up in the job market, and how Stanford and Harvard stack up against each other.
  3. Visit schools: Understandably, this could be difficult for a number of reasons, but if possible, visiting a school can give much deeper insight into what it would be like to be a student there. Meet and talk to students. Visit the admissions office and listen to an admissions brief. Visiting a school offers the added bonus of putting you on the admissions department’s radar screen…never a bad thing.
  4. Reach out to current students: There are two good places to start when trying to contact current students. I recommend you begin by reaching out to the members of the schools’ veterans’ organizations. In my experience, because of the bond between fellow veterans, these are the most likely individuals to spend some time chatting with you. Most school sites have a public listing of their various student clubs and organizations, so check there first. If that doesn’t work for you, contact any current students who also attended your same undergrad. LinkedIn is the best way to find these connections. The bottom line is that it’s never too early to begin exploratory conversations to learn more about these schools, and current students offer a quick way to learn.
  5. Network with alumni: Scour your current network to see if you can find an introduction to people who have graduated from the various MBA programs you’re interested in. It’s even better if you can find alumni who are also veterans. If you’re successful in making contact, in most cases they’ll be thrilled to talk to you. What you want to learn from these people is not necessarily what it’s like to go to school X, but rather, what it’s like to have graduated from school X. A sense of life after business school is an important insight to gain. Furthermore, these contacts can potentially serve as valuable resources in Phase III as well.

The objective of this phase is to gradually build a list of the schools that you’d like to apply and to develop a strong understanding of what makes each school unique. I should also say here that this phase really doesn’t end until you’ve completed the entire admissions process and have accepted an offer from a particular school. Up until that point, you should constantly be working to learn more about your schools and which one might be best for you.

Phase III – Position and Prepare
Finally, the phase that you’re all most eager to learn more about! So, what can you do now to get into your schools of choice? My apologies that you had to read about Phases I and II first, but I couldn’t in good conscience set it up any other way. Before I dive into the details here, it’s important to note that Phase III could and should run concurrently with Phase II. Many of the conversations that you’ll have with current students, for example, will not only help you learn about the school but will also give you insight into how to position and prepare yourself to be competitive…two distinct objectives that you’re pursuing simultaneously. So here they are, in order of importance, my recommendations for how to position and prepare yourself for top business schools when your transition is still two or three years away:

  1. Excel at your job: This may not be what you expected to hear, but it’s absolutely essential. All of the top business schools will be looking for a pattern of excellence in each endeavor you’ve pursued. Your current job is your primary endeavor. Take on the most challenging assignments, push yourself beyond your comfort zone as a leader, and go after roles and responsibilities that you find meaningful so you can pour your heart into them. When it comes time to apply to your schools, the vast majority of what you’ll discuss in your resume, essays, and interviews will be related to what you’re doing right now. You’ll want to have something to talk about, and you’ll want to have done it exceptionally well. Beyond the impact your work performance has on your business school candidacy, you’ve still got plenty of time to make a big impact within and beyond your organization, so do your best and try not to get too distracted. 
  2. Crush the GMAT: The last thing you want to be worrying about two or three years from now when you’re applying to business school is either GMAT score you’re uncomfortable with or no score at all. Take the time now to build a game plan to earn the score you want. To do this, start by reviewing your calendar and looking for the best 4 to 6-month stretch to prepare for and take the GMAT. Your calendar is likely full of things like workups and deployments, but the advantage of preparing early is that you should be able to find a relatively unbroken block of time in which to focus. For more strategy and tactics on defeating the GMAT, visit one of our previous posts here.
  3. Assess and address the gaps in your arsenal: Your diligence in Phase II should give you a better picture of what it takes to be competitive for admission to your schools of choice. You should take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned and figure out where you’re coming up short. Every school is looking for something slightly different, but it’s safe to say that all schools are interested in candidates who are well-rounded and who excel at what they do. It’s this point of well-roundedness that often gives veterans trouble. After all, you’ve been exceedingly busy with pretty weighty responsibilities. Military life can be all-consuming, and if we’re not careful, that can be the only dimension that really shines through in our business school applications. So, start by thinking about what you’re currently involved in outside of your immediate job in the military. Do you do any volunteer or community service work? Are you involved with any non-profits? Have you written an opinion piece for your local newspaper? Do you have any hobbies or passions that you pursue? If the answer to all of these is “no,” and you can’t think of another way to demonstrate how multidimensional you are, then this is a gap you need to address. Pick something you care about or find interesting, carve out some time for it, and get involved. I think you’ll find that the benefits of rounding yourself out as a person extend far beyond your competitiveness as an applicant.
  4. Time your exit: You need to consider your current schedule to depart active duty and then figure out if this timing is optimal for transitioning into business school. Separating from the military in May, for example, is far better than separating in November for obvious reasons. Since you’ve been diligent enough to start thinking through these issues so far in advance, you may be able to influence the timing of your exit to coincide nicely with potential matriculation dates. An extension is likely your easiest option. But depending on your circumstances and your service, there may be opportunities for early separation in order to pursue full-time education. Check with your personnel office on this one. 
  5. Disclose your intentions wisely: As we’ve already discussed, it’s not the most common or celebrated path for high-performing military officers to exit in order to pursue an MBA. So don’t be too quick to reveal your intentions. You certainly need to be honest and forthright at all times, but there’s absolutely no need to disclose your intentions before it’s required. Depending on your command climate, letting the cat out of the bag could impact the types of roles and responsibilities you find yourself in during your remaining service obligation. At some point your command will need to know your intentions so they can properly plan, at which time you may be reassigned. And in this case, that reassignment is entirely appropriate. The bottom line is that you should use your best judgment regarding when and how to make this announcement.

The last piece of advice that I’d give on this topic applies to all phases of this process. It’s simply this: don’t let this consume you. It’s so easy to get sucked into the MBA admissions vortex, and it’s really tough to get out of it. You’ll be sucked in soon enough once you get into the thick of your applications. Your work in the military right now is far too important to be neglected, and you still have time to accomplish a great deal. So, continue to do the amazing things you’re doing, look into a few of the things we’ve talked about today when your schedule allows, and when your transition rolls around, I’m confident you’ll be setup for success.

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