5 Steps to Getting Into a World Class MBA Programme

Writing this post has been on my mind for a while, because I’ve had so many questions from people on how applying for an MBA works. I didn’t want to write it until I actually got into a world class programme, and as I write, I’ve been accepted into ESADE in Barcelona and London Business School (LBS) and am waiting to hear from HEC in Paris and INSEAD in France/ Singapore.

Let me start by saying that the process has been completely consuming for the past 6 months- like, I’ve been working on MBA stuff every day for all this time. I totally underestimated the amount of work (and money) involved just to get in. I’ve spent around R20k so far, just on applying. I also underestimated how hard it would be to get in. Have a read here to see why I decided to apply to do an MBA. I felt that it wasn’t worth spending all that time/ money on a school that wasn’t rated highly, so we immediately ruled out UCT/ GIBS etc and decided that an international MBA was the only option. I thought I had a fairly good profile- my degree is held in good regard in SA, I’ve done levels 1 and 2 of CFA and I tick the BEE box, to an extent. All of this is applicable in SA but doesn’t count for anything internationally. I was competing with the cream of the crop worldwide, and the first few schools I heard back from (Oxford, Columbia, Cambridge) rejected me in the first round, before I even got to interview stage. I was disheartened, as Rishav got through to interviews at Oxford and Cambridge. I imagined myself arbing around one of these towns, looking for work, while he wouldn’t have much time for me because he’d be busy doing his MBA. That certainly is not what I want for my life, so I was really happy when I heard back from ESADE, LBS, INSEAD and HEC, all inviting me to interviews.

Here are some 2012 LBS stats to give you an idea of the caliber of this MBA. Stats from other top schools are comparable.

  • Acceptance rate: 13% (meaning that around 4000 applications were received)
  • Class size: roughly 400, representing around 90 nationalities from around the world
  • 92% of grads received a job offer within 3 months of graduation
  • Major recruiters were McKinsey, American Express, Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Amazon and the Boston Consulting Group.
  • Average salary post graduation: USD 113k. Average sign on bonus: USD 31k. Average year end bonus: USD 33k.

At first, the idea of this MBA seemed very “up in the air”, and very much a dream. Now, Rishav’s been accepted into Oxford and I’m in at LBS, and we actually have a viable option that allows us both to do the MBA together without having to live apart. The LBS MBA starts in August next year, so if I decide to go with that, I need to get cracking ASAP to get my shizz together.

Now, onto the 5 steps you need to follow if you are keen on doing your MBA overseas. It’s not too late to apply to start in 2014 (most school years begin in August/ September)

1. Take the GMAT

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) is an internationally recognized test that most schools require as part of your application. In fact, if a school doesn’t require it, then that school can’t be very good. You need to book the test online- make sure to book early because you may only be able to get a test appointment in a month from when you book. The JHB test centre is located in Sandton City. The test is half Maths, half English. It costs $250 to write, is written online and has 4 components.

The first 30 minutes is an Analytical Writing Assessment, where you’ll have to write a structured argument on a specified topic. An example of this is:

“Most companies would agree that as the risk of physical injury occurring on the job increases, the wages paid to employees should also increase. Hence it makes financial sense for employers to make the workplace safer: they could thus reduce their payroll expenses and save money.”

The next 45 minutes is Integrated Reasoning, where you need to evaluate information presented in multiple formats. Info is given to you in graphs and tables, and you need to interpret it to solve a problem. Examples of these questions can be found here.

Finally, the last 2 sections are 90 minutes each and are split between a quantitative section and a verbal section.

I studied for about a month in advance, and got a score of 680 (out of 800), which I was happy with. You need a score of at least 650 to be competitive. If you get a score under 600, it is recommended that you rewrite the test. You can write it as many times as you want, as long as you wait a month in between.

2. Decide on the schools you want to go to 

Once the GMAT is done, you can now select which schools you want to apply to. Each school has an application fee which could be anything from $100 to $300. This is non refundable, regardless of whether you get accepted or not. I applied to 7 schools, so you can imagine how much I ended up spending on this.

A good resource to help you identify the best schools in the world is this comprehensive list from FT.

Most of the US schools offer 2 year MBAs, which was too long for us. This also makes it a lot more expensive. Hence, we ruled out Stanford, Harvard and Wharton, and mainly applied to schools in Europe and the UK. The application process is a ton of work in itself. More on this next.

3. Work on your application essays 

All business schools require between 3-5 application essays. A common question, which can mostly be recycled for each school is: why do you want to do an MBA at this time? What is your immediate post graduation goal? It’s pretty important to figure out why an MBA is a necessary bridge between your current and chosen career before starting these essays. You also need to decide on what you want to do after the MBA. Sometimes the questions can be really tricky. I had to write 500 words on “the business of business is business”. The essays were the most time consuming part of the application process.

4. Identify 2 referees

Most schools require a form to be filled out by 2 referees. Ideally this should be one person who is superior to you, and one person who is on your level. Choose people who you have worked with closely and would be able to give an accurate reflection of your work style. I opted to use the same 2 referees for all 7 applications, but some people prefer to alternate between as many as 5 people. You need to project manage the referral process, and make sure you and your referees are aligned in terms of your contribution within your role. Have an open discussion about strengths and weaknesses, and also discuss that person’s view of your achievements. It’s not advised to write referrals yourself- admissions managers pick up your writing style from the essays and you could be disqualified if they find out that you wrote your own referral. This is quite a lot of work to ask someone to do, so you need to brief them on timings well in advance and make sure that they know what they’re in for. If a referral is received late, this could jeopardize your entire application.

5. Prepare for your interview

Once you submit your application, you can relax, until you’re invited for an interview. These are usually with alumni, but can also be with a member of the admissions committee. Because of the international nature of the schools, you may end up having a few interviews over Skype. Before the interview, research the school and identify unique reasons why you want to go to that school specifically. Also look into the clubs and societies offered by the school, and have an idea of which you’d like to join. Most importantly, be prepared to provide reasons on why you would be a good fit for the school , and why the admissions committee should choose you over other applicants.

After this, you’re done! The “waiting for news” phase is EXTREMELY stressful. I refreshed my email every 2 minutes (literally) on the day I was due to hear from LBS, and I only got the good news at 8pm that night- when I was sitting in the Teatro at Monte watching Sleeping Beauty on Ice! For me, what  I enjoyed most about the process is being able to reflect ALL of me. I’m so used to my day job and freelance writing career being mutually exclusive. My day job doesn’t particularly encourage my writing, and no one in the journalism community really understands my day job. It was really cool that the schools that I had interviews with saw both of these sides in me, and admired and embraced that. In fact, if I didn’t have the freelance journalism career I don’t know that I would have made it this far. There are tons of quants out there with highly analytical degrees and corresponding work experience, but because I have a completely different career on the side, I was differentiated from my peers and had a bit of an edge. Also, being from Africa and being able to offer that emerging market perspective was key too.

So here I am, 5 months after this MBA dream started, very close to making it a reality. And even though it seems very intangible, once you make the decision to do it, how much you can achieve will surprise you. The only hurdle I face now is funding. I need about a million rand, give or take. I’ve always been about living in the moment- so I’ve REALLY lived it up the past few years, and therefore haven’t built up much of a savings balance. I’m currently applying for scholarships and loans (Prodigy Finance is a particularly good option), but I don’t have anything secured yet. Like my attitude with most things, I’m going to do everything in my power to access funding, and with a little bit of faith, I have no doubt that, somehow, the money I need will be made available to me.

***update*** – so Rishav and I have just found out that we’ve both been accepted at INSEAD, on the Singapore campus. Commuting between Oxford/ London wasn’t ideal, but it’s such a shame to pass up on both of these schools, despite INSEAD being just as excellent a school. So we haven’t made a final decision, but it’s likely that we’ll go with the option that will allow us to study together and live close to the campus. It’s weird ‘cos I’ve just about gotten my mind round living in London (particularly with respect to the weather), and now we’re probably going to end up on the other side of the world where it’s crazy hot and humid all the time. The uncertainty is terrifying and thrilling at the same time! Next step is applying for scholarships- hold thumbs for me please!