Preparing to apply to an MBA program? Do this now!


Maria Wich Vila ApplicantLab MBA Admissions Consultant

Hi! New around here? Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Maria Wich-Vila, and I’m an HBS graduate and a member of AIGAC who’s been helping people get into MBA programs for over a decade. I considered opening a high-end boutique admissions consulting firm, but I was dismayed by how those high prices would prevent me from helping people from all walks of life, so instead I created a software tool that provides the SAME advice at a much more affordable price. It’s the only admissions product officially endorsed by Harvard Business School’s student newspaper, The Harbus.

       Learn more about ApplicantLab now, or keep reading – Thanks!

Are you thinking of applying to an MBA program in 3 months, 6 months, or more?

Even before the schools release their updated essay questions, you CAN start doing things now to prepare the written elements of your application.

(The first and most commonly-given piece of advice is: do everything in your power to crush the GMAT, which I fully agree with. The “ROI” on your time is highest here. Need GMAT tips? See my blog post with the GMAT tips I used to self-study to a top score)

GMAT aside though, there are several things you can be doing on the qualitative side of things to bolster your profile.

After all, while the GMAT is the single most important factor in MBA admissions,

it’s still only 20% of the decision,

vs. the 58% importance (that’s almost 3x!)

given to the qualitative elements of your application.

On a pragmatic level, there are things you can be doing now, even way in advance, to make your application stronger later on. They’re little seeds that you’ll be relieved to harvest in a few months!

Watch the video below, or read the tips under the video:




1. Reverse-engineer your recommendation letter:

You know that you’ll probably need two letters of recommendation. What you might not know yet, is that those letters aren’t always “letters” per se, but rather, they are often a series of short-answer questions that your recommenders need to answer.

While the number of questions, and the wording of the questions, varies from school to school, in a nutshell, your recommenders will be asked to talk about “stuff you do well” and “stuff you’re not so great at”.

So, let’s focus on the “weaknesses” question. The questions might be something like: “What are 2 – 3 areas of developmental improvement for the candidate?” or “Talk about a time you gave the candidate negative feedback: what was their response?”

The “what is the candidate’s weakness” recommendation question totally screwed me when I applied, because to be honest (at the risk of sounding immodest, but, uh, this is the truth), I was a bit of a rising star in my company and my annual reviews were pretty much flawless. Given that, my recommenders were like, “Uh, what should we write here?” and I was like “I HAVE NO IDEA. WHAT DO YOU NOT LIKE ABOUT ME?!?! BE HONEST.” and they were like: “UH, NOTHING.” …and… it was weird. And stressful.

So the #1 thing you can do now, to make applying to business school a bit easier later, is to

sit down with your potential recommenders and say,

“Hey, just curious: what could I be doing better around here?

How could I be making more of an impact? Have you ever seen me mess something up; if so, what?


Then, whatever they tell you to get better at:  over the next few months, start taking concrete steps to improve that thing.

Mention it to them: “Hey, so I bought a book about [THE THING I NEED TO GET BETTER AT] and I learned the coolest thing! Did you know that [SOMETHING INTERESTING?]”

Better yet: try to find an opportunity to show this newfound improvement in action.

This will kill several proverbial birds with one proverbial stone:

  • When you sit down with your recommender to respectfully request that they mention specific stories X, Y, and Z in your recommendation (note: the ApplicantLab module walks you through exactly WHAT to ask them to write, and HOW to ask them to write it), you’ll already have a ready-made “weaknesses / feedback” story ready to go.
  • When you get asked the perennial favorite interview question, “So, what are some of your weaknesses?” you’ll have honest, concrete answers ready to go, which will score you huge points vs. the people who cough and say, “I’m a perfectionist who works too hard.”

2. Stepping up leadership at work / community:

Don’t have a strong history of taking charge of stuff at work? WELL NOW IS YOUR CHANCE!  Keep your eyes peeled these next few weeks for a way at work to dive in and make a noticeable impact. Don’t work at a place that will allow you to do this? No worries – try to find a way to step up your leadership involvement in a non-work activity. (What do I even  mean by “leadership” anyway? The Brainstorming module of the Lab describes in detail, the DIFFERENCE between “leadership” vs. mere “management”.)

BUT HERE IS A SERIOUS WARNING: if up until now, you really haven’t been doing too much of the whole “community service / volunteering thing”, then please, DO NOT SUDDENLY START NOW.  This is a topic on which I disagree with a few of my fellow admissions consultants – some people out there will tell you to HURRY THE EFF UP and starting doing SOMETHING, ANYTHING with community service.

To which I say: “Phhhhhtbh. Do you think – for a second – that Admissions Committees don’t see 100% RIGHT THROUGH THAT?”

Ask yourself: If *you* were an AdCom member, and you saw a file cross your desk of a 26 year old who has never really done much community service who SUDDENLY SIGNS UP FOR THREE VOLUNTEER THINGS IN MARCH – well, what would you think? You’d see right through it. And they see through it too. (side note: if you DON’T have a long history of building orphanages for blind whales, don’t panic: I’ve got advice for you in the  “Strengths & Weaknesses” module of the ApplicantLab)

Before we move on — and speaking of the Strengths & Weaknesses module — have you gotten your free candidacy assessment yet?

It’s INSTANT and it’s FREE!


MBA admissionss strategy free consultation of strengths and weaknesses and red flags


3. Career viability exploration

I won’t go too much into this, since there’s already a ton about it in the “Career Vision” module of the Lab, but – if your career vision involves any sort of “switch” (industry, function, both), then start doing work now to “prove” the viability of the career vision / why MBA argument you plan to make.




What did you think of these tips? Do you have any questions on other ways to get a jump-start on your MBA application? Let me know!




6 thoughts on “Preparing to apply to an MBA program? Do this now!

  1. I’m really glad that you mentioned not suddenly signing up for community service just before applying to grad school. Yes, it is important, but I agree with you that you are not fooling anyone. However, if you have a couple of years before you plan on applying to grad school, then you probably have enough time to sign up for community service, right?

    1. Hi James! Absolutely — if someone has a few years before applying to an MBA program, then now is indeed the time to sign up for community service.

      I advocate, if possible, continuing some sort of “theme” from previous service (as a personal example, in college I volunteered for a domestic violence clinic, and then after college I volunteered with foster children who had also survived an abusive environment) (I wasn’t originally intending to apply to b-school, so I did this out of genuine interest! Imagine that 🙂 ) — but the coincidental side-effect of this was that when I did apply, I could point to X # of total years sustained commitment to a certain cause, vs. more of a patchwork-quilt / dabbling.

      Also, any service story will be stronger if you can point to the “origin story” of just why it means to much to you. This will help tremendously in conveying geunine passion / concern for a given cause, vs. coming across as though you were just “checking the box” and doing it because you “had” to. Genuine passion will also motivate someone to REALLY dig in and go above-and-beyond in terms of engagement and impact…

      …in fact my other tip is to not merely “volunteer”, but be constantly asking yourself: “How can I contribute MORE? Is there something this organization COULD be doing BETTER, and how can I be the person who actively push those changes through?”

      On a final note, I also want to point out that “community engagement” doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the context of famous non-profits. For example, my husband was in a student music group in college and has been heavily involved in their alumni board for many years (including prior to his own MBA application season) — he’s volunteered countless hours to that organization, which still for me “counts” as “community service” (since it demonstrates the same “brand traits” [as I refer to them in the Lab] as the more usual Red Cross / ASPCA / etc. types of activities).

      I have a LOT more information about the importance of community service, ways to overcome a lack of community service in your MBA application, etc. within the premium version of ApplicantLab, but I hope this is enough food for thought to get folks started!


      Founder, ApplicantLab

  2. I totally agree with your stance on taking the command over and becoming a good leader. I have personally seen people excel at work places because they did not shy from accepting responsibilities. The organization starts seeing a potential manager in you and your colleagues start to listen to your opinions with more attention. More than anyone else, it benefits the person.

    1. Thanks for this insight, Anirudh! I sometimes speak to college groups (people still in undergrad) and when I explain to them what I call the 3 main pillars of leadership, I tell them that they should strive to make a positive impact no matter what, even if they eventually decide to not apply to business school!

      Either way, being a leader who makes a positive impact will ultimately propel someone’s career (e.g. it gains them political capital, it helps them get plum assignments), so even if an MBA ends up not being in someone’s future, they’ll be better off for stepping up anyway. 🙂

  3. Hi Maria,

    I quit my job a month back to be able to study for my GMAT. I have 2.5 months left to prepare as I plan to take the test in October.
    Since I have left my job I have no control over, sitting with my recommenders or working on a weakness.

    Please guide on what else could I do to strengthen my application in these 2-3 months.


    1. Hi Megha,

      This is a tricky situation — I’m afraid that quitting a job to work on a GMAT is actually damaging to your application. That is, any benefit you might get from a higher GMAT score may be erased by the fact that you’re now unemployed.

      My hope is that when you left your job, you did so on good terms with at least one senior person who will be your recommender. If so, then you can still ask that person for feedback now, and take steps to improve up on it in the meantime.

      Actually, even if you get a new job now, it will be sub-optimal to ask someone there to be your 2nd recommender, since they will barely know you.

      My advice then, is to find programs that only request *one* letter of recommendation (there aren’t many, but they are out there!) — if not, you may need to push your applications until next year. Please try to get another job again as soon as possible so that the period of unemployment is as brief as possible!

      Thank you,

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