Category Archives: MBA Admissions

Blog posts containing content on MBA admissions, including application and essay strategies, as well as musings on select MBA programs.

Looking ahead to fall admissions season? Start in January.

It’s the dead of winter right now, and 2013 first-round MBA deadlines won’t be here for another eight months or so. That’s almost enough time to bring a baby to term, so if you’re looking ahead to the next admissions cycle, then you still have plenty of time to worry about the GMAT and your MBA applications, right?

As crazy as it may sound, I would argue that you should probably think about starting your GMAT prep before the snow starts to melt. If your goal is to produce the best MBA applications you possibly can—without turning your life into a stressed-out nightmare right before the application deadlines—then summer might be too late to start your GMAT studies.

Unless you’ve already been humbled by the GMAT, you’re probably thinking, “Come on, you stupid ninja dude! If I start in June, I’ll still have TONS of time for applications.”

You might be right. And you might be desperately wrong. In an effort to scare the poop out of you, here are two stories about guys who started their GMAT prep in June, but still didn’t have enough time to produce their best MBA applications the following January.

In May 2011, I received a phone call from a gentleman—let’s call him Mr. U, since he’s from upstate New York—who planned to quit his (thoroughly unsatisfying) job so that he could focus exclusively on the GMAT beginning in early June. He intended to spend the summer pounding the GMAT into submission, and then he would spend the fall writing amazing MBA application essays.

And guess what? Stuff happened. His arithmetic and algebra skills were an utter disaster, and he needed far more study time than he’d hoped. He needed an extra couple of weeks to fully transition out of his job. He ended up having some unexpected family obligations as the summer and fall wore on. He got distracted by some home repair projects. Some unavoidable trips—mostly for out-of-town weddings—interrupted his GMAT studies. And because his math skills were so crappy, Mr. U battled burnout after a couple of months of studying, and had to take the GMAT twice to get his target score.

Between the GMAT struggles and the non-GMAT distractions, Mr. U didn’t start writing his MBA application essays until late December, and he pulled a few late nights in early January to get everything done. His applications weren’t very polished, and he definitely suffered through some unnecessary MBA essay agony.

It all worked out for him in the end—Mr. U currently attends a top-ten MBA program, and his life is pretty awesome—but he suffered through the harrowing process of receiving rejection letters from five of his six target MBA programs. If he had started earlier, Mr. U might have had some extra options, and he definitely would have saved himself some pain and stress.

The second story involves a more recent applicant—let’s call him Mr. FP, since he loves skiing in fresh powder, just like everybody else in Colorado. Mr. FP started working with me in June 2012, and earned his 730 in August. No problems there. He figured that he would have the entire autumn to work on his MBA applications.

But again, life got in the way. His boss gave him some summer evenings off to focus on the GMAT, but autumn was payback time, and Mr. FP ended up working ridiculously long hours from late August through the end of December. A few family dramas also ate some of his precious free time and, just like Mr. U, Mr. FP ended up finishing some of his second-round MBA applications at literally the last minute on January 3. In the end, his MBA applications weren’t perfectly polished, and we’ll both be sweating unnecessarily as we await decisions this spring.

Please don’t let this happen to you. You might think that the GMAT and MBA application process will take just a month or two, but all sorts of things can derail your progress: a bad GMAT test day, a sick family member, MBA essay writers’ block, a natural disaster, unexpected work issues, a marriage proposal from your significant other, or a promotion that requires extra hours. Or your underlying GMAT skills might be worse than you expected. As Mr. U painfully discovered, weak quant fundamentals or weak reading skills can substantially delay your GMAT test date.

(Incidentally, even the official GMAT blog agrees with me on this:  at the end of this post, the GMAT brass encourages you to start your prep early.)

So if you’re truly serious about your MBA goals, make sure that you give yourself enough time to weather every possible distraction. If you start in January but succeed in achieving your dream GMAT score in February, that’s wonderful—you’ll have time for some Colorado ski trips this winter, and plenty of time for b-school visits in the spring and summer. But it takes a ton of time to write great MBA applications, and if your life isn’t perfectly smooth during the course of your GMAT studies and the MBA application process, you’ll ultimately be thrilled that you started working on the GMAT early.

my best students prove that the GMAT is meaningless

On a snowy Denver afternoon, I decided to conduct an odd GMAT-related thought experiment, just for the hell of it.

Purely for entertainment, I imagined that an all-powerful being forced me to choose any 20 of my former GMAT students to run a business; if the business failed, I would die a miserable death.  In a life-or-death business situation, which of my former students would I select?

The catch is that I have no idea what the business actually is.  I just have to select the 20 ex-students who would be the most intelligent, nimble, well-rounded, effective managers.  The business would be named later.

So I dug through my old spreadsheets and created a list of the most broadly talented GMAT students I’ve worked with.  Then, I selected the 20 ex-students who would be the most likely to contribute to the success of an unnamed business enterprise.  I didn’t try to balance the list (by selecting a mix of finance, consulting, and industry backgrounds, for example), and I don’t care about their resumes at all.  I was just looking for the 20 most incredible people.

After I selected the 20 best business minds, I sorted them by GMAT score.  And this may or may not surprise you, but there seems to be absolutely no correlation between GMAT scores and business acumen, at least among my (relatively small) group of students.

Out of my 20 most brilliant students ever, only half scored a 700 or above, and seven of those ten had to work their asses off to get to a 700. Every single one of those 10 test-takers studied for at least two months, five of them improved by 100 points or more, and one of them did 4,000 practice CR and RC questions.  Only a very select few of my best students are naturally gifted at taking the GMAT.  The rest of them just work incredibly hard.

The other half of the list is even more interesting.  Five of my top 20 students were stuck in the 600s, even after herculean efforts on the GMAT.  One is still going through the application process, but the other four are currently kicking all sorts of butt at super-elite, top-ten business schools.  Adcoms, it seems, are definitely willing to looking past the GMAT score when a candidate is truly special.

The other five students got absolutely clobbered by the GMAT.  Three scored in the 500s, and all three are now working for prestigious, household-name-type companies.  The other two gave up before they even took the GMAT.  One is a ludicrously talented woman with an unusual form of ADD, and another has an interesting learning disability that gets in the way of his math training; out of respect for their privacy, all I’m going to say is that both of them have been featured in New York Times articles, and one of them became a C-level executive before he hit 30.  Neither of them needed an MBA.  They’re that awesome.

Keep in mind that the majority of my students start in the high 500s or somewhere in the 600s, and most of them ultimately fall somewhere in the 680-750 range.  I just don’t get very many calls from students who would be content with a 550 or 600, and it’s interesting that such a large percentage of my lowest-scoring students are so successful.

Let’s face it:  the GMAT is an absolutely fantastic measure of how well you fill in little bubbles, and it’s a reasonable predictor of how well you’ll do in, say, a graduate-level microeconomics class.  But it’s a terrible predictor of any other sort of success.

As I look at my “dream team” of 20 former GMAT students, I see a few people who were great at filling in bubbles, a lot of people who worked hard at it and improved dramatically, and a handful who were beyond hope when it came to the GMAT.  And that shouldn’t surprise us at all.

On a guest post for somebody else’s MBA blog, I once made the case that the most successful people are “grinders”: they may or may not be naturally brilliant at filling in little bubbles, but they’ll work like hell to achieve their goals.  They’ll succeed in their professional and personal lives, even if it takes a lifetime of all-nighters to get it done.

Fortunately, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with some incredible “grinders,” and I’ve probably learned more from them than they’ve learned from me.  These are the students that make teaching worthwhile.  I can teach them number properties and GMAT grammar, but they’ve taught me a lot about what it takes to really kick ass in this world.

Now if somebody wants to invest $100 million in a business—without telling me what type of business—I have a young, energetic management team ready for you, and I guarantee that they won’t fail.  Just don’t ask them about their GMAT scores.

GRE vs. GMAT, part I: MBA admissions

If you spend your time carefully reading MBA application instructions, you might have noticed that nearly every major U.S. business school now accepts both the GRE and the GMAT.  There are still a few exceptions (at the time of writing, BYU and the full-time Haas MBA program hadn’t jumped aboard the GRE bandwagon yet), but it’s possible to apply to the vast majority of top MBA programs with only a GRE score.

If you’re struggling with the GMAT, the GRE might sound awfully tempting.  The GRE has no data sufficiency or sentence correction questions; instead, you’ll see the GRE’s (relatively non-threatening) quantitative comparisons and grammar-free vocabulary questions.  Better still, the GRE is generally rumored to be easier than the GMAT, and the GRE costs $75 less than the GMAT.  Not bad, huh?

But wait, there’s more:  with the changes implemented to the GRE in 2011, you can actually go back and change your answers on the test now!  Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The GRE inarguably offers a more pleasant test-taking experience than the GMAT, but you might be wondering:  can you actually get into top MBA programs with only a GRE score?  At least at the moment, the answer is a very wishy-washy “yes, but…”

For starters, we don’t really have much data on average GRE scores at top business schools.  According to a 2012 survey conducted by Kaplan, only 16% of MBA applicants have even considered using the GRE for their MBA applications, and far fewer have actually applied to business schools with a GRE score.  As a result, MBA programs really aren’t able to give us a clear idea of the average GRE scores for its admitted students, since so few admits actually take the GRE.

The (somewhat) good news is that our friends at ETS have created a nifty GRE-GMAT score converter, which means that you can, at least in theory, convert any GRE score into an equivalent GMAT score.  For example, if you’re using the pre-2011 GRE scoring system, a 700 on the GMAT would have been roughly equivalent to a GRE composite score between 1400 and 1450, depending on the exact breakdown of your quant and verbal scores.  If you’re using the new GRE scoring system (on a wildly inconvenient scale from 260 to 340), you’ll need to score somewhere between 323 and 328 to earn the equivalent of a 700 on the GMAT.

The trouble is, it’s not clear whether MBA admissions committees put much faith in the score converter. Everybody in the MBA world knows how to interpret GMAT scores, but some adcoms aren’t yet 100% comfortable making judgments based on GRE scores, even with the score converter.  A friend of mine works closely with the admissions committee at a top-ten MBA program, and he claims that the admissions committee is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the GRE; the adcom certainly isn’t going out of its way to encourage applicants to take the GRE instead of the GMAT… at least not yet.

And that makes perfect sense, considering the lack of data on MBA applicants, students, and graduates who have taken the GRE.  Decades of GMAT validity studies tell us that the GMAT is an excellent predictor of MBA students’ performance during their first year of business school, but the GRE simply doesn’t have that sort of track record in the MBA world.

The bigger problem is that the GRE is unlikely to offer you any particular advantage over the GMAT.  Most tutors and test-takers agree that the GRE “feels” easier than the GMAT, but don’t be fooled by the “feel” of the tests:  I very rarely meet students who perform substantially better on one test or the other, even if they “like” the GRE better.  The tests are similar enough that relatively few MBA applicants actually gain an advantage by taking the GRE instead of the GMAT.

So should you completely avoid the GRE if you’re applying to business school?  Not at all—obviously, admissions committees are open to admitting students without a GMAT score, even if they aren’t 100% comfortable interpreting GRE scores yet.  But unless you have some very specific test-taking preferences—which I’ll discuss in my next blog post—it’s unlikely that the GRE will greatly improve your chances of admission, either.


Although this little corner of the internet is called “GMAT Ninja,” the author of this blog post also offers GRE tutoring services in Denver, Colorado and online via Skype. If you’re not sure which test to take, call or email for more information… or try reading the second part of this series on the GRE vs. the GMAT.

minimizing MBA application essay agony

It’s that wonderful time of year when most applicants have finished their battles with the GMAT, and are now suffering through the long process of writing a bunch of MBA application essays.  And for most of you, this part of the MBA application process really isn’t much fun.

I’m not going to give you another one of those “how to write a good MBA application essay” lectures.  There are hundreds of (often very good) blogs and books and articles that cover that ground, and I don’t think that this is a good time to add to the cacophony.

Instead, I just want to give you some advice on how to minimize the pain involved in writing the essays.  Every year, I watch several dozen applicants descend into writer’s hell, and it’s never fun to see deserving MBA applicants suffer from a hideous case of writer’s block right before their deadlines.

So in honor of the upcoming second-round MBA application deadlines, here are few tips to help you avoid MBA essay paralysis:

tip #1: don’t “binge-write” your MBA essays

So you’re trying to write inspired MBA application essays, huh?  The type with some nice, creative flourishes that will help the adcom realize how brilliant and fun you are, right?

If so, don’t even think about trying to write your MBA essays in one sitting.  Or in two or three sittings.  The best essays are the result of small amounts of writing and revision, completed over the course of several weeks or months.

I discussed this in a crusty old blog post a few years ago, but the idea is that you’re likely to come up with your best ideas when you least expect it:  at work, at the gym, in the shower, or on the subway.  If you spend, say, a few minutes a day on each of your MBA application essays over the course of several weeks, you’ll give your subconscious mind plenty of time to come up with brilliant phrases, ideas, and flourishes for your essays.

The only way this can happen is if you stretch out your preparations for each MBA application.  Plan to spend at least a month on each application, working for a few minutes each day, letting your subconscious and semiconscious mind do at least some of the heavy lifting.

Trust me, the slow, five-minutes-at-a-time approach beats the heck out of staring at a computer for 12 hours on the day before the application deadline, while your hairline quickly recedes.

tip #2:  simplify your language

Far too often, MBA applicants write insanely dense essays that are almost impossible to read.  They contain pretentious vocabulary and ridiculously long sentences, and they sound like an overwrought academic discourse on philosophy.

There are two problems with this.  First of all, if you decide to write in the most “sophisticated” style you can muster, you’re probably torturing yourself in the process.  It takes a lot of time and brainpower to cram your essays with GRE vocabulary words.  Why torture yourself by trying to write in such an unnatural style?

Secondly, very few people actually enjoy reading dense, academic text.  Simple, clear language is an infinitely more effective way to communicate with suffering MBA admissions committee members who read literally thousands of essays each year.

So don’t overdo it.  Keep the language clear and unpretentious, and don’t make your essay sound like a GMAT reading comprehension passage.  Try to write as if you’re having a chat with your best friend.  You’ll be able to write faster, and your essays will be far more appealing to the poor adcom members who have to read them.

tip #3:  play with your friends

This is a simple—and probably obvious—piece of advice:  don’t try to write your MBA essays in complete isolation.  If your budget and preferences allow you to hire an MBA admissions consultant, that’s great.  If not, call a friend or a family member, even if none of them know anything about the MBA admissions process.

Here’s the thing:  sometimes, you get brain-locked when you try to write about how awesome you are.  And sometimes, even a relatively clueless advisor can help you get unstuck; simply babbling to a good friend can help to relieve your essay-writing paralysis.

This might seem like a ridiculously uninteresting piece of advice, but you might be surprised by the number of inquiries I receive from miserable, frustrated writers… who have literally never told a soul about their MBA essays.  Don’t make that mistake.

tip #4:  don’t worry about the word count… yet

Another refrain that I hear constantly from MBA applicants:  “Writing this crap is so hard with the word count and everything!”

That’s completely true.  Writing your first draft is hard, and the word count is a pain in the ass.  But your first objective is to get your ideas onto the page, and then you can worry about the word count later.  If you worry about the word count prematurely, you’ll be paralyzed and miserable.  So when you start writing, ignore the word count completely at first.

If your goal is to write the most perfect essays you’re capable of, then you’ll inevitably spend plenty of time editing and rewriting parts of the essays.  If you want to avoid unnecessary pain, spew your ideas onto the page as quickly as you can on the first draft—and worry about trimming the essay later.  Don’t let the word count disrupt the flow of your writing, or else you may never finish the first draft.

tip #5: be honest with yourself:  writing is hard, and your first draft will probably suck

Whenever I take on a challenging writing project (and in case you don’t know me personally:  I’m nearly finished with my third full-length book, and I used to do lots of strange freelance writing work), my first step is to write the words SH*TTY FIRST DRAFT at the top of the page.

Why do I do that?  Well, because I like to swear.  And also because I need to remind myself that writing is hard, and that I’ll never finish my first draft if I try to make it perfect.  My first draft will mostly suck.  Pieces of it will hopefully be brilliant.  I’ll spend tons of time revising it.  And that’s OK, because it’s much easier to polish a crappy draft than to create a brand new one from scratch.

So accept your imperfections as a writer, and just get the words onto the page.  Don’t edit while you’re writing—again, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later.

Let’s face it:  it takes a lot of time to write great essays for MBA applications.  But if you let go of some of your inhibitions and “anal-ness” on the first draft—and if you work slowly and steadily on your application—you won’t suffer nearly as much as the last-minute binge-writers.  You’ll be happier, and your odds of admission will hopefully be a little bit better.

IR might be really important… in 2017

If you’re applying to MBA programs during the current (2012-13) admissions season, you’ve probably already read a few dozen articles about the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section. As many other GMAT tutors and bloggers and forum participants have suggested, there’s little reason to think that the IR section will have any meaningful impact on your odds of admission at top business schools this year. The section is simply too new, and MBA admissions committees have absolutely no basis for evaluating the new section.

But what if you’re looking ahead, and you’re preparing to submit your MBA applications in late 2013 or beyond? Should you worry about Integrated Reasoning at all? And if so, how much of your GMAT preparation time should you devote to the IR section?

Although GMAC is doing its best to convince everybody that Integrated Reasoning is extremely important (click here or here or here or here to see their official GMAT blog posts about the awesomeness of Integrated Reasoning), I would argue that there’s still no good reason to spend much time studying for the Integrated Reasoning section… for now.  And here are three reasons why:

Reason #1: five years of GMAT fairness

GMAT scores are valid for a full five years, and a substantial percentage of applicants will submit “old” GMAT scores (taken before the IR section existed) during the next few admissions cycles. And it simply isn’t reasonable for schools to use Integrated Reasoning scores to compare applicants, when a certain percentage of applicants haven’t taken the new section at all.

In theory, MBA programs could require all applicants to submit an Integrated Reasoning score beginning with the 2013-14 admissions cycle, but this seems incredibly unlikely. We still know very little about the value of the Integrated Reasoning section (see reason #2 below), and there’s absolutely no incentive for MBA programs to aggressively require an IR score before the five-year window is over.

Reason #2: GMAC needs time to determine IR test validity

Somewhere in the bowels of GMAC headquarters, researchers are busy calculating the “validity” of various portions of the GMAT exam. Basically, those researchers are interested in determining what, exactly, the GMAT tells us about test-takers. Do GMAT scores correlate to performance in business school? Do GMAT scores correlate to success in the business world?

For what it’s worth, most of the studies I’ve read (and yes, I’m apparently dorky enough to read academic studies about the GMAT) suggest that the quant and verbal sections do an excellent job of predicting MBA students’ grades in business school, but the GMAT does a pretty lousy job of predicting post-MBA success… and the AWA isn’t really a great predictor of anything, which is why one of the AWA tasks has been replaced by Integrated Reasoning. If you’re curious and want to geek out on some old GMAT validity studies, you could start by clicking here.

Anyway, the bottom line is that researchers need time to “prove” that the GMAT’s new Integrated Reasoning section actually means something. Until that happens, why would MBA programs worry about your IR score?

Reason #3: MBA applicant information overload

By the time you submit your MBA application, business schools know a ton about you. They have your work history, academic transcripts, lists of extracurricular activities, two or three references, at least a few essays, maybe a cover letter, possibly a slide presentation, an interview, and probably some extra interactions with you from campus visits or other events. Oh yeah, and they have your GMAT quant score, your GMAT verbal score, your GMAT composite score, and your GMAT AWA score.

Really, do you think the adcom needs yet another data point? And do you think that the adcom is likely to care about a data point that doesn’t show up in any MBA rankings?

Don’t get me wrong: someday, all of this will probably change. If U.S. News and World Reports decides to include IR in its MBA program rankings, adcoms will suddenly care—a lot—about the IR section. I also believe that the GMAT validity studies will someday make the IR section look really, really good; frankly, the GMAT should be testing your ability to analyze basic data tables, and the exam should include some non-multiple choice questions. In my (probably very irrelevant) opinion, the Integrated Reasoning section has plenty of potential to be a valuable tool for evaluating MBA applicants.

And someday, the IR section really will matter. But not yet. Call me in 2016 or 2017, and maybe I’ll tell you to start worrying about it then.

In the meantime, your approach to Integrated Reasoning should be the same as your approach to the AWA section: both tasks are warmups for your quant and verbal sections, and it’s not worth burning much of your precious GMAT energy on IR or AWA. The IR section is not adaptive at all, so just answer the easy ones to avoid complete embarrassment, and let the harder ones go. It just isn’t worth spraining any brain cells for a section that has another four years of irrelevance ahead of it.

But again, call me in 2016 or 2017—the story might change by then.

“first-round advantage” is a big fat lie… sort of

As summer in NYC rumbles toward a close, the emails and phone calls I receive from aspiring MBA applicants start to sound more and more ambitious.  Most students want to cram their GMAT preparations into three or four weeks, even if they need a massive score gain.  I hear the same refrain over and over again:  “I want to apply in the first round, so I have to take the GMAT really really really soon or else I’ll never have enough time to write my essays and then I won’t apply in the first round and then the world will come to an end…!”

OK, so I’m paraphrasing a little bit.  Very few people sound that dramatic.  (Disclaimer: I swear that I’m not writing this to pick on any of my beloved current or former GMAT students. This post is about a general seasonal trend, not about any particular GMAT student.) But I always hear a lot of unnecessary panic in GMAT students’ voices this time of year, and the anxiety seems to increase as soon as I suggest that an MBA applicant might need more weeks of GMAT prep than they had (perhaps optimistically) anticipated.  Many applicants seem absolutely convinced that they’ll have a chance at their favorite MBA program only if they apply before the first-round deadline.

Call me a heretic if you want, but I’m convinced that the vaunted “first-round advantage” is mostly a myth.  Unless you fit into a few special categories, there is virtually no benefit to driving yourself into a GMAT-addled frenzy just for the sake of being one of the earliest applicants.

Sure, some of you have perfectly wonderful reasons to apply early in the admissions season.  If you’re looking for a scholarship (and are among the tiny handful of applicants who actually have a realistic chance at getting one), you’re definitely better off applying early:  scholarship funds are often given out early in the admissions season.  It’s also possible that you’ll get a lift from applying to binding “early action” programs (Tuck, Columbia, Duke, and Vanderbilt leap to mind); technically speaking, you make a binding commitment when you apply through these programs, and the schools have little reason to think that you’d flake on them if you’re admitted… and that will probably help your chances.

But if you’re obsessed with first-round MBA applications and nothing in the previous paragraph applies to you, you probably need to relax a little bit.  Sure, admissions committees are somewhat more likely to have some spare time on their hands in September than in January, and they’re a bit more likely to read first-round essays with fresh eyes and an open mind.  But that’s really the only general advantage to applying in the first round.

Think about it rationally:  the best MBA programs want to attract and select top applicants just as badly as you want to be among the top applicants; why the heck would they ding a strong MBA applicant in January, but admit that same applicant in September?  At most top MBA programs, less than half of the incoming class is admitted during the first round… so don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of opportunities during second round.

Or think of it this way:  if you’re awesome enough to earn a first-round admit from HBS or Stanford, then you’re probably awesome enough to get in during second round.  Then again, if your application is shaky for some reason, a first-round attempt won’t fix any of your problems.  If your essays are shoddy, your work experience is flimsy, or your GMAT score is hopelessly low, you’ll be just as screwed during first round as you would be later in the admissions season.  Sorry, but the “first-round advantage” won’t mask any of your MBA application weaknesses.

Whatever you do, don’t let the stress of looming first-round deadlines hurt the quality of your application.  If you need an extra few weeks or months to raise your GMAT score, take your time:  a strong GMAT score in January will help you far more than a rushed first-round application in October.  If you could use a few extra weeks to perfect your essays, take your time:  a sloppy, typo-ravaged October application will be far less successful than a polished, eloquent second-round application.  If you get hasty with your essays and fail to tell a coherent “story” about your life and goals, you’ll do enormous harm to your candidacy—no matter when you apply.

The bottom line is that it’s always wise to produce the best MBA application that you possibly can.  If it’s mid-September and you’re just starting to rumble into high gear with your GMAT prep or MBA essays, chances are good that your very best MBA application won’t be ready until second round.  And you shouldn’t feel even the slightest bit of remorse if you wait just a few more months to bless the adcom with your irresistibly charming second-round application.

Are last-minute MBA applications hopeless?

It’s spring in New York, which means that the sun is shining, the pigeons are frisky, and New Yorkers are much less cranky than usual. Springtime also means that the GMAT and MBA crowds have thinned out a little bit. Everybody knows that peak MBA application season is in the fall and early winter; if you’re calling a GMAT tutor in April or May, you’re probably a forward-looking planner with an eye on first-round MBA deadlines in October. And your GMAT tutor loves you for that.

But then there are the last-minute scramblers who defy conventional wisdom and take the GMAT in the spring. They then undergo a frenzied, abbreviated process of applying for MBA programs’ final deadlines in April or May. You would think that this approach is completely hopeless, right? An application sent within a few hours of a fourth-round deadline on May 15 couldn’t possibly succeed… right?

Here’s the odd thing: over the past few years, a certain subset of my last-second applicants have been extremely successful. Last year, I spent the morning of May 15 frantically helping two former GMAT students edit their MBA application essays–just in time for 5:00 pm deadlines on May 15. I thought that neither of them had much of a chance with last-second applications, but both students were admitted to their first-choice programs. This year, one of my favorite students submitted a third-round “express” application to a solid program, and managed to receive a substantial scholarship—after being waitlisted by a number of schools of comparable quality during the first two rounds.

And my all-time favorite procrastinator—Mr. L, a former actor who has been mentioned on this blog before—submitted an application last Monday for a one-year accelerated MBA program. Here’s the thing: he submitted the application two weeks AFTER the final deadline… and just one week before the start of classes in early May. And guess what? Of course, he was admitted. He was accepted to the MBA program on Friday, boarded a plane on Sunday, and started classes on Monday.

So how did these applicants do it? First of all, none of the aforementioned applicants were targeting top-10 programs. We’re talking about solid programs at the fringes of the top 30 or 50—think George Washington University or University of Florida or University of Iowa, not HBS or Columbia or MIT. MBA programs that are strong but not super-elite often face a great deal of unpredictability during the spring—they simply don’t know how many admitted students will actually choose to attend their school, which means that these programs may (or may not) have a bunch of empty slots at the end of admissions season.

In some circumstances, MBA programs can get pretty desperate in May. MBA programs often have high fixed costs, and nobody wants to have an empty chair in the classroom. So if a particular program has several unexpected empty chairs, they might be forced into “warm body mode.” Basically, they’ll admit nearly any (reasonably qualified) warm body who can provide a tuition check—even if the very same applicant would have been rejected (or waitlisted) by the very same program during earlier application rounds.

So there’s reason to have some hope if you’re submitting a last-second application to a non-elite program. If the MBA program has already filled (or nearly filled) their class, you’re probably screwed. But if the program is in “warm body mode,” you might be in luck, even if your GMAT score is below the MBA program’s average—as was the case for all four of the MBA applicants mentioned above.

Once you decide to submit a late application, be friendly but persistent with your calls to the admissions office. Try to make a connection with the person who answers the phone, since he or she might able to quickly get your case in front of a key decision-maker, even if the application deadline has already passed.

Whatever you do, don’t let the adcom think that you applied on a whim. In your phone calls, emails, and essays, do everything you can to make it clear that the MBA program is actually a top choice for you; as with any MBA application, be sure to clearly explain why you’ve chosen that particular program, and make sure that your essays are polished and error-free. If you have to, hire an editor or an admissions consultant to ensure that your work looks professional and convincing.

If you get a little bit lucky and you play your cards right, you might be among the blessed few who receives an acceptance in the spring… giving you the right to gloat in the general direction of your friends who are just starting to study for the GMAT.

tell your partner to take the GMAT

During a break in my GMAT tutoring festivities today, I felt like reading some MBA applicant blogs, and I stumbled upon a blog written by the wife of a Booth MBA student. And now I’m incredibly jealous.

Let me explain: I came to NYC last summer because my girlfriend was starting law school in White Plains, about 45 minutes north of NYC. I now consider myself a law school widow. If I’m lucky, Amber will pull her nose out of the law textbooks once or twice a week. The rest of the time, she spends a solid 12-16 hours per day either in class, applying for internships, or studying. Not fun.

One of my good friends even suggested that I adopt a “stunt double” girlfriend for the next three years. There would be no conjugal rights involved, but I at least would have a reliable date on the weekends. My friend even found a suitable, willing, recently-divorced faux girlfriend for me… but she moved out of NYC before we started faux-dating.

Anyway, I got a big kick out of reading Elizabeth Dark’s b-school partner blog–she actually seems to see her husband more than she did before b-school. Quite the opposite of law school partner life. Case in point: Amber allowed me to take her out on Valentine’s Day, but we had to spend the entire afternoon and part of the evening in coffeehouses so that she could study.

I know that plenty of people (my girlfriend included) give some thought to both business school and law school before settling on one or the other. If you’re in doubt, take the GMAT and go to business school. And if your wife/husband/bf/gf is thinking about taking the LSAT, do whatever you have to do to make him/her take the GMAT instead. You’ll spend far fewer lonely nights crying your eyes out because you miss your partner.

OK, I’m completely kidding about that last part. But seriously, b-school doesn’t have to be torturous for your partner. So if you’re on the fence, hire a GMAT tutor and get to work.

a hearty congratulations

It always feels a little bit like Christmas morning when my students start receiving acceptance letters, and MBA “admit season” is my favorite time of year–at least when the news is good. I work with a lot of great people who work like crazy to achieve their goals, and watching them succeed is one of the best parts of my job as a GMAT tutor.

I’ve heard some great news from some very deserving people already this season, but one stands out, even though I did relatively little to help his candidacy. My friend Hari (please visit his blog if you haven’t already) probably put in more hours of research, studying, and writing than anybody I’ve ever seen. He did everything humanly possible to achieve his MBA goals, but still received a disappointing (and incomprehensible) string of rejections a few months ago.

Well, Hari finally got the admit that he so richly deserved, and he’s headed to IESE in Spain this fall–one of the world’s best business schools, and one of Hari’s top choices.

Congratulations, my friend. You absolutely earned this.

how much do MBA recommendations matter?

Anybody who knows me well (or knows my GMAT blog well) has heard me say that work experience is the most important part of your MBA admissions profile. By far. Honestly, nothing else is even close, and that includes the GMAT.

The GMAT, for what it’s worth, is a relatively small part of MBA admissions. Most schools just use the GMAT to make sure that the tougher academic classes (particularly the quantitative stuff–statistics, microeconomics, financial accounting, macroeconomics) won’t make you go running home to your mommy. Other than that, the schools are concerned with the GMAT only insofar as it impacts their rankings. Unfortunately, GMAT scores are part of some rankings formulas, and, since the rankings are part of an MBA program’s prestige, b-schools are forced to pay attention to their averages.

Other than that, nobody really cares about the GMAT. A 780 or an 800 gets you nowhere by itself. Haas, for example, rejects 86% of all students with a 750 or above. At most schools, a 780 doesn’t really get you much further than a 700 or a 720.

So one of the other questions I frequently field is this: how important are MBA recommendations, and what constitutes a great recommendation?

In a way, I think that recommendations are a little bit like the GMAT in terms of the role that they play in the admissions process. The GMAT isn’t really an issue at all, unless your score is relatively weak. As long as your GMAT score is close to the interquartile range for your chosen MBA program, you’ll probably be OK. Recommendations, similarly, aren’t much of an issue, unless they’re flawed in some way.

I’m pretty convinced that the vast majority of MBA recommendations are solid-but-boring, and that’s probably good enough. Your boss will probably say “yup, this employee of mine is great,” without really putting too much emotion into the writing. This type of recommendation does almost nothing for you–good or bad. It won’t help you, but at least it won’t hurt. I suspect that somewhere between 60% and 80% of recommendations fall into this category, but that’s just a guess.

How might you get hurt by a rec? Well, your boss might secretly hate you. You might also make the mistake of choosing an irrelevant recommender. If, for example, your recommender is your supervisor from a job you had eight years ago, he or she might be completely unable to speak competently about your current skills and situation. Worse yet, the recommendation will make the adcom wonder why you can’t get a more recent colleague or supervisor to write a recommendation for you.

Oddly enough, I occasionally get requests to write recommendations for my clients. That’s a terrible, terrible idea. I’m just an admissions consultant and GMAT tutor who gets paid by the hour. I could write a great recommendation for you, but it would be blisteringly obvious to the adcom that I have an economic stake in your success, and that I am a long ways from being an unbiased colleague or supervisor with legitimate knowledge of your talents. Similarly, I think it’s a mistake to ask career coaches, mentors, or friends to do the recommendations. Stick very strictly to people who met you in a professional context, and you’ll be fine.

That said, what can you do to make a recommendation great? If a good recommendation doesn’t really help or hurt… well, is there a way to engineer a recommendation that stands out in some way, and really helps your candidacy?

First of all, you want to be 100% sure that your recommenders know exactly what your plans are for business school and beyond. Give them your CV or resume, and a full rundown of your plans. Give them your essays, if you can. If your recommender can specifically address your goals and strengths, it makes the recommendation much more credible and powerful.

The very best recommendations are the ones that grab the adcom by the collar, stare the adcom in the eyes, and force them to listen. For example, an outstanding recommendation for somebody named Sarah might feel a little bit like this: “Listen, butthole. I know everything there is to know about Sarah. She’s applying to your school, and she’s a f**king amazing human being, and she’s an unbelievable employee with senior management written all over her, and you’re a damned fool if you don’t get down on your knees and beg her to attend your school. She’s the best. You hear me, a**hole! She’s the best. Now, get down on your knees, and BEG her to come to your school. You’ll be glad you did… on your knees, NOW!… ” The swearing is unnecessary, but if your recommender can write with that sort of spirit, you’ll catch the adcom’s attention.

(A little side story: back when I was a teaching assistant in the economics department at Stanford, one of my macroeconomics students asked me if I would be willing to serve as a reference for a VC job he’d applied for. I didn’t really know him all that well, and I don’t think that he was a particularly great student. On the other hand, I knew that he probably had almost no access to his professors in giant Stanford economics lectures, and I understood that I was his best option. All I knew about him was that he probably asked more questions than any of my other students, and I respected him for it. And he was very polite and well-spoken, if not brilliant.

When the VC firm called me, I had nothing else to say, but I kept going on and on about how unusual it was to meet an undergraduate who was so unashamed to ask questions, and who was so persistent and likable all at the same time. I rambled on about how great he was, without offering any real detail–I didn’t even remember what his grades were, so I couldn’t talk about those–until the VC lady made me shut the hell up. My student got the job. I’m sure that he earned it in other ways, but I’m also pretty sure that my effusiveness and wordiness helped at least a little bit.)

Let’s be honest: not everybody can (or will) write an enthusiastic, engaging, energetic recommendation. But if you have any colleagues, clients, or supervisors who can go to bat for you like that, beg them to write your MBA recs.

But if you don’t know anybody who is that persuasive, no worries. Just don’t screw it up, and you’ll be fine.