Whose advice really matters on your MBA applications?

“It takes a village”, the old adage goes. That’s one way we like to summarize the MBA journey. Although the application process may seem like a long, lonely road at the beginning, savvy applicants know to seek multiple perspectives along the way. And in our experience, even if you don’t seek out that advice, it will be handed to you freely on a regular basis. But as you know, as in all matters in life, not all second opinions are created equal. After all, you wouldn’t seek advice from a heart surgeon for your torn ACL, even though both are medical professionals. Instead you may see an orthopedist for the injury and then see a physical therapist for a non-surgical rehab solution. The MBA application process is no different. So how do you know whose advice to take (or not take)? And whose opinion to seek out and why? You’re in luck, we’ve broken it all down for you here.

WHOSE ADVICE MATTERS?
Through all the well-intentioned advice you may receive throughout your MBA application process, these opinions matter most, in our experience.
  1. Adcom or former adcom. This is the equivalent of hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. These are the folks who will be reviewing your applications and making your admissions decisions. So their opinion certainly matters! Many schools host online Q&A sessions with their adcoms and have an admissions blog. Take advantage of those resources. A number of consulting firms also partner with former adcom so if you decide to work with a professional, seize the opportunity to get an adcom review of your application.
  2. Current student or alum involved in admissions process. Although these folks aren’t decision makers in the admissions process, they are influencers. They are typically alumni interviewers or application reviewers and will have insight into the admissions mindset and latest trends. They can tell you what they’ve seen work and not work in the past. Of most value, perhaps, is that someone with this perspective can guide you on areas to focus on in your essays and interview that will help you communicate fit with the program.
  3. Professional consultant or adviser with breadth of experience. The decision to hire an admissions consultant is a highly personal one so we’re not here today to tell you that everyone should do so. However, the value of a consultant is sometimes misunderstood. Yes, a consultant will help you break down the application process into bite-size pieces, will keep you on track, will provide feedback on your essays, and many other well-publicized benefits. But the perhaps greatest value of a consultant is the breadth of his or her perspective. An experienced consultant with an MBA has not only been in your shoes as an applicant but has also worked across schools, across industries, across nationalities, and has an extremely well-informed perspective on the application process from multiple angles. And what that means for the applicant is that the consultant’s advice will be creative, multi-faceted and anything but cookie-cutter. This perspective is highly complementary to the adcom perspective (whose lens is mostly academic – more on who the adcom is) and the student/alum perspective (whose lens is school-specific and limited to his/her “bubble” of experience).
  4. Yourself!Don’t discount your own views and intuitions. At the end of the day, this is your application. So if you disagree with any advice you received from the above parties, do your research of course, but feel free to disregard it and forge your own path.
WHOSE ADVICE DOESN’T MATTER?
That’s a bit of a trick question (sorry!) because everyone has something to offer. The key is taking it with a grain of salt and recognizing where to isolate the input. Here’s a bit more direction on that.
  1. Colleague/friend/family member with an MBA. There are definitely benefits to showing your essays to your colleague who went to HBS or your uncle who went to Wharton – we would never tell you not to. However, watch out for advice and feedback that makes you question your entire application story. Although these folks are well-meaning, they haven’t been in the trenches with you for the last several months building out your story and essay themes. And remember that they’re most likely coming from a very narrow perspective – their own experience. So should you ignore them all together? Definitely not! Reach out to them with school-specific questions, advice on fit, and insight into what they got out of their MBAs. You’ll be glad you did.
  2. Mom/Dad/sibling or anyone who “knows you well”. While there’s certainly value in getting the opinions of folks who know you well, remember that they likely don’t understand the process. Think about what a novice you were when you first started. They may make great proof-readers but be cautious with taking their advice on content.
  3. Forums and peer reviews. With the intensity and competitive nature of the MBA application process, it’s nearly impossible for any applicant to stay away from the forums. And that’s fine because those platforms can deliver helpful insights and tips. But remember who the authors are – anyone with an opinion! And those opinions are often uninformed or acquired second or third hand. So take them with a grain of salt. When in doubt, reach out to someone really in the know to confirm.
Bottom line: take advantage of all your resources strategically. Take a cue from politics and form your own application “cabinet”. Hopefully now you have a better idea of whose advice to lean on and whose to filter.
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