Demystifying MBA Application Networking

In an already subjective and sometimes vague process, “networking” can seem particularly abstract or worse, can be simply another “thing” on your long MBA application to-do list. What is it exactly? Do you really need to do it? How will it help you get into your dream school? How do you get started? These are all questions that we’ve been hearing a lot lately from applicants. And understandably so. After all, there’s no hard deliverable attached to networking. However, we believe it’s a critical part of the MBA application process and now’s the perfect time to get started – before the essay questions are released and you’re managing a busy work schedule, summer vacations, and your apps. So we’ve broken it all down for you here in order to eliminate some of the mystery and ambiguity that surrounds networking.

WHAT IS NETWORKING?

Let’s start there. It’s easy to be confused about what “networking” even means. (I was certainly unsure about what it was when I first started with my MBA applications.) Some folks think it’s very transactional or artificial (i.e. schmoozing), where you reach out to someone to “get something” like a favor, information, or introduction to another person. While that may be true for some people, that’s not the approach or attitude that we recommend. Instead, simply put, networking is building relationships. In the case of your MBA applications, it’s building relationships with a variety of folks who are connected to the application process in some way. It’s a two-way street, where you get to know people and they get to know you. Usually, the relationship is initiated because you have something in common – a friend, an interest, a hobby, an employer, etc. – but the relationship is nurtured because you invest in it and because both parties enjoy it and benefit from it.
Oh so “networking” is just a fancy way of saying “meeting new people”, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, because that’s often true but no, because it’s mostly about what happens after the initial meeting and more importantly, you want to be strategic in your approach. By that I mean that you want to invest your efforts in building relationships with folks who can help guide, mentor, and inform your MBA application process and avoid those who will be detractors. For example, your disgruntled colleague who doesn’t feel like the company “rewards” her for having an MBA may not be the best person to ask about the long-term value of the degree. However, reaching out to a former classmate from undergrad in February who’s a first year student at HBS and scheduling a phone chat with her, later meeting her for coffee when you visit campus in April, and then re-connecting with her a few weeks before you submit your application is a perfect example of networking. You’re sure to gain some valuable insights and advice about the school, its culture, essay tips, etc. through those interactions. And who knows, maybe she’s recruiting at your company for a post-MBA role and you can share your experience with her in return.
It’s ultimately up to you to find your own personal style of networking that makes you feel comfortable and authentic but rest assured that doing this right will only contribute to stronger applications.

WHY IS NETWORKING IMPORTANT?

Now you understand that networking is an important part of the application process but why exactly? You can look at this in a couple of different ways. If your competition (i.e. other applicants) is networking and leveraging all of the resources at their disposal to help inform and strengthen their applications and you’re not, you risk losing out. For an even better reason that doesn’t involve “because everyone else is doing it”, networking can help you put together a more cohesive and compelling application, which in turn increases your chances of admission to your dream MBA program. Let’s dig into how that can be.
First and foremost, networking is an opportunity to discover new things about a school, a career path, a company, etc. that can help you solidify your fit and “reasons why” for any of them. And most of the time, that kind of information can’t be found on a website. For example, providing a thoughtful and well-researched answer to why school X is the right fit for you and your goals can be the difference that gets you admitted.
Networking is also a tremendous opportunity to get valuable advice from folks who have been in your shoes. Learn about the unexpected benefits of an MBA from a recent graduate, learn from past MBA students’ mistakes, and get admissions “tips” from folks who have insight into the process. The advice you get along the way can help make the process more efficient, straight-forward, or at least slightly less stressful for you.
Lastly, the MBA application process can seem like a long, lonely journey and it’s nice to feel supported along the way. My clients are usually blown away (I know I definitely was) by how supportive and helpful current students, alums, colleagues with MBAs, etc. are once they find out you’re pursuing an MBA. MBA’s love to pay-it-forward so let them! Just be sure to be appreciative and stay in touch with them once you have news about decisions so they can remain invested in your journey.

WHAT NOT TO DO

It should go without saying that all social etiquette rules apply in MBA application networking but just as a quick refresher, here are a few key “DON’Ts”.
DON’T wait until the last minute: networking is not an on-off switch and should be approached like a marathon, not a sprint. Building relationships, scheduling coffee chats, etc. takes time. So start early – like now! Give yourself space to follow-up with your new contacts and keep in touch with them throughout the process. Waiting until two days before the deadline to reach out to a current student with a list of questions whose answers you will plug into your “why school X” essay will not do you any favors.
DON’T ask basic or shallow questions: when you’ve finally nailed down that coffee with an alum from your dream school, don’t waste their time asking questions whose answers you could easily find on your own. Instead, do your homework before the meeting and come with thoughtful questions whose answers will truly further your understanding of how the school fits with your goals and objectives. (Here’s a more comprehensiveschool selection guideif you’re just getting started.) You want the other person to be impressed with your level of research because who knows, they may end up being an advocate for your candidacy if they also feel like you’re the right fit for their school!
DON’T be disrespectful or ungrateful for the other person’s time: MBA students, alums, representatives from admissions, etc. are all very busy and while they’re happy to help, it takes effort on their part. So be sure to express your gratitude for their time and input. If they tell you they can only spare 20 minutes, remain vigilant of the time and say your thank-you’s and goodbye’s when it’s up. Those manners will go a long way in leaving a good impression.

HOW TO GET STARTED

With all that said, there’s really no wrong way to start building your network. In thinking about what the ideal network looks like, it’s comprised of current students and/or alums from your target schools, colleagues/former classmates/mentors, etc. with MBAs, and people in your target post-MBA industry/function. (Note that these three categories are not mutually exclusive – most likely one person will fall into more than one bucket.)
An easy place to start is with your existing network – people from work, your undergrad, personal circles, etc. who have MBA’s or are somehow connected to an MBA program. Make a list of these individuals and start reaching out to them for a coffee chat, after-work cocktail, or phone date. Be present during these conversations and take mental note of what you discussed. If you chatted about a particular current event or recent trend in your industry, for example, send that person an article on the relevant topic a couple of weeks later to show that you give as well as receive. After each meeting, be sure to ask that person to connect you with someone else from his/her network who could be helpful in your application process. Then repeat.
Even if the some of the folks above are current students or graduates from your target schools, you should also make a plan to engage with the schools directly. A great way to do this is through a campus visit, ideally coordinated through the school so you have a chance to sit in on a class and meet current students in addition to sitting through a presentation from admissions. If a school visit isn’t possible, plan to attend an in-person information session (the schools host multiple info sessions in major cities around the world so look out for the dates when they’ll be visiting your city) and at the very least, a live webinar hosted by admissions. These are great opportunities to hear what the schools believe are their selling points while giving you a chance to ask questions. In the case of live info sessions, local alumni as well as representatives from admissions typically attend these events so it’s a great time to initiate a dialogue with a few of those folks. Those conversations could even turn into a follow-up meeting or call, depending on how well you connect with them. Not only will engaging with the schools in as many ways as possible help you determine which programs are the right fit for you and why, but it indicates to the adcom that you’re serious about their program and have made the effort to get to know them. Some schools make this a critical part of their admissions decisions so it’s worth putting in the time (i.e. more is more!).
Lastly, you can take advantage of third party platforms and events to further build out your network. LinkedIn, MBA forums (reddit, GMAT Club, Beat the GMAT, etc.), and formal networking events (Poets & Quants is hosting a couple this year, for example) are all great places to engage if you feel like your network is still a bit sparse.
If this seems like a lot of work, it is! But it should be fun. After all, one of the most valuable benefits of an MBA is the network so getting started during your applications will only give you a head start once you arrive on campus in the fall. Best of luck!

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