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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

April 15, 2009

The Networked Graduate School Applicant

Whether applying to an MBA, LL.M., or other type of graduate program, I know that many successful applicants put extensive time into networking. I think this is particularly important for those trying to obtain admission at top MBA programs, but in its own way, is also important for those applying to masters and especially Ph.D. programs.

While it is certainly possible to simply read the online and offline school information, submit an application, and get admitted, many successful applicants do much more than that. Start networking now!

If your finances and logistics permit, there is nothing to be compared to visiting a school before you apply. The advantages are multiple:
1. You can really determine whether the school fits you. I have had clients who visit a school and quickly determine that it is ideal for them, while others have visited a school and realized that it might be less than ideal. If a school is not right for you, it is certainly better to discover that before application. If you realize a school is your first choice then you know how you need to prioritize it.
2. You can obtain a clear image of the program. This will help you both for purposes of writing your application essays and also for any required interviews.
3. You can really personalize what you write in essays and say in interviews about the school. While off-campus encounters with alumni, current students, and admissions officers can also serve this purpose (see below), nothing beats direct experience. Your ability to highly personalize your reasons for attending a particular school will be greatly enhanced by being able to refer to a class you observed, a faculty member you interacted with, your own sense of the place, and your communication with current students.
4. By visiting, you directly communicate your strong desire to attend the school. I know almost all schools will say that it does not matter whether you visit, but actually and especially on the margins, it can. The value of a visit depends on the school, even among top business schools. Don't look for visits to HBS or Stanford GSB to make any difference, but for schools with less popular locations (Tuck and Duke for example), I would assume that it does make a huge difference. Especially for any MBA program that has open interviews (not just invitation-only interviews), assume visiting can make a difference.
5. You can establish meaningful contact with current students. While it is possible to have such contact via email, direct face-to-face contact always has a higher impact. You are more likely to learn both what is good and bad about a program from students in a face-to-face situation.

As both Steve Green, and I have pointed out, contacting faculty is a key networking strategy for Ph.D. and some other types of graduate programs. This method may not be so effective for business or law schools, but is critical for those pursuing degrees that involve doing research under a faculty adviser. Given the importance of such advisers to the completion of a thesis or dissertation, figuring out who you would actually want to work with before you apply is very important. Even with MBA programs, if there is someone on the faculty that you really want to study with, it certainly makes sense to try and have initial contact with them. As schools have different policies on applicants contacting faculty, ask the admissions office if it is OK to do so.

By the way, if you want to learn about how faculty at a school are evaluated by the students, visit Rate My Professors. I have previously discussed that site here.

Many programs have student ambassador or other types of official programs for putting applicants in direct contact with students. Fully utilizing such methods can be a great way to learn about a program. Such contacts can also help you have an even better campus visit. I would also urge you to contact any professional interest (marketing for example) national (Japanese, Korean, Chinese, African, Indian for example), ethnic (African American, Latino for example), religious (Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish for example), identity (LGBT for example), and personal interest (hockey, salsa dance, wine for example) student clubs that you might want to participate in. For MBA students, contact with students who are likely to share your interests can prove very useful. I think most Japanese readers of this blog know to do so already, but making contact with students can prove extremely helpful. One of the reasons, I am happy to sponsor the HBS, Haas, and Tuck Japan treks/trips is that I know that the Japanese students at those schools are very helpful to Japanese applicants.

Current students are so useful to communicate with because they can really tell you the reality of the program. It is important to talk to multiple students to get a full perspective because each student will have a specific perspective on their experience.

Some schools make it especially easy to get in touch with alumni. From my perspective, meeting alumni is a very important part of the school selection process, especially for those pursuing professional degrees (MBA, LL.M., MPP, MPA for example). Especially if you are meeting alumni in the place that you intend to return to post-MBA, I think it is important to make sure that you want to be part of this alumni network. One of the core benefits of attending a top MBA program is the network that you become a part of. If you meet the alumni from a school and you are feeling underwhelmed by them, you might really want to reconsider whether it is worth applying to the school. While talking with recent alumni is likely to help you have a better grasp of the present situation at the school, talking with older alumni will help you better assess the longer term value of a degree. While talking with alumni is great, it is important to factor in their lack of present connection to the program when assessing their advice to you.

Finally, the old adage, "it is not what you know, but who you know that matters," does at least partially apply to geting admitted. Networking can be used effectively as an admissions strategy because it can provide applicants with a strategic informational advantage over their less networked competitors. One of the reasons that starting the admissions process early is so important is because effective networking is a time consumming process, so start doing it now!

If you are looking for a highly experienced admissions consultant who is passionate about helping his clients succeed, please feel free to contact me at adammarkus@gmail.com to arrange an initial consultation. To learn more about my services, see here. Initial consultations are conducted by Skype or telephone. For clients in Tokyo, a free face-to-face consultation is possible after an initial Skype or telephone consultation. I only work with a limited number of clients per year and believe that an initial consultation is the best way to determine whether there is a good fit. Whether you use my service or another, I suggest making certain that the fit feels right to you.

-Adam Markus
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