I have followed and admired Poets&Quants for many years, and it recently played an important role in my admission to the executive MBA program at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. So, if you are reading this, you are already on the right track! Along with Chicago Booth, I also was accepted at EMBA programs at Northwestern Kellogg, Columbia Business School, and NYU Stern.
Applying to top EMBA programs requires a lot of patience and commitment. It’s as strategic an effort as it is intensive. I will walk you step-by-step through the process I followed to prepare and submit EMBA applications and prepare for interviews, and explain why I ultimately decided to join Chicago Booth’s EMBA Class of 2022.
When the world fell apart because of the pandemic, and we were all quarantined at home, I suddenly had time to start checking off items on my “I Will Do This One Day” list. The biggest item on the list was getting an MBA. So, I got to work!
FINDING YOUR ‘WHY’: THE PREPARATION & APPLICATION PROCESS
This was in late March, which meant that I was rushed for time. I needed to approach the application process in an extremely systematic way.
The very first thing I did was verbalize my WHY for seeking an MBA, and why it was the right time to start the process. This required more soul-searching than I anticipated, as well as an extensive list of pros and cons.
My WHY is threefold: First, to get to the next level in my career, I need to learn how a business works from a broader context by getting exposure to subjects like accounting, finance, and economics. Second, I want to gain a global business perspective. Finally, I want to build a strong professional network with my cohort and alumni.
Once I had my WHY, it was time to solidify my school selection criteria. This is an important step, because an EMBA program is an investment of your time, effort, and money, so you want to make sure that you choose wisely! I knew that I wanted to apply only to elite schools, so I looked up the U.S. News 2020 EMBA Rankings and picked the top schools that were still accepting applications. I had missed Wharton’s application deadline, but because of Covid-19 many schools had extended their deadlines. I ended up applying to Chicago Booth, Northwestern Kellogg, Columbia, NYU, and MIT Sloan.
Next, I made a list of application requirements for each of the five schools and started collecting required materials. I also began contacting admissions offices. Most schools provide a free consultation and resume review for potential EMBA applicants. I highly recommend taking advantage of this offering for two reasons:
- You get a chance to speak directly with someone from the admissions office who can answer any questions you have. This is an opportunity for you to walk them through your resume, ask for feedback, and build a rapport. Ultimately, they may end up being part of the admissions decision committee — in fact they usually do — and you want them to root for you.
- It’s a great opportunity to find out whether the school will be a good fit for you. Don’t underestimate the importance of the school’s “vibe” — it’s crucial to determining whether the school is the right fit for you, and vice versa.
During these reviews, you can also request to be connected to an alum for an informational interview.
RESUME TIP: One piece of advice I received from multiple schools during resume reviews was to emphasize the impact of my work over titles. They suggested that I specifically mention the size of engagements, quantifiable results and outcomes, and keep the resume less than two pages.
Next, I contacted my supervisor and ex-supervisor, who are also my mentors, and requested them to be my recommenders. They said yes! Most EMBA programs require your immediate supervisor to be one of your recommenders, and it is generally a good idea anyway for your supervisor to be in the loop and supportive of your goals — definitely get their buy-in. The supervisor will also need to provide a Time Sponsorship letter, a required application artifact.
RECOMMENDATIONS TIP: EMBA applications require very detailed and specific recommendation letters. Be respectful of the recommender’s time and provide them with as much help as you can. You can do that by setting up a call with them to go over your recent achievements, aspirations, and plans after the MBA, and answer any questions they may have. Lastly, make sure to give them ample time to write the recommendation.
In parallel, I booked my Executive Assessment test date and started preparing for the test. I recommend booking this sufficiently in advance so you can secure a date that is convenient for you. Since Texas, where I live, never completely closed down, I did get to take the exam in-person instead of taking it online.
Then I worked on my essays. Each school had a slightly different set of questions they needed applicants to answer. The common theme for the primary essay: Why an MBA? Why now? And — what will you do after getting your MBA?
Each essay went through many revisions, and I had several folks review them. Poets&Quants has published tips on How To Write An EMBA Essay That Will Get You Accepted. Here are a few more:
- Know your WHYs well and pour your heart into the essays. You may encounter strange feelings, fears, hopes, and aspirations. Those are signs that you are on the right track.
- Research each school really well, look at what courses they offer, who teaches those courses, and why are you drawn to the school, and mention it all in the essays.
- Use concise language to convey your thoughts and tell your stories. Make sure every word earns its place in the essay.
- Make sure that your recommender’s responses are in line with your essays.
- Use the optional essay wisely. I come from a highly technical background, but I am passionate about art — I used the optional essay to communicate my relationship with art and how it impacts my performance at work by allowing my left and right brains to complement each other. You can use the optional essay to tell a unique life story, to describe your interests, or to explain anything relevant that has shaped you into who you are.
When drafting your essays, keep in mind that admissions committees are mainly looking for three things: to learn about your unique life story and experiences; to hear about your goals; and to discover why you are interested in that particular school.
ESSAY TIP: If possible, get professional help to review your essays. I highly recommend Aringo MBA Consulting for this, and for help in preparing for interviews.
Most elite EMBA programs require qualified candidates to go through a second round of the admissions process: one-on-one interviews. Because of pandemic travel restrictions, all of my interviews except one were conducted via video conference. The exception was NYU Stern, which was done over the phone, without video.
Logistically, I made sure I had the right technology for the video calls, that the camera angle was optimal, and that the background was neutral and non-distracting. Dress code is always formal, unless otherwise specified. But if you do nothing else, my biggest recommendation for EMBA interviews is this: PRACTICE. Google a list of questions from previous years and practice going over them with a buddy. In the end, my interviews were mostly conversational and pleasant.
Remember, candidates may target elite schools, but the schools are also courting high-potential candidates so they don’t lose them to competitors. Treat the interview as you would a job interview and demonstrate maturity and executive presence.
INTERVIEW TIP: As cliché as it sounds, be genuine and authentic.
This was the hardest part for me. The anticipation was brutal, and I checked my email multiple times a day. I don’t recommend that, primarily because if you get accepted, the schools like to personally call you to share the good news.
I used this time to finish up my informational interviews with the alumni contacts, auditing classes, tying up any loose ends, and sending out thank-you notes to recommenders and others who helped me during the process.
In June, the decisions finally started coming in. First it was NYU Stern, then Columbia, then Kellogg, and finally Chicago Booth — all within a matter of two to three weeks. Needless to say, I was thrilled with the results.
Throughout the process, make sure you keep admissions offices in the loop. Reach out to them with questions, updates, and any issues you encounter. For example, once I received my first two acceptance letters, I reached out to admissions contacts at other schools to expedite their admission and scholarship decisions. This helped me to fairly weigh all of my options.
WHY DID I CHOOSE CHICAGO BOOTH?
Having multiple offers of admission was a great problem to have. I was lucky to be in that position. Now it was time for another pros and cons list. Here are the criteria that I used:
- Location — I was more drawn to Chicago than to New York City for multiple reasons, the primary one being shorter flights from Dallas. Immediately, my choices were reduced by 50% and it was down to Kellogg versus Booth.
- Curriculum and Teaching Approach — I was impressed by Booth’s emphasis on analytical problem-solving techniques and teaching approach, as well as their competitive entrepreneurship program (Global New Venture Challenge).
- Faculty — Booth has top-notch faculty and several Nobel laureates who teach executive MBA classes.
- Alumni Network — Although Kellogg has a larger alumni network than Booth, I found that Booth’s network was more close-knit and accessible. Others may disagree, but that was my personal experience.
- School Reputation — Both schools are very highly regarded, but Booth was ranked the No. 1 EMBA program for 2020 by U.S. News.
- COVID-19 Situational Preparedness — While other schools were still assessing the situation and deciding what the next quarter will look like, Booth seemed more prepared — it already had a plan that was communicated promptly and clearly. We are taking classes online this quarter and have already started weekly pre-MBA sessions. Classes officially start on August 28.
PREPARING TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL
It will take a deep commitment to earn an executive MBA degree in 21 months while working full-time. The demands of such a rigorous program cannot be underestimated. I had to make some accommodations to prepare for this lifestyle change. I arranged with my employer to sponsor my time to ensure I have adequate bandwidth to manage my day-to-day work responsibilities while also having time to do coursework and attend classes throughout the week. In normal circumstances, my job requires travel to client sites from Monday to Thursday on alternate weeks; I ensured that I would be able to adjust my schedule such that these weeks coincide with weeks where travel to Chicago for class will also be required.
On the personal front, I needed to make sure that my husband is fully onboard for this upcoming undertaking. My husband and I have planned household responsibilities such that he will take on a larger share, freeing up my time for studies. His work does not require travel, so he will be able to serve as my support system during this time. An EMBA is also a significant financial investment, and we also had to make sure that we had a plan for paying for the program.
It’s important to understand, however, that no amount of planning will be completely enough. I will need to occasionally ask for help from colleagues, friends, and family. I will need to decide what non-essential activities I can remove from my schedule to make time for coursework and classes (goodbye Netflix!). The key is to keep a schedule and stay organized.
In planning an EMBA application, think of it not as a formality, but as a marketing tool, and use it to tell your story to the admissions committee. Use it as an opportunity to showcase your accomplishments, demonstrate what you will contribute to the class, and how you are a great fit for the school. The process is by no means easy. Besides the mental stress, there are also a lot of moving pieces that need to be dealt with systematically. But my experience taught me that focus, staying organized, and getting help from the right resources can get you through it, even when you have your doubts.
Sowm Bhardwaj is a management consultant at Utilicast in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. She has 12 years of experience working in the energy/utilities industry. She is a problem solver who specializes in building new teams and leading diverse and complex strategic and technical engagements. Sowm previously worked at Capgemini and Powercosts; she has a bachelor’s degree in electronics and communications engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering. She is currently pursuing an executive MBA from University of Chicago Booth School of Business. When she is not working or studying, Sowm enjoys traveling, reading, and painting.