Keep Calm and Press On: Managing Stress During the MBA Application Process

The following post was prepared by Liz Bender, a senior admissions consultant with The MBA Exchange. Liz earned her MBA degree at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, where she worked in the admissions office and advised MBA applicants. Liz majored in marketing and management, and has over 10 years of corporate experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

Applying to business school is stressful. Very stressful. At some point, all applicants experience some anxiety, which stems mostly from a perceived lack of control. Thus, the best way to calm your apprehension is to maintain control before, during and after you apply:

1. Before Applying

Examine your academic record and maximize your GMAT score. Your undergraduate GPA is not going to change so don’t stress over it. Just explain the circumstances and consider other ways that you’ve demonstrated academic competence. For many applicants, a strong GMAT score can be the perfect “do-over.” With competition for admission to top schools being so strong, it’s imperative that you achieve a score that adds value to your candidacy and increases your chances for success. View the GMAT as a chance to add a newer, perhaps even more relevant data point to your profile. Prepare thoroughly, test, repeat if necessary. If "test anxiety" is an issue, seek professional guidance. If you still don’t achieve a competitive score, all is not lost as there are non-test alternatives (e.g., extension courses) to consider.

Choose your schools wisely. While this is an area where you have total control, to keep anxiety at bay, be realistic and give yourself realistic options. If you apply to all stretch schools where your profile (GPA, GMAT, years of experience, etc.) is below the historic ranges, you could be wasting your time and asking for a giant anxiety attack.

Consider your past/present/future. History can’t be re-written. Or can it? While you can’t change the years of experience on your resume, the companies you worked for, the unfortunate lay-off you suffered, or your abbreviated list of extracurricular activities (who has time for more clubs?), maximize the significance of your affiliations and connect your passions and strengths to your future aspirations.

Instead of being anxious about what your profile may lack, you must confront the gaps and leverage the strengths. A professional admissions consulting firm such as The MBA Exchange offers personalized advice on how to explain a modest GPA, maximize your GMAT score, create your targeted school list, discover the true impact of your professional experience, bolster your non-work leadership, and articulate your post-MBA goals.

2. While Preparing Your Applications

Convey who you are through powerful essays and persuasive recommendations. These are elements of the candidacy where you have the most control and freedom, which should reduce your anxiety, right? Unfortunately, in some applications you will be offered way too much freedom. Who really WANTS to create a video, answer an impromptu question in-person or upload a PowerPoint presentation? Isn’t there enough to do without having to “be creative?” In other applications, you will barely have enough freedom. Who can put a lifetime of ambition into 100 characters or fewer and still feel good about it? Next, you must trust 2-3 other people to write strong recommendations – on a deadline. What if they screw it up? One key is to suggest in advance some topics and examples they may want to consider when endorsing you.

Watch the calendar and be precise. If your anxiety isn’t high enough, you simply can’t miss the school’s official deadlines. Applications must arrive error-free and on-time. All content must be honest and authentic. And the kicker…they must be submitted electronically. So, allow time for power outages, technical difficulties and natural disasters – they have all happened.

There is a lot to do, the clock is ticking and you feel overwhelmed. The MBA Exchange can help you make a solid action plan and stick to it so that writing your essays, working with your recommenders and submitting strong, timely applications goes as smoothly as possible.

3. After Submitting Your Applications

Ace the interview: You’ve been invited to interview. Elation is quickly displaced by fear. Enough said. Click here to read our blog entry about interviewing.

Prepare to wait: Waiting for notification of admissions decisions is perhaps the most stressful phase because there is nothing more you can do. So, continue to excel at work, decompress at a yoga class, and enjoy more time with friends and family. If you’re admitted, this may be the last breather you have for several years.

Prepare to wait some more: Thankfully, you can do more than wait if you find yourself on a waitlist (or two or even three – it happens).

The MBA Exchange can help you prepare for your interviews and if needed, effectively navigate the waitlist process and improve your chances of acceptance. Above all, we know how you feel and can serve as a sounding board for your concerns. By this point your roommate, significant other and/or family are probably tired of hearing about them!

Unfortunately, there is no way to completely avoid anxiety. To calm your uneasiness, focus on what you can control, make a solid plan, and consider engaging an expert. The MBA Exchange can be your professional and personal partner – before, during and after you apply to business school.