Securing a seat at a top M.B.A. program isn't a slam-dunk for anybody, and it's rare that an applicant can't improve his or her candidacy in some way. If you're thinking of applying to business school in the next year or two, there are several steps you can take now that will pay off in a big way down the road. With a little planning and a commitment of just a few hours a week, you can rethink your current list of "safety" schools and you might actually get into an M.B.A. program you now think of as a long shot.
Community involvement: Business schools aim to train future leaders and want to see applicants who are concerned with doing great work and improving the world around them. Now is the time to deepen or establish your involvement with a community organization. Don't use your long work hours or grueling travel schedule as an excuse for neglecting this area of your application.
If you haven't done any volunteer work lately, get online and you'll find opportunities to get involved by the weekend. It really is as simple as that. Candidates who get started now will have a full year of service under their belts by the time applications are due.
On the other hand, if you have been involved in some form of community service over the last couple of years, now's the time to step up your activities a notch. Consider roles that will allow you to take a leadership position and create real impact. Offering to organize an event is a great discrete activity that will allow you to work in a team, have an impact, and show results.
[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Business Schools.]
Academic enhancement: Whether you have issues with your GMAT score or your undergrad GPA, you should take action now to improve your overall academics before next fall. If, after taking the GMAT once or twice, you score below what you believe you're capable of, consider a prep course to enhance your skills and remind you how to solve those logic-based high school math problems.
An undergrad GPA hovering around 3.5 is generally considered fine. If your GPA is a 3.2 or below, or you majored in liberal arts, you may want to consider taking quantitative classes to enhance your academic profile. The M.B.A. canon generally consists of calculus, statistics, and microeconomics. If you took any of those classes in undergrad and scored a C or below, you should certainly retake the classes now. Where you take the class is much less important than the course material and final grade. A local community college is a great option.
Leadership and management potential: A promotion between now and next fall would be ideal, but you don't have to wait for your boss to act in order to enhance your leadership and management potential.
Volunteer for that cross-functional team or project; offer to help your boss with a tough long-term goal; or get involved with employee groups at work, whether through volunteering in the community or promoting diversity in your company. Letting others at work know you are interested in developing your people skills may uncover more opportunities to go above and beyond, and provide great material for your résumé and essays.
[Weigh the value of attending a summer business program.]
Enrichment from reading: Many future M.B.A.s become so enmeshed in the daily grind that reading for pleasure is a foreign concept. Good readers make good writers, so immerse your brain in the English language! You'll not only expand your vocabulary; you'll also learn, or relearn, techniques for organizing your essays that will enhance both your application and GMAT scores.
Deirdre Leopold, managing director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School, says that it's a well-known fact that she always asks interviewees what they are currently reading. Pick up the habit and read up on the topics that are important to you. If you need inspiration, find out what HBS professors are reading over summer break. You'll have more to talk about with interviewers, and you may even gain some material for your essays.
The time to start strengthening your candidacy is now, and I guarantee that focusing on these four areas over the next nine to 12 months will transform your b-school application.