Map Out Your MBA Timeline

Now is the time to start planning your application, so you can avoid last-minute marathon sessions.

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To avoid last-minute cramming, MBA aspirants should start working on their applications early.

Once you've decided to pursue an MBA, you've got your work cut out for you. MBA applicants need to fit studying for the GMAT and developing essays in with other personal and professional commitments. If you're planning to apply to business school in the fall, now is the time to come up with a game plan for completing the admissions components within a schedule that doesn't necessitate sleepless nights and a jumbo bottle of Maalox. The best way to do this is to put together your MBA application timeline months before your target deadlines.

Allot time for essays and the GMAT: We're slightly more than three months away from Round One at most schools. If you haven't started your applications and are wondering if you still have time, it depends. Among the factors you should weigh: how much time you have in your schedule, how difficult it is for you to write essays, and how focused and motivated you are. In general, three to four months is enough time to submit several applications in the first round. You'll be working hard, but that is a realistic timeline.

[Read about how more b-schools accept the GRE.]

The amount of time MBA aspirants will spend on their applications will vary, depending on writing abilities and general work efficiency. That said, plan to spend between 40 and 60 hours preparing four to eight applications. Non-native English speakers will also likely need to allot more time on their applications, particularly on writing, revising, editing, proofing, formatting, and inputting essays. 

The other piece of this puzzle is, of course, the GMAT. Have you completed the GMAT and are you satisfied with your score? If you still need to take the GMAT, you may have a lot of work ahead of you, as applicants typically devote at least 100 hours to test preparation. Depending on where you are in the process, you may have to take a prep class and perhaps take the test more than once. If this is the case, Round One may not be a realistic option.

[Read 5 tips from MBA applicants who've taken the revised GMAT.]

Structure your work sessions: Some people work most efficiently when they can break up tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, while others prefer to devote several hours to their writing in one sitting. MBA applicants should be aware of the way they work most effectively and structure their writing and editing sessions accordingly.

I've had candidates call me a week before applications are due, planning to take the week off of work, deprive themselves of sleep, and devote all of their time to writing essays to submit in the first round. They figure that 100 hours of work should do the trick. While that may be plenty of time, I'm a big believer that the time should be spread out. Because this is such a personal, soul-searching process, sometimes you just need to call it a night and sleep on it—tough to do when you only have a week.

I typically recommend that candidates allocate two to three hours each time they sit down to work on their essays, particularly for the first few drafts. Essays should be approached holistically; you won't have a compelling final product if you snatched 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there to cobble together that "knowledge into action" essay for the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

Conversely, most applicants should also avoid the "marathon session." Few people are still sharp or creative eight hours into a writing and editing session. If you need to make up for lost time, try breaking it up with a session in the morning and another in the evening.

[Read about how prospective MBAs may face tougher applications.]

Allow some distance: Applicants should also build several weeks for reflection and feedback into their MBA timeline. If you can come back to your essays days later with fresh eyes, you'll often think of a better example or more inspired language to illustrate a certain point. This won't happen if you're forced to work at warp speed.

Distributing your writing and editing over a reasonable period also makes it easier for friends, family, or colleagues to provide feedback. It's unfair to ask someone to turn around comments in a 24-hour period, so provide them with a few days to give you their critiques. Leave yourself adequate time to reflect upon and incorporate their feedback.

We're just getting into the thick of things for most schools. If you're planning to apply this year, now is the time to get started: on GMAT prep, writing essays, selecting recommenders, or just generally piecing together your strategy. The b-school application process is stressful, but careful planning will make the experience manageable and help you channel your energies into continually improving your candidacy until the moment you submit your applications.