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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

How to Prepare Now to Go to Grad School Later

Not ready to apply to business school just yet, but think that it’s something you want to do down the road? It takes a lot of people a few years to pull the trigger on grad school applications—going back to school is a big, expensive decision, and applying can be really time consuming. I started thinking about it a full two years before I ended up submitting my applications!

But even if you’re not ready to commit to applying, there are a lot of things you can do to set yourself up for success and save yourself time in the long run. Here are five ways to help you get the ball rolling as you think about applying to b-school.

1. Take the GMAT

I know it may sound premature, but I would strongly recommend taking the GMAT as far in advance as possible. Taking it early will give you ample time to study, take the pressure off if you have an emergency on test day and need to reschedule, and provide you with the opportunity to re-take it if you don’t like your first score. While you can knock out studying in two or three months, depending on how much material you need to review, trust me—it feels a lot better to get it out of the way so that you can really focus on your essays when it comes time to officially apply.

I took my test the year before I submitted applications and I think it really lowered my stress level going into the process. GMAT scores are valid for five years, so even if your b-school plan gets delayed a few years, you’ll have plenty of time to use your scores.

2. Start an Activity that You’re Passionate About

It’s no secret that many business schools ask applicants to list out community activities on their applications. A lot of people think this means that they need to sign up for an activity that “looks good” a couple years before applying, but this is absolutely the wrong approach. Admissions directors are really, really good at their jobs, and they can spot inauthenticity a mile away.

But while you shouldn’t get involved in something just because you think it will look good, you should get involved in something. If you’re not currently active in an activity outside of work, use this as the excuse you’ve been looking for to get involved in a program you are passionate about. You can do anything you like—volunteer, join a running club, take art classes at the community center. I have a friend who has always loved Irish dancing and got involved taking and teaching courses at a local studio. She got asked about the experience during her interview and thought it helped her stand out.

3. Go on Lots of Coffee Dates

The few years leading up to grad school are the perfect time for you to really think about how you’ll use your degree. To that end, I would really recommend taking the time to schedule informational interviews with a bunch of different MBA alums whose jobs you might be interested in one day, so you can learn more about how they got to where they are.

The timing makes the process feel non-threatening to the interviewee; instead of giving the impression that you’re fishing for a job, you can honestly say that you just want to learn more about their trajectory. You can find alums at your own company or use LinkedIn to search for MBAs from schools you might be interested in attending. For example, I talked to a couple VPs at my organization, and they were able to give me advice about how to leverage the degree in an interview. I found it helpful to talk with them about how they’ve been able to apply the skills they learned while getting an MBA and how they’ve used their MBA networks.

Along with building your network, this will really help you get a sense of how b-school can (or can’t) help your career after graduation—and may give you great connections and stories that can bolster your application.

4. Tack School Visits Onto Planned Trips

Visiting b-schools is extremely expensive and time consuming, but if you start thinking about those visits now, you may be able to save both time and money. You don’t have to plan specific trips for touring schools until you get closer to application time, but it’s a good idea to make use of any traveling you’ll be doing in the next two years. Going up to Boston for work and happen to be thinking about Harvard Business School? Or maybe you’re taking a vacation out to San Francisco and have had a curious eye on UC Berkeley. Wherever you might be traveling to, it’s a good idea to take a peek at what business schools are nearby, and consider adding a visit to your itinerary. It will only take a few hours, and it will save you from having to take another trip down the road.

Even if you don’t see your top choice schools initially, every school you visit will give you more of an idea of what characteristics might be really important to you in the school you finally choose. For example, I visited a school a couple of years ago when I was seeing family in California and was really turned off by the urban campus. Of course that’s just a personal opinion, but it helped me narrow things down when I started my search in earnest.

5. Up Your Education Game

If your undergrad GPA isn’t as high was you would like it to be, or you don’t have a lot of background in business-related subject matter, you might want to consider taking some one-off classes to show your academic commitment and capabilities. For example, you could look into business, math, or economics classes at your local community college or university. This can be expensive, so it definitely isn’t for everyone, but it can be a great way to show b-schools that you’re serious about their academic programs.

Check with your manager about whether or not work can defray at least some of the costs—many teams have a professional development budget for additional training that you may be able to use. Some accredited schools, such as UC Berkeley and UVA Wise, offer certified online courses if you don’t have time to take a class in person, which can be a great way to fit this in your schedule.

Typically b-schools will want you to have enrolled in a university so that you can provide a transcript, but you can always talk with people in the admissions office to see if they have recommendations about courses that aren’t university-based. When you apply, you just submit an additional transcript with your post-graduation classes so that they’re able to see your grades, or include any professional development classes on your resume.

Don’t worry if this seems like a lot to do—you have a lot of time to think about your applications and get things done. But, believe me, getting a head start now will make a huge difference when you do decide to apply.

Photo of woman planning courtesy of Shutterstock.

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