Completed Interview with BTG member accepted to HBS, Booth, and Kellogg

I dropped the ball on this interview for the last few months, but last night Alex (BeatTheGMAT member eskimoroll) was generous enough to answer all of my questions. Alex was recently accepted to HBS, Kellogg, and Booth. I want to thank Alex for the exceptional answers! I hope that this interview will help b-school applicants learn about the strategy from a VERY successful applicant.

1) Tell me a little bit about your background.

I am a normal kid from Chicago who attended a state school where I studied supply chain management although I consider myself a quasi-poet since I considered going into creative writing as an undergrad until I realized that I like being able to pay my rent. During college I interned for a large CPG company working in a plant environment and I developed an appreciation for supply chain work. Upon graduation, I moved to Wisconsin to work for another large CPG company and learned how to succeed in a corporate environment in various roles that involved working for large customers in a supply chain capacity. After a few years in Wisconsin, I was recruited to work in Logistics at another large CPG company located in Minneapolis where I’ve been for the last 4.5 years. My current company has been wonderful to work for and they gave me the opportunity to grow as a leader who can influence across an organization.

2) What made you decide to get an MBA?

My parents were blue collar workers but being Asian, I grew up in a household that really valued education. Almost immediately after graduation, my parents began asking me when I was going back to school. I always told them that I was working in a field that didn’t necessarily value an MBA and that maybe I would get an MBA part-time at the local college if I had time. As my career progressed, they stopped asking about school and between work and getting married, an MBA was not a priority. Ironically, it was my last promotion that got me thinking about going back to school. I was identified as a manager with high potential and I realized that I was on track to have a very successful career in supply chain. I started asking myself whether I really saw myself as a supply chain professional for the rest of my life.

Working in CPG my entire career, I had developed a deep respect for the power of branding and I started thinking that I’d like the opportunity to build and lead a brand rather than simply supporting a brand. I am fortunate to be surrounded by an exceptional group of friends who all happened to have MBAs (ranging from HBS, Stanford, and Booth to state programs). While they were not all in favor of me going back to school full time (for various valid reasons including financial reasons), I knew that if I wanted to switch careers I needed the experience a full time program offers particularly through the summer internship. At that point, I signed up for a Princeton Review GMAT course offered at my work and told myself that if I got a strong score (700+), I would apply for an MBA.

3) You were extremely successful with your applications this year; can you tell me a little bit about your strategy?

I definitely was nervous about applying to school because I didn’t necessarily fit the profile of a rock star MBA candidate. I was older (30 at matriculation), I had worked in industry my entire career, and my undergrad was not from an elite institution. With that said, I knew that for me personally, I needed to attend a top program in order to work in Marketing for a company like the one I work for. I primarily chose schools based on geography, reputation, and program strengths. Being from Chicago, I applied to Booth and Kellogg and since I had friends in Boston, I applied to HBS and Sloan. I also applied to Stanford because it’s really cold here in Minnesota and the idea of studying in sunny California seemed really appealing to me! I hoped that I would get accepted by one program out of the five but I also was worried that I hadn’t applied to any safety schools.

My strategy was simple. I read everything I could about the schools and the MBA application process and I really took the advice I received to heart. I did a lot of self-reflection and tried to provide a complete picture of who I am through my application. I have always been a strong participant in community activities and service throughout my life and I found that those experiences were really something that I could talk about in my essays along with my work experiences. In particular, I am a kayaking instructor (whitewater, sea kayaking, and Greenland style kayaking) and in that capacity, I’ve led and/or created several different kayaking organizations, have lead events, and have had the opportunity to give back to the community in unique ways.

As a former creative writer, my essays tended to be wordy (word counts are the worst!) but fortunately I had a very good friend edit all of my essays for me. She has a very critical eye and a great track record for helping people get into great MBA programs (she’s a Booth graduate). I also think that being ahead of the game from a timing standpoint helped me out tremendously. I took the GMAT in April and immediately after that exam, I began planning what I needed to get done in order to hit round 1 deadlines for all the schools I was applying to. I wanted to have admission decisions by Christmas so that I could enjoy my holidays with my family. That pre-planning also enabled me to visit schools, prepare my recommenders (I put together a packet with school profiles, my accomplishments, my goals, recommendation questions, etc.), and get a good start on my essays.

I submitted all of my applications well in advance of the deadlines and I felt that I had put together a solid picture of who I am as an individual. Fortunately, Harvard, Kellogg, and Booth agreed and they invited me to interview.

4) What was the interview process like with HBS, Kellogg, and Booth?

For Kellogg and Booth, I chose to interview with alumni locally here in Minneapolis. I had great conversations with both alumni and I tried to connect with them on a personal level and share with them my enthusiasm for my work, their school, my goals, and how I could contribute to their program. Although I get nervous like anyone else, I really enjoy the actual interview process and I knew coming out of those two interviews that I had put my best foot forward.

HBS was a totally different story. I did not have the option to interview locally which I would have preferred since I had already visited the school before. I flew out to Boston and I was a little intimidated by the experience. Unlike my prior interviews which were casual and long (45 minutes or longer), the HBS interview is very structured and exactly 30 minutes long. I feed off of the energy that my interviewer provides so I found it a little unnerving that the HBS adcom did not show a lot of emotion. Most of the questions were pretty standard although I was thrown a couple little curve balls since my interviewer had significant experience in my industry. I remember rambling on a couple times and he had to cut me short at times. I was kicking myself afterwards for losing my focus but I remember telling him at the end that I had fun which I think surprised him because I doubt he hears that very often. I walked out of that interview knowing that I didn’t blow it but also knowing that I hadn’t performed nearly as well as my prior two interviews. I’ve been in regular contact with that admissions director since my admit and he’s been a great help to me as I have been going through my decision process.

5) What was the most difficult step for you in the entire application process?

The most difficult step for me besides the agonizing waiting that occurs for interview invites and eventual decisions to be reached was the GMAT. I had been out of school for 7 years and had to learn how to study all over again. It was a trying time for me and particularly my wife because I became a bit consumed by the process. I spent hours each evening and every weekend studying for the exam and sacrificed my social life for two months. My wife had been used to spending lots of time with me and she definitely felt a bit neglected which translated to her being apprehensive about the idea of me even going back to school. While studying for the GMAT was really important, I know that in hindsight I was being selfish in not thinking about how what I was doing would affect those around me. That is definitely something that is front of mind as we look to both leave our jobs to share in this new adventure.

Oh and as far as the GMAT goes, I have always been a good standardized test taker (I tend to get extra relaxed in those testing rooms even though I’m tense leading up to that moment) and though I was hoping for a 700, I was ecstatic when I received a 750.

6) What do you plan to do post MBA?

Post MBA, I am hoping to go into brand management. While I would be proud to return to my company and lead one of our amazing brands, I am also interested in learning more about product and brand management in other industries besides CPG (tech in particular). I also have entrepreneurial aspirations and while I don’t know if that will be the path I take immediately out of school, I do hope to be able to lead my own company some day.

7) Do you have any advice for the readers?

My advice would be to develop a strong sense of self-awareness or surround yourself with people who can accurately help you understand who you are as a person. My friends, family, and mentors helped ground me as a person and they helped me understand particular areas that I needed to grow in. My GPA, GMAT, etc. didn’t get me into the schools I applied to since they were in the general range. Rather it was insights into my character and a deeper view of who I am that differentiated me. I entered into this process worried that I might be lumped into a generic grouping of “asian guy who’s good at math” but through the self-reflection process, I realized that there is much more to me than that stereotype and it was up to me to share that through my application.

This is a funny process. On one hand, we are asked to share our accomplishments and talk about how amazing we are but on the other hand, we are asked to be humble. We are asked to have an open mind about the many opportunities that await us after business school but the application requires that we state a very defined career goal. It’s tough to balance those things. It was easy to be humble because I knew the caliber of people I would potentially be working with in b-school. I felt inadequate at times about my background, my intelligence, and my experiences but at the same time I knew that my abilities, accomplishments, and experiences were unique and should not be trivialized.

Don’t let this process defeat you. My GMAT class’ mantra was “we are more than our GMAT score” which definitely applies to the entire business school application process. Being admitted or rejected to school X shouldn’t define you and a person’s self-worth should not be tied to this result. I am going to school to better myself as a leader, as a teammate, and as a person but through this process, I’ve learned that I’m pretty darn proud of what I’ve accomplished and no school can take that away from me.

8) Have you decided which b-school you will attend yet? If so, what was the deciding factor?

I have currently narrowed it down to either Booth or HBS. Booth has offered me a very generous fellowship along with the opportunity to be mentored by a marketing executive during my two years at school. As someone who has really benefited from mentorship throughout my career, this is an amazing opportunity. The school is incredible, the students are brilliant yet humble, and the flexibility of the program is really appealing. Harvard on the other hand is an amazing school in its own right. It is the most prestigious and influential of all the MBA programs with a hugely powerful alumni network. The resources at Harvard are without peer and the case method of studying is something that I really enjoy.

The deciding factors for me will be partly financial and partly my impressions of my fellow admits. To be candid, I was concerned that business school would be filled with competitive jerks who think only of themselves. Fortunately, those people seem to be in the minority. I am looking for intellectually curious people who I would enjoy learning from and collaborating with. I have already attended Booth’s admit weekend and am looking forward to HBS’ admit weekend as well. Following that, I will take a couple days to think over the two schools with my wife and then make the best choice for us as a family.


Courtney said...

Thanks for posting this! It's helpful to read about the experiences of a successful applicant, and I would have never thought to interview a BTG member otherwise.

Dave M said...

I am glad that you found this interview helpful! I plan to do some more interviews with successful applicants in the future.

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