MBA Season: 3 Smart Steps To Getting Started in Pursuing an Advanced Degree

Use this strategy in researching and choosing the best option for you

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In this special five-part BlackEnterprise.com series, Daria Burke, founder of BlackMBAWomen, shares insider tips and insights on getting your MBA to upgrade your career. You’ll find out how to make the choice, leverage opportunities and maximize professional fulfillment in the job market.

The business school application process can be overwhelming, often leaving prospective MBA students confused on where to start. Once you have evaluated your short- and long-term career goals and have determined that business school is the right next step for you, it’s time to do your research. There are a number of areas you’ll explore with the goal of finding that which is relevant to you, but here are three key areas to invest your initial fact-finding focus:

MBA Programs

At the outset, you may find that most top business schools seem very similar. But once you start reading the Websites and reviewing student placement stats, you will find that not all MBA programs are created equal. You should be evaluating business schools not only on rankings (U.S. News, Business Week and Financial Times rankings are published annually or every two years and are the most highly regarded), but also on the qualitative factors such as curriculum, specializations/industries for which the school is known, career opportunities, extracurricular activities and most importantly, fit. Are you considering a specific dual MBA degree? Do you want a large or small MBA program? Do you want one that is collaborative or competitive? Do you want an active social life while you’re in school?

After determining that business school was the best way to redirect my marketing career and transition to luxury goods marketing, I limited my search to schools located in cities where luxury and retail companies were most prevalent: New York City and Los Angeles. So while there were many top business schools in other cities throughout the country, location was extremely important to me. I knew that I would pursuing opportunities in a space that was still a developing area for MBA talent recruitment and that proximity to luxury/retail/beauty companies (and thus, alumni) was critical to my recruitment success. And because of this proximity, both NYU Stern and Columbia Business School boasted two of the best luxury and retail programs in the country.

Application Requirements

The MBA application process is an exhaustive one that requires significant advanced preparation.  At a minimum, you should plan to spend one year working on your application before you submit. During this time, you will study for and take the GMAT (or the GRE if you decide you’d perform better on the GRE and are applying to schools that accept it as an alternative to the GMAT). You will also need to solicit the necessary letters of recommendation, write many drafts of your admissions essays, visit the schools you’re considering and, once you’ve done sufficient research, speak with as many current students and alumni of those programs as possible.

There are a number of coaching and mentorship programs, consulting companies and test-prep agencies that can be of help to you. Two MBA prep resources that focus on advancing high-potential underrepresented minorities in business are Diversity MBA Prep and Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). My biggest concern in application prep was the GMAT. Admittedly, I’m not the best standardized test-taker, so I enrolled in a Kaplan course, which was integral to the competitive GMAT score I ultimately achieved. The formal course provided me with a comprehensive curriculum, materials to work with outside of class, and most importantly, structured study time. Applying to business school can feel like a part-time job, requiring commitment and a great deal of discipline, especially when you’re doing it while working your day job.

Financing

For some, the cost can often be the greatest deterrent to going back to school. The sticker shock is real and the idea of incurring debt of $100,000 or more can be beyond intimidating. For this reason, you must be clear on the MBA value proposition and expected ROI, and you have to see the value in making such an investment in yourself. “We tend to think about the return on investment in terms of the skills, relationships, and knowledge that come with earning an MBA, but it’s valuable to expand that definition and think about how you will put your degree to use,” says Nicole Lindsay of Diversity MBA Prep.

The other thing to remember is that there are a number of viable paths to financing your MBA. They include fellowships directly through the MBA program you attend; need- and merit-based scholarships in and outside of the business school; private funding from foundations; employer sponsorship; and of course, Federal and private loans. There are several amazing scholarship and fellowship opportunities out there that focus on women and underrepresented minorities — populations that tend to be small in top MBA programs. One such platform is the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, the country’s largest diversity network, having supported MBA candidates with more than $260 million in fellowship funds since its founding in 1966. The Consortium was a vital part of my personal business school experience at NYU, not only because of the incredible fellowship opportunity, but because it served as a constant reminder of my obligation to improving and expanding the career opportunities of future black and Hispanic business leaders. Today, I demonstrate my commitment to this mission through my work with Black MBA Women and the NYU Stern Alumni Council.

With the right balance of financial aid, it is possible to attend nearly business school you desire. So don’t let sticker shock keep you from moving ahead.

Daria Burke is a marketing and brand strategist, public speaker, and founder of Black MBA Women. The former beauty executive also works as an independent strategic marketing consultant in New York City, helping luxury, beauty and consumer goods clients with a range of marketing initiatives. Burke earned her MBA in marketing and strategy from the New York University Stern School of Business and her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan.

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