Here is the 2nd part of the MBA admissions consulting blog series. In the post, we will have a tête-à-tête with Tommy Zheng, Yale SOM alum. Tommy holds a Bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and has worked with brands like Credit Suisse, Shopee, Olam, etc. in Asia, Africa, and North America.
MBA Admissions Consulting: Behind the Scenes
Q&A with Tommy Zheng (MBA, Yale SOM)
1. You graduated from NUS, one of the top schools in the world. What made you go to the US for MBA?
Thank you for inviting me to this blog.
I graduated from NUS with an engineering degree and worked in banking for 3 years. I was looking to open up my perspective on new industries and growth opportunities in tech and start-ups as I want to be an entrepreneur.
An MBA was a top option to quickly grow my skills for strategy and general management and to build up a network across sectors through my business school classmates.
2. Why did you choose Yale over other business schools?
Firstly, Yale has a strong reputation in the Asia Pacific and the network of alumni is just amazing in this region. Secondly, Yale has the most diverse student body and overall campus culture. I would say Yale is probably the least “business school-ish” place among the top 15 US Business Schools. Thirdly, I reached out to a few MBA students while I applied to business schools and I clicked most with SOM-ers (Yale School of Management MBAs).
All the above three reasons made me choose Yale.
3. What are your key takeaways from the Yale MBA?
It’s an amazing experience, and I really enjoyed my two-years at Yale because of the people I met, the classmates I worked with, and the opportunity to learn from some of the most respected thought leaders across industries.
One thing that differentiates Yale’s MBA program is the non-profit or social sector leadership heritage of Yale School of Management’s MBA program (it used to be MPPM). There’s always a social element, or positive social change in the discussion and that kind of idealism is rare elsewhere in my view.
4. Over the last decade, what are the big developments that have impacted the Master of Business Education (MBA) industry in the US?
That’s a big one. I think there’s increasing numbers and representation of international students who are taking the MBA, vs. MoF or MSc., especially from Asia, where there’s an increasing demand of MBA graduates from both local unicorns (Tencent, Alibaba, SEA, Grab) and traditional multi-national companies and US-headquartered consulting firms.
Over the last 2 years, Donald Trump has made maybe the biggest impact on international students who are considering or planning to go to the US for graduate school.
5. Is a regular MBA still as popular as back in the 1980s or 2000s? Don’t programs like MS Business Analytics, MiM, MS Finance, or MS Data Science and MOOCs & Online MBA programs present a threat?
I’m a little out-of-date with the 1980s or 2000s, but I will say a full-time two-year MBA program at a top 20 US business schools still offer unparalleled career opportunities and richest learning experience for aspiring bankers, consultants and entrepreneurs.
6. According to you, is a regular MBA from a top-10 B-School worth the $100,000 price tag? How should applicants go about funding/financing the MBA?
I will say it costs $200,000, but funding is easy. Once you get the offer letter, plenty of online lenders and 3rd party financing providers are available to arrange funding together with the school and everything was done online for me. It took me like an hour or two, and it’s nothing compared to the number of hours I spent on preparing my MBA applications.
7. What are your personal thoughts on MBA rankings? How should the applicants use rankings? How much importance should an applicant give to the numerous MBA rankings that get published annually?
Rankings of MBA/business school is like Rankings of restaurants, it generally works that the global top 20 business schools are better than the No.50-100, but within the top 20, it’s about matching what the school offers and what the candidate values in his or her MBA experience.
For example, I wanted a 2-year full-time MBA experience in US, so I didn’t apply to INSEAD, CEIBS, IESE at all. Also, HBS and Stanford are usually top 3s, but they are very different experiences, and I’m sure a candidate admitted to both (that person would be very competitive) may weight on his or her personal preferences and career goals in the decision-making process, not choosing the #1 US Business School of the Year, published by QS, P&Q, or any other ranking sites.
I hope all of the ranking sites continue to have good businesses by providing helpful information to MBA applicants. I personally didn’t spend more than 20 minutes on “rankings”. That was not my focus during my MBA applications process.
8. What are the signs that applicants should watch out for while analyzing individual business schools in the rankings?
(1) % of international students, if you are from outside the US and (2) employment data.
That being said, I do not think any top 20 business schools I researched about in any ranking method has anything to be “watched out for”.
9. Most international applicants (especially from Asia) put too much emphasis on the GMAT score and ignore the other components of the application. What would be your advice?
This is a super important question. The most common mistake for Asian applicants are to spend 6 months (400 hours or more) to get GMAT 720 and only 50 hours on planning, writing, and polishing other components of the application.
GMAT is like a convenience factor and a myth. Asian candidates including Chinese and Indians think of entering a higher education institute as “passing the test”, but GMAT is at best one of the considerations and not the deciding one for getting admitted or dinged. I have seen GMAT scores of 650 – 780 at top 20 US business schools.
What makes a great application is, an overall compelling and consistent case of why a candidate fits a particular business school and how that school’s MBA will be great for the candidate and vice versa. Think of it as arranging dates, GMAT is like height, but you need the chemistry and overall package for the match to light up.
A big part of my role as an admission consultant is to assess the match, find the chemistry, and present it in a compelling way to make sure of the sparkle when an admission committee member sees the application.
10. You are a GMAT prep coach yourself too. Any advice/tips on GMAT preparation for busy working professionals?
Plan and pace yourself. Know where your weaknesses are. Work on those areas where your time and practice make the biggest impact.
11. What should applicants be doing 6-9 months and more before they apply?
Reflect on what one wants in a career (and life), how an MBA fits with his/her overall career and life goals and giving the best at work. MBA is a continuation of a part of one’s overall career, albeit an accelerated and expensive one. Professionalism, strong work ethics, and networking skills are valued at work, in and beyond business school.
I had the idea of going to business school right out of college, but only after 3 years (5 months before round 1 deadline) did I actually put the plan down on paper to go to business school.
12. What are the key differentiators between a 2-year and a 1-year program? Are there specific considerations that should tilt the decision either way?
Opportunity costs of time and full-time employment opportunities.
If you are changing sectors, geographies, or job functions and think of MBA as the time to explore and do it, I will highly recommend the 2-year program. 1st year Summer Internship is a valuable option to work for your target employer, be it McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, or Google. Most 1-year programs do not offer the same level of choice into having a full 8-12 weeks’ summer internship with the most prestigious firms and most competitive job positions.
13. How should candidates assess why and when they should do a full-time regular MBA?
A full-time regular MBA is a big decision in terms of time, investment, and opportunity costs. The timing should fit the candidate’s overall career and life plan.
However, most people who went on a full-time MBA program would change their career goals, pivot their passions, adapt their life plans, and sometimes find a new direction or partner in life that’s not planned at all. That’s because a full-time MBA program, intense learning and growing, and being around amazing people change a person. So if you want to do it, just prepare, plan, and most importantly apply and do it.
14. Considering that the essay topics are pretty subjective with no absolute right or wrong answers, what are the top things that applicants can keep in mind while working on their essays?
No.3 – Stay professional:
Business school admissions care very much that the applicants will benefit from MBA programs professionally and the overall essay should be about one’s potential to reach great heights, and even greater ones with an MBA.
No.2 – Be personal:
Business schools want future leaders, and leaders are authentic and interesting personalities. You don’t want to be just the GMAT 750-Big 4 accounting guy who wants to switch to banking. That’s a great profile professionally, but a compelling case is personal, about life stories, personalities, aspirations, and other things that You are passionate about. If your essay does not bring tingles and tears to your eyes, it will not be compelling to the admission officer who reviews 10 or more times a very similar professional profile.
No.1 – Ask for peer review or an admission consultant:
Business school essays are probably one of the daunting writing and selling tasks for even the brightest candidates. It’s on another level vs. your college applications or cover letters for a new job. Nobody can do this perfect the first time they try, and I went through 5 major iterations of my essays.
The most helpful revisions come through peer review by MBA graduates who went through this process. Do not get last-minute essay polishing services by an English major. You should get a great story (it’s great because your peers say so, a fresh pair of eyes say so, or an MBA graduate/admission consultant says so), an overall compelling case, and essay reviews preferably 7 days before the deadline.
15. Many candidates are surprised when they think they’ve done very well in the interview and then they get a rejection note from the school. What could have possibly gone wrong in such situations? What are the top mistakes to avoid in an MBA interview?
Some schools invite every applicant for interviews. So many things could have gone wrong, in the essays, the numbers, the interview, or just luck.
That said, for schools whereby interview is by invitation, it is super important to ace that.
Top 3 mistakes are:
- Not being prepared for behavioral questions. There are 20 questions at most that if you prepare in advance using STAR method, you will ace most of them. Anything you list down on your resume as a bullet point or achievement, you should be ready to go into details for 1-2 minutes and tell that as a story of why you should be admitted.
- Not making the greatest first impression. Dress professionally, make sure you have the best light, and be ready to answer “Why MBA” “Why this school” and “Why me” in any order succinctly, crisply, and compellingly. Those will be the 1st question and 1st 1-2 minutes you spend with the interviewer.
- Doing the actual interview without mock interviews. It’s like going to fight fire without training. You wouldn’t fight fire only after you read about how to fight fire, and the same goes for business school admission interviews. Find an admission consultant, or anyone who went through an MBA program, and do at least 2 mock interviews. It will make you sweat so much less during the actual one, and you are way more likely to come out alive and triumphant.
16. The US is definitely the most sought-after MBA destination as the majority of top B-Schools are located in the US. But, with the tightening of the immigration rules, international students are looking elsewhere (Canada, Asia, Europe, etc.). What are your thoughts on this? Do you see anything positive for the international students in the upcoming years?
Most international students that choose to apply to US business schools are driven, competitive, alpha-types who want to make it to the top; I personally see some friends having an equally good time and easier recruiting process in Singapore.
I believe when there’s a will (of an individual), there’s a way (that individual makes it). I work with my clients to figure out his or her will, but very much focus on “the way” to make his or her dream school come true.
17. Apart from consulting and technology, which other industries are good bets for international students who want to work in the US?
Good old investment banking. US bulge brackets like Goldman, Citi, and JPMorgan remain active on-campus recruitment and hiring for international students.
18. What innovative steps are the elite universities (or even those ranked lower) taking to ensure that their students get placed?
Placement and recruiting, like matching, is one of the most traditional trade. I will say, business schools all work very hard to ensure placements starting with getting recruiters on campus on the employers’ side and training and prepping MBA students on campus on day 1, if not before.
Innovation facilitates the training and prepping process, as well as matching and networking. For example, many business schools have prep/onboarding packages that include online profiling tests, recruiting 101s, and resources for admitted students to plan their summer before business school.
But the core remains the same. Recruiting to get a job, like applying to business school, takes know-how, coaching, and hardworking individuals willing to practice, learn and improve. Much of the work I do with candidates are very similar in the sense that, I am first and foremost a coach, and I have methods to improve an applicant’s chance to get in, but in the same time, the applicant needs to work with me, to get the best story, the best essay, and the best interview capabilities out of themselves to achieve his/her goal of getting into a top MBA program.
19. Admission consulting is gaining popularity in India and other Asian countries slowly. How should applicants approach admission consulting services? How should they find the Right Admissions Consultant or Coach for themselves?
The idea of admission consulting is simple and old. It’s about seeking advice and resources from someone who have done it, and coached others to do it successfully. It is very popular in China because families and applicants treat admission consultants like test-prep coaches and gym trainers. I’m surprised that the Indian market hasn’t caught up with the idea, or the families that could afford it remain the elite few.
Finding the right admissions consultant or coach is a costly process, the same as for an admissions consultant to find the right applicants. Track record, pricing, availability all come into play in this process, but most importantly, an applicant needs to find a coach that he/she is comfortable with. Working with an admissions consultant is like working with a gym coach: you paid for the service, but the coach will be tough on you sometimes, because both parties will only be happy if you look triumphant after working together, out of the gym, or out of the admissions interview.
I wish all applicants good luck, and I do hope to speak to you one-on-one in the future.
On this note, thank you again for Tanmoy to invite me, and other team members of Stoodnt who are working to provide coaching, consulting and access of valuable information to students, applicants and families.
Need professional guidance services for MBA Applications at Top International Business Schools? Connect with Tommy on LinkedIn or reach out to us.
Featured Image Source: The Economist