To help you, BusinessWeek.com is launching a new series: a five-year planner for business school. The five-part series—this is the fourth—will provide a year-by-year guide to what you should be doing and thinking about in building the sort of rsum and skill set that will be attractive to MBA admissions committees.
In Year One, you learned about how to get your career started on the right foot and find a mentor. In Year Two, you made inroads in the office and learned how to get noticed by the right people. Year Three was a turning point, when you might have moved to a different company or accepted a promotion. Now, in Year Four, you must make your mark and start preparing for the MBA application process. This is the year that you start tracking your achievements and devising future goals, so that you will be able to knock out a solid application essay and make a big impression in the interviews next year. There's no time to waste, so here goes:
BROADEN YOUR EXPERIENCES
By now, you should have been promoted at least once, perhaps twice. You are probably comfortable in the role you have at your company. If you can, take on projects and duties in other departments to get exposure to different careers and to show that you can wear many hats. This kind of work, besides serving as additional research as you decide exactly what you want to do post-MBA, can be great fodder for the application essay and interview. You might also pick up additional skills, which should be a goal of yours, especially if you plan on using the MBA to switch careers.
Just because you have earned a promotion or two does not mean that you should rest on your laurels. You still should strive to stand out at the company. Take advantage of leadership opportunities such as heading up a committee. Create projects and initiatives. Try to win awards for your work. You should have specific examples of where you are adding value to the company, whether that's helping launch a successful new product or undertaking a cost-cutting initiative with measurable results, says Julie Barefoot, associate dean for MBA Admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.
Don't worry too much if the slower economy is slowing down your career, too. "We're not clueless about the economy," says Barefoot. "We understand that this group of students has been thrown a lot of curve balls." In other words, the admissions committee will understand if you have been laid off or if you were given more responsibilities without a promotion or salary change. Just be sure to explain the situation—and how you turned your lemons into lemonade. If you lost your job for a brief period, explain in your application essay how you freelanced while job hunting until you landed a better, full-time gig. Take on the challenges of a slow economy and perform well under difficult circumstances. For instance, says Barefoot, if you are helping your team at work to accomplish the same goals with fewer people, you should definitely bring that up in your MBA application.
CHOOSE YOUR RECOMMENDERS
Now is not the time to give up on your network. "Networking is like gardening," says Beth Flye, assistant dean and director of admissions and financial aid at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "If you have a garden, you need to constantly tend to it and care for it. It's the same for a network." Therefore, you should be continuing to keep in touch with your mentors, the people you are mentoring, and any other contacts you have made in the last three years.