On December 10, 2004 I decided to apply to business school. I had written no essays, taken no GMAT, reviewed no school’s web site or application process, and asked no one for a recommendation.
On January 2, 2005, 23 days later, I began orientation at Columbia Business School (ranked #5 by Forbes, Economist, and Financial Times). I got my MBA the following May, less than eighteen months from deciding to apply.
Prep schools (such as Manhattan GMAT and Kaplan) recommend starting the application process eighteen months before starting classes. I completed my entire application and degree in less time than they recommend for just applying.
Business school ended up one of the best experiences of my life, a turning point improving it in many ways I can’t imagine doing otherwise.
Here is how I did it.
I’ll start with the play-by-play, because that’s where the action was. When I describe my foundation for applying, you’ll see I had a great one before starting, despite never having seriously considered going before.
If you read my foundation as discouraging because you don’t have it, you’ll miss the greater point of this post. A minor tip is how to get into business school quickly. A major point is how to recognize an opportunity, seize it, and see it through.
I didn’t plan on doing something big. I realized what I had, put it together, and made it happen. You have the ingredients to make something awesome too. This post is to expand what you consider possible. Your background may enable you to do something in a different area — travel, sports, losing weight, … I don’t know. You have to see what ingredients you have in your life to bring together.
If you don’t think you have the ingredients for something great, you’re probably looking at it wrong. I could look at many shortfalls in my life and make it look like a disaster, but I don’t. Many successful people pulled their success from disaster — broken homes, substance abuse, business failure, etc. You probably have more going for you than many hugely successful people.
Of course, you can probably find some insight for getting into business school if that’s your goal too. And I hope to add to Columbia’s value as a place people can make great things happen.
What I did
Encouragement from the first time I voiced thinking about it
On December 10, I visited a friend, mentor, and Board member of my company who also teaches at Columbia. For the first time in the five or six years since I met him, I told him I was thinking about applying to business school.
Thinking about business school represented a major shift from my old life as an academic. While getting my PhD in physics until not long before then, I viewed business school with derision bordering on disdain: how could a vocational school compare with following in the footsteps of Feynman, Einstein, and Newton? Physics was intellectually demanding and stimulating; how could business compare? I associated business with the Exxon Valdez and Enron. (I’ve since changed my views on much about business.)
But I had reached my limits as an entrepreneur from my inexperience in business in growing my first business. I knew I wanted to start other companies and didn’t want my limitations to limit the companies’ potentials.
My friend and mentor reacted with enthusiasm greater than I expected, as if he had been waiting for me to come around to considering applying. He encouraged me to consider it and suggested I take one of Columbia’s tours. I told him having already gotten my BA and PhD there, as well as having audited courses there (including his), I didn’t see the point.
He insisted. Am I glad he did!
My first campus tour revealed the opportunity
The next campus tour was December 17. The value of the tour came in the questions and answers at the end and in learning about Columbia’s January term (J-term) program.
I found a program that worked for me
Columbia’s J-term starts in January and continues classes through the summer when the rest of the school has internships. Then the J-term second year is the same as the regular students. By finishing four semesters faster at the expense of an internship, the J-term tends to attract students uninterested in switching fields, which included me. It offered what I wanted in the community of the full-time program while intruding in life less, like an executive program.
I saw an opening in the system
See if you can see the opening in the answers to the two questions below. The details are important. Other people asked them. I had no idea they’d come up.
Question 1: One person asked how hard the application deadline was. The tour guide explained how Columbia’s application review starting date worked, which wasn’t as a deadline. Applications received before that date got put in a file. On the application review starting date they began looking at the applications in the order received. They would put each application into a definite yes pile, a definite no pile, or put back on the bottom of the original file for possible later review.
If they filled all the spots before reaching the bottom of the pile, someone who applied before that date might not even get considered. Meanwhile, applications arriving after that date continued to get put at the bottom of the pile for possible review. So someone applying late still had a chance, though slimmer.
Question 2: Another person asked if the admissions department was available for questions. The tour guide said in general yes, they make themselves available, but just now they weren’t because they were putting the finishing touches on this year’s J-term, starting in a couple weeks.
Do you see the opening?
Here’s what I saw: they had no hard deadline and they were still considering applications for the J-term, meaning my application could be considered.
After the tour ended I approached the tour guide, pointed out the possibility I saw, and asked if I could be considered for the J-term.
It took him a second to process the logic I just hit him with. Then he brightened up with an a-ha look and invited me upstairs to talk to the admissions department. I spoke briefly with the head of the department, pointing out my degrees from Columbia, that I lived in New York and was ready to start. She said if I could put an application together quickly enough, they’d consider it.
There was my opening, following their rules.
Now all I had to do was take the GMAT, write my essays, get my recommendations, fill out the application, and have my interviews. During the winter holidays.
I had just left an old job with a couple months’ severance with the goal of starting a new company, so I had the free time I had originally budgeted for starting the company to try to make this happen.
Lesson learned: just being there makes a lot possible
When you have just enough time to do what you have to and you’re capable, you don’t feel stress. You feel motivation bordering on exhilaration. You can easily say no to everything else and avoid distractions.
GMAT: Since you take the GMAT by computer now, you can take it anytime a slot is open and get the score for the non-essay part before you leave. I found a time slot, if I remember right, December 24, so I had a few days to prepare.
Since I didn’t see the point in buying a book I’d only use for a few days, I walked to the bookstore around the corner from me (living in Manhattan rocks), sat down with practice GMAT study guides, and practiced solving problems in the bookstore all day for a few days. Normally I wouldn’t be so focused, so being in crunch time helped.
I took the GMAT at my scheduled time. I don’t remember the exact score, but it was over 700, which probably helped. I think they normally mailed results, which would take too long to reach Columbia, so I may have just told Columbia my score, or maybe shown them a copy of an unofficial report.
I have to point out the value of community here. I love New York City. I have ties with Columbia because I love learning and for my fields of interest, Columbia is the best school in the city. Living in New York means I can visit their offices and talk to them, or show them my score — at least having met them in person and realizing that we could help each other.
Essays: I just looked at my essays still on my hard drive to remind me what I wrote for them. It looks like Columbia asked for five essays on questions they asked. I don’t know what to say because writing essays isn’t that complicated. You just write. I answered the questions in the space allotted. I’m sure I had friends review. Looking at my answers I see I littered them with references to my Columbia connections.
Recommendations: I needed two: one from a manager and on from someone else professional. I got in touch with my manager from the job I left a couple weeks before. When I left I was annoyed with her, but knew enough not to burn bridges when leaving to give her a piece of my mind. Who knew that less than a month later I’d ask a big favor from her.
Lesson learned: Don’t burn bridges!
(Incidentally, as business school taught me about leadership and management, I came to view her management as fantastic. I had bristled against it because I was difficult to manage. As my skills improved, I came to learn a lot from my memories of working with her.)
Anyway, she agreed to write a recommendation, so that didn’t take much effort. Since she had to turn it around quickly, it wouldn’t linger on her calendar for a long time. Again, crunch time helped.
I knew I could count on a great recommendation from my friend and mentor I mentioned above, and I knew as a professor at the school, his recommendation would count.
The application: The rest of the application was boilerplate. I don’t know how I got my college transcript, but they’d have to respect one from the same university. Funny how filling out something like that can take forever without a deadline and no time at all when you have a small window for a big opportunity.
Financial aid: I knew I’d have no chance at scholarships or even figure out the financial aid process. I’d simply have to apply for aid after getting in if I did. I expected no problems getting financial aid to go to an Ivy League business school, though. I mean, that community must have as low a default rate as any. As I expected, after I got in getting aid was no problem. I’m still paying off the loans, but, as you might expect, I consider the education worth every penny.
Everything non-trivial has some challenges. Actually I learned about that in leadership classes at Columbia — stressful times tend not to have single challenges, but cascades of them. The ability to solve them without losing your cool sets successful people apart from the pack.
Time: I had little flexibility in time. I remember bringing my completed application to campus well before the end of the day on December 30 or 31, whichever was the last day Columbia was last open before the holiday. As I should have expected, they left early for the holiday. I could see darkness through the frosted glass door of the admissions office. I was dejected. What could I do? Had I missed my chance?
Then I noticed some movement in the shadows under the door. Someone was there. I knocked and a dedicated person putting in the last few hours before New Years took my application and we chatted a bit. So things improved through our finding each other and bonding over our dedication.
Lesson learned again: just being there makes a lot possible
Organizing people: Somehow in all the flurry, my professor friend who was writing my recommendation ended up out of the country and couldn’t deliver the recommendation. At the last minute — as in January 2, after the rest of the application was in and the day some orientation activities were starting — I reached another professor I knew there and asked him if he would recommend me. He agreed, and called in the recommendation.
I don’t know, but I think a professor calling the admissions department works better than a written note. So I count this as another instance of making a challenge work for me.
A few minutes after my other professor called in my recommendation, the head of admissions called me and said “Columbia would be honored for you to enroll” or words to that effect. For a split second I thought of all the other possibilities — if I got in here so quickly, could I try for a higher-ranked school? Was it the right choice for me? etc. Then, of course, I realized the inanity of those thoughts and said let’s go, what do I need to sign?
I haven’t regretted a thing about the process or the choices I made. I finished school before I might have been able to start anyplace else.