Stacey Dorang Peeler, MBA admissions director, Smeal College of Business at Penn State University discussed the best practices for working adults who are researching and preparing for business school admissions.
Q: What are best resources when beginning the search process?
Peeler: “Planning ahead is a huge key in any research and discovery process – Giving yourself the time you need within the constraints of your schedule to really be able to dig for the information that is going to help you make an informed decision.
“Certainly, the Internet and school websites are a great place to start – Rankings, blogs, discussion boards – but also making time to talk to the people at the program, whether that be the staff, students faculty. We suggest any candidate, during their research process, make the time to come and visit the school and sit in on a class and see if it is going to be the right fit.”
“You have to think ahead and give yourself enough time to do your due diligence. For the working professional, if you are going to be doing a fulltime program, you give up income and career path, you want to make sure you put that time in there. If you are going to continue to work, whether you’re doing an online program or executive program, you need to make sure you are going to be able to balance everything effectively, and still be successful.
“Starting early, planning ahead and the research process is going to be absolutely key no matter what kind of program you’re looking at.”
Q: What do candidates need to have in order before they apply?
Peeler: “Work experience, while may not be required, is strongly preferred. I think you’ll find that in most MBA programs. Each program is going to have a different student profile. (At Smeal, students typically have 4-5 years of work experience on average).
“No matter what point you are at with work experience, you need to have a good idea of why you want to get an MBA, why now, and what your end goal is. Being sure that the degree you are pursuing and your end goal are congruent is going to be a huge part of your success. Knowing yourself is a big part of that process. To jump in and start seriously researching MBA programs if you’re not sure you still want what a MBA can offer, you’re probably not at the point where you’re ready to make those tough decisions.”
Q: After a candidate has narrowed the field down to a few schools, what’s the next step?
Peeler: “If you haven’t had a chance to do that first-hand experience – talking to staff, students alumni – now is the time you absolutely should do that. That gives you first hand perspective of what it’s like to be part of that program.
“If you’ve already done some of that, it might be the time to do a little bit more or go a little more in-depth.”
Peeler suggests that students applying to five or six schools
Q: As an admissions office, how will you be handling the changes to the GMAT and the new Integrated Reasoning section?
Peeler: “At this point, it’s so early. Like any exam change, it’s going to be tricky until we get all of our applicant pool on the same page. This isn’t going to be a huge overall.”
Peeler notes that the changes to GMAT test won’t affect the two parts that make up the 200-800 scale, the quantitative and verbal. So the initial score that admissions offices get isn’t going to change.
“Not having seen any test takers yet, we don’t know what we are going to do (with the new Integrated Reasoning data). We will still accept old scores. We aren’t going to have those apples to apple comparison right off the bat.”
Q: What advice do you have for students that may attempted business school in the past but had to leave? How can they talk about that in an interview?
Peeler: “If a student has to leave a program for any reason, the key is to really go through the decision process and have a good, solid reasoning and knowing why you are doing it. Be able to present that in the future to another school.
“Part of the departure from a school is how they do it. Have they been very communicative with their advisor, talked through the options and given notice? If they just call and say ‘I’m leaving’, it’s going to be hard to use that school as a reference in the future.
“Think about if your next school checks into it, what are they going to say about you? Make sure that is favorable. The new school is going to want a good reason and they’re going to want to know that you’re not going to leave their program. They are going to want to be convinced that you’re ready and whatever problems you had, or whatever challenges prevented you from finishing before are behind you.
“Think about a job switch. An employer is going to ask you about a job transition that only lasted six months. You want to be prepared to answer that.”
Q: How do you approach potential incoming MBA students that don’t have a business undergraduate degree?
Peeler: “We accept students from all different backgrounds. We look really look to shape and craft a diverse class. There are some fundamental things our programs has in place to help level the playing field.”
Q: What advice to give to adults coming in with a different unique work history, i.e. someone with a military background? How should those incoming student approach the admissions process?
Peeler: “It is basically a job interview. A MBA is a professional degree. Military is a very interesting example. That’s really a group that has transferrable experience. They might not be leading in a board room, but they’re leading on the field. In preparing for an interview, just knowing what programs want – things like leadership skills, teamwork skills, communication skills – those are all key elements no matter what background you come from. You’ll likely have examples from any experience that you can translate into the business world.”
Smeal works hard to include former military into its student fold. PSU has a veterans association that is part of the official MBA organization.
Q: Any final tips?
Peeler: “Practice interview skills, especially if you don’t have a lot of work experience and maybe have only interviewed for one job, or for someone who has 10 years of work experience but hasn’t been out and actively interviewed in a while.
“Practicing and polishing your professional image is huge.”
Stacey Dorang Peeler started with the Smeal admissions office in 2008 as the assistant director and was promoted to her current position in July 2011. Before joining PSU, she worked for Kaplan Test Prep for 10 years.
– Alanna Stage, @alannatweets