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Applying to the MIT Executive MBA

June 6, 2011

I began working on my  Sloan application soon after the April 1st opening date. Unlike other EMBA application processes, where you simply submit your application, recommendations, test scores and so forth, MIT has an extra step at the beginning, in which you register for a telephone pre-interview.

One arranges for the telephone pre-interview by clicking on the “Register Your Interest” block on the left column of the EMBA website:

After registering, I received an email from a consultant that the MIT Executive MBA program retains to speak with each candidate by telephone. I was asked to submit a resume and then schedule a call.

I found this “pre-interview” to be a great addition to their process, as the consultant explained to me that the purpose of the pre-interview was to help weed out candidates that simply were not qualified to apply to the program. I once sat on the Robotics Institute’s admissions committee and recall struggling through the weeding out process of some 500 applications, an enormous number of which simply had no chance of admission. After all, why waste either the candidate’s time or the school’s time on applications that won’t make it?

The consultant added real value to the admissions process. The pre-interview provided me with a quick review of my credentials and experiences from Sloan’s point of view. The positive feedback encouraged me to  focus my application efforts on Sloan, rather than spreading them equally among other EMBA programs whose applications I was simultaneously completing.

This process creates a first personal relationship between an applicant and MIT Sloan that probably gives the school a competitive advantage, securing a higher percentage of qualified applications than would otherwise be the case. The pre-interview also gave me the confidence to finish the application more quickly than I might otherwise have done, specifically because it gave me good insight into why I was likely to be a good candidate for the program.

The consultant’s final advice to me was to be as specific as I possibly could when writing my essays. Having sat on admissions committees in the past, I knew exactly what she meant, as nothing will get your application thrown into the trash faster than going on about how it’s always been your dream to attend such-and-such graduate program. Having a specific plan of action that clearly articulates what you’re doing in life and why attending that graduate program will help you to succeed makes all the difference in the world.

Having been encouraged to apply, I was also advised to do so as quickly as possible. I had been working on drafts of my statement of purpose since the beginning of the year. I would advise future applicants to start working on the statement several months in advance and to have someone to work with as you shape it. I’m not talking about these professional MBA application consultants. I mean someone who can help you to think about your agenda in life and provide you with some objective counsel about who you are and where you are going.

In my case, I worked with my mentor, who is the Dean of a business school in California. He had been advising me for some time to enroll in a part-time MBA program, or more recently an executive MBA. He had sat on the Board of Directors of my last two companies and had had plenty of opportunity to see how I performed in various executive roles over a 10 year period. Naturally, he would write one of the letters of recommendation.

His advice was pretty short and sweet. Do it and do it as soon as possible. He had recommended that I apply to the Sloan Fellows program a few years ago, but I could never walk away from my businesses for a year. When I learned about the EMBA program, it was clear that it was now or never.

I probably read my statement of purpose to my poor wife six dozen times.  I really had to think about what I wanted to accomplish with my company over the remainder of my working career and then consider how MIT Sloan could play a role in making the success of my plan more likely. In my case, I had two specific issues that I wanted to address. First, I had always learned to manage by managing, but had never had the opportunity to explore management within a clear academic framework. And second, I lacked the skills to lead a global organization, yet that was my specific intent with Disruptive.

I would advise thinking about the statement of purpose as a summary of one’s career plan, where the time frame under consideration is at least 10 years and perhaps even 20. When you allow yourself to think about what you want to do with your career over such a long period of time, it really does free you to think objectively about setting a truly meaningful goal and then backtracking to the present to consider how Sloan will help you to achieve that goal. Oddly, in following this exercise myself, I ended up deciding not to apply to Kellogg because I couldn’t really see how that school would help me to achieve my goal. I ended up abandoning the application, which was probably the best possible outcome.

Once the consultant advised me to apply as quickly as possible, I contacted my two recommenders by email and told them that I had had positive feedback and asked them to please submit their recommendations as soon as possible. They were wonderfully cooperative and each had their letters submitted within a week. That was possible only because I had been working with them both for several months and they had had plenty of time to think about what they intended to write.

I finished up my statement and essays, transcripts, resume and so forth in about a week. Bear in mind that I had been working on all of these documents, or variants thereof for three months. I would not have been able to complete the application in a single week from a cold start.

I submitted the application on April 11th. One of my recommenders had submitted his letter a few days earlier on April 8th, while the other submitted his on the 11th. On April 27th, I received an invitation to come to Cambridge to interview with the MIT EMBA staff. I scheduled an interview for 9:00AM on May 6th.

I had an investor in Boston who I had never previously met. He had co-invested with his Pittsburgh-based partner. I wanted to see him to pitch him on a new investment round that we were opening for one of the companies. I arranged to meet him for dinner on the 5th, then stay overnight in Cambridge to interview at Sloan in the morning.

Cynthia and I flew into Boston on the afternoon of the 5th. His plans changed, resulting in a mini road rally as Cynthia and I drove first to one location, then another, before his secretary called and told me that he had become mired in the Red Sox traffic that consumed all of downtown Boston. He couldn’t meet tonight, but would call me later to make other arrangements. Later that evening, he called and apologized, but given his busy schedule the only time that he could meet me would have to be at 6:30AM at the entrance to Mass General Hospital.

Cynthia and I live on the family farm, with 20 month old twins to boot, so we are regularly up at 5:00AM. Getting to Mass General from Cambridge is about a 5 minute drive, if that, so this was no problem at all. I met my investor, pitched the new round and still had plenty of time to get back to the hotel and take Cynthia out for breakfast before walking over to the EMBA office. Before turning in, we drove around the MIT campus and stopped at E62, the new Sloan building. The next morning, I did my pitch and had breakfast with Cynthia, then headed over for the interview at 1 Broadway.

There were two interviews. The first, I was later told, is the professional interview, which focuses on the candidate’s professional experience. The second is for “fit” with the program. Each interview lasts about an hour and is more or less just an extended conversation. Both interviewers were well prepared for the interview, as they had questions that were quite specific to my application. It was clear that each had read my application and thought about me as a candidate.

This interview process was in marked contrast to Wharton, where I had also applied and interviewed. At Wharton, interviews may be scheduled before the application is even submitted. Once again, I think that MIT has a better system in that a candidate is only offered an interview if the admissions team has already decided that they have a reasonable chance of admission. With fewer candidates to interview, there is more time for the admissions team to study each application. The resulting interaction seemed far more meaningful to me.

I was told as I left that as I had interviewed on the last day of the first tranche, the admissions team would be making their recommendations to the faculty the following Tuesday and that I should expect to have a decision within two weeks. I received an email and phone notification of an offer on May 19th, 13 days later.


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