Transitioning To a Top Tier MBA: A Wharton Admit’s Guide toVeteran MBA Applications Part 1

Today we start part 1 of a 4 part series on a transition from the military to a top tier MBA. The author of this piece spent 6 months applying to and receiving acceptance from some of the best business schools in the country. The author was accepted to 6 of 7 of the schools he applied to, including the Wharton and Booth Schools of business. His application guide serves as insight for those looking to pursue a similar path. Each post will feature the portions highlighted in bold from the list below. I hope you enjoy this valuable MBA application insight as the application season approaches!

MBA application guide for Veterans and Service Members

*Although this guide is targeted towards helping veterans, most of the advice applies to all applicants.

  1. Introduction
  2. Rankings
  3. IPB— The Battlefield and The Players
  4. The Veteran Applicant
  5. Priorities of Work and Timeline
  7. Letters of Recommendation
  8. Resumé
  9. Essays
  10. Interview
  11. Assistance/Resources
  12. Should I hire a consultant?
  13. Paying for School
  14. What schools should I apply to?


Can you pass through the filter?

            Beyond its educational function—which I would argue is secondary—MBA programs perform a filter function for businesses looking to hire new employees. Recruiting is expensive, and no company can yet hire candidates from every campus, and therefore, they must be strategic on which institutions they target. It is no secret that the most desirable companies to work for recruit mostly from the top universities. For many, their goal is to pass through the MBA filter and sit nervously waiting to be interviewed by their dream employer, which serves as yet another filter. 

Admission into an elite MBA program is a long and arduous journey that requires focus and consistency. These are the median number of hours the average accepted student spends on each:

  • 120+ hours of test prep
  • 50 hours on essays per school—subsequent schools take less time
  • 30+ hours on interview prep 
  • Resumé—your SFL-TAP resumé won’t suffice
  • Networking
  • Visiting schools and attending information sessions

For the busy, active-duty soldier, this will take up some of your leave and most of your free time for six months.

            The effort may seem extreme, but the process is highly competitive because the rewards are extraordinary. The most popular post-MBA career field for veterans is consulting, where the average starting total compensation now exceeds $200,000.


Beggars can’t be Choosers

Identify your dream school and figure out what test score you need to get admitted. Otherwise, don’t waste time on the rankings until you have a competitive score.

The M7 or Magnificent 7 are the top 7 business schools in the country. Admission to each is highly sought after and extremely competitive.

MBA program rankings are a hot topic of debate on internet forums, such as Reddit’s r/MBA. Consensus agrees that U.S. News is the most reputable. The 2021 U.S. News MBA Rankings are as follow:

  1. Wharton & Stanford – Tied
  2. Kellogg & Booth – Tied
  3. Sloan (MIT)
  4. Harvard 
  5. Berkeley *often ranked within the top 7, but not an M7.
  6. Columbia 

Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford are considered a step above the rest of the M7—often referred to as HWS.

The M7 business schools will open many doors for you, and I would not get caught up on the year-to-year vacillations in the rankings. If U.S. News didn’t change the rankings every year with some surprises, no one would read it. 

            After the M7 programs, you have the T10 schools, which are the M7 + Berkeley, Yale, Darden, Tuck, Duke, Michigan (These also change from time to time and end up totaling more than 10) . These are also great programs and you would be lucky to get admitted into any of them as they will open the same doors for you.

The Battlefield and The Players

            The Battlefield: Applicants compete in buckets, which means bankers compete against bankers, consultants against other consultants, and veterans against other veterans. Although I don’t believe there is an established quota, most admission committee members concede that they aim to have veterans comprise 5-10% of their class. 

            The Players: MBA admissions have become a lucrative business between admissions consultants and admissions committees. Admission committee members gain experience throughout their careers and then pivot into admissions consulting, where they charge $250-400 an hour to help applicants. It’s not cheap, but they also provide a lot of value. They know the tips and tricks and often still have contacts within the admissions committees. Schools even invite them out and showcase the program. The 2018 GMAC survey stated that 17% of MBA applicants use admissions consultants—for top programs. In reality, you can probably double or triple that number. The average applicant knows the tricks, what attributes the schools are seeking, what story to tell, and how to tell it. Being competitive requires knowing all of the tricks, research, and seeking help from someone who has passed through the filter or managed the filter. Simply put, don’t go it alone! 

Each MBA program also has a Veterans Club comprised of service members who have already passed through the filter, and they want to help you get admitted. They will help you with general advice, essays, and interview preparation. Most Veterans Clubs hold at least some weight with their school admissions committee. Veterans screen veterans. I remember having a conversation with a veteran’s club president at one M7 institution. He told me that all of the resumés from veteran applicants get filtered through him. One applicant claimed to have been an infantry battalion executive officer as an O2; he flagged the resumé as highly-suspect. The applicant was not invited to interview.

            The major focus for MBA programs right now is diversity and inclusion. Make sure you emphasize how you have fostered diversity and inclusion in your organizations and will continue to do so.

Timeline (2020-2021 Application Cycle)

            Submitting your application in R1 or R2 will give you the best odds of acceptance. R1 will provide you with more time to prepare for your transition, but from a likelihood of being accepted, there is no difference between R1 and R2. We will plan off of R1… if you want to do R2 shift the dates accordingly. 

            R1 applications are due late September through late October. HBS—Harvard Business School—R1 is due on September 8th, and Wharton R1 is due on October 28th, 2020. Applications typically open in July, and this is when you will know what essay questions the school will be asking for during the application cycle. 

In a perfect world, you would want to have a competitive test score before July (or earlier… test scores are good for five years), allowing you to focus entirely on the essays and other aspects of the application. Bonus points if you have narrowed your focus to five schools: two reaches, two competitive, and one safety. Give yourself 30-45 days to put together the essays. It took me all of 45 days to put together seven applications—way too many.

Moving backward, we need to think about test prep. A very select few can walk into a standardized test and crush it without much preparation. For the rest of us, it will take some time. To get on the standard 90-day pain train, you need to start in April. If you are anxious about the test, then begin in March.

Part 2 will be published next week and focus on the veteran applicant, priorities of work and timeline, and the GRE/GMAT. Be sure to tune in next week for a look!

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