Transitioning To a Top Tier MBA: A Wharton Admit’s Guide to Veteran MBA Applications Part 3

Today we host part 3 of a 4 part series on a transition from the military to a top tier MBA. The author of this piece is a former Army Officer who 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 progresses! Today’s post will focus on letters of recommendation and resources available to help you with your resumé and essays.

Miss part 1? Click the link here! Miss part 2? Click here!

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?

Letters of Recommendation

Getting a golden ticket assignment in the military often comes down to prior performance, timing, and luck — but a direct request from a two or three-star general doesn’t hurt. In the military, the rank and reputation of the recommender often supersede other qualities of the recommendation letter. This is not the case for MBA letters of recommendation. The Adcom is looking for a recommendation that is specific, authentic and corroborates other aspects of your application.

 Here are the characteristics of a good recommender:

  • Direct supervisor
  • Current or recent supervisor 
  • Knows you well 
  • Is willing and has the time to write a good letter

It is common for military applicants to use a previous supervisor for fear of reprisal within the organization as soon as their departure is announced. If you chose not to use your current supervisor, explain why in the optional essay portion of the application. Here is an example:

 “I used a previous supervisor as my recommender because I have not informed my current organization of my intent to depart the military to pursue X passion, and I do not want this event to negatively effect the current good working relationship  within my organization.”

Now let us turn our attention to the contents of the letter. Reverse engineer the contents of your letter of recommendation by thinking about the attributes that you want to shine through in your application—leader, problem solver, creative. Then come up with anecdotes in your career that support those attributes. Finally, coach your recommenders. 

  • “I want my letter of recommendation to highlight what I think are my strongest attributes X, Y, and Z. I also feel that stories 1, 2, and 3 are good anecdotes that highlight these attributes. My goal is X. 
  • If you are required to have two letters of recommendation, keep X, Y, and Z the same but change the anecdotes—stories 1, 2, and 3. 

Letters of recommendation are a good tool to highlight strengths that aren’t otherwise reflected in your application while mitigating weaknesses that appear as well.

Resumé and Essays

Most service members don’t keep a resumé handy unless you are in the Army and it is your AIM 2.0 resumé — in which case the amount of jargon present doesn’t facilitate a good business school resumé. Crafting your resumé and essays to reflect your experiences can be one of the more difficult processes of the application cycle.

For your resumé, you should focus on ensuring that your accomplishments are easily translatable to someone who isn’t familiar with the military. Adding “facilitated the accomplishment of 8 crews on Table IX at overwater gunnery” may sound great on an evaluation report but members of the Adcom do not know what you are talking about. Adding “implemented systems and processes that led to a 25% increase in operational readiness by evaluating the skill sets of each of the 16 pilots in the organization” both reflects improvement and is understandable by others.

Crafting a relatable resumé can be a difficult task in the veteran MBA application process

Essays are another opportunity for you to strengthen your profile through adding to your strengths or mitigating your weaknesses. For example, if you think your overall profile lacks a demonstration of empathy, you can demonstrate empathy in essay form. Perhaps talk about some volunteering experience or helping a service member through a difficult situation. Generally speaking, essays should begin with a hook (a challenge or problem you were presented with), discuss how you approached it, discuss what you learned from it, and discuss how it applies to your overall goal and why school X will help you accomplish that goal. Be genuine and ensure your “voice” is portrayed in the essay as well. In depth assistance programs are shown below:

Here is a list of resources to help you with the resumé and essay portion.

  1. USO Pathfinder

The USO Pathfinder program is a transition assistance service for military personnel exiting the service within the year. Representatives have external volunteers that offer to help with college applications. I have seen a mix of local college faculty and external admissions consultants. Quality may vary, but it is free. 

  • Veterans Club

The Veterans Club can provide you with everything you need to put together a successful application. Reach out early and often as you go through the application process. They will help you translate your experiences and craft your personal story. 

I think this is a must-use service. If you are having difficulty crafting your essays, this is the way to go. Applicant Lab is a cheaper and more accessible admissions consultant with archives of advice, videos, and format breakdowns for every top MBA essay question. 

  • Admissions Consultants

If you are a military applicant applying to an M7 program with GI 9/11 Bill, you should consider working with an admissions consultant on your first application—or Applicant Lab. Fees are generally packaged deals or hourly. Paying for a five school All-in package for $11,800* ( might not be the most cost-effective way to get admissions help for everyone. That said, $12K in additional expenses to get into an MBA program with exit salaries above $200K is negligible. If you decide to go the consultant route, around eight hours of hourly consulting should get you far enough along where you are comfortable on your own. Going the hourly route would only cost you about $3k, and you will get the majority of the benefit offered for a fraction of the price. 

            Note: I did not use Stacy Blackman Consulting, just referenced their prices. *

Part 4 will bring you through the final portion of the MBA application process. Best of luck to all of the applicants out there! Any suggestions or questions, do not hesitate to leave a comment!

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