To all of my friends and future friends, “CONGRATULATIONS” on your decision to pursue your Master of Business Administration degree. Earning an MBA can be a life changing experience, both professionally and personally.
Some applicants come from families where a family member has not pursued an advanced degree. If this describes you, then you are a first generation graduate school applicant. So how is your experience different? The application is the same, the requirements are the same, and GMAT/GRE test is the same, but what are the additional challenges?
Here is my list of the Top 5 most common challenges I see in first generation MBA applicants and my take on how to overcome them.
Top 5 Challenges of First Generation MBA Applicants
#1 Possessing the Ability to Sell Yourself:
Coming from humble beginnings teaches you how to be humble. Growing up, we are taught not to rock the boat, be loyal, work hard and things will fall into place.
In business, you have to be polished, ready to compete and begin to humbly brag about your accomplishments. So how do you develop this skill in a short time to be successful in a business school program? You Practice! Practice saying out loud why you want an MBA. Practice saying out loud why your #1 school is your #1 school. Do they have a curriculum that screams your name? Does it have a student culture that just fits perfectly with your personality? If so, practice saying why you feel passionately about that school and practice saying why you are a good fit to be there, too. Talk about the contributions you can make to the program. Share your leadership stories, either at work, or with your fraternity/sorority/ or volunteer work. Sell the school on why you will be a great choice to join their incoming class.
#2 Overcoming Your Mental Block That You Are Not Good Enough:
There are three simple rules in life:
- If you do not go after what you want, you will never have it
- If you do not ask, the answer will always be no
- If you do not step forward, you will always be in the same place
In the past ten years, I have spoken with, interviewed, and coached over 1,000 first generation MBA applicants. The self-imposed mental block on why many believed they were not ready to compete at the highest academic levels was disheartening. The majority of the MBA candidates who choose to limit their scope of where to apply to business school usually say it’s because of family reasons. I am not referring to those applicants who are married and must limit their choice of schools because their spouse has a great job and it just does not make financial sense to move. I am, however, referring to those that just do not want to leave the safety of the nest because they do not believe they can compete because of circumstances beyond their control. Regardless if you graduated from a state school, got kicked out of school, or had to go to the military first so you could use the GI Bill to pay for school…whatever the reason may be that you feel you cannot compete is an internal demon that must get conquered. The person you are today is not the same person you were then. You have overcome challenges whereas some current MBA candidates that are attending your dream school would have faltered in the face of fear or doubt. This is grit. You are ready.
#3 Ability to Write out Your Career Goals:
Writing is a lost art. For many first generation MBA applicants, there seems to be a degree of writer’s block that occurs often. From my experience, frustration sets in too early in the writing process and some choose to stop the application process completely because they cannot move beyond the first essay question. The easiest way to approach your business school application essays is by telling a memorable story. As first generation MBA applicants, you have many stories that you can share about your families and how you grew up. These stories are the makeup of why you will be a competitive force in business. The only part that will require time is crafting your story in an essay format.
The worst thing you can do is get stuck and stop. Keep writing and something great will eventually come out.
#4: Getting yourself involved to highlight your achievements in your Letter of Recommendation
This is where we talk about the dreaded ASK! You need to ask your manager for a letter of recommendation without feeling guilty that you may quit your job or disappointing your boss. Unless you are working in a family business, your boss probably already knows that she/he will not keep you forever. So taking a proactive approach to ask for their support in your effort to apply to business school is most likely a request that your boss was already expecting.
Nevertheless, even when we do build up the courage to ask for a letter of recommendation, we hardly ever get involved with the drafting of the letter. Provide your recommender with the questions that the schools are asking. Give your recommender time to think how they will answer the question. Invite them to lunch/coffee or a walk so you can both brainstorm on which examples to give to ensure the letter of recommendation will be solid. Make sure your recommender has a clear understanding where you see your career progressing. Give your recommender the deadlines when each letter of recommendation is due. By minimizing their questions, you will reduce your stress level too. Check out our YouTube video to learn more about creating a strategy to Get that Perfect Letter of Recommendation for Business School: https://youtu.be/JsuGHtwFfaU
#5 Relying on Your Circle of Friends and Family to proofread your essays
Having a close network of friends who you can share life experiences with is essential to your personal development and happiness. However, asking your peer group to provide you with a critical review of your essays is not the best approach on how to improve your story. Business schools ask varying questions in order to get the most insight from their applications. For example, Stanford asks, “What Matters Most to You, and Why?” Duke asks, “Share with us your list of ’25 Random Things’ about YOU” and Cornell asks, “You are the author for the book of Your Life Story. Please create the table of contents for your book.” Unless your friends have demonstrated a proven track record to successfully coach individuals on how to address these unique, but real examples for essay questions, you are doing yourself a disservice by asking your pal to proofread. Reach out to current students, recent alumni, or hire an MBA Admissions consultant to help you navigate through this journey.
The challenges for a first generation MBA applicant are unique. You are expected to perform at equal or higher levels than your peers who may have had years of mental preparation. The task is not insurmountable. Many successfully accomplished their goals, but success is seldom achieved alone. Ask for help. Lean on those who are willing to give you their time to provide you with the necessary assistance. Create an action plan and earn your MBA!
Jesse A. Mejia is the Founder & CEO of MBA Catalyst, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Jesse has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and has been a featured guest on National Public Radio. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and is a sought after speaker on the topic of personal economic empowerment. Jesse is the author of Dual Track: Graduating from College with Options and is currently writing his second book, ¡Rise Up, Mi Gente! A Roadmap for Latino Young Professionals to Achieve Success in Corporate America.