Business Insider: A Harvard MBA student shares the strategies she used to get into 3 of the top 5 US business schools
Many applicants to top MBA programs are thankful if they beat the odds to get even one acceptance letter.
But Farah Azmi's approach resulted in admission to three programs in December 2018 that are often listed among the top five business schools: Harvard Business School (HBS), Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Azmi eventually decided to enroll in HBS. She's now in her second year and is scheduled to graduate in May, while simultaneously working on her retail startup IXORA Apparel.
Prior to attending business school, Azmi worked in investment banking at Barclays in New York and in corporate strategy at Tommy Hilfiger. She told Insider that applying for an MBA was a two-year journey and at times punctuated by repetition and frustration.
"After one GMAT class and two different tutors, it still took me five times to get the GMAT score that I needed," she said. "My business application journey wasn't an easy ride for me. In fact, it was probably one of the most stressful times in my life."
With her application anxiety now in the rearview mirror, Azmi is able to recognize things she probably could have relaxed on, as well as steps she's grateful to have taken. She laid out the strategies that worked for her to inspire those looking to get into a top program.
Invest in your GMAT prep
To position herself competitively for HBS, Kellogg, and Wharton, Azmi was aiming for the elusive 700+ GMAT score. Despite eventually reaching it, she said she had "horrible test phobia" throughout the process.
"I did well on all my practice exams, and then when you put me in the official test, I freaked out," she said.
Based on this experience, Azmi recommended applicants devote the full time they need to studying and preparing for the exam.
"I personally would recommend taking the GMAT well before you're planning to apply," she said. "Between gathering recommendations and doing your essays, you don't want to add the GMAT to the list."
While Azmi enhanced her studying with tutors and classes, she advised basing your approach on your own learning style.
"I know plenty of people who bought the GMAT books and did well on their own," she said. "The GMAT journey is different for each person."
Tell your authentic story, even if it feels unoriginal
Azmi knew at the time that there would be plenty of investment bankers applying for the same limited spots at her top-choice schools, so she resolved to position herself more uniquely.
She began by reflecting on what she was passionate about, generating a list of everything that felt significant in her life at that moment.
"These things were genuinely important to me — not just what the school wanted to hear," Azmi said. "I listed everything from my friendships, my relationship with my partner, and more."
Her list also included her passion for the fashion industry, since she grew up designing and sewing her own clothing, and for mentorship since she felt "that was the only way an immigrant from Malaysia who graduated from a state school could make it to Wall Street," she said.
Azmi used these jumping-off points to craft her application essay.
"I literally wrote about my life story from the very beginning: How my parents immigrated to the US and how I grew up in small towns in Arkansas and Utah," she said. "I talked about how being an immigrant and living throughout parts of the US helped me shape my love of fashion."
When she first wrote her essay, Azmi was worried it wasn't unique enough and that it made her sound too much "like anyone else." However, after talking with friends who had already applied to business school, she became more certain about her approach.
"I realized all of us have a unique story to share and this was mine," Azmi said.
Make yourself a bit uncomfortable
While the tip to "be vulnerable" is heard so often with business school applications that it's become trite, Azmi said it's a valuable lesson.
"I heard the advice before that your essays should be so personal that it makes yourself uncomfortable reading it aloud," she said, adding that the way to achieve this is through ample self-reflection. "When I wrote the first drafts, I wrote my essay as if I was writing my personal journal."
In considering how to reveal the "real" her, Azmi thought deeply about her personal journey — particularly moments in her past that had made her sad, angry, and scared.
"I reflected on my immigrant childhood and how I was bullied for my skin tone and appearance," she said. "I reflected how it felt being poor and wearing garage sale clothing. I shared things that I absolutely hated sharing to people on a regular basis."
"I wanted them to know what I was feeling as a five-year old and how that's different from the 27-year-old me," she added.
Talk to as many students as possible
Azmi said that she didn't have a lot of friends from her undergrad experience who went to top business schools — but that didn't stop her from trying to build her MBA network.
To get a taste from real students of what each school's culture and campus life would be like, she reached out to multiple people on LinkedIn. Here's how she crafted her cold message to individuals she didn't know:
Hope you're doing well! I saw that we are both [connection point — same undergrad, same former employer, etc]. I'm beginning to apply for business school and would love to hear about your experiences at [school]. For context, I'm currently in Strategy at Tommy Hilfiger, previously in banking, and am now thinking about applying to business school in the near future. I think [school] is a great school and offers tons of classes and programs that are relevant to my interests, such as [examples of interests].
I know you're probably incredibly busy, but I would love to chat to hear more about your student experience. Let me know if you have a couple of minutes to chat in the coming weeks. Hope to hear from you soon!
"I asked coworkers to connect me," she said. "I even attended some of the club conferences on campus to meet people. This is incredibly important as you shape your essay, since each school is so different and has a different culture."
For example, when Azmi visited and talked to students at Wharton about the group interview and the group projects they were doing in school, it became clear that they cared about teamwork and collaboration.
"These little nuances were so important for me to inject into my Wharton essay," Azmi said.
Additionally, her networking efforts had an added bonus: She met some students who were willing to edit and refine her essay.
"As a current student myself, we're all willing to help pay it forward," Azmi said. "We know business school apps are stressful."
As originally published in The Business Insider