#AdmissionsPros: B-School Beyond The Numbers With Judith Silverman Hodara

Welcome to#AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

As a long-time admissions professional and former Acting Director of Admissions at the Wharton School of Business, Judith Silverman Hodara knows what it takes to submit an impactful MBA application. One of the founders of Fortuna Admissions, Judith works with aspiring MBAs on everything from school selection to recommendations to application essays. Here, she shares Fortuna’s process for advising students, the questions all applicants should ask themselves, and the importance of looking beyond your numbers on your business school applications.

Can you give us a little bit of background on yourself and your company?

Fortuna is a boutique MBA advising consultancy that is comprised of ex-admissions directors and ex-members of the admissions teams of M7 (plus, plus, plus). So we’ve got a team of individuals who have had direct experience in the offices of admissions of the best business schools around the world.

I am one of the founders and directors of Fortuna, and previously I served as the Acting Director of Admissions at the Wharton School of Business. Before starting Fortuna, I had about 25 years in the admissions industry, working both with undergraduates and with graduates. And I hold an EdD in Educational Policy from the University of Pennsylvania.

What is the background of most of your students? Are they applying to business school straight out of undergrad? Working in particular fields?

We’ve found that there are varying ages of interest, but I would say that most of our clients have had three to five years of work experience on average. They’re coming to us from a variety of backgrounds. We work with everyone from individuals who have started their own companies and are interested in getting a more formal education, to folks that have been working as bankers, or consultants, or in technology, and are ready for the next step in their careers, to those from non-traditional backgrounds like the military, not-for-profit, or education, who are looking to take those skills, marry them with a business degree, and continue their own professional development or perhaps even switch careers. So we really sit across a spectrum.

Are there three questions you typically ask in your first meeting with a client?

The first thing I always ask is, “what’s keeping you up at night?” Everybody has a reason that they’re interested in having support with this process. It can be everything from “I’m not quite sure how to tell my story,” to, “I’m not coming from a business background,” to, “I don’t have a quant background,” to, “I really didn’t do as well with undergrad as I needed to.” We try to understand the core reason that someone is reaching out to us, and to get a sense of how we can help them prepare for and move through their application process.

I also really like to ask, “what are you hoping to get out of this?” It’s not just a question of what job you want, but of what about this process you think will be most helpful. Are you looking to figure out where you want to end up in general, or are you looking to figure out if there are certain holes in your background that you need to work on — really, why are you applying to business school? What is leading you to this point?

And then finally, I really like to get a sense of a student’s overall perspective, and of where they are on a personal level. How are they feeling about this process in general, do they have support from the people that they’re working with, and from family members and spouses? Because it can be a really demanding experience. Knowing all of this can help us to tailor how we work with that student, and how we help them get through all the material that they’re going to need to produce while also feeling positive and optimistic.

What is your perspective on test prep? To what extent should students be prioritizing admissions tests?

I think that a lot of students benefit from test prep, because if they’re not taking the GMAT or the GRE immediately after undergrad, they’ve been out of the study mode for a number of years. And if you think about it, they have also been out of standardized testing for probably double that amount of time. Most kids take the ACTs or the SATs or the IBs or the APs or the TOEFL when they’re 17 or 18, so then to go back to it when you’re 24, 25, or 26, can be really challenging. And I think that people engage with test prep the same way that they engage with us, which is, “I need an extra coach to hold me accountable, to help me do this the right way, and to help me stay on track.” You know, yes you can go and buy books, and yes you can carve out three hours a day to do test prep, but you’ve got to be pretty determined to do that on your own.

I also think that test prep and test support can help to boost your confidence. It can help you think about ways to answer a certain group of questions that maybe you haven’t considered before. To me, and I know this analogy has been used a lot, it’s like going to the gym: you could do a hundred reps of something, but if you’re not using the right form you’re not really getting the most benefit out of doing that exercise. So I very much think that test prep for both the GMAT and the GRE can be really helpful.

In terms of the tests, the GRE is as widely accepted as the GMAT and so there’s no issue with that at all, but we do caution students who have absolutely no quant in their undergraduate backgrounds. They’re going to need to show that they can really knock quant out of the park. So, for whichever test they do, they may or may not need to take an additional class in quant, online or locally. And that could be stats, accounting, or finance.

Can you share your process for working with students?

Some of it depends on when students come to us. If they’re applying in September and they come to us mid-August, it’s a very different process than if they start with us in March or April and go through all the different pieces of the puzzle with us. And those would be everything from setting a strategy, to figuring out what schools they’re interested in, to setting up a communication timeline with the schools, to planning school visits. Also, helping to get recommenders on board so that they’re prepared to work on those letters of recommendation. We really help students develop their stories so that they can use those stories across a variety of schools, tailoring their messages and their value propositions to each one of them. We work with students on developing their resumes. We also work with students on interview preparation.

We tend to look holistically at what’s coming down the pike. So oddly, it may actually be that we’re going to work on your second school first because it’s got better questions, for example, and we’re going to develop more material which we can then use for some of your other schools.

It does vary from student to student. We have our own methodology that we’ve developed based on our experiences in these schools, but we’re also really attune to how the students anticipate they are going to be able to spend their time. If they have a very heavy work schedule, we may say, “Okay, we’re going to do this particular piece, and this is our two-week timeline to do so.”

The last thing I should add is that we match our students with expert coaches who have worked at and successfully supported students in their specific schools of interest. We encourage the students to have a call first with their coach to make sure that the chemistry is right, and then each of our engagements involves an expert coach and a director. Someone like myself that sat in the director’s chair at Wharton would be involved, not in every single detail of crossing the “i’s” and dotting the “t’s,” but in making sure that the messaging and the preparation and the presentation of an application all hangs together in a complete package. And then the student’s day to day contact would be an expert coach who has been on the ground in that school.

So the coaching is tailored to where a particular student wants to go?

Exactly — the school, your industry, the way you like to work, your educational aspirations, yes. We try to match on all of those. And since we’re boutique, we really take the time to make sure that that match is a good match.

Do you have any general advice on getting letters of recommendation, particularly for those students who have been out of school for some time?

Typically students will ask people that they work with currently, or have worked with in the past. Most MBA questions are really geared towards — “In what capacity do you know the applicant,” or “How do they compare with others in their group.” The questions might ask about constructive criticism that the recommender has shared with the student, and how the student responded to it. Several years ago, most of the schools adopted a fairly standardized set of questions. So we really think that it behooves the students to let their recommenders know what it is they need from them. Not writing the recommendations for them by any means, but providing the right kind of support and really guiding recommenders so that they have whatever information they need in order to be successful.

Is there a common misstep you’ve seen students making in the application process?

One thing I would say is that it does take time. It’s not the kind of thing where you can wake up in August and say “Oh I want to go to business school.” The process is really designed to encourage introspection and self-reflection. And it is designed to allow the students to understand the fit between their schools of interest and what they personally wish to achieve.

Getting an 800 on the GMAT is not ensuring that you’re going to be able to walk into any school that you want to. Of course that’s a great score, but there are so many other things that will need to come out in the application process. We’re really taking the time to almost deconstruct who you are, how you got here, and what you want to do next, what is the ROI for you personally and professionally. It’s a very big investment of time and resources to go to business school. And we very much encourage applicants to think about that a couple of months in advance, so that they’re not rushing at the end, and are submitting a true reflection of who they are as individuals and what they want to bring to these to these communities through their applications.

Moving to talking about application essays, are there any essay topics that you would recommend? Any that should be avoided?

I think the biggest issue with the essays is writing what you think the admissions officers want to read about you, when in fact the best thing that somebody can do as an applicant is to really be true to themselves and talk about the things that matter to them. Talk about influences and impacts in their own lives. And don’t second guess, “who is my audience.” I think that’s important to understand.

I also believe that talking only about professional background and professional achievements can be detrimental to the process. You want to make sure that the application readers get a very good sense of who you are as a person, because you’re a lot more than what you do for a living or what you hope to do for a living. So, think about what it is you’re going to bring to a school community, or to an alumni community. How do you see yourself impacting the organization that you’ll eventually join? You really want to be able to share who you are, and how you’re going to make a difference. That is such an important part— to think about how you envision yourself as a holistic person in 5, 10, 15, 20 years.

What is your top advice for students who are applying to selective MBA programs?

I would say that it is somewhat daunting to imagine who else is also applying, and to compare yourself to everyone else you think might be in the pool. The only person that matters is you. And all you need to do is provide a terrific, substantive discussion about your life, your goals, your hopes, your progression, where you see yourself, and how you want to get there. That will allow these admissions committees to really get to know who you are. To hold yourself up and say, “I don’t have that GMAT,” or, “I didn’t work for that name brand,” or, “I don’t have those grades,” You do yourself a disservice.

I’m a huge cheerleader, as you can tell. Believe in yourself and put yourself out there, because a number is only a number. No one else has the story that you have, no one else has experienced the growth that you want to share. That, to me, is really what sets you apart as an applicant.


Interested in working with Judith Silverman Hodara and her colleagues at Fortuna? Get a free consultation at the Fortuna Admissions website.

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