The Modern MBA often chats with guests about their MBA experience or post-MBA pivot, but what about that first step? Actually getting admitted into an MBA program!
We spoke with Sam Weeks, a Londoner based in Amsterdam who cut his teeth on trading floors in London and Amsterdam with a brief jaunt at De Beers, the diamond goliath, during an MBA internship. He graduated from Saïd Business School, University of Oxford with first-class honours, was elected as Social Chair, and named on the Dean’s List. Today his is an MBA Admissions consultant. He shared with us the inspiration behind his career change, how he used his MBA network to help him make the pivot, advice for MBAs looking to get into top business schools, how to choose a school, and financing tips.
Q: You did your MBA Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Would you tell us a little bit about your experience?
SAM: I describe Saïd as the rebel of the business school world; the kid in class who pursued some eclectic hobby instead of homework and annoyingly still nailed the exam. The school’s mission is to ‘tackle world-scale problems’. My personal view is that this positions it for a future in which businesses are expected to actively improve the world in which they operate.
Q: Today you are an MBA Admissions consultant, what was the inspiration?
SAM: Shortly after graduating from Oxford I was helping a friend to construct his own MBA application. After several hours he opened up about a traumatic experience he had suffered some years earlier. We realised it had been a factor in every meaningful decision he had made ever since and structured his profile around it. Gazing at the analysis of his experience laid out neatly on paper, he turned to me,"You're seriously good at this. Have you considered doing it for a living?". He received an offer and I threw myself head-first into the project.
Two years and hundreds of applications later I’m beginning to realise the ‘higher purpose’ of the work. If there’s a problem with business schools it’s still the horrible lack of diversity. Harvard Business School trumpets that 33% of the 732 students enrolling in their 2022 class are international students. In other words, a whopping 67% of its class is American. Schools themselves admit that they haven’t yet found a balance.
Part of the problem is that international students often struggle to imbue their quirky personalities into their writing when English isn’t their mother-tongue. That’s where I come in.
My reassurance that their writing is grammatically and idiomatically correct encourages applicants to open up and share the unique personality which ultimately gets them accepted.
Q: How did you use your MBA to pivot into your current career as an MBA Admissions consultant?
SAM: For me, it was all about the network. I leaned on MBA colleagues heavily when setting up the company. A close friend at Google gave me advice on my SEO strategy (I’m a bit of a dinosaur like that). Others at MBB consulting firms offered guidance around my pricing structure. Another has a unique talent for motivating people and has picked me up from my darker moments - perhaps not an ‘MBA skill’ but that’s the kind of people you meet.
I met MBAs from other schools at intramural events such as the MBAT sports tournament, case competitions, and ‘Oxford vs. Cambridge’ parties. I’m now writing a book about the application process in which I’ll interview 100+ of them.
On the job, I also hark back to my own application experience daily. I scribbled my application while working in investment banking, which meant writing at night at the expense of time with friends and family. I feel applicants’ struggle as if it were my own. I also visited 10 schools, so I’m able to share school culture with applicants who can’t visit.
Lastly, I made a point of building relationships with the admissions professionals who interview applicants (and recommend my clients to do the same). Nowadays, these relationships keep me on the inside track when it comes to admissions trends. Schools get out the good word about their programs and my applicants use this to help decide which school best suits their profile.
Q: What do you think are the top 3 challenges prospective MBAs face when applying for a programme? How can they overcome them?
SAM: The typical application process:
Step 1: Decide an MBA seems beneficial
Step 2: Enthusiastically sign up to distribution lists and web forums
Step 3: Compare self to participants on web forum, question own credentials
Step 4: Become overwhelmed, scared of failure, decide deadlines are too soon
Step 5: Give up the application until next year
The single biggest challenge for MBA applicants is the volume of information available. Blogs and forums are full of applicants bragging about their successes and shelling out conflicting advice.
Block out the noise: choose a reliable information source, such as a tried-and-tested book, consultant or forum (such as this one!) and close out the rest.
The second challenge applicants face is conveying their unique personality in a written essay, especially if English isn’t their mother-tongue. I advise clients to study the ‘12 traits’ and use personal stories to demonstrate them.
Lastly, schools have targets in terms of candidate geography and work experience. Don’t be naive: if you fall into competitive buckets, focus your essays on differentiating yourself. For example, tell stories of time spent abroad.
Q: On the flip side, what are 3 key areas that MBA schools weigh heavily/ that can make or break an MBA application?
SAM: Anybody can write about what they’ve done. Admissions professionals weigh candidates' ability to describe why they did it. They’re looking for people mature enough to understand their own motivation and failures, on the basis that these people tend to become leaders.
Secondly, applicants mistake an MBA application for a job application. Cut out the jargon.
Admissions staff are looking for candidates who will add to the program, who can work in small teams without causing grief and will stay involved with the school after graduating. Blabbing industry-specific acronyms shows none of the above.
Lastly, applicants constantly under-appreciate the importance of letters of recommendation. They feel they can’t influence the letters, so prefer to concentrate on their essays. Mistake! Hold your recommender’s hand and give them whatever guidance they need to write an exceptional recommendation.
Q: There are so many schools all over the world, how would you suggest students narrow down their choice? And do you have any personal country preference?
SAM: This is an under-appreciated point: Consider the location of your network. For reasons of regulation, visas, and convenience, graduates tend to congregate close to the business school they graduate from. So consider where your network will be based and where you intend to spend the next few years.
For me, this weighed against US schools. While I admired their prestige, I had no ambition to work stateside (only 15 days holiday? puh-lease!) and decided I would benefit much more from a European network. In hindsight, it was the right approach.
Q: The Modern MBA has been talking lately about financing options, do you have any tips for prospective MBAs on how to make paying for their MBA easier?
SAM: There are two types of MBA students: ones with paid summer internships, and ones who pursue unpaid school-organised consulting projects. Needless to say which choice leaves you lighter in the pocket. To land a salaried internship, start the application process early (like, within the first couple of months of your first year).
Some schools offer paid teaching assistantships. These allow students to work 10-20 hours per week concurrently to their MBA. One example is Texas Mccombs School of Business (link here).
Q: Finally, if people would like further information, how can they get in touch with you?
SAM: I’m a big fan of LinkedIn and love to follow my clients as they graduate. You can also drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or even Whatsapp me on +31 6 2754 7316.
At samweeks.com/contact I let applicants block a time in my calendar for a zoom chat.
Sam graduated from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, funded by a scholarship from the Saïd Foundation.
He’s a full-time admissions consultant working for MBA and EMBA applicants to improve their chances of being accepted to top business schools.
Check out www.samweeks.com