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The Power of Peers in the MBA Application Process

Helen KnightWhen I first heard about the Forté MBALaunch program, the idea of even applying to business school scared me.

I was well into my second year out of undergrad, working in my dream job at a lightning-rod advocacy group trying to resolve one of most contentious and challenging issues of modern times. Despite my mom’s longtime employment with a Fortune 100 company, I’d never thought of myself as one of the business kids in college, where I was deeply immersed in my poli sci and Arabic classes. I knew people who were majoring in “global supply chain management,” whatever that meant, and felt at the time as though I lived on a different planet from them.

On my planet — the world of policy wonks drawn to nonprofit and government work — I could count on one hand the number of known MBAs I’d ever met. Certainly, there were none in my 55-person organization where my superiors held advanced degrees in everything from law to divinity to conflict resolution, but definitely not global supply chain management.

But it was also that dearth of business experience that convinced me to explore an MBA (and led me to Forté); I knew that my workplace and many progressive groups I supported could benefit from the expertise of someone both from their planet and trained in organizational management and operations. Still, the idea of even signing up for the Forté Foundation listserv remained beyond my comfort zone.

Once Forté began sending me enthusiastic emails soliciting applications for MBALaunch’s inaugural class, I resolved that I would apply, despite my feeling like an impostor in the business world. I hoped that a possible acceptance would validate my MBA candidacy. Upon receiving my MBALaunch acceptance email several weeks later, I instead felt a new kind of nervousness: I was now committed to completing business school applications for the school year beginning in fall 2014. This was suddenly real, and I didn’t know yet if I was ready.

Thankfully, the in-person launch session for the Washington, DC MBALaunch cohort assuaged many of my fears. I was excited to find myself already connected (through my policy-wonk job, nonetheless) with several of the other women in the group. And despite the impressive, varied accomplishments of the other 45 women at the launch session, by the end of the day’s program, I felt very much that I belonged; this being DC, even the Google employees were working in advocacy and interested in the intersection of politics with business.

The welcoming and accessible Forté staff also placed us in peer groups with like-minded women. My peer group members worked in international development, women’s issues, and higher education, and all were considering diverse MBA programs and post-MBA career paths. Over our months together, my group shared insights from each of our visits to business schools around the world, as well as our GMAT preparation techniques, essay-writing processes and consideration of our long-term goals.

Shortly after beginning to meet with my peer group, the MBALaunch program also matched me with my advisor Christine, an inspirational MBA in a related field who worked just a few blocks from my office. I was surprised to discover how much we had in common; she and I grew up in the same town in Georgia, and this fall, I began a women’s political leadership fellowship she completed several years ago.

Hearing during our monthly lunches about Christine’s business school applications and her use of her MBA in public-sector work helped me open my mind to possibilities and paths I hadn’t considered before. She supported me through the toughest parts of my preparation process (even emailing me a reminder to do yoga the day before my GMAT), and I know we’ll stay in touch after our formal advisory relationship comes to a close.

Getting to know my advisor also showed me the awe-inspiring extent of the Forté network in DC and beyond. I thought the public and nonprofit sectors might not boast a broad range of women involved with Forté, but was amused to learn that Christine, in fact, worked closely in her office with one of my fellow MBALaunch participants. Soon after, I had coffee with Isabelle, another MBA whose firm consults for my organization; she asked me, “Have you ever heard of the Forté Foundation? They do great work for young women interested in business school!” It turned out that Isabelle was also an MBALaunch advisor.

The monthly MBALaunch programming covered every aspect of the application process thoroughly and allowed participants extensive contact with school representatives, GMAC officials and admissions experts. That content was essential to my preparation for the fall 2013 application cycle. But MBALaunch was most valuable to me in the relationships I built through our in-person events, peer groups, advisor matching and tangential connections.

The women I grew to know through MBALaunch made the world of business school and MBA admissions — which only a few months before had seemed intimidating and alien — small and filled with familiar, helpful faces. In turn, I went from being concerned that I didn’t belong in the business world to feeling encouraged and supported by a close-knit network of women rooting for me to succeed. Their support gave me the confidence to continue with my application process, and the certainty that I can excel in any MBA program I choose.

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