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My Journey from “Me” to “We” Against the World

Courtney-DuffyMy younger brother, like many rising high school juniors, is embarking on the college process, and I joined him on a recent campus visit with our parents. While the trip conjured beloved college memories of afternoons on the quad and late nights in the library, it also stirred up recollections of my own anxiety-ridden admissions process. These associations were timely, as I am currently in the throes of the MBA admissions process myself.

I’m not particularly fond of the person I became during my own undergraduate admissions process. I remember sitting in information sessions, enchanted by the possibility of calling this campus home for the next four years, and yet strangely spiteful of the other prospective students. I sized up everyone in the room, wondering how my array of AP classes and extracurriculars stacked up against their experiences, and willing the students to be less qualified than I was. This hyper competitiveness was derived, of course, from self doubt – a fear that the high achieving teenager I had become would still somehow fall short of the lofty college plans I laid out for myself as a child.

A few years later, after graduating from Trinity College (spoiler alert: I got in after all!), I braced myself for that same “me against the world” mentality in the business school admissions process. Again, it came from a place of self doubt: Was I an imposter out of her league? As a female and non-traditional applicant, I sought confirmation that I was indeed qualified for a top business school, at least from someone besides my parents (ha!). I’d read the statistics of men outnumbering women in MBA programs, and I couldn’t help but wonder why more women weren’t making this career move in 2016. Since I didn’t have many role models who had gone to business school, male or female, I dutifully signed up for last year’s Forté Forum in Washington, DC to learn more about the process.

Courtney-Duffy-TweetI was absolutely floored – and, frankly, relieved – to find a few hundred women at the DC Forté Forum. In addition to being a college-fair-like event with admissions officers from every MBA program a girl could ask for, there were two panels of kickass women who spoke confidently and knowledgeably about the admissions process. Most importantly, I was surrounded by women from an array of diverse industries who shared my drive and energy. These were the types of classmates I hope to sit next to in a future MBA classroom, and I found myself energized by – and not at all resentful of – their presence.

Just as valuably, last year’s Forté Forum introduced me to Forté’s MBALaunch Program, a 10-month preparatory “boot camp” for women seeking an MBA. The program provides a support network and a structured roadmap for the business school application process, including webinars that shed light on the most challenging areas of the process. At the program’s DC kickoff, I met the five MBALaunchers in my “Peer Group,” who have turned out to be game-changers for me during this inherently competitive process.

Once I stopped looking at fellow applicants as rivals, it became natural to see them as teammates. The women in my Peer Group, for example, regularly circulate DC admissions events to one another, not only because it’s nice to see a friendly face in the crowd, but also because we recognize that we get further with each other’s support than we ever could’ve gotten alone.

I’ve learned that MBA admissions committees approach admissions as both a science and an art – they are charged with compiling a diverse class that is a microcosm of the business world. My role in that world, as an “arts, nonprofit, and technology person” interested in social impact, is unique to me. It doesn’t put me directly at odds with the Launchers in my Peer Group or any other applicant, male or female. Instead, I’m in competition with myself to put forth an application detailing a genuine representation of my experiences and goals – one that articulates a clear narrative of why an MBA is a necessary next step on this career journey that is unique to me.

And I won’t sugar coat it – this process hasn’t been easy. At our July Peer Group meeting, we commiserated over how exhausted we’d become by the GMAT and other grueling elements of the process. That night I had a dream – well, a nightmare, really – in which all the spots were already filled at my dream school. Naturally, I sent a message to my group with all the humorously horrific details. It’s a relief to share these silly anxieties with a handful of savvy women who frankly just “get it.” I’m grateful to Forté for forging this connection between us, and it all began at last year’s DC Forté Forum.

courtney-giphyI have five applications due next month alone, and I’ll admit there are still times when I wonder whether I can pull this off. It’s in these moments, however, that I’m reminded of a GIF I came across on International Women’s Day from artist Libby Vanderploeg. It’s called Lift Each Other Up, and because a picture’s worth a thousand words, I think I’ll let it speak for itself.

Washington, D.C.-based Courtney Duffy (@cduffy90) is the Robert W. Deutsch Arts & Technology Policy Fellow at a nonprofit called Fractured Atlas. Courtney is a current MBALauncher and plans to apply to various MBA programs in Round One of this year. 

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