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Wanted: MBA Communicators

You may be a quantitative or technical genius, but if you cannot communicate great ideas, you may have a difficult time standing out in business.

An increasing number of MBA programs are working to build strong writing and presentation skills in their students. MBA professors are enhancing communication classes, offering communication advice after MBA competitions, and educating students to present projects in front of corporate executives. They're also offering feedback on student communication in all presentations and projects delivered during business school classes.

Being a strong communicator even before starting an MBA program, however, can be a major asset in the application process.

"Efficient writing stands out," said Professor Ronald M. Schmidt of the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester.

MBA programs add communication initiatives

MBA programs offer a variety of interesting communication initiatives from Day One.

At Simon, students engage in a management communication course right away, according to Schmidt. The course provides the writing and speaking tools essential for executives, he said. During this course, students may work on a case involving an executive who has to turn around a company. Students may be asked to write two memos, one stating what the executive would say prior to layoffs and another one outlining what he would say after layoffs.

"Often, you have trouble writing because you haven't thought about what you want to write," Schmidt said, adding that one of his goals is to be able to have students think critically about what they want to say before writing or speaking.

Meanwhile, at Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, lecturer Angela Noble-Grange said professors advise first-year students about writing and presentation skills during case competitions. They also assist them with their writing and presentation skills prior to company presentations, which are part of the first-year projects. Second-year students have the opportunity to enroll in management writing and oral communication courses.

Johnson MBA student Anita Kacholia, originally from India, has taken Johnson's oral communication course and plans to go into consulting after graduation.

"It's a great way to experiment with public speaking," said Kacholia. "It helped me gain a lot of confidence."

Simple steps to improving your communication skills prior to business school

However, you could take a step ahead of the crowd when you work on improving your writing skills before even starting business school. More than 96 percent of respondents to a Wall Street Journal poll indicated that they are important in the corporate world. Here are some ways to improve your writing skills prior to entering business school or even, if need be, afterward.

1. Enroll in a college that offers communication courses.

Start working on your writing and presentation skills early. Schmidt, who teaches management communication, advises prospective business-school students to attend colleges that offer writing courses and to make sure that they take those courses once there. In expository prose courses, you could learn how to write a traditional essay, a letter to the editor, a documented research paper, a Web document or a press release.

"What you write [in college] should be examined critically by an experienced writer," Schmidt said. "That's not true everywhere."

If you've already graduated from college, you may register for continuing education courses or …

2. Sign up for communication seminars offered through work.

After college, you should be working on your writing and presentation skills at work. Noble-Grange advises prospective business school students to take advantage of professional development opportunities available through work where seminars could help enhance presentation and writing skills.

"What quickly differentiates [one executive from another] is the ability to influence others," said Noble-Grange, who also teaches management communication. She also indicated that strong communication skills become even more important as executives move up the corporate ladder.

While you take college or work courses, also …

3. Become an avid reader of business books.

The moment you decide you want to attend business school, you should start reading general and specialized business books. Top business books are profiled in publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek and The Wall Street Journal. Reading well-written business and marketing books would be a good way to brush up on your writing skills before applying to business school.

"That should also give you an idea of what a convincing business argument looks like," Kacholia said, adding that it could also help students to deliver stronger application essays.

Putting it all together

Kacholia's experience at Johnson demonstrates what an education in communication can do. So if you're thinking about business school, and aren't too confident about your communication skills, join a college class or a work seminar. Also, read books to see how professionals build their arguments. You should then have an easier time dazzling the admissions committee with your essays and interview answers. If, however, you're already in business school, engage in any activity that can help you become a better communicator. Later on, this could help you develop a successful career.