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Are you ready to do an MBA? Add to ...

Mindy Lampert couldn't bear another day at her dead-end job.

Working a low-level administrative position in Toronto for a relatively meager salary with virtually no room for advancement was taking its toll, so the native of Moncton, N.B., decided to take charge and boost her academic credentials to improve her career prospects.

So, in January, 2009, Ms. Lampert enrolled in the Masters of Business Administration program at York University's Schulich School of Business. The goal: to challenge herself academically and gain the expertise necessary to one day land a position as a management or supply-chain consultant once economic conditions improve.

"I found myself seeking intellectual stimulation through other routes in the jobs I had before and I thought, if these are the types of jobs I'm going to be having for the rest of my life, then I'm going to be a really unhappy person," Ms. Lampert says.

It turns out she isn't alone in that desire to pursue an MBA. According to a recent study by the Reston, Virginia-based Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC), 62 per cent of Canadian business schools saw an increase in full-time MBA program applications this year compared to last.

But, like so many candidates, Ms. Lampert asked herself a key question before taking the post-grad plunge: am I ready for the demands of a gruelling MBA program?

It's a question that should be taken seriously, according to Niki da Silva, director of MBA admissions and recruitment at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business.

"I think there can be a tendency to want to rush the decision," she says. "I think the best way to consider the timing is to understand when you're ready to benefit from the experience, identify gaps in your development and career path, but also contribute to the MBA experience."

For Ms. Lampert and the thousands of other Canadians who apply for MBA programs each year, these decisions loom large. Not sure if you're ready to apply? Use this checklist to help decide whether the time is right for an MBA:

Is my head in the right place?: Jim Fisher, vice-dean at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, offers a blunt assessment of the MBA experience: "It's a hell of a lot of work," he says. "[Applicants]have to be in the frame of mind that says this is going to be a total immersion with a bunch of other people in exactly that same mind frame." That means having the discipline to manage immense and challenging workloads, often while balancing work and other obligations, such as family. No matter what stage you are in the MBA decision process, Mr. Fisher recommends sitting for the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) immediately after completing an undergraduate degree to ensure the highest score possible. "Scores decline with age … because people forget how to do all of those algebra and geometry problems," he explains. "If you take your GMAT early, it's good for five years and that will give you the highest GMAT score."

Can I afford it?: Not only is this one of the most important academic decisions you'll make, it's also one of the most expensive. At Ivey, for example, the one-year MBA program costs $68,500, while Rotman charges about $75,000 for its two-year MBA - hefty sums at any stage, but particularly for a student likely to forego one to two years of income if they pursue their MBA full-time. Factor in other incidental fees, such as living and course-related travel expenses, and Ms. da Silva advises students to budget approximately $100,000 for their year of learning at Ivey. "The candidate has to think about it from a short- and long-term perspective," she says. "The MBA is an investment and you shouldn't expect to recoup the costs immediately." But is it really worth it? MBAs seem to think so. According to a recent global survey of MBA alumni by GMAC (which included Canadians), two-thirds of the class of 2009 said their graduating salary - the median being a respectable $66,694 (U.S.) - either met or exceeded their expectations.

Do I have enough career experience?: In Ms. Lampert's case, her lower-level administrative background didn't prepare her for the rigours of in-depth accounting, marketing and supply chain-management study. "It was all so new to me because in the jobs that I've had, I wasn't active in those aspects of the business," she concedes. While most MBA programs require at least two years of work experience as a prerequisite to any application, some schools demand to see more senior level roles on an applicant's résumé. Regardless of the requirements, Ms. da Silva feels that relevant workplace experience is a must for candidates to get the most out of their study. "I think you need to have enough work experience and enough transferable skills to understand why you're doing the MBA, to be running to something as opposed to running from something," she explains.

Do I have the support needed to be successful?: As Mr. Fisher points out, by the time many students begin pursuing their MBA, they have mortgages, children and other responsibilities that makes study at the post-graduate level an even greater challenge. He urges all candidates to carefully assess whether they have the support - be it financial or emotional - of family, spouse or friends necessary to make their one to two years as successful as possible. It was a question Ms. Lampert thought long and hard about before concluding the time was right for her to enroll at Schulich. "I looked around and said, 'I'm in a position where my family can support me a little bit, I have good credit so I can take out a student loan and a line of credit and the financing is all lined up, and I'm not married and I don't have any kids,'" she recalls. "Those are deciding factors for people."

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