All posts by Avi Gordon

5 Ways To Show Applicant Value To MBA Adcoms

First published on QS TopMBA, June 2017: The MBA admissions process at elite schools is competitive. Invariably, successful applicants beat out other hopefuls who almost always have the goods to succeed as well, but don’t demonstrate value in MBA admissions, or are unable to stand out from the crowd.

How can you ensure you demonstrate value and stand out? It’s well known that MBA admissions looks for academic ability, a professional success record, and leadership potential, etc. But it also looks for other attributes, many of which value personal or organizational attributes within the soft skills, some of which may surprise you. My book, MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing, records 25 distinct types of value that committees look for in MBA applicants, or respond positively to. The following is five of them:

1. Maturity, professionalism and good judgment

This means a candidate who looks, talks, and acts ‘like a grown-up’. Through your essays and interview, the MBA admissions committee will get a sense of whether you have the personal maturity, diplomacy, and professional polish necessary to succeed at school, in job recruiting, and in life.

Are you poised under pressure? Are you diplomatic under fire? Can you handle responsibility? Do you have ‘senior presence’, or do you come across as a brash kid? Immaturity will be signaled by giveaways such as poor self-restraint, blaming others for your bad calls, showing an inability to see your own weaknesses, or in choosing inappropriate material for your essays. In the era of social media transparency, your claim to maturity could also be undermined by a junior social media presence.

2. Pursuit of meaningful goals

Beyond ambition and the desire to succeed, an MBA admissions committee will be asking, “what do you want to succeed AT?” There is no right or wrong answer. A wide range of career goals are acceptable. But, they will want to understand why you want to do what you want to do. What meaning does it have for you?

Just wanting to ‘succeed’ or ‘make money’ is not enough. That’s assumed. The question is, beyond success, why this path over another one? Also, how might what you do professionally be meaningful for other people, for communities, or for the school itself?  Harvard Business School (HBS) has asked matriculating students the following question [taken from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver]: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You could say you planned to be a hospitality manager or an aviation entrepreneur, or anything. The point is why is this worth spending your one precious life on? Why for you? Better still, why for those around you.

3. Awareness of self and others

Leaders and successful people almost all have good awareness of self and other, meaning they understand themselves well and they are aware of how they come across to others. Sometimes this is called ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘EQ’.

However you frame it, it belongs to those who understand their own personality attributes and weaknesses and are aware of how this plays out in interactions with others. Put another way, the skill is to be able to ‘read the room’ and understand the people and power dynamics in it, and to be able to influence these dynamics not least by first being aware of how one comes across.

4. Coachability and a continuous learning mentality

Business schools exist to teach, train and prepare professionals for senior management careers. There’s nothing quite as much of a turnoff as an applicant who appears unreceptive to the idea of learning and improving at the hands of faculty, coaches, and peers – which, incidentally, is a lifelong requirement in the modern knowledge economy.

If you appear to know it all already, the business school won’t see room for themselves, and they may see incipient trouble in the classroom and in groupwork as a result of a non-participating mentality.

5. Communication ability

A candidate who can write, speak, and organize ideas well. Financial and technical skills are important, but the most important skill in senior management is communication: The ability to frame, transmit, and negotiate ideas in meetings with clients, staff, investors, regulators, lawyers, industry partners, and other stakeholders.

As a general rule, quantitative skills are the tasks of lower jobs in a business organization. People in the c-suite and on boards spend almost all of their time talking. So, an MBA admissions committee will be looking hard at how well you organize and communicate concepts and ideas, thinking down the line to when you are going to be interviewing in front of an employer, and on and on throughout your career after business school. You can demonstrate value, in terms of your communication abilities, through your verbal GMAT or GRE score as well as in your MBA admissions essays and interview.

Get Wise: MBA Admissions Is The Final Exam

MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw-Hill Education) is now out in 3rd edition, 2017. With regular updates to track a fast-changing industry, the book has been #1 or 2 seller in category since first published in 2005, widely valued for its “straight shooter, what-you-should-know style.” To celebrate, here are the first few paragraphs…

With ever-more business schools offering the MBA degree worldwide, and online options quickly getting better, there has never been more ways to get an MBA. But business education is an area where brand really matters. Graduates from the top-25 or so elite programs start higher, progress faster, and have much more senior and interesting careers. Whatever the degree costs, those exiting the elite institutions reap many times the investment in their lifetimes. It’s dumb not to aim as high as possible.

Of course, everyone else knows this too, which is why MBA admissions at the top level is so competitive. Figures vary with the economic cycle, but on average across the most competitive programs, about six of every seven applications fail.

But, here’s the quick and dirty secret: nobody fails at elite business schools. Every year, in every program, everyone graduates­, possibly excluding a handful of extreme cases where a student has had serious adjustment or disciplinary problems and was excluded early. In other words, every candidate who is admitted will graduate because they were admitted. In fact, the better the school’s reputation, the less exams or grades appear to matter. If you were good enough to get in, you’re good enough, period.

In other words, while MBA degree failure is very unusual, MBA application failure is the norm. What this means is the MBA application is, for all practical purposes, the final exam. Admission is the only real hurdle between the candidate and an elite MBA qualification, and the fast-track career good fortune it commonly represents.

But real people pass it

Part of business school culture, one quickly learns, is that the MBA is not an “academic” degree. Smart people are required, of course, but you will repeatedly hear how the most intelligent people don’t make the best managers or business leaders. This explains why admissions is often refused to “brainiac” academicians and those with 750+ GMATs, and offered instead to candidates with diverse experience, personality, talent, and drive. Admissions committees (Adcoms) reward dynamic people who have a track record of real-world impact, particularly if they have meaningful plans for the future.

This means that anyone of appropriate age, with respectable undergraduate results and standardized test scores and a good professional record, has a realistic chance of getting into an elite business school, assuming they also have the strategic and competitive understanding of what in their background is valuable for admission and the ability to communicate their case clearly and powerfully.

Yes, the top business schools have their pick of Olympic medalists and Senators’ sons, and there’s nothing much you can do about that, but every year many thousands of very ordinary people are accepted too, because they applied well. Which is to say, they found and compellingly communicated the valuable attributes in their background and connected these closely to the needs of business schools and the preferences of admissions officers.

Getting in is a little bit about pure intelligence or family luck, and a lot about procedural and organizational smarts. The tools and techniques of admissions matter enormously. You don’t need to be a celebrity. You just need to be credible and to apply well.

Five MBA Admissions Essay Types And How To Tackle Them

MBA admissions committees change up their question sets almost every year, not least to discourage plagiarism of past essays, but behind the different ‘skins’ they are routinely asking the same questions they have always asked applicants. Here are five common MBA essay types and some pointers for how to address them:

First published on TopMBA.

MBA essay type 1: Career past and future; why an MBA?

Example: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? (Kellogg-Northwestern)

Recognition keywords: Past, present, future, career, goal, progress, plan, aspiration, choices, ambition, decision, position, objective, intention, aim, purpose, life, short term, long term.

You need to shape your ‘why an MBA’ answer carefully according to whether the question asks more about your past: “What has led you to want an MBA?” or about your future: “What will you do when you graduate? How will an MBA help you?” Note that there are, potentially, five parts to the question, covering three time periods:

  • Past – what experiences have led you to this point and this ambition?
  • Present – why an MBA now, at this point in your career?
  • Future – what do you want to do with your degree, in the short and long term?
  • Why an MBA at all? (Why not another kind of master’s, or a PhD?)
  • Why an MBA from this school particularly?

The ‘why an MBA’ question asks how your past connects to your future via business school. You need to show how the MBA is the bridge between your yesterday and your tomorrow. Past, present and future can be presented in any order, but you must paint a picture of a future that rests naturally on what you have done before, plus the MBA from the school to which you are applying.

MBA essay type 2: Weaknesses and failure

Example: What did you learn from your most spectacular failure? (Judge-Cambridge)

Recognition keywords: Failure, weakness, learning, unsuccessful, fall short, fault, limitation, criticism, shortcoming, adversity, feedback, go wrong, mistake, weak spot.

To succeed with this question, understand that this type of MBA essay is not set to see if you have weaknesses or have failed. Everyone has weaknesses and has failed. What is in doubt is how you responded, what insight into yourself you gained and how you grew from there. What they are testing, above all, is whether you have the self-insight to locate and admit to your mess-up, and the seniority to talk maturely about it.

The MBA admissions committee wants to know if you seek to understand your own flaws, and can discuss them candidly and work on them, or if you will try to hide them and/or blame circumstances or other people – markers of immaturity and poor managers-to-be. The committee (and your future bosses, partners and employees) will generally forgive the mistakes you make, if you are big enough to take responsibility and if you learn rapidly from them.

MBA essay type 3: Leadership

Example: Tell us about your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. How will that experience contribute to the learning environment at Tuck? (Tuck-Dartmouth)

Recognition keywords: Lead, motivate, initiative, impact, guide, direct, direction, responsibility, decision, inspire, encourage, power, influence, run, organize, mentor, motivate.

Leadership (and teamwork) will be a guiding theme in every application you do. MBA admissions committees question you in this area to find out not only whether you’ve got ‘the right stuff’ for leadership, but also to determine your understanding of and attitude to leadership and how you work with people. Part of having the right stuff is knowing what that is. Just having experience in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily mean you were good at it. You have to show them you understand what good is.

You also need to demonstrate an explicit understanding of your own personal leadership style – how you influence, motivate, sanction, inspire others to achieve, and so on – and the preferences that underpin your approach. In all leadership analysis, you should show respect for the difficulties of leadership. If you think leadership is easy, you have never really led.

MBA essay type 4: Uniqueness and diversity

Example: With your background and professional experience, what unique values can you bring in to enrich the learning experience at HKUST MBA? (HKUST)

Recognition keywords: Contribute, diversity, experience, knowledge, range, skill, enrich, talent, expertise, impact, proficiency, background, distinctive, attributes, variety, enhance, develop, unique.

Here, the admissions committee wants to know what in your background, ability, experience or training sets you apart and will be uniquely valuable to your cohort and the program in general. While other essays are designed to see if you fit the MBA mold, the test here is whether you can separate yourself from the crowd.

Put it this way; in various other essays and parts of the application, candidates provide reasons for an MBA admissions committee not to reject them – covering all the bases, fitting in with necessary criteria. But doing this doesn’t give the committee a compelling, positive reason to admit you. In this type of MBA essay, they look for a reason to say ‘yes’.

MBA essay type 5: Ethics and values

Example: Describe the situation with the greatest ethical complexity that you have faced in your professional or academic life, and how your input helped resolve it. (IE)

Recognition keywords: Ethics, values, principles, standards, ideals, code of conduct, beliefs, philosophy, personal guidelines, integrity, dilemma, decision, challenge.

Values are in. After Enron, the credit crunch, the Panama Papers and the ongoing litany of serious breaches of public faith by business leaders, business ethics is in the spotlight. Business schools have taken heavy criticism for turning out morally dubious, self-enriching managers. MBA admissions teams are under pressure to pick a better kind of person.

The tricky thing about the ethics-orientated MBA essay is that everyone knows what good values are and everyone claims embodiment of them. And yet, the world is full of scheming scoundrels. So, writing a nice essay where you shake your head and tut-tut at business and personal immorality, bid-rigging, claims-cheating, document falsifications, payoffs, etc., while assuring the reader of your absolute allegiance to fair play, good governance, and honest dealings is, please understand, absolutely worthless to your admissions prospects. Talk is cheap.

But, you will impress if you can demonstrate some thinking towards your own, unique set of values and show hard evidence of your commitment to values in the face of temptation and self-interest.