Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Digging Deeper For MBA Admissions Value: An Example

I’m always pushing MBA applicants I work with to extract the full MBA admissions value from what they have participated in and achieved in life. Squeezing full value is the only way to present yourself as more valuable than the next applicant; that is, the only way to get admitted in a competitive system.

Easier said than done of course. So the question comes back: How do I do that?

There’s much more on this in my book, but in short the ‘how’ involves (a) understanding the full dimensions of MBA admissions value that can be credibly associated with what you have done or achieved; (b) understanding what is valuable to MBA adcoms, which is to say, what is valued in the b-school environment and in management careers; and (c) being able to connect “a” to “b” in a clear and compelling way.

That’s the theory. Here’s an example. (Note, like in MBA admissions essays, nothing works as well as a well-chosen example.)

Let’s say you have been involved in karate for much of your early life, achieved your “black belt” at the age of 18, were reasonably successful in competitions during high school and college, but now just keep your hand in at the dojo as a part-time instructor. Is it valuable or not?

Of course it is valuable. Karate is a recognized development activity. It takes youth through a structured and disciplined and group-oriented series of challenges. Also, having spent a significant part of your life on the activity, it should get some airtime in your application.

More pertinently, which parts are valuable? What do you say? Is it valuable to say you can fight people and easily knock them down? Of course not. That’s a red flag.

Is it valuable to say you can defend yourself in any situation? That’s not going to hurt your application, but it won’t help. Adcom doesn’t rate people on whether they can physically defend themselves — it’s not something that counts much at business school or with the Careers Office or recruiters or in the world MBA graduates.

The value is in elements such as: the discipline you learned; managing adversity and developing perseverance; in participating well with competitors and competition; in being part of a group framework; in learning to structure and manage your time (for example, going to the dojo 5x a week on top of everything else.)

There may also be value to be had in the psychic development martial arts offers: exposure to alternative (oriental) philosophy perhaps, or some development of mindfulness, self-reliance, and so on.

If you are now a coach or mentor of the next generation, there is obvious admissions value in that too.

There may be more. The point is, if you know what’s really valuable for MBA admissions in what you have done, you can use the fact that you have done it to advance your MBA admissions value in your application essays and interviews.

How To Find Your USP For MBA Admissions

One from the files: There’s a debate in the MBA Admissions community as regards the benefits of applicants “selling themselves.”

On the one hand, some say the applicant is as one among dozens of cereals in the supermarket aisle, and so has to work to actively pitch herself to the Admissions Committee to stand out as a valuable admissions “package” and thus be selected.

Others say the applicant should not do ‘a sales job.’ Any form of selling takes away from the authenticity of his voice, which is what Adcom really wants to hear.

As in most things, the truth is somewhere in-between.

You can’t afford to be naive. Companies spend millions on marketing and sales because it works. Admissions to elite schools is very competitive, and if you pitch an admissions message that is tightly designed and produced to meet and beat Committee expectations, that will advance your admission chances.

On the other hand, if you come across like a used-car salesman with a greasy handshake and a cheesy grin, that’s obviously not going to help you at all. If you’re going to sell yourself in any way, you must sell yourself as an authentic, reflective voice imbued with “humble confidence” in your leadership skills; as a manifestation of ambition-with-integrity; as a persistent force for innovation; and so on.

If you can package yourself this way, then selling yourself will work for you.

And when selling yourself, don’t forget what is perhaps the very essence of a market proposition that works in the world — a unique selling point (USP.)

In other words, just as a venture capitalist will ask the entrepreneur of a new product: “what’s its unique selling point?” which is to say, what’s so different about this vs. all the other competing offerings in the market, such that the consumer is going to buy one? So you should ask yourself: “what’s my unique selling point for elite MBA admissions?” What is going to make Adcom pick me?

Two things come together in a USP: uniqueness and value. Uniqueness is what’s different about you compared with the general applicant: the things in your personal and professional experience that are uncommon. Value is what the Committee sees as valuable in you: what you will contribute to the program and the b-school, both while at school and in the future.

I’ve written in preceding posts about candidate uniqueness and candidate admissions value, and these topics are also handled in my book. My point here is to say: look for ways to run uniqueness and value together, and if you do, you’ve found your USP.

What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (And Then Submitted Them)?

Here’s one from the files: Getting your tone right in MBA Admissions essays — particularly a fine balance between self-confidence and humility — is really tricky.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, and the exact mix depends on the candidate. The swaggering quant at BlackRock is going to have to adopt a much more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

I help candidates check get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting back when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud, or in fact not loud enough

I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about this, and I remember some unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, then Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted at the time by Matt Symonds on Forbes.

Bolton’s advised candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Said Bolton: “You don’t need to lie to yourself. [Private] self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

There’s a lot in this. If you were to write strictly for yourself, you’d only be BS’ing yourself if you weren’t 100% honest about your motivations and intentions, and reasons for “Why an MBA” or “Why Stanford,” etc. You would hardly set out to “impress” yourself or to write what you think you want to hear.

Were you to be writing in your own private journal, you would sift honestly and reflectively through your experiences, and genuinely try to join the dots between your past accomplishments and future aspirations via an MBA at the particular institution.

The suggestion therefore offers a compelling device to cut through a lot of the preening and bluster that turns good candidates into bad applicants. It is a way to raise transparency and find that “genuine voice” that MBA admissions directors want to hear.

Having said all this… let’s not for a second be fooled that Bolton or any other admissions gatekeeper lives anywhere other than the real world. Neither Bolton, nor anyone else, got to be where they are by turning in their private reflections.

So, stay smart about the process. Once you’ve written your essays absolutely as-if for yourself, go through them again to add back clear admissions value, some gentle persuasion, a touch of artful promotion, and a dose of marketing sass before you hit “submit.”