Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Getting distinctiveness into your MBA application even if you think you have none

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a carry-all cop-out. What I mean is – putting it another way – the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you – it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything — you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

The recession adds weight to the voice of Career Services in MBA Admissions

Every year is similar in MBA Admissions, but slightly different given what is going on in the economy and the world. This year a key framing condition is the recession. Applicants who get into top schools will have a excellent spread of academic, professional, and extramural attributes. But the economic downturn will make itself felt, and one of the aspects of this was well picked up by Business Week this week in an article which says MBA Career Services departments are getting a stronger voice in who gets admitted.

Says BW: “With company recruiters becoming ever more selective, B-school admissions departments are taking a closer look at how easily candidates will be able to parlay their education into a job come graduation… While admissions officers have always favored these qualities, increasingly—as the job market tightens—they’re demanding them. Admitting employable students on the front end in some cases means shying away from some traditional admissions metrics such as test scores and grades and embracing professional qualifications such as interpersonal skills, proven job performance, and promotions.”

None of this is new. Future employability, quality career continuation, and likely starting salary have always been a consideration in MBA admissions. It’s just a shift to greater emphasis.

Recruiting well out of an MBA is one of the key function a business school offers. They do this for the candidate (it’s part of what you pay your tuition fees for) but it’s hardly altruism. This is because, among the matrices along which MBA schools are typically ranked is “percentage of students recruited on graduation,” and “average starting salary.” In other words the pressure is on Career Services to get these numbers up.

In good times they are willing to take a punt on students who have potential but not much or a record because it’s likely they will get a good offer (in boom times practically everyone at a top-20 school gets multiple offers). But in a bust Career Services knows it will be left with jobless graduates. Not only is it a headache to have them emailing you and endlessly bugging alumni, but it drives down rankings, to say nothing of word-of-mouth reputation.

So while b-school Admissions Services (Adcom) and Career Services are traditionally separate “empires,” in recessionary times Careers want to make sure they get the most recruitable candidates possible. So many schools’ Careers departments are demanding and getting a seat on Admissions Committees, where they can sit in on interviews and evaluate applications.

What does this mean for applicants this year?
Says BW: “The increased attention to job placement could spell trouble for candidates whose essays fail to outline clear career plans. Career switchers, with no work history in what they hope will be their new profession, might be similarly disadvantaged. The same goes for younger students as some schools up the criterion for average years of work experience.”

The way through this is, first, to play up your career progress and future employability (via all inputs: essays, résumé, interview, recommendations, etc.) The second is to have a really convincing, plausible, short-term career plan. Given your work history plus an MBA (from the particular school) can you make Adcom and Career Services believe you will be gainfully employed in a MBA-worthy position on graduation day? If you can do this, you’re one step closer to getting in.

What is an MBA admissions resume, and how is it different from a regular resume?

Many b-schools ask for a resume as part of the applicant’s package. Fair enough. It is professional school and they want to see your professional record. But, in fact, MBA admissions resumes do make subtly different demands and it’s crucial to know what these are (see below).

However, of course much is also identical in a normal resume and an MBA admissions resume, so you should start by getting your resume as good as it can be as per conventional requirements. There are thousands of guides to this, many free on the Web. I won’t dwell on the principles at length here, but be certain to take note of at least these basic points.

A resume should:

  • Be in reverse chronological order, education last
  • Contain tight clauses rather than full sentences, and not use the first person singular
  • Start items with verbs: “Managed at team of…”; “Assigned priority to …”; and so on
  • Contain evidence, particularly quantitative amounts of budget managed or people supervised, etc.
  • Not contain obvious age, gender, race or other similar bio-data. (More latitude allowed in Europe)
  • Be easy on the eye (text at readable point size; layout not too dense)
  • Be absolutely, completely error-free

Those are the basics. And this is first base for Adcom too. They want to see you can do this common business communications task effectively.

Once you have that, then it’s time to adapt it to the needs of MBA admissions particularly. Good resume builders will always advise you to show as much experience relevant to the job you are applying for as you can. This it true of an MBA admissions resume too, only doubly so, because doing an MBA heavily implies that you will be transitioning to or accelerating quickly along a management path. It applies a leap in career.

The mistake that most of my clients make on their first draft is to proudly present their past experiences and achievements, which are very often technical or specific to the field they are leaving. Success is always good, but MBA Adcoms don’t really care whether you cracked a complex software conundrum or isolated a biological compound or develped prefabricated housing units. What they care about is whether you will make a good manager or leader, that is, the management portion that was there (or is implied potential) in what you did.

So that is where you should focus: the management, leadership, organizational (teamwork) or innovation implications of your past experience. Don’t say: “Developed molecular compound BN6R in 3 months using ‘BitPro’ software analytics.” Say: “Was part of team that developed unique molecular compound; led presentation to the Board; liaised with company PR in media announcement.” And so on.

The other key part of making your resume an MBA admissions resume is to work carefully with the knowledge that, unlike a typical employer, Adcom has various overlapping sources of information about you – not least all your file data. So you want to augment that rather than simply repeating it, in order to get your file data, resume, and essays to elegantly dovetail rather than simply overlap.

Obviously, your resume must not leave out the basic resume attributes: dates, places, company names, and so on, even if this is already in your file data. But there are often ways to cut out repeating subsidiary information – names of products or service units and so on – that often just “block up” a resume. This should leave space to go longer on quantitative evidence of (management-oriented) experiences and successes. In fact, I counsel admissions clients to put as much quantitative data in the resume as they realistically can which, in turn, frees up the essays to be a little more personal and reflective.