Category Archives: MBA Admissions

To Win, Connect Your Goals With Those Of Your Audience

Here’s is a bit more from MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building To Essay Writing, just released (McGraw Hill Education, 3rd Edition, 2017). It is high-level in this extract, but the nuts and bolts of “the how,” that is, steps to take to concretely achieve the outcomes advised, are in the book too. However, this gives a good idea of the foundational approach…

MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say. If you are better than the next applicant at demonstrating the common ground between your objectives and the objectives of the MBA program’s admissions committee (Adcom), you are well on your way to getting admitted.

Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months.

Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly.  When you know what the admissions committee is looking for and listening for, you can almost always find things in your profile that match this.

Staying true to you

There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because Adcom wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype. Why? Because business school education is not a pre-packaged set of skills that you are going to be spoon-fed, but thousands of learning events, co-created between faculty and students, and between the students themselves. In such “peer learning,” which is a huge part of MBA education, the scope of experience of the student group directly raises the quality of the learning. Adcom cannot just admit “the best.” They have to balance the incoming cohort for diversity of abilities and experiences in order to provide the best overall peer-learning mix.

Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—but once beyond that, then also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences. Your application task is one of judicious profile selection and framing for chooser delight, not one self-compromise.

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.