Category Archives: MBA Interviews

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” 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 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 reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life 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 for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness 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, 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. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is 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.

 

‘Fast-Thinking’ in MBA Admissions and How to Manage It

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, 2011) documents how decision-makers arrive at decisions, either instantly without a lot of mental hard work — “fast thinking” or by “slow thinking” which means full analytical process.

Fast thinking is going on when you have a “first impression” of someone, and of course when an MBA Adcom member forms a first impression of you.

On a similar theme, Blink (Little, Brown & Co, 2005) by Malcolm Gladwell, makes a further claim — that instant judgments oftentimes produce better, more accurate, conclusions than those made by way of exhaustive analysis.

Whether “blinking” provides a better basis for decision-making than formal analysis or not, the point is fast thinking and slow thinking are both at play decision-making, whether the decision-maker is aware of it or not.

The implication for MBA admissions is that, while b-school Adcoms everywhere would assert that they rigorously analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each applicant, there is also considerable “fast thinking” involved in how they choose.

Note that Adcom essay readers and committee members are not seeking to make an “impressionistic” judgment. In fact the opposite is true. But they will be picking up impressions at every turn. After all, they have to make a big call, fairly quickly, about a complex situation (you and your future prospects) and they don’t actually have that much analytical material to go on.

Fast thinking is the way the MBA admissions committee will get its working impression of your personality, motivation, determination, charisma, team orientation, and overall prospects, all of which will precede and then run in parallel with their more formal analysis.

Before Adcom even gets to fully considering your grades and scores, performance metrics, and work history, they will have formed an impression from the first things they see. It’s hard to know what they will see first of course, but very often it will be the file data and/or resume.

An impression will form almost immediately and build through the course of considering your application, as they continue to absorb first impressions about each part of it–the essays, particularly their erudition and tone; the tone and warmth of recommendations and interview report, and so on. (The interview itself is of course another first-impression decision situation.)

Managing fast thinking:

The best way to deal with fast thinking is to realize it is there, and always will be, and provide ways for admissions officers to use this mode in judging you.
• Expecting snap judgments about your motivation, take care that everything you submit is carefully checked and complete.
• Expecting snap judgments about your pre-MBA work experience, take care to get the highlights high up in the essay.
• Expecting snap judgments about your professionalism, take care that any correspondence you enter into (by phone or email) is scrupulously professional, and so on.
Play to the first-impression mode first, and follow this with data and detail that corroborates the impression.