Tag Archives: career plan

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.

 

Amen Mr Jobs

The sad news today is Steve Jobs is dead, and America and the world has lost one of the most capable and innovative leaders ever born.

Steve Jobs’ Commencement address to graduating Stanford students in 2005 is the kind of orienting motivational document that is worth reading from time to time no matter who you are and what you do. But, in the spirit of better MBA applications, which is what this blog is 100 percent about, it’s worth going there today specifically to draw some lessons.

Lesson 1: Structure

In his opening few words, Jobs tells his audience: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.” What is he doing? He’s saying, here is the structure of what’s to come. Three stories. He’s signposted it in just one sentence, with no artifice and no fuss, and via these few words everyone knows what is coming and where they are all the way through the program. That’s being kind to your listener (or reader.) Kindness is often rewarded.

Lesson 2: Stories

Jobs needs to communicate fairly high-level and potentially abstract notions to do with choice, motivation, learning, patience, luck, love – and so on — to students. He could (so many do…) say something like: “It’s really important to be motivated and stay focused, and keep your focus when things go against you because sometimes adversity has good consequences you can’t see at the time …” Yawn.

Instead, he tells stories – relating concrete situations and events about himself. You are pulled into his life, prickled by the detail, listening or reading on willingly to know what happened next and how it turned out.

The stories make the point he wants to make all by themselves. Just one example: He doesn’t say: “I had no money when I dropped out of college, but I didn’t need much at that age.” He says: “I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”

Relevant, colorful story detail will make your interesting to your Adcom reader or MBA admissions interviewer; being interesting will get you noticed; getting noticed will go a long way to getting you admitted to the b-school you are applying to.

Lesson 3: Why an MBA?

Job’s again: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When you answer the ‘Why-an-MBA’ question that all applications ask, this is what is at stake: not how will b-school put you on the next rung of a ladder, but how it will put you on or further along your life path. You don’t need a career blueprint – lot’s will change. But you do need to show the Admissions Committee some sense of what your heart and intuition calls you courageously to become, and how the MBA from their school will help you get there.

* See also How to Dent the Universe (or how to apply for an MBA like Steve Jobs would)

‘If you aren’t an idealist at 25, you’re a rogue; if you’re an idealist at 50 … you’re a fool’

In the headline above I’m paraphrasing Winston Churchill, who is alleged to have said: “If you’re not a communist at 20, you’re a rogue; if you’re a communist at 50 you’re a fool.” In fact the quote in one form or another goes all the way back to Francois Guisot (1787-1874) who said during the French Revolution: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” (Republican meant something altogether different from the GOP, of course.)

This quote, in its various iterations is saying: Society expects its young men and women to have ideals and seek to change the world. It expects the fire and passion of youthful optimism and its critique of the status quo, even if it is rash or naive. If the youth do not have that, what do they have? (Whatever they have, it’s worse than naivete.)

When you are in middle-age, then okay, it is expected that you accept certain compromises and adopt a measured cynicism.

Why is the quote important for MBA admissions? Simply, if you are applying for a full-time MBA program you are likely to be somewhere between 23-30; that is still in the age bracket where you should have fire in your belly to change and improve the world. If not, that means you just want to advance yourself and make boatloads of money, and while Adcom likes those driven to succeed, the whiff of narrow self-oriented goals is a golden highway to being dinged.

What does it mean to change and improve the world? See my previous post on this. It does not mean hugging trees in Roanoke or digging wells in Sudan or other “bleeding-heart” welfare-service missions, which, frankly, are a low credibility angle for MBA applicants.

It does mean using your new business and management skills for broader societal benefit, in addition to your own benefit.

Wider benefit that you create can come in developing a new product or service or business model that challenges and improves an industry. To take some famous examples: Herb Kelleher created a no-frills airline (Southwest) that brought air travel to the masses; Ted Turner (CNN) made global news sexy; Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) developed a platform that brings social communities together in an unprecedented way; Niklas Zennström & Janus Friis (Skype) brought free voip calls to the world — and in the process decimated exploitative national telecoms parastatals.

These were not do-gooders. But they were industry “revolutionaries.” They didn’t look at their sector and say “I just want to be a senior manager and go up the corporate ladder.” Whether as startup entrepreneurs or sitting corporate executives, they were ready to challenge industry status quo’s to build something more ideal. That’s the kind of 20-something idealist you need to be for MBA admissions.
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