Tag Archives: communications

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.


MBA Adcoms: Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?

To be a successful MBA applicant, one key thing to get clear on is who you are talking to when you write MBA admissions essays.

Getting your head around who your reader is, is a crucial part of creating a winning communication and therein getting admitted.

One iconic profile is revealed in this now-somewhat-classic introduction to a Business Week interview with then-UCLA Anderson Director of MBA Admissions (now UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Director of Admissions) Mae Jennifer Shores. See: UCLA Anderson: Admissions Q&A – BusinessWeek.

“The Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions … says she ended up an admissions officer the way most people do—unintentionally. She went to Russia to teach public policy, but was assigned to teach negotiations at a business school at the last minute. After two years, she wanted to continue her Eastern European stay and almost took a job teaching in Kazakhstan. Her graduate school loans, however, forced her back to the U.S. There, Shores’ international and business-school experience eventually led her into the admissions department.”

Every MBA admissions officer is different of course. But what they have in common is that it is unlikely they planned and studied for this career. Most come to it “sideways.” They typically have broad interests, are people-focused, and are good communicators. They have lived life in more than one industry and often more than one country. They are generally not business trained, although many have some background in HR or marketing.

This makes the MBA application essay writer’s job harder and easier. It’s easier to engage an interesting person. Almost anything topic you raise will be “valid” for them.

But it’s harder if all your stories are highly technical, or closely work-oriented or if your ability to reflect deeply and persuasively on your life and career path is limited. You’re not going to interest the likes of Mae Jennifer Shores unless you can extract the human interest and personal journey from your life story.

MBA Admissions Interviews and the Art of the 45-Second Story

It’s interview season and I’ve been fielding a lot of questions, ranging from the specific (most commonly, how to prepare for the Wharton “team-based discussion” interview) to the general “what questions should I focus on?”

A lot of MBA admissions ink has been spilled on Wharton’s team-based discussion, so let me just say this: the form is different to a classic interview, but MBA adcom’s goal is the same. That is, they are looking for the same things they always were – the bright, personable applicant who stands out as a communicator and a beacon of good values, while being highly driven and achievment-oriented.

As they are looking for the same thing b-schools have always looked for, it is a bit of pouring old wine into new bottles. You prepare yourself in all the same ways as before, but in this case an additional familiarity with the team-discussion format is no bad thing.

The Wharton interview format is part of the cat-and-mouse game between MBA adcoms and admissions advisors, where adcom seeks a format less prone to preparation and admissions advisors respond by adjusting their menu. See this Wharton Premium Interview Preparation service ($500) from Accepted.com which I’m happy to be associated with.

More generally, how should you prepare for the interviews? Here are some bases to cover:

Look across the interview reportbacks that are freely available on the Web. This will give you a flavor of what to expect. But don’t over-focus on a specific question that appears to “come up” a lot for a particular school. By all means prepare yourself for it, but don’t bank on it.

Do, however, focus on the questions most candidates are asked most commonly. This is the 80-20 rule in action: a few common questions are asked again and again, and these questions are not a secret. They are ones you should be able to recognize by now: “Walk me through your resume; Why do you want to do an MBA; Why here; Why now; How will it help you towards your (What is your) career goal, short term and long term; How will you contribute to the program; What do you bring to the program that is unique?

There are many other common questions, but these are the basics. If you are deeply prepared on these, for the rest as long as you don’t roll over any landmines (aka red flags) you will do well.

What’s a landmine? Space doesn’t permit me to go too deeply into this here, but I’ve blogged about it consistently here over the years. Suffice to say, if you say something that moves you towards social prejudice or personal badmouthing or psychological instability or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know, you’re probably too close to a landmine.

Anyway, to the points I wanted to make today. This is

(a) be ready to bring facts and

(b) 45-second stories.

Notice any persuasive politician, President Obama for example. When he talks he doesn’t say “average household food costs were better this year.” He says national food retail prices dropped 1.6% year-on-year, following 2.2% improved harvest yields in six breadbasket states despite a $12 per-barrel hike in the global oil price.

Likewise, when talking about yourself, don’ t say “I have made rapid career progress recently.” Give the interviewer good reasons to believe you.

Your other go-to proof device is use of story form. Don’t say you “faced many dangers” on a project. Say say you were off-site, starting at 6am with a rig inspection and ending at 10pm with your explosives assessment call to the Montana office. Stories naturally supply facts. They bring your real-world experience to life. And they are also easy on the listener. Everyone likes a good story.

MBA admissions interviews are 30 minutes on average, so you don’t have a second to squander. It’s likely the admissions value from any story in your life can be captured in the first 45 seconds if you tell it right. So, prep yourself around short, illustrative career and life stories you can tell in under a minute.