Tag Archives: profile development

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.

Stanford GSB essays 2009/2010: the focus is tightened towards results and successes

Stanford’s essays are notoriously “introspective” and give many applicants trouble. Stanford Adcom do really want to get to know the real you through your writing. This year the flavor is the same, but (and possibly to avoid waffle) some important tweaks have been made in the optional essays to shift the focus squarely towards communicating successful results.

Why results? Because successful outcomes are hard to achieve. Anyone can tell a good story, particularly about what great things they may do in the future. That’s important. But if you can twin it with proof of past success, then it sounds like you are likely to hit your targets in life.

Stanford GSB Application Essays

  1. What matters most to you, and why? (750 words recommended)
  2. What are your career aspirations? How will your education at Stanford help you achieve them? (450 words recommended)
  3. Answer two of the four questions below. Tell us not only what you did but also how you did it. What was the outcome? How did people respond? Only describe experiences that have occurred during the last three years. (300 words recommended).
    Option A: Tell us about a time when you built or developed a team whose performance exceeded expectations.
    Option B: Tell us about a time when you made a lasting impact on your organization.
    Option C: Tell us about a time when you motivated others to support your vision or initiative.
    Option D: Tell us about a time when you went beyond what was defined, established, or expected

Here is where successful outcomes results-orientation has been upgraded. In Option A they have added “whose performance exceeded expectations.” Option B used to be “Tell us about a time when you felt most effective as a leader.” Now “the lasting impact” demands a results-oriented perspective. Option D remains from last year: this is a directly results-oriented question.

Stanford GSB Application Deadlines are:
Round 1: October 7, 2009
Round 2: January 6, 2010
Round 3: April 7, 2010