Confessions of an MBA Consultant: White Spaces

Reposted from Poets & Quants

I’d rather listen to Celine Dion on a loop, I think to myself knowing there has to be a torture less painful than listening to a business school applicant recite his resume line by line.   Getting to know a new client is ordinarily a pleasure, unless he or she drones on about “what” they’ve done rather than why.

“Minnesota,” says today’s candidate, Alan.   “Mendota Heights actually,” he explains. “It’s a suburb of”¦”

Minneapolis, I chime in.

“Right, Minneapolis. Then I went to Penn undergrad.”   He stops, bites his lip, then continues.   “Well, after a year at”¦” he says rushing and apologetic. “Then I went on to a mid-level firm in”¦”

Chicago, I guess to myself without looking at his resume.

“San Francisco,” he says.   Same thing, I think.   “So?” he asks.

So what? I reply.

“So what are my chances of getting in to”¦?”

EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW IF THEY CAN GET INTO THE SCHOOL OF THEIR DREAMS
Harvard and Stanford, I interject, knowing full well this kid isn’t planning on going home with an MBA from the University of Burbank.   In more than ten years as a B-school admissions adviser, I’ve been asked thousands and thousands of times some version of: “What Are My Chances? Am I Going To Get In? What’s It Going To Take?”   Much of the time, even top candidates like Alan are not going to get in. Not because they are unqualified or didn’t deliver when it comes to their GPA and GMATs, but because they are clinging to the notion that a perfect score will make them the perfect candidate. They believe they are “what” they’ve done, not why.  As Alan’s adviser, it’s my job to get him ready. That means it’s my job to tell him the truth.

BUYING A WINNING LOTTERY TICKET IS THE ONLY THING WITH WORSE ODDS
The truth is, the only thing with worse odds than admission to Harvard Business School is buying a winning lottery ticket. With the competition being so fierce, you have to be more than a resume.   Sitting in front of Alan, the banker from Minnesota, I know nothing more about him than when I didn’t know him at all. He didn’t need to take three airplanes to meet me only to tell me what I could find out on a Google search and neither does the dean of admissions of any graduate school.   We want to know who you are, not what you did. You’re not being asked to talk about yourself for any other reason than to help a school learn why you made the choices you did. What those choices were is hardly relevant.

THE REAL STORY IS NOT IN THE WHAT OR THE WHEN; IT’S IN THE WHYS
By skipping over the “why’s”: why did Alan leave his first choice university, why did he choose a West Coast firm instead of the more typical Manhattan bank, why B-School when it sounds like he’s already doing just fine, Alan relegated himself to being just a bunch of categories on a piece of paper: Background. Education. Work Experience. But what about the transitions that got him from his education to his work experience? These transitions give a director of admissions insight into how you think, what kind of student you’ll be and, more importantly, what kind of impact you’ll have on the world of finance post B-school.   Again, I ask Alan the question he’ll get asked over and over by every Interviewer, “Tell me a little bit about you.”   “Mendota Heights,” he repeats. “It’s a suburb outside of Minneapolis, but my parents wanted me to go to ”¦.”   I stop him.

FILLING IN THE WHITE SPACES
Tell me about the white spaces, I say.   “White spaces?   Yes, I say. Tell me about the white spaces on your resume, as I take his resume, tear it up and throw it in the trash.   He smiles, finally understanding what I’m getting at.

AN MBA CANDIDATE COMES TO LIFE
By learning that Alan graduated at the top of his class from Minneapolis’ most prestigious private boy’s school as a son of one of the teachers, I get a picture of a hard driving outsider, determined to succeed. By learning that he left his first choice university because it was just too small for this small town native itching for more, I see a future leader willing to take risks. And by choosing to get his work experience at a West Coast firm, I learn of Alan’s desire to think out of the box and not just “follow the pack.”   By telling me why, Alan becomes so much more than another set of scores on paper. He becomes a well-rounded candidate who stands out in a crowd.

It’s very rare that you’re going to have the highest GPA from the best university with the best GMAT score. And if you do, there’s probably going to be someone who rates as well, if not better “on paper.”   Like Alan, you are not just your resume. You are the white spaces in between.  You are the transitions that got you from A to B and that will get you from B to B-school.  So celebrate who you are, if you want an admissions director to do the same.

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