Category Archives: Application Tips

How to Avoid the Mistake of Generic MBA Application Essays 

On the surface, many applicants to elite MBA programs share similar backgrounds and traits. They are ambitious, driven, accomplished, and have strong academic records and impressive test scores. In short, they are leaders and achievers. …

be uniqueOn the surface, many applicants to elite MBA programs share similar backgrounds and traits. They are ambitious, driven, accomplished, and have strong academic records and impressive test scores. In short, they are leaders and achievers. But just because candidates share these characteristics doesn’t mean their MBA application essays have to beat the same drum.  Unfortunately, loads of applicants make the mistake of writing about what they think the admissions committee wants to hear, as opposed to what really resonates for them personally.

We already know that Kellogg School of Management is bombarded with people wanting to go into packaged goods marketing, or that Chicago Booth School of Business is overloaded with finance wannabes. Despite having many of the same career goals, applicants need to think of how they can brand themselves distinctly. Too often stories get overdone, with candidates devoting paragraph upon paragraph to describing assorted business projects because hey, this is business school we’re talking about, right? Wrong tactic! This course of action does nothing to enhance their candidacy because it’s obvious these experiences weren’t at all meaningful to them.

If you leave out the stories about your martial arts training, extensive travel experience, or obsession with college basketball because you figure it’s not relevant to b-school, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to allow the admissions committee a chance to get to know the real you behind the data points.

Another common mistake is looking at applications submitted by friends who have been successful, and thinking, “Well, it worked for them so I’m going to do that, too.” The thing is, you never know whether they were admitted in spite of a tactic or story, not because of it. You have to focus on what works for you and reveals something unique about yourself.  Business schools look for qualities that can translate into leadership, so being a school teacher who can communicate effectively and move and motivate groups of people can actually be more relevant than someone who sits alone in a cube at a “business” job crunching numbers.

When brainstorming stories from your background to share in your MBA essays, you should absolutely include some traditional work stuff. But also think about family, friendships, languages, interests, passions, dreams—categories that are not necessarily “business-y” but that reveal character traits you want to emphasize. Also, think about a real and attainable career goal, something that truly excites you personally and that makes sense given your interests and trajectory to date, not just something that seems to make a good story for b-school.

For example, let’s say you are a first year analyst at an investment bank—just like hundreds of other applicants. Don’t give the three-bullet pointed job description that appears on your resume. Talk about the little spreadsheet that you identified as inefficient and decided to overhaul.  Try to identify smaller but more personal and unique stories that tell how you were a different analyst than all the others.

One client we worked with showcased his leadership activities in a Kellogg School of Management essay by describing how he put together guidelines for his firm that became a part of new employee training. Maybe you created a new process or led recruiting efforts – any of these work activities can help your application stand out.

While many applicants have similar credentials, the beauty of the MBA application process is that it allows candidates a chance for self-reflection, and to discover that they are more unique than they first imagine. All applicants, even those from typical pre-MBA backgrounds, have a story to tell, and an opportunity to go beyond numbers and statistics to present the admissions committee with a snapshot of who they really are.

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Showing Leadership in Your B-School Application

At Stacy Blackman Consulting, we do a lot of thinking about leadership – what is leadership, how best to showcase it, why it matters, and more. If asked what is the single most important quality …

leadership in MBA applicationsAt Stacy Blackman Consulting, we do a lot of thinking about leadership – what is leadership, how best to showcase it, why it matters, and more. If asked what is the single most important quality for business school applications, I would say leadership. While some schools emphasize it more than others, leadership is extremely important to every school. They are grooming overall leaders, not just number-crunchers, marketers or statisticians.

When faced with any iteration of the leadership question on their MBA essays, many applicants freak out because they imagine they’ve got to come up with an example that is basically their greatest life or professional achievement. But just because you achieved something outstanding does not always mean leadership skills were involved, especially if you did most or all of the work. Also, leadership often gets confused with management, but being a great leader is not just about managing something, although that can be a part of it. It’s about leaving a footprint on whatever situation you’re in and doing more than a good job.

Remember, leadership is never a solo effort. One of the central tenets of leadership essays is showing that you can galvanize the actions of other people.  You bring out their passions.  You educate them.  You help them see organizational priorities in new ways.  And then they share in the achievement.  You’re inspiring others and bringing out the best in them. These two points are critical and help to explain how leadership differs from just any great achievement.

The most impacting leadership essays will have heroes other than yourself.  If you helped Henry in accounts receivable realize his full potential on a project you led, showcase him as a hero in your leadership tale. In the best of all worlds, people create a good balance between these types of essays at the beginning of their application process, even before they start writing.  However the good news is that, in many instances, you can still adjust your application fairly late in the process to achieve the appropriate balance between individual achievement and leadership.

Adding in a few sentences here and there about enabling others, or educating and defining priorities for group endeavors, will go a long way toward rounding out your profile. What kind of experiences will make the best tales of leadership? Think about challenges where the following came into play:

  • Identifying/defining a problem
  • Resisting conventional approaches; challenging status quo
  • Marshaling resources to address problem
  • Motivating others
  • Making good use of others’ talents
  • Being open to new information, input, etc.
  • Building consensus with appropriate stakeholders
  • Guiding strong mid-course corrections; overcoming mistakes
  • Building on success

Keep in mind, leadership is not just about the titles. Some candidates try to build their leadership essays around the fact that they were selected for or elected to certain positions where they had a high level of authority and responsibility: editor-in-chief of a college paper, fraternity president, captain of the hockey team, director of product development, V.P. of marketing, etc. Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader—helping a team overcome great challenges does.

Don’t get hung up on coming up with wildly impressive situations, even if you’re applying to the most elite MBA program in the world. You can solve smaller problems and still show leadership potential. I remember one candidate who was applying to business school with just six months of work experience under her belt. As a result, she had few obvious leadership examples, but she had taken it upon herself to overhaul an Excel spreadsheet for the investment bank where she worked.

To do this, she had to state the problem, come up with a solution, and sell others, including supervisors, on her idea. Her improved spreadsheet—containing market information including Treasury rates—saved time, became a great internal resource, and helped the bank communicate better with clients. Taking the initiative to change this spreadsheet was what she wrote about in her application.

You can also look to your extracurricular activities to show leadership without clear career progression. Starting a club, organization, or charitable group works, too. If you have been involved in an activity as a member, think about taking on a leadership role. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you can run a project and motivate a team.  

One of my clients launched an English club in his native China because he needed to improve his language skills for business school and thought his neighbors might benefit, too. The club grew, and he made his mark in the community, which was something he could point out to admissions committees. He showed he could inspire and motivate others, organize a group, and learn a new language to boot. The applicant ultimately was accepted at Harvard Business School.

When it comes to evaluating your application, members of the MBA admissions committee believe your past leadership achievements are the best gauge of your potential for realizing your future ambitions. You can’t go wrong if you use your essays to show how you’ve worked to inspire others and bring out the best in them.

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Prepare Now to Apply for B-School in Round 2

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. It’s mid-December – a time when people around the world make travel plans, exchange gifts, feast with friends and family and enjoy the …

MBA application tips

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

It’s mid-December – a time when people around the world make travel plans, exchange gifts, feast with friends and family and enjoy the magic of the coming holidays and new year. However, for those applying to business school in round two, the merriment can get tamped down by the last-minute hustle required to pull together a polished application for the first week of January.

If you’re submitting your MBA application next month, here are four things you need to do right now to make the process as smooth as possible and still enjoy all the upcoming year-end festivities.

1. Manage your recommenders: By now, each person writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf should have all the necessary forms and prep materials. Gently remind them of the upcoming deadline, which you should target a few days in advance of the actual deadline to reduce your stress. And make sure they have everything they need to create a strong letter in support of your candidacy.

Don’t expect your recommenders to remember every great thing you’ve done, and definitely don’t leave this process to chance. If you haven’t yet done so explicitly, remind them of the strengths you would like the letter to vouch for – such as leadership skills, teamwork, passion – as well as anecdotes that support those characteristics.

Many programs also ask recommenders to address a weakness, so make sure to remind them of a growth area and give examples of how you have already begun working to improve this weakness. A recent performance evaluation can provide a jumping-off point for this type of question.

Remember to show your gratitude for their help, especially if your recommenders will need to take time away from their families to work on your letters over the holidays. They’ll appreciate your assistance and thoroughness and produce a better recommendation on your behalf.

2. Continue getting to know your top-choice schools: It may have been love at first sight when you visited campus and sat in on a class, but as with any relationship, a deeper dive into programs will solidify your feelings and confirm whether your top-choice schools really are the best fit. Contact the student clubs that interest you, become a devoted reader of the MBA student blogs many programs have and, if possible, reach out to alumni.

During the winter break, many students return home and host informal coffee chats with prospective students – these offer a golden opportunity to get answers to any questions you have about applying, student life, academics and more. The feeling you walk away with after having personal contact with students past and present will speak volumes about whether the choice will provide the best learning environment for you.

3. Seek feedback from a trusted source: Don’t forget to proofread, spellcheck and then proofread your application essays more. Grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes reflect poorly on your candidacy and can overshadow other impressive qualities like a high GMAT score or interesting work experience.

At some point, though, you’ll have read your responses so many times that errors will no longer jump out at you. This is where outside assistance becomes invaluable.

If you haven’t yet sought feedback on your essays, go ahead and enlist a family member, colleague or trusted friend to look them over. Their primary focus should be on your spelling and grammar and not making you second-guess your strategy.

However, they can provide feedback as to whether you come across as an interesting person who has a lot to share with others and would be a great addition to any MBA program. A fresh pair of eyes can also see how well you have conveyed your goals, experiences and strengths to an audience outside of your industry.

Pull back for a holistic review: Over the next few weeks, take time to reflect on your essay responses to ensure that they hit all the crucial points.

Have you conveyed the passion that makes you leap out of bed every morning? Have you laid out your career goals in a sensible way, showing that you understand the industry in which you hope to work and how an MBA from X school will help you achieve that goal? Make sure you have shared the things in life that inspire you, what matters to you or what moved you to make the decisions you have made.

Every component of the MBA application is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes time for the admissions committee to evaluate your candidacy. Your test scores, transcripts and GPA will tell them something about your capacity to handle their curriculum.

Your resume shows your career progression, increased responsibilities and demonstrated results. Your recommendation letters can offer even more proof of your leadership potential. And your essays can give the committee a sense of your voice, as well as provide insight into what makes you tick.

Ideally, these pieces come together to create an intriguing, layered and thoughtful representation of the student you will be if admitted to the program. So, take this time in the home stretch to make sure your application will make a memorable impression and spark greater curiosity in whomever reads it. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to get back to celebrating the end of another year and toasting to the prospects that 2017 will bring.

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5 Resume Traits that Wow the MBA Admissions Committee

If you’re thinking of submitting a standard resume along with your MBA application, you’re missing an important opportunity to sell your candidacy to the admissions committee. Like a traditional CV, the purpose of the MBA …

MBA resume

If you’re thinking of submitting a standard resume along with your MBA application, you’re missing an important opportunity to sell your candidacy to the admissions committee. Like a traditional CV, the purpose of the MBA resume is to make a good first impression and persuade the reviewer to take a closer look at you.  However, the reader of your MBA resume will be different than the person hiring you for an investment banking job or an engineering position.

Rework your resume so that it functions more as a narrative about your career and outside interests—not a dry list of responsibilities and achievements. The MBA resume should focus heavily on MBA skills and traits such as leadership, teamwork and international work experience. Some admissions officers consider your resume just as important as the MBA essays, so the extra work you put into it could make the difference between a ding and an interview offer.

#1: Shows Career Progression

Illustrate career progression by highlighting promotions or showing how skills were cultivated after switching to a new job. For example, if you have worked for the same company for five years but were promoted twice, you should highlight all three job titles, with separate dates of employment and separate descriptions. The descriptions should reflect your increasing levels of responsibility.

Applicants who have been in the workforce for a number of years, possibly at various companies, may need to be selective in detailing professional progress. When deciding which experiences to include and which to ax, ask yourself if the work was meaningful and if it can be used to illustrate a specific skill set or important accomplishment. Consider if it supports your career path as well as your future goals, and include it only if it makes sense for your overall story.

Demonstrate that over the course of your career, you have picked up new skills, assumed new responsibilities and developed as an individual. Emphasize that this growth has been recognized by others.

#2: Provides Leadership Examples

Although you’ll further hone your management abilities during an MBA program, the admissions committee wants to know that a foundation of strong leadership skills is already in place. Show when you united people behind a common goal, made use of other’s talents and skills, instilled a vision, challenged the status quo, identified a new problem or prioritized the needs of the organization above personal needs.

It’s important to note if you manage one or more people. Even if you informally supervise and mentor someone, it’s worth including on the resume. Mention if you’ve taken a lead in recruiting, as it means you’re acting as the face of your company. This demonstrates that leaders at your company respect you and trust that you will represent them well. Remember, your resume is a tool to tell your story, so keep your resume focused on the experiences that highlight the story of you as a leader.

#3: Quantifies Results

It’s great to describe your responsibilities, but don’t miss the chance to quantify your results whenever possible. Managing a staff is interesting, but the fact that you managed a staff of over 30 employees and improved profitability by 25%, is something a reader can understand. By giving the reader a number, you give them the chance to see just what kind of leader you were, and will be.

Business school applicants often find it helpful to bullet point their accomplishments using the STAR method, which stands for situation, task, action and result. For each employment position listed on your resume, think of a project, initiative or transaction where you made a meaningful contribution. Then describe the situation, your task, the actions you undertook and the results.

#4: Avoids Industry Jargon or Acronyms

Never assume the admissions committee member reviewing your application is intimately familiar with your particular industry. Write for a lay audience, and avoid flowery or stuffy language – use familiar words instead.  You do want to provide a snapshot of your functional skills, but the admissions committee will be more interested in the fact that you led a cross-functional team to develop a new version of your product than the fact that you coded in three computer languages to develop the new version.

To appeal to an MBA audience, an applicant must think beyond technical tasks. He or she must identify what lies behind those tasks that might reveal an effective business leader. Rephrase your accomplishments so that anyone could understand them. With hundreds of applications on their desks, the admissions staff has only a few minutes to review each resume. It should be immediately digestible.

#5: Looks Clean and Polished

Imagine someone scanning an MBA application resume for the first time on the 30-second walk down the hall to the interview. That person should be able to get a clear picture of the candidate – and that quickly.

Appearances matter when it comes to a winning MBA resume, so be sure to adhere to proper margins, spacing, and accepted fonts. Some applicants try to squeeze it all in by reducing font and eliminating margins. This is a good way to ensure that your resume is not reviewed, as no one wants to go blind scrutinizing resume number 207 of the day. Some business schools specify formatting requirements; if so, do not deviate from the requested format.

Since admissions committees and alumni interviewers look for people who others will enjoy being around both inside and outside of class, it’s also a great idea to include at least some brief mention of your interests and hobbies at the bottom of the document. A lot of times it’s this information that interviewers use to break the ice when they first meet you.

Never underestimate the power of a well-executed resume.  Use this opportunity to create a powerful first impression on the admissions committee and show why you’d be an asset to their program, and, fingers crossed, your future MBA interviewer.

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