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Avoid These 10 Pitfalls in MBA Application Essays

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com The essay component of the MBA application is a chance to really wow the admissions committee and stand out from potentially thousands of …

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

The essay component of the MBA application is a chance to really wow the admissions committee and stand out from potentially thousands of other candidates with similar GMAT scores or GPAs.

There are many ways to craft a stellar essay that will give the reader a better sense of who you are, but there are also several mistakes to avoid as you’re answering these required prompts. Make sure you sidestep the following pitfalls at all costs.

1. Neglecting to answer the question: Applicants often become so determined to drive home a particular point, or worse, drift off into a tangent, that they fail to succinctly answer the question. Don’t answer with “what” when the question asks “how?” or “why?” Business schools create their essays with the goal of finding out how you fit their program, and not answering the question immediately indicates poor fit.

2. Using industry jargon or pretentious language: 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.

With hundreds of applications on their desks, the admissions staff has only a few minutes to review each essay. It should be immediately digestible.

3. Basing essays on what you think the admissions committee is looking for: Even if you have a pretty good idea of what a particular business school looks for in MBA candidates, this isn’t the time to remake yourself into what you think their ideal student would be.

This is a major pet peeve of the admissions committee, which is why they have gone to great lengths recently to come up with creative essay prompts. Stay true to yourself and your professional goals.

4. Using a negative tone, or sounding whiny or complaining: As you come up with those great anecdotes to illustrate your leadership, problem-solving or team-building skills, make sure the examples in your essay don’t include criticizing a co-worker or complaints about your supervisor, even in a subtle way. Always keep the tone positive, or it will end up reflecting poorly on you.

5. Lying or exaggerating about your experience: For some applicants, it can be tempting to fudge a few details or embellish a bit in the hopes of making a memorable impression. Just ask news anchor Brian Williams.

But aside from being bad form, the admissions committee has various ways to fact-check a candidate’s claims, and discovering fabricated information would trigger an automatic rejection, even if the mistake was innocent. Be accurate in how you represent yourself.

6. Failing to demonstrate passion: Most MBA applicants aren’t professional writers, and sometimes make the mistake of writing essays that are informative, logical, well-organized and, inadvertently, a snooze fest. This is not the time to repeat your resume in prose form.

You must connect with the person evaluating your application on an emotional level if you hope to stand out. As the University of Texas—Austin McCombs School of Business‘ MBA program recently noted on its admissions blog, “Convince us that you are not only capable, but that you are special and that we will be lacking something without your presence.”

7. Discussing inappropriate topics: While you do want to open up and allow the admissions committee to get to know the person behind the paper, certain subjects do not belong in an essay for business school.

Leave out any mention of religious or political views; avoid the subject of money and how you want to make loads of it after you get your MBA; and steer clear of overt humor in general, unless you are a comedian by profession.

8. Disregarding word count: In almost all instances, the admissions committee has specified a word limit to the essays. With thousands of applications to read each round, they don’t have time to review essays that read like epic tomes.

You can sometimes go over the limit a smidge, but flagrant disregard for the prescribed word count is a red flag that you either have trouble following directions or cannot express yourself concisely.

9. Referencing high school experiences: Unless you did something amazing in your teenage years – started a business, raised an insane amount of money for a fundraiser, built houses for Habitat for Humanity in Kyrgyzstan – stick to anecdotes from your career from the past three years.

Candidates applying straight out of college or with only one year of work experience can mention university accomplishments. But for those with more than two years in the workforce, focus on current career developments instead. Recent examples give the admissions committee a better sense of where you are today, both personally and professionally.

10. Making apologies or excuses: Whether the issue is poor academic performance in the past, being fired from a job or even having a criminal record, applicants feel terrified they will be rejected out of hand if they admit to these kinds of mistakes.

Address the matter directly, take ownership and explain what you learned or how you improved. No excuses or apologies needed – or desired.

MBA essays are a wonderful opportunity to share what makes you a dynamic, multidimensional person. If you can avoid inadvertently committing these mistakes, you’ll stand an excellent chance of creating a positive impression on the admissions committee.

Image credit: Daniel Foster (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Considering a Second MBA Degree?

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com The idea of pursuing a second MBA degree may sound strange, but it happens with a small number of applicants during every admissions …

get a second MBA

Applicants who received an MBA abroad can use a second MBA to strengthen job prospects.

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

The idea of pursuing a second MBA degree may sound strange, but it happens with a small number of applicants during every admissions season and can make sense under the right, very specific, circumstances.

Some applicants consider a second degree after earning an MBA from a for-profit university or an unaccredited program. They may find they have hit a ceiling with their employment prospects as they vie for positions against candidates from better-known schools.

More often, people who seek a second degree are international candidates who have discovered that their professional dreams cannot be fulfilled with their current degree alone.

In India, for example, it’s common for a student to jump into an MBA program straight out of university, which makes for a very theoretical learning experience rather than a practical one in which to contextualize management problems. Once these MBA grads get into the workforce, they discover they must further develop various skills to become strong business leaders.

For professionals working in international firms who aspire to relocate abroad, a degree earned in-country will not open doors the way a highly ranked MBA from a name-brand university will. A second MBA is seen as an efficient way to move out of a stagnant career and enhance their competitiveness, allowing the degree holder to shift into a new function, industry or geography after completing their studies.

Creating a rich classroom experience through diversity is a huge focus of the top business schools, offering students the opportunity to interact with peers from an array of countries and professional backgrounds. While the educational component of the degree in South Asian business schools, for example, may sometimes rival their international counterparts, the ability to create networking ties across the globe is nowhere near as strong. For career switchers looking to break into competitive industries such as finance or consulting, earning an MBA from a globally recognized brand becomes paramount.

As with any blip or oddity in candidates’ background, they need to think through their story as they prepare application essays.

What did you not get from a prior MBA that you can get this time around? How is the target program different, or a better fit? Or maybe it’s a matter of timing, and the first one was a mistake you need to acknowledge. What skills are you looking to gain, and why couldn’t you acquire them with your first degree? An applicant needs to show why it would make sense to repeat the same degree from a different school. It can be a hard narrative to flesh out and tell in a compelling way, but it’s not impossible.

When I first read through the profile for our client Vijay, I saw strong academic numbers, volunteer involvement, an interesting entrepreneurial venture – and that he already had an MBA from one of the Indian Institutes of Management. My first question was the same any admissions committee member would ask him: “Why do you need a second MBA?”

Vijay entered an IIM program when he was a university student to supplement his engineering coursework. While he had received an MBA credential, he considered the degree as an addendum to his undergraduate diploma. Also, his degree did not provide the same career advantages he would get from one of his target schools in the U.S., which were the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

For his career goals essay, we discussed exactly what this second MBA degree would do for Vijay’s career. We also used the optional essay to clearly outline how specific coursework in entrepreneurship, international experience and networking opportunities at each program made a second MBA absolutely necessary. His hard work and compelling argument paid off, and Vijay pursued his second MBA at Sloan, where he made some great contacts for future entrepreneurial ventures.

Many top business schools in the U.S. and Europe welcome applicants who already hold an MBA degree. If your first MBA is from a smaller international school, the elite programs are well aware of their advantages over the initial degree. Fortunately, your prior MBA degree won’t be a problem for on-campus recruiting, though you should be able to explain why you needed the two degrees. Assuming you have a solid story, the emphasis will be on your work experience and skills. If you are admitted to a strong program, the degree — combined with your skills — will enable you to land a great job come graduation.

Contact the admissions department at the programs you are interested in to find out the specifics for each school, and be ready to make a rock-solid case for why a second MBA is the next logical step for you.

Image credit: KMo Foto (CC BY 2.0)

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Tips to Maximize Your MBA Application Feedback Session

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com All MBA hopefuls fear getting denied, but if there’s any silver lining to rejection, it’s that many business schools now offer feedback sessions …

feedback

These brief sessions with schools can provide valuable insight into why you were rejected.

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

All MBA hopefuls fear getting denied, but if there’s any silver lining to rejection, it’s that many business schools now offer feedback sessions to help unsuccessful candidates figure out where they might have gone wrong.

This availability of application feedback confirms that the schools really do welcome and encourage re-applicants, who often find success the second time around. In fact, in the past, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has shared with us anecdotally that applicants who reapplied often have a slight edge in the applicant pool.

Find out the policy of your school of choice and get in touch with the admissions office right away, making it clear that you will use the feedback to reapply next year, if that’s the case. These meetings usually take place on a first-come, first-served basis in the spring, at the end of the admissions season.

Due to the brevity of these sessions, it’s important to prepare in advance. Write down a few pointed questions that will help you make the most of your meeting. If you questioned anything during the application process, you now have the opportunity to clear things up. In order to gather actionable information, your questions should sound something like this:

• Was there any concern about my quantitative abilities? If so, what can I do to demonstrate my capabilities?
• Were my career goals clear?
• Are my reasons for wanting an MBA sound?
• What were some of the biggest weaknesses in my application? Do you have any suggestions for how I can ease your concerns in those areas?

Have a plan to make sure the session stays on pace, because you’ll usually have a maximum of 15 minutes. Keep track of the time and strive to end the conversation gracefully.

It’s unlikely that members of the admissions committee will tell you flat out that you don’t have the stats, background or qualifications to attend their MBA program, even if that is the case. Nor will they tell you to change your life plans just for the sake of the application. There’s an art to extracting information, but don’t expect to receive the secret key to success during this brief conversation. Take what you can get.

Ultimately, the feedback session may or may not provide helpful insight. You might receive a very actionable comment, such as “you need more work experience” or “you should raise your GMAT score at least 30 points.” But with more qualified applicants than available seats in the program, the advice is often quite general and you’ll have to work hard to pin down specific takeaways.

Think of this as one additional opportunity to build upon your relationship with the school, so maintain a pleasant, engaging and polite tone. The admissions committee also takes notes during the exchange that will go into your file and form a part of the evaluation you when you reapply next year, so make sure you don’t get defensive about their feedback.

Treat this as an extension of your interview: Jot down the name and email address of the person you speak with, and remember to follow up with a thank-you note.

Finally, don’t spend a lot of time or energy fretting about elements of your application that you cannot change in less than 12 months. Instead, use the feedback from the admissions committee and your own honest self-analysis to determine where you can improve in order to better position your application for the next admissions cycle.

Image by Flickr user Giulia Forsythe (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Tips for Applying to B-School After Years in the Workforce

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com The average age of business school applicants has been trending downward for the past decade, and with that, work experience expectations have shifted …

If you've held the same job for many years, find ways to call out leadership and professional achievements.

If you’ve held the same job for many years, find ways to call out leadership and professional achievements.

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

The average age of business school applicants has been trending downward for the past decade, and with that, work experience expectations have shifted as well.

But not everyone is ready or in a position to take the business school plunge at 26 years old. If you want to pursue an MBA in your early-30s and beyond, consider these specific tips as you put together your application package.

  1. Show career progression:? When applying to a top-tier business school, you’ll need to show the admissions committee a clear path of professional growth. Avoid looking stagnant, as the admissions team wants to admit students who continually seek to learn and advance their skills and leadership abilities.

Even if you have held the same job for several years, you should demonstrate career progression either in the formal sense, with increasingly higher-level job titles, or by pointing out how you have gradually taken on greater responsibilities. Coach your recommenders  to specifically address this upward trajectory in their letters of support, as this will help convey your dedication to your professional development.

Make sure to ask a current or recent manager for that recommendation, as a letter from a supervisor who worked with you eight years ago might raise a red flag. If you do select a recommender from the more distant past, make sure that you have really kept in touch and they can speak to your professional progression and work habits now.

Also, if you have had several jobs, don’t worry about squeezing all of them on to the MBA resume. Highlight only the most important positions and responsibilities, and find ways to show career progression and results on your MBA resume.

  1. Show strong leadership: It’s understandable that younger applicants won’t have many examples of leadership one year out of school, but as time goes on, expectations increase and the ability to manage and inspire others will become more important.

The best MBA programs value great leadership. If you are applying to Harvard Business School in your mid-30s, you better have already developed terrific leadership skills and have a lot to show for them.

For your essays, find professional or personal anecdotes that show how you have galvanized or improved the work of others. Try to paint a vivid picture of your biggest leadership challenge, or of a time when you led ?with integrity or motivated a team to achieve a shared goal. You want to show how you always attempt to do more than a good job, and strive to leave your mark on whatever situation you’re in.

As prepared as you are, you need to convince the schools that you still have room for improvement that can only come from the education and experiences of an MBA program. Let them know exactly what they offer that will help you further hone your leadership or technical skills.

  1. Choose the right type of program: If you’re really advanced in your career, research what type of program is the better fit for your professional goals and personal life. You may find that a part-time MBA program or an executive MBA program will allow you to meet your goals with greater flexibility and less disruption.

When we worked with Claudine, she was in her late-30s and held an executive-level position in finance at a large consumer products company. She had reached a career plateau in her firm and wanted to obtain an MBA to take her to the next level, but any of the three format options could help her achieve her goals.

While excited by the range of social and extracurricular activities available in a full-time MBA program, Claudine had an extremely demanding family life with two small children and didn’t think she could take advantage of the many social activities most full-time MBA students participate in.

Ultimately, her desire for a flexible way to expand her skills and tap into the network available from a strong program led Claudine to look most closely at an executive MBA, and she ended up having great success at the joint EMBA program between the University of California—Berkeley Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School.

Business school admissions committees always seek applicants with diverse interests and backgrounds, and older candidates have numerous attractive qualities going for them. The key is to make sure all of those great qualities stand front and center in your MBA application.

Image credit: Flickr user Penn State (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Develop a Smart Social Media Strategy for MBA Applications

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com When applying to business school, your MBA essays and interviews are the primary way to market yourself and generate positive attention from the …

working woman with phone and laptop

Being active on LinkedIn is especially critical to anyone embarking on an MBA career.

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

When applying to business school, your MBA essays and interviews are the primary way to market yourself and generate positive attention from the admissions committee. But the way you present your personal brand on social media should also be a part of the equation. Your social profile needs to match the persona you will present to the admissions team, so start thinking of it as an opportunity to better tell the story of you.

Every applicant should have a baseline social presence to reinforce and enhance their candidacy. Some admissions committee members proactively search for information about applicants online, so you’ll want to link to your social profiles within the application to make it easy for them to have another touch point by which to assess you.

Define Your Shareable Story

This application strategy involves fine-tuning a story that you can leverage through social media. This is a clear and purposeful narrative of how you want people to talk about you. The articles and thoughts you share, the comments you make and the professional affiliations you display will provide schools with a multidimensional view of who you are, as well as support your expertise and passion for a particular industry or activity.

Some examples of shareable stories might be:

• “I am a driven finance professional with a passion for improving education systems. Through lobbying, recruiting and fundraising, I have affected thousands of children by improving their educational experience.”

• “My passion for people extends beyond U.S. borders. My love of travel has connected me with individuals around the world. I nurture and maintain these relationships and learn and grow through these connections.”

• “In my free time I eat. And cook. And entertain. I love bringing people together over a great meal. Exploring unusual recipes, experimenting in the kitchen and sharing my culinary successes is an important hobby of mine.”

Weave Your Story Into Social Media Platforms 

I recommend students initially focus on three key platforms. Most of us are on Facebook, so this is one area to clean up, make sure your privacy settings are in order  and develop a content strategy that positively reflects your personal interests. LinkedIn is also a must-have, as it is the professional social network. Twitter is a great option to start if you haven’t already since you can use it to expand and build your brand.

For Facebook, choose a cover photo that represents your shareable story. For example, the avid traveler would highlight a photo from a recent trip. A candidate who is passionate about mentoring disadvantaged children should select a photo that highlights those efforts. Then, make sure the things you like reflect the personal and professional interests you have shared in your essays.

LinkedIn is critical as you embark on your MBA career and is an excellent place to network, gather information and build your brand by communicating details that support your shareable story. Follow influencers who interest you and share their content, too. What you update on LinkedIn helps to reinforce your brand, and actively developing a strategy now can help tell your story now and later.

Twitter is a great platform to stay up to date and engage with people who share similar interests. Make sure your bio is filled in with information that reflects your shareable story. A profile photo is a must, and the background photo should also support some element of your story.

Follow relevant users, publications or brands on Twitter based on how you want to present yourself. Look at their followers to discover more people with similar interests. You can express your story through original and curated content by sharing articles, adding commentary and tweeting your thoughts on the topics that appeal to you. Make sure to follow the business schools you are interested in as well.

Social media is a time investment. You can blog, tweet and post all day long, but you will get lost in the jungle of the Internet if you do not reach out and link and connect with others. Make sure that you work to forge connections, on and offline.

Build your content and your audience based on your passions and you will attract an audience of like-minded people. They will inspire you with questions and theories and unique points of view that will spawn completely new thoughts of your own. This in turn becomes the idea factory that will help you consistently generate lots of great, share-worthy content.

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Applying to Business School With Limited Work Experience

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com There is no single right time to go to business school. Every MBA applicant has his or her own unique professional goals and …

Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record.

Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record.

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

There is no single right time to go to business school. Every MBA applicant has his or her own unique professional goals and timetable, and while the vast majority of candidates still log three to five years on the job before applying, required work experience has been trending downward over the past decade.

We’ll likely see age and work experience requirements continue to shift, as data show that test-takers under 24 have been the fastest-growing demographic for the GMAT exam.

There are, however, certain types of applicants that set their sights on an MBA right after graduation. Some applicants do so because they don’t want to have to leave the workforce and put their life on hold for two years. The opportunity cost is the largest cost component of an MBA, and that financial sacrifice is lowest in the early career stage.

Other candidates may be thinking about when to start a family, and early entrance to business school would allow many women to establish their careers before having children. Female enrollment in elite business schools lags significantly behind men and tops out at around 40 percent in this year’s incoming class?, but the number of men and women enrolling in medical and law school is fairly evenly split, partially because both of these graduate programs continue straight after university.

Those thinking of applying to business school immediately after college or those with less than three years of work experience, should make an honest assessment of their academic profile, career goals and most crucially, examples of leadership. Also, research which business schools are open to younger, less experienced applicants.? Not all are welcoming to this group, and you don’t want to waste time applying to MBA programs that really value significant work experience.

School websites typically state their preference where work experience is concerned. Additionally, the class profile may also include data on where students fall in terms of their professional background.

Without an established career trajectory to highlight, younger applicants must be able to point to a stellar academic record that includes an exceptional undergrad GPA and GMAT or GRE scores that are through the roof. Any noteworthy scholarships or awards received in college should be included as well.?

The MBA is often used as a way for people to switch careers. Since younger applicants aren’t yet on a firm path, those with little experience need to be able to clearly articulate both short and long-term professional goals, and convince the admissions committee that the degree is critical to helping them reach those goals.

MBA programs that court younger applicants do so because they know that the degree is an excellent way to accelerate the development of rising leaders. Early-career applicants may have fewer work experiences, but the admissions committee is more interested in the quality than the quantity.

Leadership examples should therefore be exceptional. Maybe you worked for the family business in a pivotal role, started your own company or have shown strong leadership in an extracurricular setting.

When we first met our client Anita, she was a college senior at Northwestern University and thought that Harvard Business School‘s 2+2 program for younger applicants was perfect for her, as she would get two years of real-world work experience before returning for a two-year MBA program.

As an economics major, Anita knew that she would be competing with other students with great stats, so she and her consultant chose to emphasize her leadership experiences instead. While in college, Anita had organized a casual group of fellow long-distance runners to raise money for charity, and after several successful runs, she joined up as a local chapter of a national charity running organization.

Anita and her consultant created a narrative of leading younger people that started with Anita’s time as a Girl Scout leader, followed by her Big Sister mentorship, and continued with her resident adviser and orientation leader positions as a college junior and senior.

By highlighting Anita’s leadership qualities and showing how Harvard’s 2+2 program would help shape Anita’s future in the business world, she and her consultant created a strong application that ultimately earned her admission at her dream program.

While younger, less experienced candidates have a tougher time landing a seat at a top business school, MBA programs are definitely becoming more open to including them in the mix. Admissions committees put much consideration into who they will admit each year, and these days, creating a rich and diverse classroom experience often means including the voices of strong early-career students as well.

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