B-school applicants can’t help but fret over what their target MBA programs really want to see in a candidate, agonizing over whether their particular profile will generate enough interest to merit an interview and ultimately, land them a seat at the school of their dreams.
Every year, those admissions offers going to Olympic athletes, NASA scientists, and former White House aides grab the headlines and can discourage candidates without a flashy personal or professional story.
In truth, the admissions committee focuses on four very specific areas when evaluating your candidacy and fit with their program. The welcome news for applicants of all stripes is that standing out in these aspects can happen no matter where you’ve worked before or what background you have.
Work Experience and Professional Goals
In general, the admissions committee likes to see three or more years of work experience prior to applying, but the quality of the overall experience matters much more than length. Even within flat organizational structures where you’ve had the same title for years, you can differentiate yourself from other applicants by highlighting concrete professional growth, quantifiable achievements, or examples of times when you embraced new challenges and took advantage of learning opportunities. Whether your pre-MBA experience is at Goldman Sachs or your family’s business, the admissions team will look first and foremost for steady progression.
Business school is a wonderful place to refine your career goals through the study of new disciplines, discussions with students and professors, and the pursuit of entrepreneurial projects. That said, you do have to make some choices and explain your areas of interest in order to get admitted.
Successful essays won’t include the statement, “I look forward to figuring out my future career path in business school.” Make sure you include a definite role you envision for yourself in the future, and explain the kind of impact you want to have in the business world and on society.
Finally, remember to convey realistic post-MBA career goals. Consider the application process from the school’s perspective: MBA programs want to launch graduates who will go on to become successful in their careers and serve as vibrant members of the alumni community. Don’t forget to sell them on your employability so the admissions team feels confident you’ll find a great job quickly upon graduating.
Business schools strive to create the leaders of tomorrow, and the admissions committee wants to see that you have a framework already in place in this all-important area. Lots of applicants worry about how the admissions team will perceive their leadership skills, especially if they’ve never actually held a management position. However, your leadership essay or the examples in your application don’t need to be your greatest life or professional achievements. Applicants can call upon times when they’ve lead ideas, sports teams, student groups, etc.
Successful leadership examples should show how you motivated other people, bringing out their passions; educating them; helping them see organizational priorities in new ways. The work of a leader energizes or improves the work of others, so find anecdotes in your professional and extracurricular background that illustrate this kind of behavior.
Define the leadership challenges you faced, not the management ones. Collecting impressive titles does not make someone a great leader—helping a team overcome great challenges does. Keep in mind that in the adcomm’s view, your past is a strong predictor of how involved you’ll be on campus if admitted. Ultimately, leadership examples from college, on the job, and during your time at business school signal to future employers how you would perform in their organization.
Creativity and Intellectual Aptitude
When some Type-A personalities see the word creativity as it relates to an MBA application, they freak out and assume I’m talking about something artistic. Actually, I’m referring to expressing creativity by showing when you have solved problems at work or in your volunteer activities by thinking outside of the proverbial box.
While some business schools use extremely creative MBA essays prompts, such as the Cornell Johnson School of Management’s Table of Contents essay, or the airport layover scenario at CMU Tepper School of Business, all admissions teams will look for evidence in your essays and interview responses that show you have a unique perspective that will add something new to the classroom. So think beyond your obvious achievements and differentiate yourself by highlighting the most compelling, memorable stories and experiences.
Intellectual aptitude, meanwhile, will be judged based on your submitted GMAT or GRE scores as well as your undergraduate GPA and major. A solid 3.2 overall GPA from an Economics or Chemistry major will weigh more heavily than a 3.8 GPA in the Arts or Humanities. However, admissions committees actively seek a diverse class that includes those so-called “poets of b-school,” and that’s where a strong GMAT score or taking additional college-level math courses that prove you can handle the academic rigors of the program comes in.
Interpersonal Skills and Fit
The admissions process at a growing number of business schools now includes video essays, team-based discussions, and group interviews as a way to ensure the applicant has the appropriate interpersonal skills for success and will fit in well with the program’s culture. Business schools want students who will play nice with others, and so watching how someone interacts with peers before anyone’s even admitted can be very telling. Your application and interview should support those individual attributes that make you a great candidate and person overall, convey your understanding of the school’s culture, and reveal how you will be a terrific fit if admitted.
Applicants should also keep in mind that for some schools, fit and knowledge of the school can be equally as important as concrete qualifications. You still need to have those qualifications, but if you don’t also have a thorough knowledge of the many great facets of the school, you could find yourself on the rejected applicant pile.
Round two application deadlines are just around the corner. By focusing on and strengthening these four areas in your MBA application, you’ll boost your chances of making it to the interview stage and beyond.