This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com
Students with finance backgrounds comprise the largest percentage of the incoming class at top business schools. Many firms require an MBA for senior level careers, leading finance industries to feed heavily into the most competitive schools. Admissions rates can be as low as 8 percent in the top 20 MBA programs.
Applicants often wonder how to stand out from their equally impressive peers. No matter how remarkable your pedigree, business schools don’t want a class filled with individuals of the same profile. Working hard to stand out with a highly typical career background is going to be the largest hurdle to admission.
There are several ways to set yourself apart.
1. Seek out nontraditional volunteering opportunities: Personal pursuits add another dimension to your MBA application. However, the reality for finance professionals is that an 80-hour work week rarely allows time for meaningful extracurriculars. If that’s you, find flexible volunteer opportunities.
Look for activities that are not face-time based. Focus on action, or a small amount of time on weekends. You could use your professional network to organize a fundraiser for an organization you believe in, or make fundraising calls for your college alumni association. You could make a greater difference through raising money than you would through a few hours of manual labor each week.
Not every extracurricular has to be done outside of work. Investigate opportunities to volunteer outside your job responsibilities. Is there a recruiting committee, affinity group or volunteering club that allows you to give back as part of team-building?
Take some time to look for in-house leadership opportunities that may have nothing to do with your day-to-day job.
2. Coach your application references: Make sure your recommenders demonstrate that you are exceptional among your peers, and provide information that shows how you are different. Recommendation letters are one of the best secret weapons for application success.
While it is poor form to write that you are better than your peers, your recommenders have license to compare at will and state that you are more ethical, creative and personable.
Because many of your peers are also applying to the same schools, you’ll want a recommendation that shows definitively that you are the top-ranked employee in their area. Proof of your exceptional status will be crucial.
Make sure your recommenders provide specific examples of your excellent work. You may want to provide a bulleted list of projects you worked on together, especially if you were praised for the results. A performance review or meeting can be a useful source for specific compliments if you are unsure how to steer your recommenders.
3. Highlight unique work accomplishments: MBA admissions committees know you are junior in your career and may have limited authority to lead officially at work. Even small-scale accomplishments can show how you lead, which is the most important aspect MBA programs are looking for.
Make sure your application highlights work accomplishments outside the norm. Think about what you do at work that is outside your typical deal or investment-focused work – and your peers’. Instead of talking about analysis you conducted or due diligence you performed, think about the time you trained interns or organized a community service event.
Our client Henry 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.
4. Network with school-specific contacts: Another important task for quant-heavy applicants is to forge strong school-specific ties. It may feel like everyone around you is also applying to MBA programs this year. The positive aspect of this is that people you know from work, from college or perhaps even your sister’s cousin-in-law are now students or alumni at your target schools.
Reach deeply into your network and talk to everyone you can about your goal. Having personal touch points at your target schools will allow you to put together compelling essays. At some schools, you may benefit from supplemental letters if a friend or contact is especially supportive of your candidacy. At a minimum, current students and alumni are more than happy to talk about their experiences and share advice.
If you don’t have a strong network at your target school, try attending info sessions, where alumni typically talk about their experiences and you can chat one-on-one after the panel. You can also try, depending on your interest, contacting the presidents of the finance, private equity, venture capital or hedge fund clubs on campus and discussing how the school can help you leverage your background to reach your goals.
The beauty of the MBA application process is that every applicant is unique. While many applicants have similar credentials, the admissions process gives applicants an opportunity to go beyond numbers and statistics and present a snapshot of who they really are.