Some b-school applicants balk at thinking of themselves as a “product” or “brand.” However, by taking the time to really examine your personal qualities, values and aspirations, you’ll ultimately be able to find out which MBA programs provide the best match for your unique profile.
Think of it this way: If you had to create a marketing campaign for a new car, and you decided to focus on the vehicle’s seat warmers and sound system – when these days, potential customers are all about fuel economy – then your marketing messages would miss the mark.
The pitfalls in formulating your MBA application brand messages are similar. I recommend clients start the process with three exercises that can help them think like a marketing strategist, identify strengths and develop a personal brand.
Exercise 1: Create a “Brag Sheet”
In the real world, the practice of bragging is generally frowned upon. But when it comes to effectively brainstorming a set of messages you will ultimately want to convey to the admissions committee, a great way to begin is by jotting down every possible unique, exciting, wonderful, dazzling thing you can think of about yourself. Think of it as “brag-storming.”
Don’t worry about anyone seeing your list, and don’t try to do this exercise in one sitting. Keep a notebook handy or start a memo in your smartphone, and write down ideas whenever inspiration strikes. This list not only serves to jog your memory, but also helps you realize that your hobbies, travels, volunteering and personal or family life experiences can provide raw material for brand messages and eventually essays.
Admissions committees seek out well-rounded candidates who have experienced life, pursued their passions and achieved as much outside of the professional setting as within it. We came up with the idea of the brag sheet after I spent three months working with a client who insisted he had nothing interesting going on besides work.
Just days before the application was due, he casually revealed he had a deep, lifelong interest in martial arts, which he felt was not appropriate for a b-school application. Weaving in this aspect was a great way to balance out a work-heavy application and added a lot of color and interest to his profile.
Now we always have clients do a brain dump of everything under the sun so that these types of stories don’t slip through the cracks.
Exercise 2: Generate Stories
In our work with applicants, we’ve learned that it’s better to sift through an array of life experiences and see what emerges as a core strength, rather than lead off with what clients perceive as their strengths and then try to find example stories that back those up.
You don’t need to actually write the stories at this time. Scratching out a few notes, like “how I overcame a speech impediment,” “the time I backpacked through Asia for six months on $2,000” or “Have worked in the family business since I was 14 years old,” is fine.
To get the wheels turning, consider personal achievements, leadership achievements in and outside of work, times when your actions made an impact on a person or group, instances when you motivated others or a time you solved a problem with ingenuity. Don’t be afraid to touch upon setbacks or failures, as your strategies for overcoming them may be the best indicator of your future success in the business world.
To determine whether a story is worth fleshing out, see if you can list the concrete actions you took and the results you achieved. The actions you took reveal your approach to a particular problem and provide some clues about your strengths, capabilities and character. The results indicate that your actions made a difference.
Exercise 3: Mine Stories for Strengths
Once you’ve winnowed down your list of stories, it’s time to figure out precisely which aspects of your skills, talents, strengths and character contributed to your accomplishments.
Ask yourself how this experience shaped your life and made you stronger, or which strengths, talents or attributes helped you make a difference. The answers you come up with will add to the pool of potential brand messages that you might highlight in your application and essays.
I had a client applying to Harvard Business School who wanted to write about his organizational skills as a core strength. Instead, we advised him to write about his ability to lead and inspire others. After all, he had written on his brag sheet about developing a program to provide vaccinations to the poor in underdeveloped countries – an enormous undertaking he developed from scratch. I’m sure his organizational skills helped, but the latter strength was more compelling, and it rose to the surface after viewing his stories.
As with a traditional marketing plan, the goal is to launch a product thoughtfully and effectively. In this case, the product is you. The goal is self-awareness, and combing through your list of accomplishments can be an enormous help. Once these elements have been clarified, you can effectively put your best MBA strategy into action.