Highlight Growth in Your MBA Application

growth in your mba application

As admissions consultants with more than two decades of experience in the B-school trenches, we know what elite MBA admissions officers seek in applicants. Today, we’ll explore one vital trait they often focus on—identifying candidates with a track record of learning and growth. Schools aren’t interested in applicants who already know (or think they know) everything. Instead, they look for accomplished people who show great promise.  Not only that, but they are also introspective, emotionally intelligent, open to feedback, and with a history of learning from the range of experiences that life has thrown at them. You’ll want to highlight growth in your MBA application if your dream is to get into a top business school.

“When I applied to business school, I felt a lot of pressure to be perfect,” says SBC consultant Chandler Arnold. He offered sage advice on how applicants can demonstrate a growth mindset in their essays, recommendations, and interviews in a popular episode of SBC’s B-Schooled podcast.

“I thought I needed to work in banking or consulting and to have never made a mistake on the job. The truth is I wasn’t any of those things and that was scary,” Chandler continues. “But I was a fairly smart and hardworking guy who was deeply passionate about what I was doing and eager to learn and grow.”

Ultimately, he believes his enthusiasm for taking on new challenges led to an acceptance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. If you feel daunted about exactly how you can display growth in your MBA application, read on. We’ve condensed Chandler’s expert tips here, but you can listen to the episode to get that deep-dive experience. 

Are you curious about your chances of getting into a top business school? Contact us to talk strategy with a free 15-minute advising session with an SBC Principal Consultant.

Showing Growth in Your MBA Application Essays

The MBA application essays are the best place to showcase your individuality and present yourself as more than a collection of numbers and accomplishments. At this point, your undergraduate GPA and transcript are set in stone. Your test scores are as well (or should be soon). But your essays allow you to present yourself as the fascinating, quirky, passionate, extraordinary, vulnerable individual you are.

“Vulnerable is valuable,” says Chandler. In the context of the MBA essay, “vulnerability gives you a powerful opportunity to connect with your reader. It allows you to demonstrate self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and most importantly, it gives you the chance to tell a memorable and compelling story about yourself.”

For inspo, listen to B-Schooled Podcast Episode #161: Write the Essay that Scares You

Choose your essay topics thoughtfully to showcase your accomplishments and explain how you achieved them, embracing your vulnerabilities and shortcomings along the way.

Growth in Your Recommendation Letters

Recommendation letters are a compelling place to highlight your learning and professional growth in your MBA application. Why? Because they are the only place in the application where you don’t talk about yourself. A thoughtful and accomplished third-party observer is speaking about your candidacy objectively.

Many schools believe in the value of a growth mindset because they ask specific questions about it. Often, this presents as a question about constructive feedback, e.g., “Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you’ve given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.

As you coach your recommenders, it’s vital to help them see how to answer both parts of that question. Otherwise, they will likely focus more on the feedback and gloss over the circumstances and response.  Without that needed context, the admissions committee may imagine the situation was worse than it was. That’s why we suggest you make it as easy as possible for recommenders to have that information at their fingertips when writing your letter.

If you worked together several years ago, you likely have a more precise memory of your feedback than they do. So, create a set of bullet points around a specific piece of feedback you are suggesting they consider. While they can talk about whatever they want—it’s their letter, after all! —it never hurts to arm them with a suggestion to think about. And nine times out of 10, recommenders will use the information you supply because it makes their lives easier.

The bullet points should include these four elements:

  • A summary of the constructive criticism and the context for it—keep it short and sweet.
  • An outline of how you responded to the feedback.
  • Information about how you put that feedback into action.
  • An example of a later situation in a similar context, but this time, you knocked it out of the park.

This enables the recommender to end the answer on a high and positive note. It would be even better if you could reiterate to your recommender what you learned and how you grew from the experience.  

Centering Your Growth Mindset in the MBA Interview

There are various techniques to subtly highlight your EQ and growth mindset in the MBA interview. The obvious way to do this is by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and authentic. An excellent opportunity to take advantage of in an interview is those classic “tell me about a time when… questions. Behavioral interview questions come up in almost every MBA interview. Some examples might be:

  • Tell us about a time when you made a mistake.
  • Tell us about a time when you challenged someone else’s thinking or someone challenged your thinking.
  • Tell us about a time when you faced adversity.
  • Tell us about a time when you were proud of something you accomplished.
  • Tell us about a time when you had to have a difficult conversation.
  • Tell us about a time that you acted with integrity.

The list goes on and on. To prepare for these questions, pick five or six stories you’d like to share during your interview and map out a STAR format answer for each (Situation, Task, Action, Result).

This structure keeps you on track and ensures you give a thorough answer that provides background, tells what you did, and, most importantly, ends with impressive results. Many interviewers may stop you along the way to probe deeper. But this framework organizes your answer and prevents you from rambling, giving you the confidence to deliver a strong interview performance.

See the STAR format in action in the example B-Schooled host Chandler shared on the podcast:

Situation: My social impact brand was losing market share to a competitor.

Task: I revised our strategy by extensively examining our internal processes to develop a more efficient system.

Action: I surveyed customers to learn what traits they valued and then implemented product changes based on those customer desires.

Result:  We gained 20% additional market share.

But don’t stop there.

When you think about results, include both professional and personal outcomes. “Make sure that you say something like, ‘And through this process, I learned X, Y, Z about myself or my leadership style‘, Chandler advises.

Here’s another example. Say you were leading a project as the only woman on a team of all older men. If you succeeded in this effort, mention that “you increased the profit margin by X %. But you should also talk about these age and gender elements to the extent they were relevant to your journey.

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For instance, knowing that you were younger than everyone else and the only woman, what concerns did you have? What different strategies did you try? What proved most successful? How did this experience help you think about responding to similar situations in the future?

Did this prompt you to take further action? Do you now mentor young women in the field? Or did you get involved with a women’s organization within your company? These are personal lessons and personal reflections, and they’re just as crucial as those professional outcomes.

In conclusion, showcasing a growth mindset in your MBA application is crucial for success. Admissions officers at top business schools are not merely looking for polished candidates; they seek individuals who demonstrate a history of learning, introspection, and resilience.

Your essays, recommendation letters, and interviews are golden opportunities to highlight your journey of growth, both professionally and personally. Remember, your unique experiences and the lessons you gleaned from them set you apart. By embracing vulnerability, demonstrating emotional intelligence, and meticulously preparing your stories, you can present yourself as a dynamic and promising MBA candidate.

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Stacy Blackman Consulting offers multiple services to meet your MBA application needs, from our All-In Partnership and Interview Prep to hourly help with essay editing, resume review, and much more! Contact us today for a free 15-minute advising session to talk strategy with a Principal SBC consultant.

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