This post originally appeared on Stacy’s ‘Strictly Business’ MBA blog on U.S. News
Faced with increasingly stiff competition for a spot at the top business schools, MBA applicants must possess more than stellar test scores and a pedigreed employment and educational history to gain admission. The admissions committee is looking for that elusive je ne sais quoi when reading through application essays.
Your job is to present your personal and professional narrative in a way that captivates the reader – and doesn’t come off as a recitation of your resume.
Almost every MBA application asks some version of the strengths-and-weaknesses question, either as part of an essay or as a question for your recommenders. Understandably, applicants dread the thought of discussing anything negative within their application. But admissions committees specifically ask you to reveal your weaknesses to assess your fit with the program.
If you have difficulty knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, read through past employment performance reviews, think about projects where you were particularly successful and get feedback from colleagues and friends. Your own desire and motivation to get involved in a particular task can often reveal the areas where you are strong and where you need improvement.
Remember, your greatest strength is sometimes the flip side of a frustrating weakness. Consider, for example, the analytical and thorough worker who is detail-oriented but has difficulties seeing the big picture in a strategic way. Here are three tips to help you address your weaknesses and strengths in your MBA application.
• Personalize weaknesses: Leadership experience and potential is highly prized at business schools but doesn’t come easily for everyone. Think of weaknesses as opportunities for growth.
At the same time, Samantha joined Toastmasters to build up her communication skills, and she subsequently started a public speaking club in her office to help others struggling with the same issue. When the time came to apply, Samantha used her essays to discuss how she successfully climbed the ranks at the nonprofit and gained more confidence in her leadership abilities through both of these less-conventional ways.
Another client Tim admitted he had struggled with multitasking in college and had become so overwhelmed by his classes and social activities that his grades had suffered. Knowing that his GPA might be an issue, we suggested Tim show what steps he had taken to become more organized as an MBA hopeful.
He used his optional essay for Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to explain that he had recently juggled a college-level calculus class while working full time, applying to business school and maintaining his volunteer commitments. This showcased his academic readiness as well as improved time-management skills.
• Illustrate strengths: Schools are looking for leadership, teamwork, intellectual curiosity, innovative vision and creativity – but it’s not enough to simply have an attractive list of strengths. You must provide concrete examples.
Admissions committees know that you are early in your career and perhaps have few major impressive accomplishments to date. The task here is to think of situations that spurred you to learn something valuable about yourself. Try to choose examples from different parts of your life – work, community service, extracurriculars – or maybe even something about your personal background. A diverse set of scenarios will not only keep your reviewer interested but also show that you are a well-rounded individual.
Sometimes discussing your strengths can feel too much like bragging. If you’re worried about that perception, do a reality check by having a friend or family member read your essay and let you know if you really are coming across in a negative way.
• Discuss strengths and weaknesses in recommendation letter: For some reason, the strengths-and-weaknesses question strikes more fear in recommenders than any other. Recommenders often worry that they’ll expose a fatal weakness and somehow ruin your chances.
Ideally, you’ll sit down and brainstorm with your recommender about your strengths and weaknesses. This can be awkward, but if you’re honest about what you think you need to work on and what you hope to gain from your MBA education, it can become a productive conversation. Just make sure that your recommender cites solid and specific steps you have taken to overcome any weakness he or she raises in the recommendation.
When you personalize your weaknesses and illustrate your strengths, you humanize your application for the admissions committee. All applicants have weaknesses of some kind, but if you can provide context for them, it allows the reader to have a greater understanding of both the previous situation and how you would act as a student, if accepted.
The most important takeaway is to be honest, with yourself and the admissions committee. Your keen self-assessment skills will go a long way toward impressing the individual who reads your application and – fingers crossed – earn you admission to the school of your choice.