On the surface, many applicants to elite MBA programs share similar backgrounds and traits. They are ambitious, driven, accomplished, and have strong academic records and impressive test scores. In short, they are leaders and achievers. But just because candidates share these characteristics doesn’t mean their MBA application essays have to beat the same drum. Unfortunately, loads of applicants make the mistake of writing about what they think the admissions committee wants to hear, as opposed to what really resonates for them personally.
We already know that Kellogg School of Management is bombarded with people wanting to go into packaged goods marketing, or that Chicago Booth School of Business is overloaded with finance wannabes. Despite having many of the same career goals, applicants need to think of how they can brand themselves distinctly. Too often stories get overdone, with candidates devoting paragraph upon paragraph to describing assorted business projects because hey, this is business school we’re talking about, right? Wrong tactic! This course of action does nothing to enhance their candidacy because it’s obvious these experiences weren’t at all meaningful to them.
If you leave out the stories about your martial arts training, extensive travel experience, or obsession with college basketball because you figure it’s not relevant to b-school, you’re missing out on a golden opportunity to allow the admissions committee a chance to get to know the real you behind the data points.
Another common mistake is looking at applications submitted by friends who have been successful, and thinking, “Well, it worked for them so I’m going to do that, too.” The thing is, you never know whether they were admitted in spite of a tactic or story, not because of it. You have to focus on what works for you and reveals something unique about yourself. Business schools look for qualities that can translate into leadership, so being a school teacher who can communicate effectively and move and motivate groups of people can actually be more relevant than someone who sits alone in a cube at a “business” job crunching numbers.
When brainstorming stories from your background to share in your MBA essays, you should absolutely include some traditional work stuff. But also think about family, friendships, languages, interests, passions, dreams—categories that are not necessarily “business-y” but that reveal character traits you want to emphasize. Also, think about a real and attainable career goal, something that truly excites you personally and that makes sense given your interests and trajectory to date, not just something that seems to make a good story for b-school.
For example, let’s say you are a first year analyst at an investment bank—just like hundreds of other applicants. Don’t give the three-bullet pointed job description that appears on your resume. Talk about the little spreadsheet that you identified as inefficient and decided to overhaul. Try to identify smaller but more personal and unique stories that tell how you were a different analyst than all the others.
One client we worked with 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.
While many applicants have similar credentials, the beauty of the MBA application process is that it allows candidates a chance for self-reflection, and to discover that they are more unique than they first imagine. All applicants, even those from typical pre-MBA backgrounds, have a story to tell, and an opportunity to go beyond numbers and statistics to present the admissions committee with a snapshot of who they really are.