In Your MBA Application, Be Authentic

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA blog on

Yes, you’re applying to business school, but you don’t need to look like a business tool.

If you’ve doubled sales, you need to discuss that. If you’ve helped get a new technology to market, by all means share those details. If you’ve hired 100 people, you’ve got a great story there.

However, I’ve seen too many candidates attempt to convince admissions committees that they’ve done it all already. They believe that demonstrating their business acumen in every paragraph of their applications will overwhelm admissions officials through the sheer volume of evidence of their commercial genius. This is not the best approach.

[Learn how to market yourself effectively in MBA applications.]

One candidate I worked with had received numerous rejections two years earlier in spite of solid work experience and stellar GMAT scores. He attributed his early failure to his “gunner”””or overly ambitious””approach to his application. When we worked on further developing his human side, his admissions fortunes rose considerably.

MBA programs emphasize that they choose their incoming classes based on the potential for leadership. Often, that leadership will be in the arenas of policy, public health, the arts, or nonprofits. Admissions committees look for people who have followed their passions and left a unique mark in whatever areas they have pursued. Books by Jim Collins, Warren Buffett, and Geoffrey Moore aren’t the only ones that influence b-school candidates, and current issues that impact them the most extend beyond tax code debates and the state of global outsourcing.

On the other end of the spectrum, some MBA candidates try to fashion themselves as renaissance men and women, who would put Leonardo da Vinci to shame. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out how a person can get any PowerPoint slides done with all of the oil painting, tutoring, skiing, sky diving, Mandarin speaking, flower arranging, foreign film watching, blogging, environment saving, meal delivering, judoing, and overseas traveling he or she engages in every week.

[Read do’s and don’ts of applying to b-school.]

The trick to fleshing out your human side in the application is to take just a couple of experiences, activities, or themes and expand upon them in a much more detailed and nuanced way. Instead of an essay jammed with 10 foreign travel experiences, develop one or two anecdotes in greater depth. Talk about how a single trip, or one discussion with someone from another country, changed the way you view the world. Discuss one observation you have had about a certain topic across different cultures. Maybe you’ve witnessed differences in communication, or observed directly the distinct approaches other cultures have toward entrepreneurship. Illustrating that you understand the significance of your experiences is much more important than regaling an admissions committee with all the details of said experiences.

One candidate I worked with listed chess as an interest on his application. He had read somewhere that many successful executives cited chess as their favorite game. Having played a few times and enjoyed it, he saw no problem highlighting it as one of his hobbies. That is until I asked him, “What happens if your interviewer is a real chess devotee? Are you going to have anything to say about it that he’ll find remotely interesting?” There truly is no ideal list of interests that will make someone seem more appealing to b-school admissions committees.

If your interest is reading popular fiction, maybe it has allowed you to bond with friends in book club. This is in itself an insight about you that can lead to further discussions. If your interest is baseball trivia, perhaps it gives you an interesting perspective on some of the race and drug issues that the sport has experienced.

The admissions committee wants to get to know you as a person beyond the résumé””don’t write anything just because it seems like something an admissions committee would want to hear. It may sound obvious, but one of the real keys to a successful MBA application is simply being authentic. Don’t shy away from your true interests; illustrate how they have helped shape the incredibly dynamic and fascinating person that you are.

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