An article that I wrote about marketing yourself throughout the admissions process was recently published in a number of publications. I have reprinted it here:
You are articulate and well prepared. The interview portion of the application to your first choice b-school is moving along smoothly, and you have a well thought out answer for each question. Finally, the interviewer states, “You have an impressive resume, strong work experience and interesting extra-curricular activities. However, your resume is no different from any of the others I have seen this year.
What makes you different from other qualified applicants?” The answer to this question, and how you market yourself throughout the application process, may be the difference between being denied or accepted to the MBA program of your choice.
It’s important to understand that not only do top schools accept only a small percentage of applicants, but also that they are selecting from a highly competitive pool. Having great test scores and a strong resume is not enough. In order to be successful, you must understand how to market yourself effectively.
Understand your target market
As with any marketing project, understanding your target market is critical. As a first step in the application process, you must research the schools and get to know them well. You should read the Web sites and brochures, attend information sessions, speak with students and alums, and, if possible, visit the school. The knowledge that you acquire will help you determine how to sell yourself. It will also help you articulate why you have selected a particular school. Citing specific reasons from first-hand experience gives you an advantage over the other applicants.
Positioning is key
Every school has a need. It may be assembling alums who will donate generously, or changing its reputation as a party school. Understanding a school’s needs and positioning yourself as part of the solution will make a difference. For example, consider Columbia University in New York. You may want to attend because you are pursuing a career in finance. Realize that Columbia hears this frequently. If you do your research, you will learn that Columbia’s new dean is embracing entrepreneurship as a major initiative. Speaking to this may be a way to align you with the school’s objectives.
One of the biggest challenges that highly qualified b-school applicants face is setting themselves apart from the extremely competitive applicant pool. Fortunately, the personal essay portion of the application is an opportunity to demonstrate what makes you unique.
Examples that may seem less than extraordinary to you can provide the admissions committee with evidence of your excellence. One client, working as a strategy consultant, could not fit traditional volunteer work into his hectic travel schedule. He took it upon himself to contact his alma mater’s career center, offering to be a resource to those interested in a consulting career. He ended up giving back on his own terms, in a very significant way. Excellence comes in different packages, and these small examples are the best way to showcase your unique contributions.
Support your claims of greatness
Remember that a simple example can be extremely effective. However, without an example, it is not worth making the claim. One b-school applicant needed a good story for a question on leadership. The example that he used involved revamping a monthly report. Although this may not seem like an impressive task, once written, it showed initiative, a desire to challenge the status quo and an ability to execute and influence others. The way to convey your worth is not through stating it, but through proving it with examples.
In addition to highlighting strengths, an essential component of marketing is effectively managing weaknesses. For most applicants, one of the most dreaded questions is, “Tell us about a time you failed.” The best approach is honesty.
One b-school applicant was laid off three times throughout his four year career. He was terrified of revealing this to the admissions committees. However, through the truth, he demonstrated self awareness, an ability to learn from mistakes, maturity, resilience and determination. Honest introspection allows the admissions committee to get to know you. Discussing failures with honesty is the key to capitalizing on a weakness and making it work for you.
Although negotiating your acceptance into a top MBA program can be a challenge, by showcasing your individuality you can do so with success. Do your research on each institution and understand how your personal strengths and differences can be an asset to the programs of your choice. Take advantage of the application’s essay portion to illustrate your unique qualities, and don’t be afraid to discuss your weakness, and what you have learned from moments of failure. Effective marketing can take your application from good to great and make a difference for you in this highly competitive process.