MBA admissions officers used to heavily favor finance applicants. Business schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Stanford respect the strong work ethic of investment bankers and money managers. Those qualities indicate readiness for the rigors of the MBA classroom.
These days, finance applicants have to take a more critical approach to MBA application strategy. They now represent the largest pool of incoming students at top business schools. MBA admissions committees do accept applications from oversubscribed populations.
But, they now focus more on diversity of profession, gender and nationality. Those attributes enrich peer-to-peer learning and contributes to their rankings success. Finance is an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession. Therefore, men in particular have a higher bar to reach in the current MBA admissions climate.
So, how can finance applicants rise to the top of a competitive pool as a common commodity? Every element of the MBA application should be optimized if you are to set yourself apart from the financial herd. Here’s how to do it:
Recognize that your resume doesn’t make you special
Finance applicants automatically assume that their strong work ethic, employer brand and high stats will get them into a top school. But that is not the case today. About 50% of our finance inquiries don’t realize the bar is higher for their cohort. Their application must be more compelling to differentiate themselves from the competition. Accepting that truth is the first step to securing a place on a top MBA program.
Top business schools expect holistic interests and achievements
Highlighting personal qualities and triumphs is essential to your MBA application strategy. At SBC, we charted the application journeys of 21 MBA candidates from private equity firms applying to Harvard (HBS), Stanford (GSB) and Wharton.
Our study concluded that neither past academic background nor GMAT scores could reliably predict whether finance applicants were admitted or rejected. Rather, success— defined by either an admit or interview invite—was predicted by how interesting the candidate was to admissions officers.
What does it mean to be “interesting?” Successful finance applicants talked about activities they engaged with outside the classroom as an undergrad or work today. For example, debate leadership, athletic activity and a remarkable thesis were undergraduate experiences that led to admits to GSB and HBS. Emphasizing earlier life interests that show character and values can differentiate finance candidates vying for top MBA programs.
Display responsible leadership credentials
Admissions committees want you to demonstrate more than financial success. “Show how you have made a positive impact on the communities in which you have operated. This demonstrates leadership and predicts success at HBS,” shared a former HBS Admissions Officer on the SBC consulting team. It’s important to list your leadership roles and titles held. But also how you interacted with others and worked well in teams.
Many business schools also want to educate people who will lead society, not just business. When reviewing applications, schools also think about employability—a critical factor in MBA rankings—and whether candidates will use the MBA to achieve their career goals.
“Clarity of goals is extremely important to Wharton, especially as they’ve combined MBA admissions, career management, and student life under the same deputy vice dean,” according to Meghan Ellis, a former Wharton Admissions Officer on the SBC team.
“The Wharton admissions committee will look at applications to see: is this person already on the fast track, are their goals logical and reasonable, do they have a plan for how they will use their time during the program and how they will meet their goals?”
In addition, illustrate how you will contribute to your new community at business school. Convey that you will be active and engaged on campus. For example, how you will take on a leadership role within a club that you are passionate about?
Use recommendations to show how you are at the top of your class
A career at a prestigious firm such as Goldman Sachs may not be enough to get you into business school. But it sure can help. A recommendation from a senior manager at a leading bank or fund can add some stardust to your MBA application.
Use your recommendation letters to convey what made you stand apart from your peers at the firm. This might include project or people management. Or, evidence of high performance, such as receiving promotions more quickly than others. All of this is valued by MBA admissions teams.
While you shouldn’t write the letters yourself, you can guide your recommender by explaining what business schools want to know about you, relative to the strengths and vulnerabilities of your profile.
Being a banker can still be an advantage to gaining an admit to an elite MBA program, if you know how to sell it.