What Really Happens During an MBA Admissions Committee File Review-Part 4

MBA essays be uniqueWe’re back with our fourth in a series of five blog posts to help answer frequently asked questions about what really happens during an MBA admissions committee file review, and today we’ll focus on applicants’ interpersonal skills, as demonstrated by their essays and recommendations.

Post 1: GPA and Test Scores
Post 2: Career Path, Resume, Career Goals
Post 3: Outside-of-Work Leadership, Extracurricular Activities

Returning once again to our fictional applicants Jackie and Bill, here are summaries of their interpersonal skills:



Why School X – Solid finance education, interested in flexible curriculum, networking within class and forming bonds with sectionmates

Other essay themes – Travel experiences, marathons, diverse community service contributions, stories from work


    • Current boss – stellar, said she was one of the best analysts ever
    • College professor – discussed her exceptional quant abilities
    • Nonprofit – excellent recommendation discussing her contributions
    • Plus two additional letters from prestigious alums discussing her contributions



Why School X – Excited about school’s entrepreneurial programs, discusses Small Business Development Center and Venture Initiation Program

Other essay themes – Family background, national track & field competitions in high school, mentoring experiences


      • Head of PE firm – positive recommendation, but a bit generic
      • Current boss at PE firm – very strong recommendation discussing abilities and personality, and adding a great deal of additional insight

Breaking it Down: Essays and Recommendations


MBA programs are looking for a variety of factors within your essays. If you have a standard Goals essay, the adcomm is evaluating not only the ambitiousness and achievability of your goals (as discussed in blog post #2), but also whether business school is even needed to achieve your goals. In these types of essays, the adcomm is also looking to see if you have done your homework on their program.

While Jackie lists a lot of school attributes, many of them are vague, and she could easily be discussing another school’s program. Bill is more specific, detailing exactly why the program is for him. In his case the adcomm is able to easily see how he’ll come in and add value immediately. Specificity is key — demonstrate your knowledge by detailing specific classes, professors and extracurriculars to show the adcomm how you will be prepared from Day 1!

Beyond the goals-focused essays, the adcomm should learn something new about you in your essays. Jackie focused on a number of unique themes in her essays; however, she did not note anything “green” in any, which was perplexing having been an environmental studies major in undergrad combined with several “green” extracurriculars. It seems like she has a good story here that she is not truly capitalizing on.

Bill talks about his family background, which includes immigrant parents and growing up in his family business along with his mentoring work, which he appears to truly love — all are positives and help set him apart from other applicants.

Where Bill falls short is that he discusses a national track & field competition in high school, which seems distant and not the best area to focus on for someone in his mid-to-late 20s. Bill would have been better served to address in more detail his tech enrichment program that he developed for low-income-neighborhood schools. This effectively demonstrates leadership as well as an intent to give back to his community.


While Jackie has a plethora of people relaying all sorts of good things about her, she’s actually disregarding the school’s recommender instructions, which state:

We require two letters of recommendation from people who are very knowledgeable about your performance in a work setting, ideally from current or former supervisors.

Jackie’s current boss fits this bill perfectly; however, using a college professor and a nonprofit board member do not. She will have points taken away for not following instructions and for an adcomm evaluation, every point counts!

She would have been better off selecting her second recommender as someone who also knows her work experience but from a different angle — possibly her mentor at the firm or another manager with whom she has worked closely. Also, while some schools accept additional letters of support, you need to be very careful about them.

Too many are overkill and can have the reverse effect on your application. If you want to go this route, make sure your school is open to this and be very judicious about who submits a letter.

Bill has a strong recommendation from his current boss, but he made a misstep in using the head of his firm, who gave him a very generic recommendation. MBA programs are clear on this point: the title of the recommender is not as important as his or her ability to effectively evaluate your performance.

By using the head of his firm, Bill lost an opportunity to provide more detailed information about his accomplishments in the workplace. A better route would have been to choose a former supervisor at one of his two previous companies as his second recommender.

In summary, make sure your recommenders know you and add meaningful insight; familiarity always trumps prestige. Letters from current and recent supervisors are always most important. Don’t submit extra letters unless they are truly helpful, providing an additional point of view.

Next up – So what happened?

With deadlines around the corner, you may be interested in the world-famous SBC Flight Test. Once a full set of application materials for your initial school have been drafted, but not finalized, the application will be sent to a former admissions committee member for a one-time review, adcomm style. You’ll have the benefit of a true admissions committee review while still having the ability to tinker and change.  You will receive written feedback within two business days after submitting.

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