Some b-school applicants balk at thinking of themselves as a “product” or ” personal brand.” However, by taking the time to really examine your personal qualities, values, and aspirations, you’ll ultimately be able to find out which MBA programs provide the best match for your unique profile.
Think of it this way: If you had to create a marketing campaign for a new car, and you decided to focus on the vehicle’s seat warmers and sound system – when these days, potential customers are all about fuel economy – then your marketing messages would miss the mark.
The pitfalls in formulating your personal brand messages for your MBA application are similar. Applicants should try three exercises to help them think like a marketing strategist, identify strengths, and develop a personal brand.
Exercise 1: Create a “Brag Sheet”
In the real world, the practice of bragging is generally frowned upon. For our purposes, it will help generate messages you will ultimately want to convey to the admissions committee. Begin by jotting down every possible unique, exciting, wonderful, dazzling thing you can think of about yourself. Think of it as “brag-storming.”
Don’t worry about anyone seeing your list. Also, don’t try to do this exercise in one sitting. Keep a notebook handy or start a memo on your smartphone, and write down ideas whenever inspiration strikes.
This list will do more than jog your memory. It also helps you realize that your hobbies, travels, volunteering, and personal or family life experiences can provide the raw material for brand messages and eventually essays.
Admissions committees seek out well-rounded candidates. These people have experienced life, pursued their passions, and achieved as much outside of the professional setting as within it. The brag sheet idea emerged after months of working with a client who insisted he had nothing interesting going on besides work.
Just days before the application due date, he casually revealed he had a deep, lifelong interest in martial arts. However, he considered this topic inappropriate for a b-school application. We disagreed. Weaving in this aspect balanced out a work-heavy application and added a lot of color and interest to his profile.
Now, we always have clients do a brain dump of everything under the sun. That way, these types of stories don’t slip through the cracks.
Exercise 2: Generate Stories
In our work with applicants, we’ve learned that it’s better to sift through an array of life experiences and see what emerges as a core strength, rather than lead off with what clients perceive as their strengths and then try to find example stories that back those up.
You don’t need to actually write the stories at this time— start by scratching out a few notes. Things like “how I overcame a speech impediment,” “the time I backpacked through Asia for six months on $2,000” or “Have worked in the family business since I was 14 years old,” is fine.
To get the wheels turning, consider personal and/or leadership achievements in and outside of work. Think of times when your actions made an impact on a person or group. Remember those instances when you motivated others, or a time you solved a problem with ingenuity.
Don’t be afraid to touch upon setbacks or failures. After all, your strategies for overcoming them may be the best indicator of your future success in the business world.
How can you determine whether a story is worth fleshing out? See if you can list the concrete actions you took and the results you achieved. The actions you took reveal your approach to a particular problem and provide clues about your strengths, capabilities, and character. The results indicate that your actions made a difference.
Exercise 3: Mine Stories for Strengths
Once you’ve winnowed down your list of stories, it’s time to figure out precisely which aspects of your skills, talents, strengths and character contributed to your accomplishments.
Ask yourself how this experience shaped your life and made you stronger. Or, think about which strengths, talents or attributes helped you make a difference. These answers will add to the pool of potential brand messages that you might highlight in your application and essays.
We had a client applying to HBS who wanted to write about his organizational skills as a core strength. Instead, we advised him to write about his ability to lead and inspire others. After all, he had written on his brag sheet about developing a program to provide vaccinations to the poor in underdeveloped countries—an enormous undertaking he developed from scratch.
Sure, his organizational skills helped. But the latter strength was more compelling, and it rose to the surface after viewing his stories.
As with a traditional marketing plan, the goal is to launch a product thoughtfully and effectively. In this case, the product is you. The goal is self-awareness, and combing through your list of accomplishments can be an enormous help. Once these elements have been clarified, you can effectively put your best MBA strategy into action.