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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

December 11, 2007

Myths of the Application Process: I'm not unique just by being me

Image the following hypothetical situation: You are in a selection process involving 10,000 candidates and only 10% will be accepted. In order to differentiate yourself from the other 9999 candidates, you begin collecting reports on them. After all if you have to market yourself and be viewed as unique you better know who your competition is.

Clearly this is absurd. Yet I think it reflects the actual mentality of many applicants who spend time worrying about their competition instead of simply focusing their time on writing the best essays they can. They buy into the myth that they are not unique just being themselves.

Like admissions officers, I share the assumption (One that is cultural, philosophical, or perhaps even theological) that each person is unique. Regardless of whether you are applying to an MBA, LL.M., Masters, or Ph.D. you need to able to express your best self through your application. Your best self is the distilled version of yourself that you communicate in the essays, resume, and other parts of the application. Hopefully it is also that part of you that your recommenders discuss.

MBA programs in particular make this assumption about you being unique in the very way they form questions. See below and my posts on NYU Stern, University of Chicago GSB, and on contribution questions at Kellogg, Duke, McCombs, Babson, and London Business School for my examination of some of the specific ways in which particular schools ask about this.

Some applicants become so concerned about appearing unique that it paralyzes them when they try to write. Other applicants have no problem writing, but what they write consists either of extreme exaggerations or outright lies. In either case, the root problem is often one or more of the following false assumptions:
1. I am not a superstar therefore I am not unique.
2. Compared to other people I am not unique.
3. My GPA/GMAT is/are not that high so I can I be concerned unique?
4. My work as a....is really routine and have no specifically great accomplishments.
5. I have no experience having formal management responsibility, so my leadership skills can't demonstrate why I am unique.
6. My hobbies are routine.
7. I have never done anything important.

The above are assumptions that I have encountered over the years from clients. In order to overcome these assumptions, I make the following argument:
"What makes someone unique is their own particular story. Your own particular experience and your ability to reflect upon it and identify specific ways you have demonstrated potential for success in your graduate program and afterwards is what is most important. Don't worry about being special, just tell your own story and in the process we will figure out how to effectively interpret that story for the admissions committee. The devil is always in the details initially. After that we work on branding."

Take it on faith that you will be unique if you tell your own story and also effectively analyze that story. For instance with MBA questions they are always asking "why" not just "what or how."

Sometimes this is stated very directly: INSEAD asks applicants to "Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date, explaining why
you view them as such." In this essay as in the similar HBS question, the reason why you view the accomplishment as substantial is at least as important as what the accomplishment is. Accomplishments can be substantial for yourself and/or for others. Some of the most unique accomplishments will in fact be those that may have little significance for anyone but the applicant. In such circumstances the "why" part of the question is really critical in order to show why this accomplishment is a highpoint in the applicant's life.

Columbia Business School asks applicants to"Please tell us about what you feel most passionate in life. " This is really a great question because any applicant should be able to answer it (By the way, if you feel passionate about nothing, you don't need an MBA, you need mental counseling!). This question provides a great opportunity to help the admissions office under you as a person. While some good judgment is required here, talking about a hobby or activity or one's family would be quite appropriate. While good judgment is always required for selecting the topic, the important thing is not only the "what," but the "why."

So for those in the midst of this process, I say don't worry about the other applicants, just focus on yourself and reveal your best self through your applications.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
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