YOU ARE NOT SUBMITTING MBA APPLICATIONS FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE THAN TO GET ADMITTED!
I think applicants often forget this point when writing essays, resumes, or even selecting who they will use for a recommendation. Some applicants become so carried away with an opportunity to tell their story that they forget to consider that not everything they could say about themselves is worth writing in an application and actually only those things that will get them admitted are worth writing. One's greatest failure might have involved a love affair at age 15, but this would not make for an effective answer to an MBA program's essay topic related to failure. Affairs of the heart are best left outside of the admissions process. Similarly getting drunk with clients in order to generate great sales results might be very true, but no sane person would write on their resume, "Engage in heavy social drinking 3-6 times a week in order to generate leads and results that contributed to over $20 million in sales for FY2011." It might very well be the case such social drinking actually fulfills a core business function, but you simply can't it. Instead the resume will read "Engage in extensive daily discussions with clients and leads resulting in over $20 million in sales for FY2011." The drinking example reveals one very important thing: It is all about the interpretation.
And in fact, the importance of differentiating between the real you and the application you is one of interpretation. NO graduate school application can possibly capture the full real you. An application will only present a slice of you. Some applications give you the chance to present more slices (More essays, longer resumes, more application form content), others less. Some applications give you extreme freedom in choosing what to present (More open-ended essay questions), other less so. The point is that regardless of what questions you are asked to answer and/or what information you need are asked to provide, you need to control the interpretation.
Some will consider this an invitation to lie, but that is not what I am suggesting. The story of one's life is not objective, it is subjective and its meaning is either something you provide to it or one what that your reader (essays) or listener (interviews) will naturally provide. Successful communication always involves controlling the interpretation. The significance of what you do is something you need to explain, not something you can leave to chance. One set of facts can be presented in a number of ways, but my suggestion is that you look for a way that highlights aspects of yourself that align with the program you are applying to.
Getting the Right Slices: What are MBA Programs Looking for in Applicants?
At the strategic level, I identify four core aspects that MBA programs look for in applicants. You need to understand this categories in general and also in relationship to the programs you are applying to. You need to consider how you will demonstrate each of these categories in your applications and interviews.
1. Academic Potential is the applicant's perceived ability to perform well in the academic program. This is measured by GPA, GMAT, difficulty of courses indicated on the transcript, school reputation, demonstrated academic/intellectual accomplishments, analytically challenging work, possibly recommendations, and essay content related to academic/intellectual accomplishments/analytical work/problem solving. Beyond an application, it is surely measured by an applicant's performance in an interview.
2. Leadership Potential is the applicant's perceived capacity to lead people, organizations, projects, and innovation both during and after the MBA program. It can be a stand in for the perceived overall effectiveness of the applicant as a manager and businessperson. It is a highly contested category with much more flexibility to it than those who simply perceive leadership as telling others what to do within the context of an organization. It is measured by your past leadership experiences (Professional, but also academic and extracurricular) as detailed in your resume, application form, essays, and recommendations and as discussed in an interview.
3. Community Engagement is the applicant's perceived capacity to engage in activities of a voluntary, interpersonal, philanthropic, social, cultural, athletic, political, and/or altruistic nature. This community engagement category can be a way to measure the philanthropic potential, networking skills, uniqueness, perceived ethical/social sensitivity of the applicant. If one were to be cynical, it could be said that this category favors do-gooders over those with a total focus on their professional careers, but it also measures those who have a real capacity for working with others from those who prefer to spend their time alone. It is a category that makes some suspect that the admissions criteria for business schools is a bit soft headed, but given the rhetorical importance of companies needing to demonstrate their philanthropic, socially conscious, and or community spirit, it would be reasonable to expect that the future potential leaders of such companies have shown an understanding and capacity for community engagement. It is measured by engagement in activities as detailed in your resume, application form, essays, and recommendations and as discussed in an interview. For some applicants, community engagement is something they seem to have endless supplies of, while for other applicants, they will have very little to discuss. If you are six months or more away from an application due date, it is not too late to add something in this area, but sudden new activities don't impress all that much. Ideally, if you are one year or more from making application, now is a good time to engage in such activities if you have not done so. Remember that community activities can happen inside the office. Volunteering to organize an annual party, leading your department's green initiative, participating in a company sports team are all possible ways to show community engagement.
4. Personality Qualities and Experiences is at times a stated category. For example, Stanford fits personality into the "Personal Qualities and Contributions" category (See here). Whereas HBS, does not clearly mention it. (Their categories are "A Habit of Leadership, Capacity for Intellectual Growth, and Engaged Community Citizenship.") Kellogg includes personality in its criteria through personal character, interpersonal skills, and motivation. Unlike the first three categories, which are covered pretty consistently, the personality category is communicated in many possible ways. In the case of HBS, it does not come out as a category per se, but is certainly a core consideration:
"The true common characteristics of our students are demonstrated leadership potential and a capacity to thrive in a rigorous academic environment.
Indeed, to create the most stimulating environment possible for all students, we consciously select a diverse student body, one that not only reflects a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, but also a wide range of personal interests and professional ambitions."
In order to get that diversity, something all top MBA programs want, each applicant's unique qualities and experiences comes into play. This category can immensely difficult to pin down, but is it includes so many possible things. Here is a list, by no means comprehensive, of what fits into this category:
1. Demonstrated creativity in professional, extracurricular, or academic life. Artists, poets, writers, and inventors all fit into this category
2. Extensive international experience. This involves living, working, traveling and/or studying in more than one country. It might involve spending a year traveling, being raised in three countries, study abroad, mastery of two or more languages, and working as an expat.
3. Mastery of artistic, athletic, scientific, academic disciplines resulting in outstanding personal accomplishments. Those with patents, professional musicians, captains of winning sports teams, Olympic medal holders, and public poets all fit into this category.
4. Unusual professional experiences that would give the applicant the possibility to make unique contributions in class. Concert violinists who also day trade, working a corporate job and running a start-up on the side, film directors, chefs, actors, and professional athletes all fit into this category.
5. Overcoming extreme personal, professional, academic, economic, political, social and/or physical obstacles. If you have overcome poverty, personal misfortune, sexism, homophobia, racism, physical disability, and other obstacles that reveal the strength of your character, they will likely be ways to distinguish yourself in the application process.
6. Being first at something. As long as it is not trivial if you are the founder of something, the youngest at something, the first to do something, it is likely to be a great topic for an essay or at least a bullet point on a resume.
7. Risk taking as demonstrated by professional career choices, personal acts of heroism, and/or participation in high risk sporting activities: Air Force Rangers, extreme sports enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs all fit into this category.
8. Demonstrated passion and commitment to a cause, an intellectual pursuit, athletics, or hobbies. If you can made a real commitment to something in terms of your time over multiple years, it is likely to be a good topic.
9. Unusual personal background that makes the applicant standout within a pool where white male American finance professionals, Indian IT guys, and management consultants are typically over-represented.
10. An interesting, engaging, and/or original perspective. Easier said than done. One needs to distinguish between simply writing an effective set of essays and actually being a highly engaging personality. Not everyone has the capacity to be such a personality and, in fact, it is not necessary to be a highly engaging personality to gain admission into a top MBA program. While applicants should certainly aspire to do this in their essays and interviews, some people are great writers, wonderful story tellers, and super communicators and others are not.
Assume that you need to cover all four categories above in each application you submit, but the mix will be different depending on the application. The art of putting together a great application is knowing how you can distinguish yourself in relationship to each of these categories, how you can compensate for any weaknesses, and how you can create an effective total portrait of yourself based on these categories. Don't worry if you are not strong in each of these categories as it is quite possible to be admitted to any top program without being perfect. The point is to provide your readers and interviewer with a clear set of selling points about yourself that fit within their own criteria for why an applicant should be admitted.
You are more than your application and more than any interview, but it is on the basis of those two things that you will be admitted or rejected. Great applicants with lousy applications get rejected all the time. I know because I help such applicants then submit great applications! Applicants with significant problems in the four categories I mentioned above can gain admission to great programs by submitting great applications. I know this too because I help applicants with one or more significant problems in their objective background gain admission to programs where they are statistical outriders.
Some might think that I am suggesting that you present yourself falsely, but that is not at all the case. I recommend that applicants honestly discuss the best part of themselves, honestly addressing any objective problems that they can't avoid mentioning (That low grade in your transcript, the 11 months when you were not working, the reason you quit a job after 3 months, etc.), and not make any deceptive claims. You should never provide deceptive information that will get your application rejected or your admission revoked. On the other hand, don't volunteer information that is unnecessary to provide and unhelpful to you. Don't dwell on failures when you are not asked to. Don't worry about trivial facts that can't be easily checked. Do interprete the past in way that is to your advantage and is believable. Also, always consider that anything you submit in an application needs to be believable and that if asked about it in any interview you have to sound convincing.
I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.