MBA Admissions: The Distinguishing Debate

By - Jun 4, 23:51 PM Comments [0]

In my meanderings on the web I came across an interesting post, " Meet-up Report, Columbia’s optional essay 4, Changes in Recruiting" by a 2010 MBA applicant, XClick, who writes the A New Yorker's MBA Journey - Yo! blog. At the meetup, he spoke with a couple of accepted MBA applicants:

I asked [the applicant accepted to Harvard and Wharton] what the secret to his success was. And he basically said I have to think outside of the box, clichéd as it may sound. I have to market/brand myself in a way that outshines everybody else. My essays should be unique and differentiate me from the thousands of other smart 700+ GMAT applicants. Not an easy task. I also picked the NYU guy's brain a little bit. He said his application was pretty much "straightforward." He applied, interviewed and was accepted within a week.

Straightforward, or out-of-the-box branding. Two different views on approaches to a successful MBA application from those who created them.  And if you ask MBA admissions directors -- those who read your applications -- you will again hear very different tunes. For example, in a the Darden 2009 chat, Darden Admissions Director Sara Neher advised Darden applicants, "What I want to know is what you will specifically add to our classroom and to our community. Show me your best!" Derrick Bolton, Director of MBA Admissions and Assistant Dean at Stanford Graduate School of Business has a different perspective:

Myth #1: Tell the Committee on Admissions what makes you unique in your essays.

This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different from your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life).

But how are you to know which of your experiences are unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences.

That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.

What's my take, having advised applicants to top schools for the last fifteen years?  A little more nuanced, and perhaps more practical. Let's look first at the applicant comments cited by Xclick.

A goal of thinking "out of the box" or even a less cliched drive for uniqueness risks being contrived, forced, and phony. It is the ingenuous response that Derrick Bolton warns against.  It leads to an essay that reflects THE most common applicant mistake: Telling the reader what you think they want to know as opposed to what YOU want them to know about you.

At the same time, you would be foolish to ignore the sentiment expressed by Sara Neher and many other admissions committee members. They want to know what you will add to the class. So how can you tell your story and differentiate yourself, especially if you come from a common applicant background? How can you portray the unique individual that you are? Will it come naturally as Derrick Bolton believes, just by reflecting on your motivations and lessons learned?

There are many ways you can tell your story, and there are many ways to answer the questions. You can answer them superficially, describe your motivations in broad, general, grandiose strokes, and fail to differentiate yourself. Guaranteed.  And you will bore too. Ignoring the uniqueness element endangers your acceptance chances as much as focusing on it to the point where the essay no longer reflects you.

Details, specifics, and anecdotes framed by your motivations, impact, and influence will distinguish you. Those elements probably comprised the "straightforward" essays written by the accepted NYU applicant in XClick's post.

You can also frame your experiences and motivations in ways that reflect your values and experiences. For example, my daughter recently wrote a personal statement for an internship.  She has plenty of stories to tell and knows why she wants this position, but she really wasn't sure how to approach the essay. After "hiring" me, we talked about possible approaches, and she ultimately decided to frame her essay with a conversation between us. In this earlier chat, I had asked her how she liked a related volunteer position. Her essay consisted of the thoughts racing through her mind as she considered how much she loves this work. Another effective frame for an essay could be your room or home and important objects in it. Or perhaps your thoughts as you hike, or run, or swim, or surf, or or cook, or do whatever you love doing.

An effective frame:

  • Allows you to answer the essay question in an engaging story format.
  • Reflects your values and important elements of your life.
  • Will always be unique to you.

But if it feels contrived, forget it.

I could go on for hours on this subject. I will be going into it much more deeply (but not for hours) during our next webinar. In the meantime, I am adding links to other blog posts and articles containing tips and tools for distinguishing yourself effectively in your essays.

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