The Seven Biggest Mistakes That Got Me Four Dings

"I was dinged by every single school except MIT, where I was wait listed." Learn how to avoid MBA application mistakes from Scott Duncan of ScottDuncan.comI was humbled last year. I applied to all the big names: Harvard Business School, Stanford, Wharton, MIT Sloan, and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

The result: I was dinged by every single school except MIT, where I was wait listed.

This time around, as a re-applicant, I tried to be introspective about the process of applying to a top MBA program. I’m applying what I learned from the application process that landed me with four rejection letters and just a spot on MIT’s wait list.

From my perspective, I made seven big mistakes. Here’s my take on what I did wrong:

1. I applied with a low (relatively) GMAT score

After scoring 680 on the GMAT twice in a row, I decided to move on and apply to a very elite list of business schools. The first time I took the test, I told myself “everything will be fine” and took a few months off from studying/my applications. HUGE mistake. By the time I had signed up to take the test again, it was September, meaning that a few Round 1 deadlines had passed and now I was knee-deep in the rest of the application process. I guess the pressure got to me – and I scored a 680 a second time. This is certainly within the 80th percentile range for many of the top-10 schools, but it’s not really adding (and possibly detracting) from the rest of the application.

TAKEAWAY: Have a great GMAT score squared away early on in the application process.

2. I didn’t practice interviewing enough

I interviewed at two schools: Kellogg (where everyone interviews) and MIT Sloan (where I was invited to interview).
Anyone who has ever been through a tough job interview knows the feeling – trying to hide your nerves and answer every question with the eloquence of a thousand PR representatives. I learned that the only way to pull this off is to A) Have a lot of experience interviewing, or B) PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE.

Well, I don’t have a lot of experience interviewing, and I didn’t practice enough either. I made flashcards of all of the common questions I had read from the forums and reviewed them nightly, even going so far as to read them out loud and videotape myself in front of my iPad. A humbling experience for sure – “Do I really sound like that???” I had formulated some decent answers for most of the questions, and felt prepared. Where I failed and where the practice would have helped was to know the answers so well that you can delivery them while making them SEEM like they are rolling freeform off your tongue.

At Kellogg, the interview was very straightforward and I had answers prepared for every question. But again, the practice would have helped because I would have been more confident in the interview. If I had practiced my answers more, I would have been able to deliver them more conversationally. If you have ever read anything about preparing for interviews, then you know how important it is to establish a personal rapport with your interview. This is FAR more important than the actual content you are delivering. Your demeanor and presentation say so much more about you than bullet points from your resume that you are now verbalizing.

At MIT, the interview was much more conversational. I had a few answers prepared for some of the questions, but the remainder made me think. Fun fact: the interview started out like this: “Well, your GMAT is very…average. Could you explain?” Yikes…

In a conversational interview like this, you cannot rely on memorized and scripted answers. Instead, you have to rely on your salesmanship and have a solid belief in your “story.”

TAKEAWAY: Practice your interview questions like your life depends on it

Which leads me to the next mistake:

3. I didn’t sell myself and my story

I had a very hard time talking about myself. Both in the application and in the interviews. If this is something you struggle with as well, I would suggest you get over it immediately. Your interviewer has exposure to a very limited part of you, it’s your job to add some color to the picture. Imaging being in their position, they interview dozens of applicants. Who will they remember? Someone who rehashes their work experience verbatim from their resume, or someone who can passionately articulate a number of valuable and unique life experiences?

TAKEAWAY: Write your life story and sell it with confidence. Make the adcom believe

4. My essays weren’t crystal clear or engaging

A few of my essays were pretty boilerplate – nothing notable or exciting. When I imagine the admissions committee member reading them, I imagine them reading it like a fifth grader unenthusiastically reading a book report to the rest of the class. Boring. This goes back to the salesmanship point I made before: Every element of your application is an opportunity to make it known that you are unique and will be a valuable addition to the class if admitted. Don’t waste it. Your essays are a great way to add some substance to your application. I will be sharing in a later post an essay I wrote for MIT “comfort zone” question that my interviewer “absolutely LOVED!!!” (in her words).

TAKEAWAY: Captivate your essay reader