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How To Stand Out In The Application Pile

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On Tuesday, September 9, rain is predicted in Boston. In fact the campus at Harvard Business School can expect a deluge. So much so that Dillon House, which houses the MBA Admissions Office, will be ready with large buckets in anticipation of the downpour.

September 9 is Harvard’s first round MBA admissions deadline. Always the business school to launch the new season, the school will be inundated with applications from the latest generation of MBA hopefuls, each trying to convince Dee Leopold and her admission team of the value they would bring to the HBS classroom.

Last year a team of five core staff handled applications from over 9,600 individuals, many of whom worked feverishly to put together a sparkling resume, competitive GMAT or GRE scores, an impressive bio data form, and a compelling essay – all supported by the well chosen words of their two recommenders.

MOST APPLICANTS ARE PUT INTO AN OVERFLOWING BUCKET OF APPLICATIONS

But the buckets in Dee’s office are not because of a hole in the roof. They are of course a metaphor to categorize the professional backgrounds of applicants. And the challenge for the legions of strategy consultants, investment bankers, and software engineers that apply in droves each year to Harvard and the other leading business schools is that they are put into a bucket that is overflowing.

It is not enough for an applicant to demonstrate strong career progress at McKinsey, Goldman or Google. There are thousands of rivals, often from the same firm, with comparable profiles, experience and professional accomplishments. Schools like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are actively seeking diversity in the MBA program, and can afford to select the best of the best who will truly bring a unique perspective and contribution, both inside the classroom and in the community at large.

So your pedigree at a blue-chip consultancy, bank or internet giant means that you are competing with colleagues and peers from Boston to Buenos Aires to Beijing.

IDEAS TO THINK ABOUT AHEAD OF TIME & AS YOU WORK ON YOUR APPLICATION

My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions were faced with the challenge of building a diverse and balanced classroom when they were Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton, INSEAD, Haas, the London Business School and other top schools. They are also aware of the strain such selectivity can place on the relationship between these important feeder companies, which are also major recruiters, and the schools, as the feeder companies are fighting to get more of their staff into the school.

So what do they recommend if you have an over-represented background that means you are in a bucket that may be flooding? Here is their advice to maximize your chances of admission.

Some ideas to think about in advance:

  • Don’t count on excellent academic background, GMAT and professional experience to get you in. These are a hygiene factor, and though vital to your chances, are unlikely to be the factors that set you apart.
  • Start planning your MBA sooner rather than later. The right time is when you start your career, especially if you are from McKinsey, BCG or Bain and will be applying to b school within two years. This means being thoughtful about what you can do on a personal and professional level to make your candidacy appealing.
  • Seek out experience that others will not have, such as unusual project or sector experience, or international exposure. If this can also link to some distinctive career goals, so much the better.