Back in 2015 I had a heart to heart with my fiancé about where to go with my career: my trajectory at the time had me on track to spend many years working to become a technical expert – a career path that didn’t excite me at all. Given my interest in business, he suggested I consider whether to pursue an MBA as a means of altering that trajectory.
As I researched the different schools, I reviewed profiles of many who had been admitted to some of the world’s best business schools. I found myself reading about a seemingly endless stream of management consultants, investment bankers and successful entrepreneurs: each of whom appeared to be a super-human combination of impressive work experience, stellar undergraduate grades and extensive community involvement (on top of their 80 hour per week jobs). It didn’t matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find anyone whose profile even remotely matched mine; I didn’t feel as though I was in with a shot at all.
Fast forward two and a half years and here I am, offer in hand from Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Chicago Booth School of Business: three of the world’s best and most selective. Naturally that leads me to the question:
How is it that a gay, kiwi chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry has managed to chart a path to these iconic institutions alongside so many ‘traditional’ applicants?
To answer that question, I spent many hours reflecting on my admissions journey, and the assumptions that I formed early in the process – many of which turned out to be false. In an effort to dispel some of these myths and share my journey, I have compiled a summary of my top three take-aways from the MBA application process.
- Myth 1: Top MBA Programs only accept management consultants and investment bankers.
While it appeared this way on the surface, I came to discover that the best MBA programs understand the value of diversity and actively seek to create a student body which reflects the world we live in. The theory behind this is that students will be enriched by a variety of backgrounds and perspectives and that diversity can bring about more high performing teams/organisations.
It’s true that many MBA programs do have a large contingent of consultants and bankers, and a minority of oil and gas professionals like me. However, it’s also important to understand that only a very small number of people from oil and gas apply for an MBA, whereas in consulting and banking, it’s often an expectation.
Interestingly, by the time I was ready to submit my applications, I found myself viewing my unique background as more of an advantage than an impediment. I felt that it offered me a point of difference and an original perspective. I might have struggled to differentiate myself from the large applicant pool if I were applying from a consulting or banking background.
So, don’t worry if you come from a ‘non-traditional’ background like me: consider your background an opportunity to demonstrate what makes you unique and to offer a fresh perspective in your application!
- Myth 2: The admissions committee expects you to have loads of extracurricular activities.
Early on in the application process, I fell into the trap of thinking that I needed to pad my resume with extra-curricular activities without pausing to understand why that seemed to be a prerequisite for admission. After all, each of the other components of the application appeared to have a very specific role in describing who I am and what I have done.
MBA programs do look at an applicant’s extra-curricular activities for evidence of skills, leadership and achievement (similar to what they look for in the applicant’s work experience). But in addition to that, they look for an indication that the applicant will be an active contributor to the student and alumni community, and that the applicant’s personal values align with those of the school.
It is therefore far better to devote your time to a smaller number of extracurricular activities and focus on doing them well (assuming a leadership position, making a significant and lasting impact, or doing something that you are genuinely passionate about), than it is to have a large number of disconnected activities that don’t reveal anything interesting or new about you (and which you won’t be able to discuss comprehensively and passionately during an interview).
So, think carefully about the image of yourself that you want to paint with your extracurricular activities, and remember: it’s about quality over quantity!
- Myth 3: As an applicant, it’s best to pack as much into your application as possible.
Place yourself in the shoes of the admissions committee member who is reviewing your application. He or she might be reviewing 50 applications that day and may spend as little as 15 minutes on yours. It is your mission as an applicant to secure an interview, and you can’t do that without leaving a lasting positive impression on the person who is reviewing your application.
But how can you leave a lasting impression? Well, consider how well you remember the plot of the last Harry Potter novel versus a shopping list you wrote last month. If you are anything like me, you’ll have a far better recollection of the plot of a book that you haven’t read in almost ten years, than the contents of a list that you wrote mere days earlier.
I’ve learned that the best way to stand out and leave a memorable impression is to focus your application on a select few things, and weave them together with a compelling narrative. That way, your application will stick in the reviewer’s mind, giving you a much better chance of securing that all-important interview. Trying to fit too much in will limit your ability to create a clear and captivating narrative and might prejudice your application.
So, rather than listing off a stream of achievements, create an interesting story with your application: you will draw your reviewer in and improve your chances of standing out!
Now that I’ve shared a little bit about my MBA admissions journey, and I’ve busted a few of the assumptions that I once took as gospel, I hope that you now feel inspired to start your own journey!
Dane Renner is an MBA candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business (class of 2019), an experienced chemical engineer, and an LGBTI+ advocate. His stats are off the charts: He racked up a 3.8 GPA in commerce and engineering at the University of Auckland in New Zealand as well as a 770 GMAT (44V/50Q). In addition to Stanford, he was admitted to both Harvard Business School and Chicago Booth School of Business. This is the first of a five-part series by Renner who will chronicle his interview preparation, with recaps of his HBS and GSB interviews, how he decided which school to attend and what he intends to do to prep for his MBA experience.