One of the most popular myths surrounding MBA admissions is the perception that there is a certain profile or formula that leads to a coveted offer. I frequently hear candidates lament over the fact that they don’t come from blue chip firms such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, General Electric, or Procter & Gamble. Others focus on the fact that they attended South Dakota State University and worry that they can’t compete with the Ivy-educated applicants who saturate the admissions pool. As the former assistant director of admissions at the Harvard Business School, I can tell you that this perspective couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that there isn’t a hidden formula that guarantees acceptance.
Certainly, you will find a good number of Ivy-educated candidates from name brand firms in the applicant pool. But you will also find a sizeable number of non-Ivy-educated candidates from firms that do not fall in the “usual suspect” category. The diverse backgrounds of admitted students show that there isn’t a cookie cutter profile to the selection process.
But the process of selecting who gets admitted and who doesn’t is a combination of science (your numbers, from your undergraduate GPA to your GMAT score) and art (your personal branding). Admission staffs evaluate candidates on limited information, a few pages in an application and a 30-minute conversation to decide which candidates are a fit and have the most compelling stories. This is why it is very common to see two applicants with nearly identical backgrounds apply to the same business school but one receives a rejection letter while the other is admitted.
The difference in outcome is usually a result of how each candidate marketed himself or herself. We have all heard of the 750 GMAT, 3.7 GPA, Ivy-educated Wall Street superstar analyst who received interview invitations from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Columbia, only to be rejected by all four schools. Clearly this candidate had the numbers, but having a high GMAT and GPA isn’t enough to guarantee admission. It’s how you position the data and what that information reveals about you that can make or break your application. Successful applicants present a profile that is differentiated from others with similar backgrounds. It is this differentiation that tips the scale on who gets a congratulatory phone call and who doesn’t.
These candidates often have one thing in common: they are memorable. The 20 percent of applicants who get into a top business school understand that the application process is a marketing exercise. These successful candidates have a strong sense of their personal brand and have been effective in communicating their uniqueness to the admissions boards. After many years in the admissions business, I am convinced that the greatest mistake applicants to business schools make is that their applications lack a compelling brand. Most applicants pay way too much attention trying to “game” the system and figure out what the admissions boards want to hear instead of taking a step back to assess their own stories and to present them in an authentic, powerful way.
Developing a personal brand requires significant introspection, something that is a make or break in the application process. If you had about 25 words to describe yourself, what words would you use? Many people refer to this as your one-minute introduction or elevator pitch. I refer to it as your personal brand statement. It’s important because it summarizes who you are in a memorable way. To improve your chanceself of writing a focused application that reinforces the core of your brand, it is important to have a clear personal brand statement.
A personal brand statement is composed of three core parts:
1. Who you are.
2. What you have done.
3. Where you plan to end up.
Here are some examples of successful MBA candidates:
· Gutsy Asian female with a passion for empowering women who plan to transform family business by infusing fair-trade practices.
· Athletic, team-driven leader with passion for investing who plans to leverage international investing experience to build a world-class investment management firm.
· Midwestern energetic female with accelerated cross-functional leadership roles at a media company who plans to run an entertainment company focused on educational programs for children.
· African-American boots trapper with significant leadership track record who plans to create and run a venture capital fund to help revitalize inner-city communities.
Why is all this important? MBA admissions boards read thousands of pages of applications every cycle. They have the challenge of distilling a candidate’s information into a descriptive summary, the equivalent of a personal brand statement. After wading through countless application pages, the board needs to be able to point to a clear “takeaway” of what they believe is distinctive and memorable about you. When candidates start out with a personal brand statement, it serves as a roadmap for their application. They are able to ask themselves whether each story (essay) reinforces their view of that person. So having a brand allows you to maintain a laser-like focus when selecting topics to write about and helps you position your story for success.
Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than ten years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.
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