Before You Apply To Business School…

student_filling_out_her_mba_applicationBusiness schools are unique.

Business school is unlike almost any other graduate or professional program. It isn’t precisely a professional school, like law school or medical school, insofar as it isn’t training students for a discrete vocational path. At the same time, there does seem to be a common thread of professional training – it is called business school, after all.

When someone applies to medical school or law school, admissions offices generally expect the applicant to have certain experiences, whether those be formal pre-medical requirements, or informal pre-law or law-related internships or work

So what are the “pre-business” requirements? The short answer is: there aren’t any. In this article, we will explore the characteristics and experiences that distinguish applicants in the business school admissions process.

You’re confused. Here’s why.

We’ve spoken with hundreds of applicants who are terribly unsure of what business schools are looking for: do they need business experience? What is business experience? Are they looking for people who lack business experience but want to transition to a career in business? What are the qualities and characteristics of the ideal business school applicants? Leadership? Management experience? Having worked for McKinsey?

There is no short answer to this question. Realistically, every business school has a unique set of qualities and characteristics that they look for.

But there’s hope.

 Throughout our careers, we have been fortunate enough to work in the admissions office of several business schools. From these experiences – and from interviews with admissions officers at an array of other top business schools – we have distilled some common threads of emphasis that every business school applicant should consider before writing and submitting their applications.

Here are three key points that every business school applicant should consider.

1. Leadership is crucial. You need to understand what leadership is, and demonstrate it correctly.

You probably already know that for business school admissions, “leadership” is the big buzzword. Schools want to know that during and after b-school, you will be capable of motivating, directing, and maximizing teams of individuals to achieve greater heights.

Leadership, then, is really an amalgam of qualities and characteristics: the ability to take initiative; a collaborative spirit; confidence in your abilities, ideas, and even your flaws; creativity; the ability to motivate others – and the list continues. Many applicants conflate “leadership” with “excellence.”

The two are not the same. Leadership doesn’t mean that you have been at the top of your class, that you held authority over co-workers or teammates, or even that you held a position literally entitled “team leader.”

Moreover, there are many kinds of “leaders” who don’t necessarily possess the kind of “leadership” that business schools are searching for – leading actors, scoreboard leaders, leading ladies, leading causes of death, etc. Do you really believe that being nominated for captain of a college sports team is the result of superior leadership skills?

Here’s the point: leadership cannot be demonstrated by a recitation of promotions or positions held. Leadership is realizing a need and stepping up to fill it. It is not ego, it is thinking of the broader good before self.

Thus, when writing your application, focus on the proof that you are an effective leader, and less on the positions that gave you the opportunity to lead. Don’t write about your meteoric rise up the ranks of the corporate ladder. You’d probably be better off writing about how you mobilized your college fraternity or sorority to accomplish something

Here’s a more common example: if you worked in consulting before applying to b-school, don’t explain all of the high-authority positions you maintained over various projects. Focus instead on how your guidance and supervision over those projects improved the end result. Be specific. Focus on what you learned during your tenure as team leader. What did you do differently than others? What did you do well? What did you do wrong? What lessons did you learn?

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