Should Women Apply Differently?

Humility versus arrogance

As our Fortuna colleague Matt Symonds wrote in a Forbes article, some candidates go too far in a bid to secure their place at business school, and replace authenticity and self-confidence with chest-puffing and swagger.

“Humility is the magic word,” asserts Dee Leopold, managing director of admissions at Harvard Business School, “and it is a quality that is not diametrically opposed to confidence. The challenge that applicants face in the written applications is to be honest and to be clear. That should be the guiding principle. By all means they should tell us about their achievements, but be honest and clear.”

Conversely, we would read the files of young women who were overly discrete, and buried their accomplishments or failed to communicate them clearly at all. As an admissions officer reading hundreds of applications every week on a tight deadline, you can miss certain qualities and achievements that are hidden between the lines or that are not front and center.

So we encourage women, and indeed any applicant, to demonstrate confidence without attitude.

As admissions coaches at Fortuna Admissions, we sometimes have discussions with aspiring female MBA candidates who are overly modest about their achievements and express self-doubt about their chances of admission to business school. With our broad perspective on the applicant pool, we are able to give these clients positive feedback on the value they can bring to an MBA program, and hold up a mirror so they can see more clearly the qualities and experience they bring that make them a great candidate for business school.

What many female applicants may need a healthy dose of self-confidence, and sometimes that is hard to summon up by yourself. Find a friend, a mentor, or a coach who believes in you, and what you want to do. Use them as a sounding board to think through some of the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead.  Many candidates benefit from a good conversation with someone who understands who you are, what you want to accomplish, and why business school may be the right next step to help you get there. We understand the internal process that candidates go through to prepare for the application journey–and it is with this mindset that we encourage candidates to find a trusted source to be your champion.

Women applicants need to be less reticent in showcasing their strengths. As Derrick Bolton, dean of admissions at Stanford GSB explains, “Show us the great reasons to admit you. We are on your side.” Admissions directors really go to the committee room wanting to have the kind of file that they can actively support. They are optimists, not pessimists – and the more clearly you make a great case for your admission, the easier it is for the admissions director to choose in your favor.

Communicate the things you might otherwise take for granted.

We would very often read from a male applicant that they were the first person in their family to go to college, or that they self-funded their education, or that they were the “only” individual to secure a specific summer internship. Based on over 20 years we spent as the admissions gatekeepers, women applicants in the same situation often did not trumpet this achievement in the same way. A recent client, a talented young woman from North Africa succeeded in pursuing her undergrad education in the U.S., despite expectations from her family and community that she stay at home and focus on getting married; she has since built a strong career in a very male-dominated sector, but had not initially intended to showcase the originality of the path she had forged in her application.

Academics

One challenge that women more frequently face than men in the MBA admissions process is demonstrating quantitative ability. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, women candidates are more likely than men to have a liberal arts education, and slightly less likely to have positions that require them to have developed strong quant skills on the job. Such candidates should really strive to get a strong quant score on the GMAT, and if this is a challenge, they can also demonstrate their preparedness for business school by taking additional quant courses at a local college or online. Though few business schools will admit to it, they will sometimes cut a little slack on the GMAT to women with outstanding and unusual profiles, but the school still needs to have some assurance from the candidate’s quant track record that she has the ability to excel in a rigorously quantitative program.

Know thyself

Successful applicants to business school demonstrate considerable awareness of who they are through what they have done, their values and the things that matter most to them, and where they want to head both professionally and personally.

Elissa Sangster, executive director at the Forté Foundation comments that women leaders consistently share the importance of insight and self-knowledge. From finding the right initial career opportunity to identifying ways to continuously improve your performance, find yourself a mentor, and learn to ask for and accept honest feedback.

Before you launch into the essays and bio-data forms of the MBA application, and think about suitable recommenders, take the time to reflect about what you are looking for in a business school education and how individual schools match your objectives. Applying to business school is all about the individual, so regardless of gender, make sure you reflect on the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.

Validate your accomplishments and brief your recommenders

Don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder. Research shows time and again that, too often, women wait to be recognized rather than being proactive in seeking out recognition for their accomplishments. Successful women in business find appropriate ways to summarize their achievements and take credit for their performance. So when you approach your boss for a recommendation, don’t be shy to point out your accomplishments and ensure that the recommender provides specific details of what you bring to the table.

Build a network to research the schools

Networks are not the preserve of men. If you don’t already have friends or colleagues who are alumni of the schools you are applying to, proactively reach out to the students and alumni of your target schools, who are typically more than happy to share their perspectives and talk about their experiences. Any school worth its salt will be able to connect you with other women who were once facing the same decisions you are facing. By building these contacts and relationships you will gain real insight into the different institutions, and their ‘fit’ with your own personality and personal goals.

At the end of the day, there are plenty of smart young women professionals with a strong undergrad record, impressive career achievements, and a wealth of extracurriculars to their name. To tackle the gender imbalance on MBA programs, business schools need to continue their efforts to encourage more of these women to apply, and women need to be more confident about the career value of pursuing an MBA, as well as communicating more assertively in their applications the value that they bring to the program.

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Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas. This is the sixth in a series of myth buster articles on admissions.

THE MYTH BUSTER SERIES:

Need A Brand Name Company On Your Resume To Get In?

Can A Sub-700 GMAT Take You Out?

Getting Into B-School When You’re 30

The Ideal Timetable To Do A Business School Application

MBA Recommendations: Does Prestige Matter?