Five Common Mistakes On MBA Apps

Jyll Saskin graduated from the Harvard Business School

Jyll Saskin graduated from the Harvard Business School

As a graduate of Harvard Business School and a part-time admissions consultant, I’m often asked for advice on putting together great business school applications. People think there’s some kind of secret code word they can utter, or special activity they can mention, that will somehow guarantee admission to b-school.

Unfortunately, despite what countless books and consultants and blogs may sell you, there is no “secret” to getting in. What I can share with you, however, are five common mistakes I see that may ensure you do not get in. I see these mistakes so often that sometimes I think they must be secret – otherwise, more people would avoid them.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll present one mistake to avoid on your business school application each week in August – following my advice may not guarantee you admission, but I can guarantee it will increase your odds of avoiding rejection.

Mistake #1: Being L.M.O. = Like Many Others

I learned this acronym from an admissions officer at Yale, and I think it is applicable no matter what school, or job, you’re applying to. Don’t be L.M.O.; don’t be Like Many Others.

What does that really mean? You need to figure out how to set yourself apart from the thousands of other applicants out there. For some applicants with unique profiles, this is easy. But for most of the consultants, bankers and engineers out there, this is difficult – and mandatory.

Allow me to illustrate with an example. Before I take on a new client, I always ask them to tell me their story – who they are, why they want to go to business school, etc. In the last six months, I have met three different men in their late 20s who grew up in a small village in poverty somewhere in Southeast Asia, became engineers, work for a multinational company and want to go to business school to figure out how to improve the quality of life for people in poverty. All three also had a family member (mother, father, grandmother) who inspired them with his/her work ethic, and drove them to want to make a difference in the world.

Now, I don’t mean to be cynical. These three individuals all have wonderful goals, and I’m sure they will all have a positive impact on the world. Unfortunately, for b-school admissions purposes, they are L.M.O. If I heard these three stories in six months, imagine how many other people are out there with similar profiles and similar goals! What’s the admissions committee to do when they receive applications from so many people that all sound the same? Accept one or two of them. Or none.

The situation isn’t hopeless, though. Call me naïve, but I truly do believe that every person is special in some way. No one is L.M.O. in real life, so there’s no reason to be L.M.O. in your applications; it’s a strange phenomenon that happens when we try to boil our entire being down into a few 250- and 500-word essays. When you’re putting together your application, I strongly encourage you to enlist your friends, family and co-workers and make a list of all the things that are unique about you. Include everything you can think of, even if you think it may not be relevant; you never know what may turn into a great story for your application.

Then, once you have this list, keep it in front of you as you write your essays to encourage you to share your unique experiences. Re-read every paragraph you write and ask yourself, “Would anyone else say this same thing on their application?” If so, re-write until the answer is, “No.”

Jyll Saskin is a graduate of the MBA Class of 2013 at Harvard Business School. She works as a Manager at Scratch, a division of Viacom, in New York. She also helps clients apply to top business school programs

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