Whether or not you celebrate the holidays, you are likely surrounded by some flavor of year-end festivity. This week, I’ve been reflecting about the opportunity to use this end-of-year symbolism to your strategic advantage. The world over, the new year has become an invitation to honest reflection and future resolution. Thinking about where we’ve been and where we want to go can become an important turning point towards achieving the kind of life we want to live. For young professionals, the decision to pursue an MBA can be a powerful pivot point toward a career and future life you imagine for yourself.
Having reviewed thousands of applications during my career in MBA admissions, including as an Admissions Director, I strongly believe one action you can take to dramatically improve your application is to spend a significant amount of time on self-reflection—no matter where you are in the process. Business schools don’t just want to hear about your professional experiences and academic excellence. They want to know who you are and what makes you tick.
From the application essay to the interview phase, you will have to field some pretty tough questions delving into your unique qualities, guiding values, and academic and career ambitions. For example, Stanford asks you to write about, “What matter most to you and why,” and Duke asks “Tell us 25 random things about yourself.” And if you land that interview, you’ll get an array of probing questions such as, “How will this school help you with your career goals,” or “Describe a defining moment in your life.” Answering such questions in a way that will attract an admission officer’s eye requires considerable self-awareness and maturity.
So before dashing off to write your admissions essays, my advice is to take a big step back and think about where you are in your life and career—where you have been and where you are heading. With the hectic pace of life, especially for young fast-track professionals, it can be hard to find the time (and a quiet mind) to pay a lot of attention to such questions. But if you do, you are more likely to end up with a compelling application that’s as smart, authentic, and confident as you are. Here are three top tips to ignite a process of introspection:
- Great insights start with great questions. Start your reflection process by coming up with a smart list of questions. Such as: What are my strengths and weaknesses? What have I learned about myself from times when I’ve excelled and from times I have failed? What do I want from my career—wealth, meaning, work-life balance, international experience, high status, power, interesting colleagues? What have been the defining moments, or turning points, in my life? What are my core values? What am I passionate about, and what experiences or perspectives have shaped this passion? What are my primary reasons for seeking an MBA—what do I need to learn? On the day I retire, what do I want to have achieved in my career? Asking these kinds of questions can trigger insights that will help both clarify and focus how you to present yourself in an MBA application.
- Look beyond your current horizon. Introspection does not come naturally to many of us and it can be a real challenge. You might even feel uncomfortable about thinking too far ahead, and unsure about how big you can dare to dream. Ideally you should be doing some deep reflection at least nine months ahead of the application deadline to give yourself time to ruminate. Insight may not come immediately. But just asking the questions and inviting the answers can tap your inspiration. I suspect you’ll find that answers arrive suddenly and at odd moments—when reading an article, out on a hike, or gazing through an airplane cabin window.
- Ask other people for input. In addition to thinking about all of this on your own, talk to your colleagues, friends, and family and invite their participation in your process. Ask them how they perceive you and what they think about your strengths and weaknesses. How would they describe your unique assets and gifts? What character traits do they think you possess? Ask them what they see you doing in 10 years’ time. You might be surprised by what you hear.
Introspection can be a downright radical act in the digital age, where social media elicits our compulsive self-projection; many of us are more comfortable with curating a persona than reflecting on the big questions. As a result, too many candidates over-think what they imagine admissions officers want to hear. Also, the barrage of constant distractions makes it hard to disconnect and really think deeply. A little distance—and silence—can do wonders. Try going for a long walk without your phone in your pocket, or simply abandon your screens and devices for an interval.
Reflection will trigger greater self-awareness, and this in turn will help you to come across as authentic and mature in your application. In the end, the more genuine and honest you are in your application, the more interesting you will appear to the admissions committee. Imagine that you are an admissions committee member reading your profile. You want to read something that seems real, ambitious, thought-provoking, and even a little entertaining—something that you don’t want to put down until the last line. There is no “one profile” that is more admissible than any other, and schools pride themselves on really getting to you know you as an individual during the admissions process. So consider this New Year’s resolution: Don’t skimp on introspection.