Have you slogged long hours at the office to keep the boss happy and meet client deadlines? Pulled all-nighters in college to accumulate credits and maintain your dean’s list standing? Aced your job interviews and secured a spot at an A-list consulting firm, bank or tech giant? Distinguished yourself as a career wunderkind who’s risen to the senor ranks in your 20s? Wrestled with critical reasoning and data sufficiency on the GMAT to net that 730+ score Congratulations. Your commitment and excellence are laudable. Alas, they may not be enough to secure admission in one of the world’s best MBA programs.
Because you’re not the only one who’s been going the extra mile to be the best—especially in competitive fields like finance, tech and consulting. Sure, excellence is an imperative for all top business programs, but admissions committees are also tasked with cultivating a diverse student body.
Consultants, software engineers or bankers comprised nearly 60 percent of all HBS applicants last year. That’s no less than 5,500 candidates from the three most overrepresented MBA profiles in the applicant pool, competing with everyone else to be among the lucky 12 percent of admits. Across the US, Stanford GSB had only 417 spots from a total of 8,116 applicants last year. The fortunate few in the incoming class heralded from 312 organizations, including technology, consulting, investment management, government, military, education, NGOs and other sectors. This means that the school was selecting the best of the best of the best – in very small numbers – among the hundreds of talented applicants from BCG, Google or Goldman.
Schools like Dartmouth Tuck and UC Berkeley Haas that have smaller cohorts are no less of a challenge. How many admits can they credibly offer to McKinsey consultants, no matter how qualified, with a class size of 250 to 285 achievers? (Answer: not very many).
And what about your competitive GMAT score? It sounds encouraging to note that a 700 means that 89 percent of test takers have scored lower than you. But the average GMAT score at the M7 schools is 728, ranging from 717 at Columbia to a remarkable 737 at Stanford. And while applying to a top school with 730 is no guarantee of admission, a score much lower means there are droves of other young professionals with similar profiles for adcom to choose from.
More than 80 percent of candidates applying to Wharton, Stanford, Harvard, Booth, INSEAD and other tier one schools are fully qualified. Yet only a relative few get the opportunity. So will you position yourself to stand out?
Consider it this way: your excellence is your golden ticket. Once you’re in the ring, you win by showing what makes you unique.
My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former admissions directors of tier one MBA programs, will offer their insider experience with applicants at the upcoming CentreCourt MBA Festival. Ahead of the events, Caroline Diarte Edwards (former INSEAD Director of Admissions), Judith Silverman Hodara (former Wharton Director of Admissions) and Cassandra Pittman (former Admissions Officer at LBS and Columbia Business School alumna) offer six tips to stand out when the best isn’t the barometer.
- Identify And Illuminate Your Uniqueness:
Many candidates over-identify with their professional identity – as a banker, consultant or tech wiz. Think about the little pieces of your past or future aspirations that are very different from your peers. We advise you to sit down with a trusted friend, mentor or colleague and discuss what’s brought you to this moment – and this decision to pursue an MBA – in your career and life. This process can help you excavate unexpected and unique elements that can you craft into a compelling story.
- Shape Your Experience:
If you know that an MBA is right for you, you’ll want to start immediately curating your professional experience to distinguish you from peers. And if you’re currently with a consulting firm like BCG, McKinsey or Bain, you may be applying within your initial two years, which gives you a short runway to tailor your experience. Proactively seek opportunities that are out of the ordinary and volunteer to lead projects outside of your scope. Seize any chance for international exposure (projects, conference, trips or work abroad). If you can connect these experiences to your future aspirations, all the better, but the key point here is that anything out of the ordinary on your roster of experiences will go a long way to making your application more memorable to admissions directors.
- Explore Meaningful Extracurriculars:
The typical MBA profile often has an array of co-curriculars during undergrad, from sports to volunteer projects, but as a heavy work load descends on the job, these activities tend to fall by the wayside. Staying committed to at least one or two of your passions outside of work demonstrates that you’re both dynamic and passionate – values highly prized by MBA admissions. Extracurricular activities that appear three months before your MBA deadline won’t be taken seriously. Schools would rather see just one or two long-term interests that give them a fuller picture of what makes you tick. Remember that extracurriculars are another avenue to demonstrate your leadership experience—from mentoring others to leading a fundraising effort.
- Share a Compelling Vision for Your Future:
A clear and compelling career vision can be exciting for an admissions team to read, as it’s their job to shape a diverse cadre of talented individuals who will go on to represent the school in the future. We’re not implying you offer overly far-fetched ambitions of grandeur, but rather that your application should convey your logical, realistic yet ambitious plans that illuminate both a vision and a path to achieving it. Reflect early on about what you want to do after your MBA, and what you’ll be doing to make it possible; and be able to articulate the impact you’ll have on your future peers and community. Consider how to get the admissions team motivated about choosing you versus another candidate. It could be something that motivates you such as launching your own business or leveraging your skills and experience to make a positive impact in your field or industry. Even if it’s a pivot in your career that you’re seeking, create the link between your past and vision for the future so that it doesn’t look plucked from thin air for the purposes of your MBA application. Make it thoughtful and genuine, something from the heart. Your ability to be candid and authentic may be what distinguishes you from another candidate who wasn’t able to convey such clarity of purpose.
- Guide Your Recommenders:
When HBS considers an MBA application, they look first to the resume and recommendations. It’s likely your work resume may look similar to rival applicants, so consider how your recommendations can capture an admissions committee’s attention. Seek out the best recommender possible and then work with them in advance to support them in writing the best possible letter on your behalf. This means ensuring they can clearly identify your outstanding traits, with supporting evidence, and communicate it in a compelling and consistent way. Build a relationship early on with a recommender who is both senior and who knows you very well. Proactively discuss your achievements, strengths and career vision. And don’t hesitate to offer suggestions or remind them of concrete examples to express, as this kind of specificity will greatly help them with their job. The goal is to deliver a personalized description of your top qualities that conveys genuine feeling for your candidacy, and to avoid a formulaic, template letter.
- Stay True To Who You Are:
Be authentic and true to yourself. Business schools don’t expect the superhuman (even if it feels like it). It’s not about speaking eight different languages with experience in 40 countries while saving a rare species from certain extinction. Being able to tell stories that are important to you is about being reflective and self-aware. The goal isn’t to project an image of that ideal profile (because who really knows?) – it’s about capturing attention by conveying, with sincerity, what matters most to you. Strip away all the other things you think you have to be and share who you are as an individual. It’s this feat of both vulnerability and confidence that can make a tremendous difference in your application.
Standing out from your peers is the key to gaining the attention of any top school, but planning ahead is the key to conveying that message of your uniqueness. Reflect on your goals early on, explore other passions outside of work and seize the opportunities to take the path less traveled as they arise. Chances are, you are one of thousands of impressive, qualified candidates competing for a few top spots. Your challenge – and opportunity – is to let much of your professional and academic excellence shine through your academics and resume, and to weave a personal narrative throughout the rest of your application that’s distinctive, powerful and leaves the admissions team eager to know more.
by Matt Symonds, Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, author of “Getting the MBA Admissions Edge”, founder of Kaplan Test Prep in Europe and QS World MBA Tour
Fortuna Admissions 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, Duke and UC Berkeley Haas.