MBA admissions officers will typically sidestep any suggestion that male and female applicants are viewed any differently. Not least because it’s a subject fraught with stereotyping, trailing a legacy of discrimination and inequity. But with decades of experience in business school admissions evaluating thousands of candidates, Judith and I have observed some themes still worth exploring. We’re telling it like it is – from our perspective as women – and not necessarily how it should be. That said, we have more reason than ever to be hopeful about where the trend is going.
For one, six of the M7 – the most elite US business schools – are reporting female enrollment above 40% (Columbia being the only exception at 37%). And nearly 47% of individuals receiving graduate business degrees in the US are women, according to most recent data from the NCES, representing a 15.5% rise between 2008-9 and 2013-14. Last year GMAC reported the highest female-to-male ratio in the history of the GMAT exam, with women comprising 44.4% of test takers in 2015. And some 60% of women who sat for the GMAT in 2015 intended to pursue an MBA.
The long game, of course, is more female representation in the C-suite as well as, frankly, MBA teaching faculty (where the percentage of women faculty at top programs hovers between 20-25% range). While efforts to encourage more women to consider the MBA have come a long way in recent years, the question lingers about what it’s going to take to reach parity—from the classroom to the boardroom.
So what did we observe when we ran the admissions offices at Wharton and INSEAD? Without falling into clumsy stereotypes, we often perceived a difference in how men and women told their personal stories. We’ve summarized a few reflections and insights for women who want to secure their place at a top business school:
- Demonstrate confidence, without attitude. While this advice goes for everyone, we’ve observed that women are more likely to be overly modest, reticent to showcase their strengths or cast self-doubt on their achievements. Your application is the place to convey your unique story with honesty and clarity—don’t expect admissions officers to read between the lines. Find a mentor, coach or friend who believes in you to hold up the mirror and help you articulate the value you’ll bring to an MBA program.
2. Share the stories you may take for granted. In our more than 20 years as admissions gatekeepers, we very often read about male applicants who were the first in their family to go to college or that they worked their way through school to pay tuition. Women candidates in the same situation, however, didn’t claim or trumpet their achievements in the same way. For many women, the specter of being “first” or overcoming adversity feels less unique or special (another by product, perhaps, of systemic gender oppression). In any case, it’s a worthy exercise to consider what “first” and “only” you can spotlight in the path that brought you to the doorstep of an MBA.
3. Demonstrate your quant ability. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, women applicants are more likely to have a liberal arts education and slightly less likely to have positions demanding strong quant skills on the job. More than their male counterparts, women face the challenge on proving strong quantitative ability in the MBA admissions process. Beyond striving for a strong quant score on the GMAT, taking additional course in statistics, finance or accounting can help demonstrate your skills. Though few will admit to it, business schools will sometimes cut a little slack on the GMAT to women with exceptional and unique profiles. That said, any MBA program is looking for assurance you can handle the quant-heavy coursework.
4. Be your own best champion. Time and again, research cites that women are more inclined to wait for recognition than to proactively seek it for their accomplishments. Learning to appropriately summarize your performance and take credit for achievements is an important business skill to hone. The recommendation letter is a great place to practice: don’t hesitate to point out your accomplishments with specific details to your recommenders. You’ll be setting them up to be effective advocates for what you bring to the table, but you should be your own best champion.
At the end of the day, there are plenty of impressive young women with a strong undergrad record, laudable career achievements, and a bevy of extracurriculars to their name. Take control of your story, as you’re the one best positioned to tell it. As Derrick Bolton, former dean of admissions at Stanford GSB explains, “Show us the great reasons to admit you. We are on your side.”
Fortuna is composed of former Admissions Directors and business school insiders at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Columbia, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Duke Fuqua, and Johnson Cornell.