When investing in stocks, the end goal is simple: maximize return on investment. (Followed by dusting off shoulders, buying yacht, etc.) Of course, depending on factors like age and personal appetite for risk, the amount you invest and the blend of stock types in your portfolio will vary. But the end goal is always the same: optimize for ROI.
With stocks, you invest money; with MBA programs, admissions committees make a similar calculation using available seats. Each seat requires a separate gamble on a particular admit. With stocks, ROI is “earn more money than the amount invested” — for MBA programs, think of ROI as “future success on an admit with uncertain potential.”
What exactly is success? In a nutshell, two things:
- Financial success. Grad makes money; others link it back to the MBA (school stock goes up).
- Reputation boon. Grad does something noteworthy, garners publicity, accolades; others link it back to the MBA (school stock goes up).
Let’s build a business school class portfolio. (Well, the first step, anyway.) At the end, we’ll examine what this exercise teaches us about application strategy.
Before we can choose individuals (“stocks”), we need to develop a sense of what our “asset class categories” need to be; after all, we don’t want a portfolio lopsided in any one area. We’re looking for the highest ROI on candidates capable of either financial or reputation success (or both), with measured risk. In a stock portfolio, categories might include things like bonds, U.S. stocks, foreign stocks, real estate, biotech, pharmaceuticals, energy, etc. What are the equivalent categories according to an MBA admissions committee?
B-School Portfolio Category #1: The ‘Leader’
>>> Sample Stock Pick: Ex-Military Officer
When I was doing case studies back at Harvard Business School, I couldn’t help but notice just how different ideas sounded when issued by classmates who had military backgrounds. Precise. Efficient. Result-oriented. I was drawn to a very particular version of palpable leadership talent. Of course, you don’t need to be military to have it. Engineers, especially those working in oil and gas, often have little to no business skills, but sport a metric ton of raw leadership talent — particularly leadership under pressure. Folks who can package ideas clearly, crisply, and effectively and inspire others at the same time will have more potential impact in the business world than folks who lack these traits. Without proper leadership, business success may be possible, but it’ll never be as consistent, nor as big. Think about it. If you have one seat left to offer up, and your choice is between an amazing worker and an amazing leader, keeping in mind ROI, how much more future yield do you think you’d get out of the leader compared to the worker? (Correct answer: A lot more.)
As an applicant, if you have evidence of next-level communication skills and/or examples of leadership in high-pressure situations in your career, find the biggest spotlight you can and point it directly at THOSE qualities.
B-School Portfolio Category #2: The ‘Guaranteed Job’ Person
>>> Sample Stock Pick: Person With Solid Family Business
Top applicants are drawn to the MBA programs they believe will give their careers a boost. (Otherwise, why bother?) If HBS, Stanford GSB, and Wharton graduated MBAs who weren’t able to find jobs, guess what — it would take a major toll on their reputations. When people talk about “the name” of a school, they’re really talking about “the name’s positive impact on one’s chances of success.” Business schools know this well. It’s why they’re so keen on maintaining a strong hit rate of graduates finding not just employment, but great employment. Applicants pay attention to that stat. Ranking sites (like U.S. News) pay attention to that stat. Given all that, if you’re the adcom, wouldn’t you want to gamble on the applicant who … isn’t a gamble at all? As an applicant, if you can prove that your success is virtually guaranteed — as it would be for a “Family Business Person” — you’re a very tasty prospect for an MBA program.
But again, there are other versions of this that scratch the same itch. If you can make a convincing case that your future success is exactly as inevitable as a family business person, MBA programs will give you the same credit. If, for example, you’re sponsored by your employer, it means you’re a top performer and are basically guaranteed a job after you’re done with your MBA; highlight this “gainfully employed inevitability” aspect in your apps.
B-School Portfolio Category #3: The ‘Business-y Business’ Person
>>> Sample Stock Pick: Banker/Consultant
These are people who come out of the womb wearing power suits. The ones who started reading Barron’s at age 7. The applicant whose favorite TV show is the ticker tape on CNBC. That person. There is no better sample for this than bankers or consultants. Think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey. This breed is incredibly tasty for business schools — why? Three main reasons:
- Heavy recruiting + high-paying jobs = Great for placement stats.
- Looks dynamite on a resume. A top brand name speaks for itself.
- These guys and gals tend to have Business with a capital B in their blood.
These people “get it.” What’s “it,” exactly? The ins and outs of a spreadsheet, the mechanics of teams, corporate initiatives. But it’s more than that. Business-y Business Person has been surrounded by people who are literally PROS at “business.” (S)he is exposed to the way people at the top of their game plot and deliberate in the most highly competitive of business environments. It’s about understanding “the game” and its rules. If the world of business were Game of Thrones, Business-y Business Person would be a Lannister. Folks hailing from finance and consulting benefit from this shorthand.
Now, it’s possible to communicate “getting it” even if you’re outside the banker/consultant realm. Real estate, entrepreneurship, pharma, tech … there are lots of opportunities. The key is to leverage the brands of companies you’ve worked for and leverage the shorthand that suggests you’ve been in the arena and learned from the pros. This can’t be faked! Either the brand strength is there or it isn’t. If you haven’t worked for big-name companies, don’t panic — it just means you’ll need to sell them hard on your company’s might in your application. If you approach it correctly, you can level the playing field a bit and achieve the same exact credit “handed out” to a Goldman or McKinsey alum.
B-School Portfolio Category Pick #4: The ‘Disrupter’
>>> Sample Stock Pick: Entrepreneurs, Startup Folks
In a world where technology is eating the work, disruption is felling companies that have been unrivaled for decades, and change is constant; the Disrupter is one person who lives and thrives on change and challenging the status quo. As more students seek to use the MBA as a platform to jump into entrepreneurship, schools are increasingly investing in and promoting their entrepreneurship programs. Students who have started companies or worked at startups in the past are thus in high demand, as they are seen as big contributors to one of the fastest-growing MBA tracks. They understand the future, have the wisdom to move fast, and can provide valuable mentorship to those other folks who don’t have the same experience but want to risk it all on a big idea.
Oh, and the other thing the Disrupter understands? Failure. It’s the nature of the entrepreneurship game. These people have tons of experience making mistakes — not getting what they want at first, but learning from it all and getting smarter and (presumably) hungrier in the process. This is a riskier play for adcoms, but as long as the safer bets are covered, there is room for “higher-risk, higher-reward” types.
Perhaps you haven’t been involved with a classic startup, but there are other ways to scratch that itch. If you have incredible failure stories that demonstrate your ability to reset, think outside the box, and climb out of a hole, that’s pretty darn close to what the Disrupter has made a living doing. Also, intrapraneurship can be just as tasty. If you can demonstrate that you can move fast and break things in a more traditional company/industry, the admissions committee will recognize this as similarly appealing when compared to people coming from the startup world, and want your talents under its banner.
B-School Portfolio Category Pick #5: The ‘Non-Traditional’ Person
>>> Sample Stock Pick: Nonprofit Administrator
Non-traditional can mean many different things. It might mean you’re approaching a common business thing but you don’t look the part at all. Or you look the part, but you’re attempting to do something utterly fresh and extraordinary. The key is that you’re not a typical person pursuing a typical thing in the typical way. Why would this be interesting to a business school? Haven’t we hammered the opposite point that adcoms are trying to LOWER risk? Wouldn’t “tradition” and “things proven to succeed” be preferable to any alternative? Yes and no. If an MBA class had room for only one person, you can bet non-traditional applicant wouldn’t stand a chance. But remember: It’s not just one person or one bet. It’s a portfolio. A small amount of risk isn’t just tolerable — it’s desirable.
Think of the founders of Warby Parker, who started their business at Wharton. Dave Gilboa was a finance guy who had the initial idea, but he teamed up with Neil Blumenthal, who ran a nonprofit that distributed eyeglasses to the poor. It’s a match made in MBA heaven (and it incidentally has generated a TON of positive press for Wharton). Non-traditional people have a ton to offer those pursuing straighter, narrower paths. And likewise, non-traditional people will benefit from straighter, more traditional MBAs. It’s alchemy. The reactive potential of that mix of backgrounds is higher than one that’s more monochrome.
If you have a perspective that is unique, fresh, interesting, and could therefore benefit others, congratulations, you may score on the Non-Traditional front by theoretically adding value to an entire MBA class. Newsflash: You don’t need a non-traditional background to pull off being a Non-Traditional. Someone with extensive international experience who is very open-minded, flexible, and interesting can qualify. Anyone who’s lived in three or more countries, speaks three or more languages, or works with multicultural teams on a daily basis may have “non-traditional” insights on how to get it done. There are lots of ways to skin this; the important element here is freshness and a mind fertile for innovative ways of manufacturing success.
Let’s review. Since our gambit is to develop MBA classes poised for eventual success upon graduation, the diversified portfolio gives us tasty prospects in steadier realms like consulting, but also gives us hope in less-predictable places like the next Silicon Valley game changer. In this particular portfolio build, we have a healthy mix of safe and risky. One thing’s for sure: This mix of admits will interact with one another, feed off each other, and hoist each other up more profoundly than if they all wore the exact same stripes.
But how is this exercise useful to an MBA applicant? Why look at it this way?
The more you (as an applicant) understand the true needs and goals of the admissions committee of a top MBA program, the sharper your case will be for precisely how YOU are able to help meet them. For starters, understanding that business school admissions is not a contest of “who has achieved the best stuff so far” but rather “who will achieve the best stuff in the future” can be an epic game-changer in terms of how you choose to reveal your particular value proposition in your applications. But also, future success doesn’t just come in one shape and size. And it can be very useful to understand what those shapes and sizes are, and why each is useful in its own way to a business school.
This is why we love the portfolio analogy. When you consider yourself as a part of a whole, it changes the way you assess your value. Ideally, it should sharpen it. If you realize that your real value is on the “guaranteed to be employed” front, don’t spend too much energy trying to sell the adcom on a pet startup idea that’s incredibly risky. Leave that sell to the proven disrupter. If you’re an outsider to the world of business, but you have incredible value to add based on your unusual path, don’t spend too much energy trying to convince us that you were born a businessman or businesswoman; leave that to the Goldman Sachs person.
If you try to articulate your value to a business school without a real understanding of what their overall calculations are, you’re likely to focus on the wrong things in your background and future goals. If you’re a serious MBA applicant, Step 1 is to properly identify (and understand) exactly what makes you valuable to a business school. The portfolio concept can be an incredibly useful tool to tackling that initial step. Once you’ve licked that, the rest is easy.
Jon Frank is the co-founder and CEO of Admissionado, a premier admissions consulting firm. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Jon spent some time fulfilling the post-MBA goals he wrote about in his apps and worked in Real Estate Development. Not too long into that, he realized that he’d much rather team up with his best friend to help people around the world change their lives. And so Admissionado was born. Since 2007, the Admissionado team has reviewed over 30,000 applications and sent students to top programs in the U.S. and around the world. After (proudly) hitting that milestone, Jon’s next goal for 2017 is to eat as many bowls of mac and cheese. Game on.