In reviewing your application, you want the MBA admissions committee to think, ‘Ah, they really understand the culture of our school.’
What does it take to tailor your application to a specific business school? Once you’ve done the hard work of reflecting on where you’ve been, where you want to go and how an MBA is going to get you there, it’s tempting to plug your winning story into play for each program on your list. I mean, if it’s good enough for Chicago Booth, it’ll be equally compelling for Columbia or LBS, right? Now that you’ve got your story straight, can’t you just cut and paste?
Alas, no. It really, really doesn’t work that way.
During my eight years in admissions and recruitment at London Business School, I read too many applications from candidates who’d done just that – either the essay was an obvious cut-and-paste from another application, or they weren’t really answering the question. What’s worse, many of my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions have read applications of careless candidates who hadn’t mastered find and replace, professing their love of Yale SOM to the admissions committee of Kellogg. Ouch.
What’s critical in applying is making each school believe that they’re your number one choice. Of course, schools know that you’re applying to other programs – that’s the sensible thing to do and they expect that. But to win their acceptance, you’ll need to show the love. That means going the extra mile to demonstrate you understand their unique values and culture, and that you’ve given serious consideration both to what you’ll gain from and how you’ll contribute to their community.
The last thing you want to do is undermine your incredibly hard work by submitting an MBA application that reads as generic. So, make the effort now to customize each application to your target schools.
Here are my top eight tips on how to tailor your MBA application:
1: Do your research.
Research each school to understand what makes them distinct. Go beyond what’s explicitly stated on the website and probe for the heart of their values and differentiators. This level of detail and awareness can and should come through in your application. Cite specifics that are relevant to your career goals and vision – electives, specializations, clubs and the plethora of opportunities that will be available to you. As there are many different elements you can mention for every school, ensure you pick ones that are genuinely relevant to your future, and to what you personally want to get out of the experience.
2: Make meaningful connections.
Make an effort to build relationships within the community at each of your target schools. Explore your existing network to try and connect to students and alumni, or reach out to the admissions team to ask to be put in touch with someone who has a similar background to you. Ask thoughtful questions that help you understand what the school is all about and what it’s looking for in an MBA candidate. It really shows when someone has had a few conversations with students and alumni, and you can even name drop within the application.
3: Reference specific conversations, insights and events.
In the application, take the opportunity to reference that you had great conversations with ‘this student from this year,’ talking about all the wonderful club opportunities, for example, and what that led to in the context of your interests and aspirations. While each application is different, and every school has its own process, there are always clever ways to imply how much research you’ve done. Not just by writing your essays with depth and detail, but literally mentioning ‘I’ve been to this or that event, or I’ve met this member of staff.’ Schools will take note of the amount of effort you’ve put in.
It’s effective from the staff perspective, too; seeing your name and recalling, ‘ah yes I remember that person, I met them in San Francisco at an MBA event,’ helps connect the dots. It was always gratifying for me to hear that someone enjoyed our conversation and found it valuable enough to mention in their application.
4: Make the effort to visit (if at all possible).
Nothing will give you a stronger sense of a school’s personality than a campus visit. It’s also where you can have more opportunistic conversations and interactions with students, faculty and admissions staff. Sit in on a class, attend an information session – seize any opportunity to get a sense of the overall vibe.
Admissions teams do understand that it’s not always possible to visit, especially if you’re an international student. In this case, however, it would become even more important to make those student and alumni connections, and you should also look for ways to have a virtual experience through online presentations, live chats or webinars. Be sure to also follow all their social media activities.
5: Build smart connections and look for ways to contribute early.
If you’ve got your career goals and your overarching vision figured out, and you know where you want to go and how this school is going to help you get there, you’re poised to make connections that are going to reinforce this journey. For example, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, you’ll want to get in touch with the entrepreneurship club. Perhaps you discover the head of the club is running an event, and maybe you could help them with some contacts. It’s not too early to start getting involved, even before you’ve joined the business school, to demonstrate that you really have a passion for an issue, and that you’re the kind of person who will make positive contributions.
6: Become acquainted with faculty.
For a deeper dive into the areas of specialization and expertise that your business schools offer, acquaint yourself with the faculty. Especially at top schools, many professors are publishing ground-breaking research and making headlines within their field of study. Try to follow the research of an individual faculty member, a book they’ve written and/or opinions they’re advancing on the issues. This is yet another way to go beyond those course lists on the website.
7: Solicit input from trusted connections.
If you’ve cultivated trusted student or alumni connections, ask if they’d be willing to read your essays and give you some constructive feedback. It will be invaluable given their first-hand understanding of the school’s culture and what makes it unique. Invite their frank feedback, so they might say to you, ‘no, this essay isn’t coming across as truly Columbia,’ (for example).
8: Brief your recommenders.
Your recommenders are an important element of your strategic positioning. Sit down with your recommenders and talk to them about what your goals are, what your vision is, and how this school in particular is going to help you get there. This sets them up for successfully including specific snippets that might resonate with your school in their recommendation.
At LBS, like the other top schools, we had no shortage of high GPAs, strong GMAT scores, and impressive profiles with fast-track professional performances. This means your ability to convey your sincere and ardent commitment to each target school is part of your unique differentiator. You want the admissions committee member to feel, ‘wow, this applicant really gets us. Let’s invite them for interview.’
Amy Hugo is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools. She is formerly senior manager of degree programs at the London Business School.