MBA Resume Best Practices & Pitfalls (part 2)

MBA Resume Best Practices: What Every Candidate Should Know

This second installment in a two-part series on Crafting a Standout Resume for the MBA Application focuses on essential dos and don’ts every candidate should know.

Four critical dos and don’ts that every candidate should know

Most candidates are too modest on their resume – they don’t want to “brag.” But taking the time to dig deep, then succinctly express how much you contribute professionally is crucial for your MBA resume. It’s also important to tailor your resume to your new target audience – the MBA admissions committee at your top schools – which, as underscored in part one of this two-part series, is distinctly different than potential employers.

Too often, business school candidates reduce a resume to an uninspiring roster of job titles, dates, qualifications and places – what you did, rather than why you are a rock star. The resume should be a concise overview of what you’ve accomplished that sets the stage for the rest your application, and – hopefully – for your future MBA admissions interview. So how can you best convey your key qualities and prioritize the attributes and experience that speak to your future potential?

From my experience as a career coach at Wharton and in my current role at Fortuna Admissions, I’ve narrowed down four best practices, as well as four deathly pitfalls, that every applicant needs to know.

DOS: Four Best Practices for the MBA Resume

#1: Take the time to invest in your personal interests section.

Your MBA resume should highlight personal achievements, volunteer work and extracurriculars more than your standard resume. Know that almost every candidate will list something like “travel, photography, cooking, running” in this section, but that is a wasted opportunity to be memorable to your reader or interviewer. How can you distinguish yourself, and show that you work hard and achieve goals outside of the office or classroom? Even one stellar achievement is better than a generic list of hobbies. A more compelling reframe of interests, for example, is:

  • Travel to 23 countries on three continents; Ran the New York Marathon (2015); Volunteer twice a month making meals at local soup kitchen; Mentor a seven year old weekly through Big Sisters of New York
#2. Include key differentiators.

This includes specifics around management of people, global experience (even if it’s just personal travel), leadership positions based on selectivity and academic honors or awards. Be sure to showcase your career progression by listing all the titles you’ve held within an organization so an admissions reader can clearly see when you were promoted. A few examples:

  • Career Progression: “Promoted in 2015 after receiving top ranking of ‘5’ in all performance reviews. One of only two consultants promoted ahead of average timeline.”
  • Management of people: “Manage two interns and one associate.”
  • Global experience: “Travel to 23 countries on three continents”
  • Elected or selective leadership positions: “Elected Vice President of Marketing for Science Club; Community Relations Director, Phi Beta Pie Fraternity”
  • Academic honors and awards: “Dean’s List all semesters, GPA 3.75, GMAT: 720”
#3. Be Mindful of formatting.

This isn’t a medium where creativity is rewarded, so avoid distracting graphics, pictures and colors. Make your resume easy on the eye by choosing a friendly, size-appropriate font, and format your document with enough white space to be scannable. Your goal is clear, concise and compelling, so include no more than three to five bullet points under each position. Business schools have a distinct preference for the one page resume. A few tips:

  • Header should include email and phone number; no photo necessary
  • Body content font at least 10-point (though 11 or 12 is ideal)
  • 14-point is plenty big enough for your name
  • Avoid unnecessary duplication with your biographical data form or other application elements
#4. Keep your language simple and jargon-free.

Use concise phrasing and avoid overly complex or long-winded sentences. Look for using language similar to that used by the school – the admissions reader will make the connection and be more likely to see you as a “fit” for the program. Having reviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of MBA resumes, admissions knows exactly what an Associate, Consultant or Analyst does on the job, so those types of titles don’t need explanation. In addition:

  • Avoid “responsible for,” “responsibilities include” or “tasked with.” Instead, use action verbs for every bullet. If something is your general responsibility, it’s a job description and can be deleted.
  • Also avoid “etc.,” “e.g.” or “various” – don’t make the reader guess about specifics.
  • Avoid tiresome industry jargon, technical terms, insider acronyms or management speak.

DON’TS: Four things that can sink you.

#1. Violating Confidentiality.

Treat your resume as a public document. This means deal values, financial numbers, negativity about your employer – all are assumed to be public if you cite it in your resume. But just because you’ve signed an NDA or worked on confidential deals doesn’t mean you can’t demonstrate your value with objective evidence, you just have to think creatively.
• Trick: Use approximations, percentages, phrases like “multi-million,” aggregate numbers (such as “deals totaling $50M”) to quantify, even when restricted by confidentiality.

#2. Validity.

Do NOT exaggerate or lie. Your ethics and integrity should be of utmost importance – these are qualities that matter to business schools. If you get caught in a stretch of the truth, not only will you not be admitted but you will likely be fired from your current job. Just don’t do it.
• Trick: Assume your current and former bosses, the person who sits next to you at work, your university professors, and your parents will all read your resume.

#3. Gaps in your timeline.

If you have periods of unemployment, sickness, family emergency, or jobs that you just aren’t proud of, these gaps in your timeline will be noticed. It’s not necessarily a problem, but be prepared to address the gaps in a sincere and straightforward way. Respect the intelligence of your audience by not trying to sidestep or conceal the situation.
Trick: Provide an explanation, not an excuse. It’s best to be upfront about anything that an admissions officer would question. Use positive language (the time off gave me a chance to volunteer more and learn Spanish while I looked for a better fit) rather than negative (my company laid me off because they didn’t appreciate me) and get to the next topic as quickly as you can.

#4. Careless Errors.

It’s painful to review an impressive resume that’s undermined by sloppy mistakes. It tells the reader you don’t care enough about them to pay attention to the details. Proofread your resume. Proofread it again. Then, proofread again.
• Trick: Ask someone who has not seen your resume before to proofread for you. Sometimes when you look at a document too long you miss things. Consider using a good old fashioned printer and making a paper copy to proofread as well.

For more MBA resume tips, including before and after examples, read the first in this two-part series, “Crafting a Stand-out Resume for the MBA Application.”


Jody Keating is an expert coach at admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions with experience as a career coach in MBA programs at Wharton and Georgetown. She has more than 15 years of experience in resume development and reviews more than 100 resumes a year for Fortuna.