Resolved to apply to business school in 2018? There’s one action you can take to dramatically boost your chances of admissions success.
Making a new year’s resolution that’s truly life-changing takes both introspection and courage. If yours is to apply to business school this year, you’ll also need grit and a great strategy to prepare your MBA application. If you start now, you have roughly eight months before the first round 1 deadlines in early September – an ideal runway for laying the kind of groundwork that sets you up for success.
Are you ready?
Having reviewed thousands of applications during my career in business school admissions, including as head of Admissions at INSEAD, I believe that the single most important action you can take is to spend significant time on self-reflection. Business schools don’t just want to hear about your academic excellence and professional triumphs. They want to know who you are, what you care about and what makes you unique.
Throughout your MBA application process – from the essays to the interview phase – you’ll have to face some formidable questions designed to surface your guiding values, unique qualities, and career and academic aspirations. For example, Stanford wants to know, “What matter most to you and why,” while a Kellogg essay asks, “How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?” This season, Berkeley Haas debuted an essay asking you to distill a memorable life experience into a six-word story. Meanwhile, MIT Sloan’s video statement poses the maddeningly open-ended, “introduce yourself to your future classmates.” Answering such questions in a compelling, concise and authentic way that attracts an admission officer’s notice requires considerable self-awareness.
So before sitting down to draft your admissions essays, take a big step back to consider where you are in your career and life – where you’ve been and where you see yourself going in the future. Given the breathless pace of life, especially for fast-track young professionals, it’s hard to find the time (and a quiet mind) to ponder such questions. Also, the barrage of constant distractions makes it hard to disconnect and really think deeply. But you’re much more likely to deliver a powerful and distinctive application if you do.
Here are four steps to initiate a process of outcomes-oriented introspection:
1. Great questions inspire great insights. Begin by creating a smart list of relevant questions, such as: What have been the defining moments, or turning points, in my life? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What are my core values? What have I learned about myself from times when I’ve failed and from times I have excelled? What am I passionate about, and what experiences or perspectives have shaped this passion? What do I want from my career – international experience, wealth, high status, work-life balance, power, meaning, brilliant colleagues? What do I need to learn, and what are my main reasons for seeking an MBA? On the day I retire, what do I want to have accomplished in my career? Asking these types of questions can surface insights that will help both focus and clarify how you present yourself in an MBA application. They will also help you solidify in your own mind why this next part of your life is important.
2. Look past your current horizon. Many of us don’t have a habit of self-reflection, making the idea feel awkward or challenging. You might feel unsure about how big you can dare to dream or uncomfortable thinking too far ahead. Beginning a process of deep reflection at least eight months ahead of application deadlines gives you both ample time to get introspective and to make the ritual part of your routine. Insights may not arrive immediately. But just voicing the questions and inviting the answers can elicit unexpected connections. The answers may appear suddenly or at odd moments – walking to the office, reading an article or gazing through the cabin window of an airplane.
3. Make time to periodically unplug. In our digital age, where social media elicits our compulsive self-projection, introspection can be a downright radical act. Many of us are less comfortable pondering the big questions than curating a persona we hope to live up to. A little silence – and distance – can do wonders for getting grounded. Try going for a long walk without your phone in your pocket, or simply abandon your screens and devices for an interval. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain instituted a practice she calls a “Technology Shabbat,” where she and her family unplug from all their devices from Friday night until Saturday evening. Yours doesn’t have to be an entire day, but it’s this kind of pause that can jog your creativity while simultaneously reducing the stress of being in constant communication with everyone but yourself.
4. Ask others for input. In addition to carving out time to reflect on your own, invite trusted friends, family members and colleagues into your process. How would they describe your unique assets and talents? What are the key character traits they think you possess? You want to get a sense of how others perceive you and what they’d say about your weaknesses and strengths. Ask them what they see you doing in five-to-10 years’ time. I suspect some of answers or insights will surprise you, and give you fodder for your application.
Too many candidates waste valuable time imagining what admissions officers want to hear and crafting a narrative to fit the “perfect profile.” Reflection will inspire greater self-awareness, which, in turn, will help you to come across as mature and sincere in your application. In the end, the more authentic you are in your application, the more interesting you will be to the admissions committee.
Imagine yourself in an admissions reviewer’s shoes: You want to read something that seems thought-provoking, ambitious, real and even a little entertaining—something that you can’t put down until the end. Schools pride themselves on really getting to you know you as an individual during the admissions process, and there’s no “one profile” that’s more admissible than any other. So consider this New Year’s resolution: Don’t skimp on self-reflection.
Caroline is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD. Fortuna Admissions is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.