The MBA Summit: How To Get Into A Top Business School

Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Byrne: And those round one deadlines will come before you know it.

Bernstein: Exactly. Before we know it too.

Byrne: That’s really true. Okay Bruce, what do you think would be the hardest part of it, and how would you handle that?

Bruce DelMonico of Yale SOM

Bruce DelMonico: Great question. I think we try to make the process as accessible as possible. I know it’s inherently challenging, just because of things like standardized tests. Sometimes, people find the essay difficult. I think probably the toughest part, because people are usually applying to more than one school, is managing multiple processes at the same time. That’s why I think advance planning can go a long way. I know a lot of you all probably live in spreadsheets. In thinking about the deadlines, I would tend to try to reverse engineer things. When do you want to start the program? Then, when do you have to apply to start the program? And finally, what steps do you need to do to get the applications in?

Think about the various deadlines and kind of back it all out to know stepwise how you need to approach it. The good thing is there are a lot of similar elements that we all accept. I think that hopefully makes the whole process a little bit more palatable.

Byrne: Now each of you have an incredible number of people who apply to your programs, far more than you have seats available. How do you differentiate one applicant from another?

Kwon: I view them all as different and unique, and if you’re telling your own story, by its very nature you’re going to be very unique. I also think about it in terms of my kids. I have two children. If they were to ask me, “Who do you love more?,” I couldn’t answer that question. They’re different. That’s how I think of applicants. We love all of you, but you’re all quite different, and we want to know what each person’s story is. So we do take the time to look at more than just your GPA and your GMAT and your resume. We’re reading your essays. We’re getting to know you one on one. We’re getting to know you through our team exercise. We want to know each candidate as a whole person so we can picture what they will be like when they’re here. We’re really trying to do that without knowing everything about you, and so we create essay questions and interview questions to get that from you, so we understand you.

Byrne: And Bruce, you’re using video, too.

DelMonico: We do use video. I find it very helpful, and we have used it for a number of years. It gives us a little bit more of a three-dimensional picture, literally inside the candidate. We find that it gives us something beyond just what’s on the written page. So we’ve found it helpful. We’ve continued with it.

Byrne: And Morgan, I imagine that in many cases, the differences between one candidate and another can be quite subtle, so how do you make that distinction between one or another?

Bernstein: It’s very true, but I think it comes back to what Soojin was saying, which is it’s really about trying to get to know the unique story of every applicant. As admissions officers, we try and craft essay questions, and we structure our application, such that we can get to some of those subtle differences, because if it was really just about taking the inputs, plugging it into a formula and coming out with a decision, well, none of us would have jobs. So it really is far more of an art than a science, and anything an applicant can do to convey their personal story, within reason and good judgment, is important. What makes them unique? What obstacles have they overcome? What accomplishments do they have? What’s their special story? That’s what’s going to stick with us.

As I reflect back on some of the applications that really stand out, it’s the candidates who are willing to take a risk in their application, in the sense that they have the courage to show their authentic self. There’s a little bit of vulnerability that comes through, and that is different in every candidate. But those are some of the things, that personal element, that can make a difference. If we don’t have an opportunity to meet you in person, and let’s be realistic, we’re not going to get to meet every single applicant in person or remember every single applicant, but when you’re reviewing them on paper, those are some of the subtle things that will make them stand out.

Byrne: You know, a lot of candidates believe they need to package themselves to get accepted. From what you just said, I gather that’s not really a good strategy.

Bernstein: I would agree, and I think most admissions officers would agree for sure. I think the best strategy is to come in and be true to who you are. You know, whatever your background is, whatever your passions are, whether it’s banking or consulting or social impact or technology. If that’s your story, tell us that story. I think the worst thing people try and do is fit a square peg into a round hole. At the other end, when the admissions officers are reading your application, we can tell that that’s not who you really are. And I think that as a candidate, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re not presenting your authentic self, because we’re looking for fit. And so if you don’t actually fit with our programs, if you’re not displaying that in the application process, then at the end of the day it might not be the right match.

DelMonico: Can I expand on that a bit, because I think that’s an incredibly important point, something people don’t really appreciate fully. Because I think one of the biggest mistakes applicants make is to tell us what they think we want to hear, as opposed to what they want to say, and I think that’s really problematic. Be yourself may sound like a a cliché and a platitude, but I think that’s important.

Before I joined Yale, I was a lawyer. I was a litigator.

Byrne: You have my sympathy.

DelMonico: Yeah, exactly but a recovering one. But when you’re preparing a witness for a deposition or trial, the first thing you do is tell them is to tell the truth. And there are two reasons why you do that. The first is because it’s the right thing to do, and the second is because it’s much easier to remember the truth. Once you start to shade yourself one way or the other, you’re going to get tripped up, you’re going to get turned around, and it’s going to come out. It’s not about truth versus not truth with applicants, but once you start to say okay, this is a finance school, so I’m going to be the finance person here or this is the marketing school, so I’m going to be the marketing person, you are hurting yourself. We see your whole application. We see not just what you’re telling us, but what you’ve done, what other people are saying, and if those don’t line up, if they ring hollow, we will see that.

And if you think about it from a game theory perspective, the purpose of presenting yourself to us is to try and differentiate yourself, to present your authentic self, as Morgan said. If you are trying to be the finance person for the finance school and lots of other people are doing that as well, you’re just going to look like everybody else. And so it’s actually achieving the opposite effect of what you’re looking for. And we all are looking for such diverse candidates, we’re not looking for one thing. So being true to yourself, I think, is probably the most important piece of advice I can give.

Byrne: That’s great advice, Bruce. Each of you are also crafting a class, and many decisions are based on that fact. In other words, you may have a certain number of consultants or a certain number of bankers, a certain number of non-traditional students, of internationals versus domestics, and that plays into the decision-making as well. So what I wanted to ask you is, for people who fall in that so-called overrepresented applicant pool, and the quintessential example of that is probably the Indian engineer, how does that impact one’s chances of getting in?

Kwon: I would guess your chances being equal at the start of it. Everyone is on a level playing field, because we’re going to read every single application. We’re going to understand where you were, how you got to where you are, and where you want to go afterwards. And that path is going to be different for every applicant. It’s that path that is unique, as opposed to “I was this, and I want to be that.” So it’s not two points in time that we’re considering, it’s the entire person.


Candid perspectives from MBA students, admission officials, and employers





About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.