They say that hindsight is 20/20. In the MBA application world, there’s nothing like a rejection from your dream school to make you go back and dissect what you could have done better and differently in your applications. As MBA admissions consultants, we meet and work with dozens of re-applicants every year who are looking to course-correct their prior year’s mistakes in hopes of securing an acceptance from a top MBA program. Often times, when I dig into a rejected application, there’s no “one thing” that was the obvious reason for the applicant’s ding. Usually, it’s a combination of things that the applicant either didn’t do or didn’t do well. To set you on the right path — and to hopefully help you avoid the heartbreak of rejection — I’ve laid out the common mistakes and pitfalls that I see in rejected applications. Hint: don’t make these!
1. Keeping it strictly professional.
Yes, you’re applying to business school, which is a professional degree and credential. However, your professional accomplishments and goals are only a part of who you are; they aren’t the whole picture. Business schools are interested in getting to know the whole “you,” not only what you’ve done at work but also how you spend your time outside of work, what you’re passionate about, and what experiences, beliefs and values have shaped who you are. MBA programs are in the business of grooming great leaders and leadership potential is best assessed through your behaviors, thought processes, and motivations and less so through the details of your latest consulting project or M&A deal.
I worked with a client two years ago who really struggled with this. He had applied the prior year with a high GMAT score and GPA and interesting work experience in the renewable energy sector but was rejected from his top choice schools. I discovered that his essays were way too focused on discussing trends and current events in his industry to justify the next steps he wanted to take in his career. As we started our work together, I learned that his experience growing up in an immigrant family deeply shaped his entrepreneurial ambitions, so we focused on telling that story the second time around. He’s now a student at Chicago Booth. Our advice: Get personal.
2. Failing to explain the “why.”
In many rejected MBA application essays I read, applicants focus on explaining their goals and highlighting their key professional accomplishments. However, in all those efforts to perfectly articulate the “what”, the “why” often gets lost or overlooked. And that’s a big mistake.
Conveying the “why” behind your actions is critical in your essays — even more so than stating the “what.” Chances are, the adcom has already come across other applicants with a similar profile or goals as you. However, your reasons for pursuing a career switch or for seeking that reach assignment are going to be much more interesting and unique to you. In addition, explaining the “why” in an authentic and simple way will show the adcom that you’re thoughtful and deliberate in your decisions and have the ability to reflect, learn, and grow. These are all desirable qualities in an MBA applicant and leader. It’s harder than it sounds to truly get to the root of the things you do or want to do but that self-reflection will be an important part of writing memorable essays. Our advice: Spend more time explaining the “why.”
3. Trying to say too much in your essays.
Strong MBA applicants have a lot going on in their lives between demanding jobs, extra-curriculars, travels, and other obligations. However, that doesn’t mean that every single thing should be included in your essays. In fact, it’s your job as the applicant to reflect on what stories and experiences are most important to share with the adcom and leave the rest to other areas of your applications. It’s better to write about one or two experiences in-depth rather than five or six stories where you barely scratch the surface.
We often see this mistake show up as an essay that reads like a running list of things the applicant has done, with little connectivity or room to explain why. Similarly, we also see candidates run away with ambition and over-commit in their career goals and reasons for pursuing an MBA. This was the case with our client who wrote her prior year career goals essay about breaking into investment banking, then pivoting to venture capital, and ultimately wanting to start her own renewable energy social enterprise. While these ambitions are admirable, it’s a lot for an adcom to take in, especially when the applicant’s pre-MBA experience was unrelated to any of her goals. This also makes it difficult for an adcom to envision how the applicant would get involved on campus with so many conflicting priorities. Our advice: Be focused and deliberate about what you share and don’t share. Simple is usually best.
4. Insufficient focus on leadership.
HBS conveys this perfectly in their description of what they look for in students: a “habit of leadership.” This means that your application shouldn’t reflect only one or two instances of you stepping up to the plate or taking a leadership role on a project; instead, it should highlight leadership from multiple angles — from undergrad to your career to your extracurriculars and hobbies. This is where you may have to dig deep into your past experiences and consider your actions from multiple angles. Take the re-applicant who founded a nonprofit that promotes upward career mobility for professional women. In her original (rejected) application, she focused her essay on all the busy work she did to get the organization off the ground — from securing event space and corporate partners to recruiting volunteers and participants — but barely mentioned how she managed her team through a challenge early on and how she directed all the moving pieces to further her organization’s mission. As a result, the reader was left wondering exactly what impact she was having. This was a missed opportunity to showcase leadership.
Along the same vein, I often work with re-applicants to shift their mindset from “doing” and “taking orders” to “initiating” and “influencing.” Many times, those same applicants realize that they have more leadership experience than they originally thought once they reflect on their experiences through a different lens. If you’d like more specific guidance, my Vantage Point MBA co-founder, Meredith, explains how to best convey leadership in your MBA applications.
Bottom line, our advice is to highlight leadership in multiple ways and in multiple places throughout your application. This is your time to shine – don’t be shy!
Melody started her career in investment banking and applied to business school to propel her desired industry switch to brand management. Melody wholeheartedly credits her admissions consultant with guiding and mentoring her throughout the application process and helping her gain admission to her top choice programs. Now on the other side of the table, Melody has leveraged what she learned personally and through advising many clients over the years to provide a winning service that can help every MBA applicant develop his or her strongest application.