If you think that your MBA application “brand” or story is going to involve the words “investment banker” or “consultant,” then we’d argue that you might need to go back to the drawing board if you’re gunning for admission to a top MBA program. With every client we work with, “story” or “personal brand” is among the first things we tackle, before even looking at the essay topics. Why? Because it can truly make or break your application.
Why does your personal brand or story matter for your MBA application? Consider the aspect of time: the admissions director who reads your application will likely spend only about 20 minutes reading all two dozen pages of your application materials and information. If you have a clear story that you’re trying to tell throughout the application, then your story or brand should “pop” and be very clear to the reader. It’s kind of like watching Super Bowl commercials — sometimes when you’re done watching a particular commercial you can’t even explain what the company does; and sometimes that commercial cements in your mind the image of a particular company that you barely knew before. Clearly you want to be the latter for the admissions directors who read your application.
The other consideration is the way that admissions directors create an entering class. Some schools have told us that an estimated 75% of applicants are qualified on paper, so the admit/ding decision truly comes down to something beyond scores and experience: it’s about your story and what that implies you will bring to the classroom and network that’s unique and different from others.
So, how do you do this well? In the spirit of practicing what we preach, we will make this concise and boil it down to a three-point framework. We think of an applicant’s story or personal brand as being comprised of the following: where you’ve been, where you want to be, and why an MBA makes sense for you.
- Where you’ve been: This could also mean “what you bring to the table.” You may be inclined to say something like “my experience in investment banking” but consider that not everyone knows what that entails. So, our advice would be to go a step further. If you’re in banking, for example, then clearly you’ve developed strong analytical and finance skills, right? If you’ve developed a lot of insight into a fairly specific and interesting industry like electric cars or even restructuring, then that’s fair to insert as well because it’s clear that you’ll be able to add to the classroom with this type of industry experience.
- Where you want to be: Your goals can truly set you apart if they are thoughtful and reflective of what motivates and interests you. Goals like “leading a Fortune 500 company” are generic and uninteresting. But if you take a step back and consider what you’re passionate about and what you’d truly be proud to be doing after your MBA, that can help the admissions committee to learn more about you and which direction you may pursue in school. Yes, everyone knows that you can, and probably will, change your mind. But again, the point is to demonstrate what your starting point will be, what you’re passionate about, and what interests you. Consider industries, functions, and market trends that you’d like to be a part of as you establish this part of your story.
- Why an MBA makes sense for you: This is a more subtle part of your story. We recommend that you directly state (when possible) what skills and experiences you are seeking in order to accomplish your goals. You must ensure that those skills and experiences are things that you can actually learn in B-school and be able to explain how you will gain them at each school (e.g. through classes, clubs, experiential learning, internships, and classmates). Particularly if you are a younger or older candidate, you want to make sure that’s it’s very clear that an MBA is the right degree for you, right now.
Once you work through these three points, it’s important to make your story or brand simple. As such, we recommend that you be able to state your story in one or two sentences max. You may never write out that sentence, but if you have it in mind (on a post-it note on your laptop perhaps?) then you’ll be able to weave it throughout your application and ensure that it comes through strongly and vividly to the reader. The goal is for the admissions director who reads your application to be able to say “that’s the person who X” later if discussing or recalling your application for evaluation.
As a quick example to bring this home, take Steven, a guy working in the tech sector who wanted to go to Stanford. He knew that he was one of many folks in the Bay Area working in (and passionate about) tech who wanted to go to Stanford. As such, Steven and I iterated on his story over the course of several weeks as he researched the different emerging trends in tech that he was interested in and the types of roles that could potentially be available to him post-MBA. Ultimately his story went something like this, “Over my three years working for a growing technology company, I have become passionate about the augmented reality sector and its potential impact on education. As such, I plan to leverage the strategy and management skills I gain at Stanford paired with the tech experience and finance skills I’ve gained through my work to-date in order to lead a high growth augmented reality platform that has the power to transform how people learn and interact with teachers and classmates.”
You’ll note that Steven’s story is not super catchy — in fact he never wrote those two sentences anywhere in his application. However, nailing down this story was essential for him in terms of ensuring that his messaging was consistent and clear throughout his app. These two sentences explained that he has experience in the tech sector, specifically finance, he is passionate about AR’s potential for enhancing learning/education, and he needs strategy and management skills (things that you clearly get from an MBA). For each aspect of his story, Steven built-out in detail the “what” and the “why” behind them in his application. And ultimately, you guessed it, he’s on his way to Stanford this year. In case you’re wondering, Steven’s GMAT score was actually below Stanford’s average and his work experience and GPA were all fairly standard. His is a case where his story may have actually been the deciding factor because the admissions directors could clearly see what motivated and inspired him as well as what he would bring to the class.
Meredith is the co-founder of Vantage Point MBA Admissions Consulting, a boutique, full-service MBA admissions consulting firm that advises applicants to the top MBA programs in the world. With Vantage Point, Meredith and her co-founder, Melody, have developed a unique 360° approach to the application process, delivering the perspectives that matter from not only experienced consultants and former admissions directors from top 10 MBA programs but also current MBA students and post-MBA professionals at some of the top companies in the world.
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