Why ‘Professional Presence’ Is Key To Your MBA Candidacy

Earlier this month, a Fortuna Admissions colleague faced an MBA coaching conundrum. As a seasoned professional with a long tenure in an M7 admissions program, she was well versed in navigating tricky topics and guiding applicants towards their greatest potential as future leaders. But personal positioning extends far beyond words on paper when it comes to the business school application. The reality was that her candidate’s untidy personal grooming was distracting, and she worried that it would be equally distracting to an admissions interviewer. It wasn’t about fitting a type, she insisted, it was about something more.

But what, precisely? It was vexing; anything related to an individual’s appearance is understandably sensitive, and fraught with potential for misunderstanding or unconscious bias.

Shortly thereafter, an article published on Columbia Business School’s website, caught my eye: What Is Professional Presence and How Can I Achieve It? Citing research from leadership expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author Karen Gray defines “presence” as an alchemy of “gravitas, communication, and appearance. Together, these elements form an impression of trustworthiness, competence, and authenticity.”

‘Appearance,’ Gray qualifies, represents how we present ourselves more than how we look, and the nuance matters. “The interior life of a person and their external presence are deeply connected,” Gray writes. “When people pay more conscious attention to this connection and embody presence, they can expose their unique talent to the world in ways that will enhance their happiness and success.” Her article offers an incisive look at how each of the three qualities of “professional presence” can be both understood and mindfully cultivated by aspiring leaders.

Frankly, “professional presence” is essentially what the entire business school application is all about. Whether through in-person, email, or written communication via the application, you are always – with every word and interaction – “presenting” yourself and your professional aura.

And “impression of trustworthiness, competence, and authenticity” is what creates buy-in. That buy-in, in application terms, is the admit! When I sense all of these things, that’s likeability at work. I want to admit candidates who are likable, genuine, and that I trust.

Conversely, when someone addresses me as “hey” or spells my name wrong; presents themselves as a taker rather than a giver (to use Adam Grant’s terminology) i.e., their communication is one-sided; or who comes across as lacking or worse, over-confident skewing toward entitled, I might not trust them or see them as competent.

“Research shows that even with the right qualifications and skills, people often fall short of meeting their career aspirations—unless they also have presence,” concludes Gray. “Presence is letting the most powerful version of yourself shine through.” Which, of course, is the central goal of any great MBA application.

Sometimes the most professional thing you can do – especially when you’re an MBA admissions coach – is to get personal. But next time anyone asks me, I’ll have this research at the ready.


Fortuna-AdmissionsBrittany Maschal is an Expert Coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and a former member of admissions teams at Wharton, Princeton & Johns Hopkins.