Clients are always asking us what the secret is to get into the fabled HSW trinity (Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB or Wharton). If only it were so simple! While I tell them that every situation is unique and that there’s no single formula, there are certainly some consistent themes when you look at successful candidates.
I recently solicited stories from my Fortuna Admissions colleagues on candidates who’d gained acceptance to at least one of the fabled HSW trinity for this fall. Sifting through these successful candidate profiles, a pattern emerged that affirms our team’s most vigorous advice for MBA hopefuls with their sites on the world’s most competitive business schools.
Here are five key insights for admissions success, demonstrated by HSW admits for the Class of 2021:
- Powerful storytelling along a continuum: A strong and consistent feature was candidates’ ability to connect the dots between what they had done in the past and what they intend to do in the future, while building a genuinely exciting story. These stories sprung from personal experiences, encounters and insights, while giving credibility to that vision through their career path and extracurriculars.
One candidate described how her grandparents’ struggle as rural farmers in Asia sparked a lifelong passion for agriculture, and her interest in finding opportunities for rural agrarians to meaningfully access global markets. Another shared a deeply personal story of the endemic poverty surrounding his youth, and how it inspired a fascination with finance and technology as a force for local economic empowerment. He wove this narrative within the context of a very specific career goal – down to the job title and company – within the context of his dazzling track record with a global finance powerhouse.
Your personal origin story may be rooted in an ah-ha career moment, an encounter with a mentor or an episode in your childhood such as the ones above, and your essay is the place to reveal it with real substance . “You’ll want to capture an admissions reviewer’s attention with your story and authenticity,” says Fortuna’s Sharon Joyce in her article, Writing a Powerful MBA Essay. “The worst thing you can do is play it safe and write something you think admissions wants to hear (yawn). This is a medium to be courageous.” Which leads to the next insight…
- Willingness to get truly personal: The most impressive candidates took the risk to be vulnerable or heartfelt with an intimate story that typified their underlying motivations for pursuing the MBA. My favorite example – an essay which gave me goosebumps – is a third-time re-app with an overrepresented profile. Unlike in previous years, this individual revealed an achingly personal account of the family dynamics that shaped her, which conveyed a level of depth to the positive impact she was advancing in her community and company.
“When you take the risk to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection, and it’s so much more appealing to read,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at Harvard Business School in her article, What Harvard Business School Really Wants. “The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be. Because so few people are. Honesty is too easily pushed aside in a bid to impress, and very few are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. But there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you.”
- Importance of Letters of Recommendation: We saw further evidence that powerful recommendations were a defining factor. The most valuable letters spoke to candidate’s personal and professional contributions with specificity and enthusiasm, offering objective, concrete insights on their candidacy.
One young woman with a Private Equity and investment backing background built a narrative around her passion for increasing gender representation in her industry. She was able to secure an impressive letter of recommendation letter from her boss, who offered compelling, concrete detail of her leadership in women’s networking organizations and her dedication to helping change the balance. It provided valuable insight into how she was perceived by others and affirmed her fit with the program.
Most top schools want to see at least one letter from a direct supervisor – not always realistic, but nonetheless ideal. “The people you select to be your outspoken champions – and the enthusiasm, thoroughness and strength of their recommendations – are an essential element of your overall narrative,” says Fortuna’s Jessica Chung in her article, Secure The Best Letters Of Recommendation. “Make sure that your recommender is someone who will take the time to write a supportive and thorough letter, detailing examples that speak to your leadership, teamwork and presentation skills.”
- Making the most of undergrad, and beyond. Many candidates over-worry about having an undergrad from a prestigious institution. We saw further evidence that admissions committees care most that you made the most of the academic and other opportunities you were offered, regardless of whether you attended a brand name institution or not.
One candidate from a lesser known university got her foot in the door at one of the largest, most prestigious private equity firms, where she was promoted very quickly. Not only was she ambitious, but she was extremely savvy about building the right relationships along the way and making time to mentor others eager to break into PE.
Your undergrad transcript should reflect a track record of curiosity, challenging coursework, solid grades and academic distinction. If your GPA suffered a bit because you were working yourself through school or incubating your first startup, find a way to reveal the bigger picture to the admissions committee for context. They’ll be looking for assurance you can handle the coursework and have what it takes to be successful in the post-grad job search.
- Habit of engagement. This translates, of course, into a habit of leadership and penchant for getting involved beyond your commitment to the office. As a side gig to a demanding career in consulting, one young woman founded a talent management company in a major US city, which was the backbone of a terrific admission essay. Her engagement story stretched back into undergrad, where she mentored underrepresented minorities in creative ventures.
Noteworthy extracurricular involvement is a powerful unique differentiator, especially in overrepresented industries like consulting, tech or finance. If it’s part of your story, mentorship is a very compelling activity to bring forward into your application.
“What you do in your free time (what little you might have of it) is as interesting and important to the admissions committee as what you do at work, because it sends a signal about the kind of student and alum you’ll be,” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, former alumni interviewer at Stanford GSB in her two-part series on Positioning Extracurriculars On Your MBA Application.
It is hard to imagine what may be going through the minds of your reviewers as they read your application file, but having the courage to convey your candidacy in a personal, coherent and compelling way invites them to connect with who you are and what makes you tick. That connection can help them to become powerful advocates for you at decision time.
Judith Silverman Hodara is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Wharton head of Admissions. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.