Everyone has a personal brand, whether or not you consciously manage it (and if you don’t, this is your invitation to start). In essence, your personal brand is what you represent, what you stand for, what people think of you when they see your name. What qualities, strengths, and values does your personal brand summon in the minds of others – particularly those in a position to evaluate your candidacy for the MBA program of your dreams?
The process of building a personal brand is both vitally important and a formidable challenge. Doing so in a way that’s authentic, powerful and coherent requires considered self-reflection and self-awareness, and that’s precisely what the MBA admissions process seeks to inspire and extract.
When the admissions committee sits down to review or discuss your business school application, you want yours to be memorable (and for all the right reasons). That’s why personal brand building is something my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I are keenly tuned into at the outset of any MBA application process.
If you don’t have a clear and coherent personal brand, don’t panic. This is the opportunity to get introspective and intentional about both the message and the medium. Sure, LinkedIn is important, but social media are just the low-hanging fruit. Your brand permeates every touchpoint you can think of, and perceptions of your brand need to be managed through all facets of your life, particularly interactions beyond the digital. In the words of my Fortuna colleague Brittany Maschal in her article on cultivating professional presence: “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.”
As a Wharton grad, my passion for brand-building and storytelling led me to brand development at the Walt Disney Company, which is widely lauded for delivering on its brand with exacting commitment and clarity of purpose. And, in many ways, the ingredients for the most successful corporations and for individuals is the same. Those who take the time to habitually reflect on their motivations, core values, guiding purpose, unique gifts and desired future reality – in a way that’s both honest and sincere – will be best poised to move people and industries.
When I’m working with a candidate at the beginning of the process and who hasn’t yet figured this out, I’ll challenge them to tap into their authentic self through a series of probing questions, such as, what motivates you? If money weren’t an issue, what types of things would you be doing with your life? What events or incidents have influenced you, and how have they shaped your decisions? The more you examine who you are and what makes you tick, the better equipped you are to define – and deliver on – your personal brand.
It’s also valuable to seek feedback from others. I recommend talking to three people you’ve worked with, as well as a few trusted individuals in your personal life. Ask questions such as, what qualities come to mind when they think of you? What makes you unique, what do you care about? What do you stand for and what do they perceive matters most to you? What you learn may surprise you, and it can be equal parts validating and instructive. Discerning any difference between how others perceive you and how you think of yourself informs your ability to be authentic.
The question of authenticity is mission critical. In my years in MBA admissions, I’ve seen many candidates straining to fit a mold or project an image of the ‘ideal candidate.’ It’s a major mistake to style yourself to what you think a school’s looking for, and because this inherently disrupts your ability to be authentic, it’s bound to backfire. Beyond introspection, authenticity takes courage and commitment. Admissions committees want to see that you possess the humility and honesty to delve into that authentic self and the confidence to let it shine. And when you do, you stand to come across much more powerfully than someone who’s posturing or pandering to your audience. (The same goes for company brands hoping to win over consumers.)
THE ROLE OF STORYTELLING IN BRAND-BUILDING FOR YOUR MBA APPLICATION.
It’s really incumbent upon you as the applicant to be thorough and thoughtful about what makes you unique, because all of us have a story to share. You can take two people from the same undergrad, with near identical work experience, job title, and academic track record, and there will inevitably be nuances that help distinguish them as individuals. And the link to cultivating a powerful brand is powerful storytelling.
There’s power in connecting the dots through storytelling in a way that brings your brand to life. A great story can ground abstract ideas from the conceptual and make it relatable. A compelling story will inspire trust, connection – even familiarity – the sort that makes an admissions reviewer want to meet you in person and learn more.
As a means of communication, stories can reflect your communication style, which brings us back to conveying your personal brand. Your beliefs, values, decision-making style – can be best shared through story. There will be stories you want to tell more overtly and others you may want to imbue more subtly through the course of your narrative. In any great storytelling, it’s the things you omit that can be as compelling as what you choose to write.
Keep in mind: In a sea of excellence, it’s not the facts and figures of your impressive resume that will stand out for a bleary-eyed admissions reader in a day of breathless, caffeine-fueled application-review – it’s a memorable story. Play with possibilities on the page in terms of the stories that resonate most, for you, and for your potential reader. Do this well, and your story can be the vehicle that drives your application to the top of the pile.
Fortuna Admissions coach Curtis Johnson is a journalist, brand builder and Wharton MBA alum. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.