No matter what business school application round you’re targeting, the single most important thing you can do is apply when your application is the very best reflection of you and your candidacy. Having reviewed thousands of applications during my career in MBA admissions, including as head of Admissions at INSEAD, I’ve read many a terrific application that unraveled when it became clear that the candidate had made a careless mistake.
There are several lamentable errors that are both common and preventable. Whether you’re putting on the polish or planning a strategy for the next application cycle, here are five of the most classic mistakes to avoid in your MBA application, gleaned from my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions.
Five Mistakes to Avoid When You Hit Submit
1. Don’t squander valuable real estate.
Many candidates waste valuable space in the essay, for example, by overstating why the school is so great (regurgitating the website) instead of telling a personal story and conveying what they bring to the table. Another classic essay pitfall is to over-focus on the details of some deal or consulting project, versus lifting up the lessons learned that shaped you into who you are. More broadly, you want to avoid any redundancies between sections – each section represents valuable real estate to tell your story, so be strategic by avoiding duplication.
DO: Review and ask yourself: What are the key messages I want to convey, and do they come through in each element of my application? Are there any areas where I can remove unnecessary duplication?
2. Avoid inconsistency
Related to the point above, every element of the application, taken together, should unify to create a picture of the real you – your accomplishments and ambitions, your potential and your individuality. Sometimes it’s a balancing act between communicating the range of skills and experience you bring to an MBA program and getting a specific message across. If your application doesn’t hang together – from the resume to the recommendations to the essay – or contribute to the same story, that can raise a red flag.
DO: Conduct a careful review of any inconsistencies that might undermine your narrative (between your essays and recommendation letters, for example). In doing so, ensure that the story you tell is unified, coherent and consistent.
3. Don’t write what you think they want to hear.
Too many applicants waste valuable time speculating what admissions officers want to hear and crafting a narrative to fit the ‘perfect profile.’ In reality, the more authentic you are in your application, the more interesting you will be to the admissions committee. Schools pride themselves on really getting to know you as an individual during the admissions process. The admissions committee wants to know who you are, what you care about, and what makes you unique above and beyond your professional excellence and academic triumphs. There’s no “one profile” that’s more admissible than any other.
DO: Build-in substantial time for self-reflection. I believe it’s the single most important action you can take to improve your application. Introspection will inspire greater self-awareness, which, in turn, will help you to come across as mature and sincere in your application.
4. Don’t plan to one-shot the GMAT.
Like putting off that dental work you’re avoiding, it’s all too common to delay taking the GMAT. And the killer mistake that befalls too many applicants is underestimating how long it takes to prepare. “It’s not like the SAT, where some students just show up and slam-dunk a killer score,” says Fortuna’s Joanna Graham in her article on how to prep for the GMAT. “That’s because the GMAT exam looks at the skills you’ve developed over time. Data sufficiency, for example, is a skill set you build with practice, not something that comes intuitively.” As a former director at GMAC, the entity that administers the exam, Graham validates that applicants who scored above 700 report studying at least 80-100 hours for the exam. “But the takeaway isn’t that 700+ score = 80-100 hours, it’s that you must study,” Cautions Joanna. “Preparation, frankly, is imperative.”
DO: Give yourself time to take and potentially retake the exam. The ideal is to start six- to seven-months in advance. Graham recommends anticipating when you’re likely to have the least number of other distractions and blocking out two-to-three solid months of study.
5. Don’t rush an unfinished application.
Like removing a cake from the oven before it’s finished baking, your application will fall flat if you rush it at the end. While it is vital to take the 30,000-foot view of the key messages you’re conveying across your application (see tip 1), you should also thoroughly review it word by word, noting any points to check or revisit. Admissions reviewers have a practiced eye for spotting errors or sloppiness, such as copy-pasting one section of an essay from another application and leaving in the wrong school name. (Alas, it really does happen, and with alarming regularity!). Other common errors include misreporting GMATs or GPAs (where the self-reported data on the application form doesn’t match the transcript) or mixing up your birthdate with the application deadline.
DO: Double-check the details and, better yet, find someone to review everything. It’s invaluable to enlist help from someone who can critique your applications and give you objective, candid feedback.
Finally, put yourself in an admissions reviewer’s shoes: You want to read something that seems ambitious, honest, thought-provoking and even a little entertaining—something that you can’t put down until the end. Present your story in a way that’s both memorable and meticulous, and you’ll set yourself up for submitting a standout application.
Caroline Diarte Edwards is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD director of admissions, marketing and financial aid. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.