It’s impossible to predict how the global pandemic will reshape lives, livelihoods and institutions in the coming months and years, from Wuhan to Washington. What’s evident is that we are bracing for a severe recession, which is generating a surge in interest among college seniors and young professionals eager to take refuge at business school. It’s a sound strategy – ride out the initial impact of the Covid-19 crisis while gaining invaluable skills that will better position you when the job market rebounds.
So are we heading for one of the most competitive admissions cycles on record? With international admits for the Fall 2020 potentially struggling with visa applications, and others hesitating to start their MBA if classes are still being delivered online with the associated curtailing of student activities and networking events, any deferrals will account for places in the following year’s intake. And economic downturns have traditionally led to a sharp rise in the number of applicants.
If you are in one of the three over-represented MBA applicant pools – candidates from finance, tech and consulting – how do you approach your MBA application strategy when the competition is about to become even more intense?
It’s the secret of admissions success when you are trying to stand out among such a large group of high achieving wunderkinds: Your excellence is only your ticket to enter. Once you’re in the game, you win by showing your difference – the unique qualities and distinctions that set you apart from peers with identical job titles and track record of unwavering exceptionalism.
Having a common profile means you need to approach your application differently to uncover those distinctly personal qualities if you want to catch the attention of the MBA Admissions Committee.
It also requires a sector-specific strategy. According to Fortuna’s Deep Dive Analysis Comparing Class of 2020 Admits to Stanford GSB & HBS, the most detailed analysis ever published about the profiles accepted to the MBA classrooms of Palo Alto and Boston, finance candidates who launched their post-college career at a big bank will be more interesting to the admissions committee if they then gain additional experience before applying (whether stints in Private Equity or Venture Capital, diving into an innovative startup, or even switching to a foundation or NGO). Consultants will be more compelling if they credibly demonstrate passion for a cause beyond client work that further highlights their leadership potential, while engineers must convey their transferable skills and present a coherent career trajectory given their sector’s higher degree of job mobility.
My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former Admissions Directors, Associate Deans and Associate Directors of the world’s top 15 MBA programs, have consolidated their essential advice for applicants in the three most over-populated pools: candidates from Consulting, Finance, and Tech / Engineering. In addition to our deep dive research, we’re drawing upon our decades of insider industry expertise and MBA coaching experience to help you stand out this year and secure a place at the school of your dreams. Read on for our industry-specific insights in three common categories:
TOP TIPS FOR CONSULTANTS
1. Reveal greater dimension to your candidacy.
Don’t let your identity be defined only by your job. Most consultants feel it’s who they are, a common condition among high achieving rock stars. Take the opportunity of applying to b- school to step back from a breakneck 80+ hours-a-week schedule to understand what really drives and motivates you, and where you wish to have the most impact. Reflect on what’s brought you to this moment in your career and your life – and this decision to pursue an MBA. Excavate unexpected and unique elements from your past or future aspirations that can you craft into a compelling story and offer as evidence of your leadership potential. Being able to tell stories that are important to you is about being reflective and self-aware. 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.
2. Explore meaningful extracurriculars.
In the Fortuna Deep Dive Analysis comparing who really gets in (see Forbes feature summaries on HBS and Stanford GSB), we discovered that those from MBB and the Big Four who were admitted to the world’s most elite programs all had a level of community engagement that spoke to a sense of higher purpose, and a desire to contribute to society. Their extracurricular pursuits reinforced patterns of leadership and commitment that was both distinctive and compelling – whether it was part of a nonprofit board, fundraising effort, sports team or Bollywood dance club. While outside activities can fall by the wayside in the face of heavy workloads, it’s vital to stay involved in at least one or two of your commitments outside of work. This demonstrates that you’re both dynamic and passionate – values highly prized by MBA admissions. Also, know that extracurricular activities that appear just a month or so before your MBA deadline may look calculated and are unlikely to be given much weight.
3. Communicate your self- and situational awareness.
Especially in a candidate pool whose sharp self-possession can veer quickly to overconfidence, your communications savvy will be under scrutiny. For example, certain qualities that may have helped you thrive as a strategy consultant can come across as impatient, arrogant or misaligned with the MBA Admissions Committee. The MBA interview, for example, is a relational experience, not a pitch meeting. Establishing that you are who you say you are on paper means staying alert and curious, maintaining eye contact, and asking thoughtful questions when given the opportunity. Your ability to be authentic, and to discern the line between confidence and arrogance, speaks to your acumen and maturity.
For more tips, view our related story, Top Tips for Consultants Applying to Business School.
TOP TIPS FOR CANDIDATES IN FINANCE
1. Convey what you’ve learned, not just what you’ve done.
Don’t make the mistake of creating the “resume to prose” type essay that will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. Using precious essay space to showcase a highlights reel of professional accomplishments is a common mistake, and it robs your narrative of the potential for making an emotional connection. Go beyond what you did to convey what you learned from your experiences. And then connecting what you’ve learned to what you’re going to bring to the MBA classroom. “For example, you might talk about a failure in the essay – a time you fell and picked yourself back up,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former HBS Associate Director. “Underscore what you learned from the experience and how it shaped you as a human being. It’s so much more compelling when you allow people to connect to your experience.”
2. Start at a big bank but gain additional experience.
Our Deep Dive Analysis of the HBS Class of 2020 revealed a striking trend: Successful HBS applicants who started their careers in investment banking often made a career switch within two years of graduating from college. Many of these applicants secured an interesting position working in Private Equity or Venture Capital (e.g. KKR and Blackstone) after roughly two years
of a rotational program, which seems to really work for HBS – as well as for Stanford GSB. Far fewer of those individuals were still with J.P. Morgan or Citibank by the time that they actually gained admission to these elite schools. This indicates that a big bank is a great place to launch your career, but that you stand to be more interesting to the admissions committee if you bring additional experience in PE, VC, consulting, nonprofit, or strategic and product manager roles in other sectors.
3. Persuasively connect your career vision to the MBA.
Beyond the power of its MBA brand, the admissions committee wants to know that you understand what’s being offered through its management curriculum – what it will do for you, and then how that connects to your specific professional goals. You’ll need to be logical and convincing, not only about why an MBA, but why right now, and how an MBA is going to serve as a catalyst for your own success post MBA. Reflect early on about what you want to do after your MBA, and what you’ll be doing to make it possible; and be able to articulate the impact you’ll have on your future peers and community. Keep in mind that the Admissions Committee is looking at your file thinking: how is this candidate going to look to a future recruiter? They want to bring people in who are going to be successful in achieving their post-grad goals.
For more tips, view our related story, Tips for Finance Candidates Applying to Business School.
TOP TIPS FOR ENGINEERS
1. Lift up your transferable skills.
The tricky thing for many engineering applicants is that the role you have and the work that you’ve done may not be directly relevant to the MBA classroom. (Or to your post-MBA career – many engineers are looking to make a career switch.) Step outside your narrow role and take a bigger picture view of the skills and talents you’ve acquired in the job. As you do, reflect on the transferable skills that you’ve developed – in realms like communication, teamwork, leadership and/or presentation skills. This may be quite different from the way you think about your skills in the context of day-to-day demands and not be so obvious at first. Consider the patterns of behavior that flow through your professional performance and how they extend to your engagement in the community, the roles you took on, how you made a contribution.
2. Present a coherent career trajectory.
There’s a lot more movement in the tech industry than in industries like consulting or finance. Top software programmers get lured away by competition, and the admission office will be familiar with a higher degree of mobility in your sector. For example, it’s not uncommon to see the software engineer who started at Oracle, then continued at Salesforce before moving on to Uber. What’s vital is to ensure coherency in the career narrative that you share. Rather than being perceived as the ‘hired gun’ with a mosaic of employers, you’ll want to convey that you’ve had the time and opportunity to really take ownership of a project and see it through. Really focus on the impact that you’ve had – and get to it quickly. Go beyond what you did to convey what you learned from your experiences and be able to connect what you’ve learned to what you’ll bring to the MBA classroom.
3. Coach your recommenders.
They may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your recommenders will know exactly what’s expected from them. Unlike the consulting industry, where it’s common for senior leadership to have an MBA, don’t assume your boss knows a great deal about b-school. Set your recommenders up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. This doesn’t mean telling them what to write – you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead. But you also don’t want them to dive in blindly – especially if they’re unfamiliar with what’s entailed. Business schools want substance, with stories that really back up the fact that you’re an amazing person and stellar employee with enormous potential to succeed. Your recommender can also convey aspects of your personality or character traits that will add color to your candidacy.
For more tips, view our related story, Top Tips for Engineers Applying to Business School.
For anyone with a common profile, fusing credentials with a captivating story is the key to gaining the admissions committee’s attention, but planning ahead is the key to discerning the unique qualities that will distinguish you from your peers. Reflect on your goals early on, explore other passions outside of work, and seize the opportunities to take the path less traveled as they arise. Odds are you’ll be one of thousands of impressive, qualified candidates competing for a few top spots. Your challenge – and opportunity – is to let much of your professional and academic excellence shine through your academics and resume, while weaving a personal narrative throughout the rest of your application that’s distinctive, powerful and leaves the admissions team eager to learn more.
Matt Symonds is Co-Founder of MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and Co-Host of the CentreCourt MBA Festival. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.