The recent CentreCourt MBA Festival, co-hosted by my Fortuna Admissions colleague Matt Symonds along with Poets&Quants, was brimming with insights for MBA hopefuls seeking to distinguish their candidacy to the world’s top business schools. It also served as an important reminder that despite a surge in MBA applicants this cycle, admissions leaders remain committed to building a class that is comprised of diverse experiences, perspectives, and goals. As Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB’s Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions & Financial Aid said, “Help us understand your unique impact.” It’s this uniqueness that stands to set you apart in a sea of excellence, especially if you’re coming from an overrepresented pool (consulting, banking, tech).
Shaping your personal narrative is an increasingly vital part of the MBA admissions journey. As a former Managing Director at Kellogg, I led the Evening & Weekend MBA and MSMS programs. While my duties focused on curating the student experience and leadership development, my team was responsible for shaping the brand narrative and experience for all students, prospects, and alumni connected to our programs. When I first joined Kellogg, I didn’t fully appreciate how much my career in brand strategy would help me guide students in crafting powerful personal narratives. Now as an MBA admissions consultant, I find the sooner someone starts down the path of reflection and discovery, the better prepared they’ll be to weave together a narrative that’s authentic, memorable, and compelling.
COMBINING BEST PRACTICES IN POSITIONING STRATEGY WITH STORYTELLING
Much like brand positioning considers the summative elements of a product or service, when crafting your personal narrative, similar principles apply. Take time to do the work necessary to understand what experiences have shaped you, the distinct value you offer, and how that all aligns with the target institution you’re applying to. At CenterCourt, admissions gatekeepers discussed how much they want to get to know the “whole person” when reviewing candidates. The more they can understand your motivations and values, the more likely they will understand the impact you’ve already had, and how that will translate to impact in your MBA journey.
To build your personal narrative in the MBA application, consider three key actions:
1. Take time to reflect.
MBA prospects typically prefer to present only their best selves in the application. However, consider situations where you have succeeded, as well as struggled. When have life challenges been in your path, and despite that you have prevailed? This concept of “crucible moments” was explored in depth in a 2002 HBR article, and in this uncertain world we are all living in, is perhaps more relevant than ever.
While at Kellogg I partnered closely with Associate Dean of Leadership Development and Inclusion, Bernard Banks, on the development of the Kellogg Leadership Journey. He crafted a curriculum that centered on reflection, and how life challenges can shape us far more than the more obvious “big wins.” As you reflect on your own journey, think about when you’ve had to overcome obstacles. There may be times you’ve been an outsider and learned to adapt, built connections, and earned respect to reach a goal. Think about times you needed to summon courage to defend your ideas or stand up for what’s right.
Crucible moments also stem from rising to great expectations. Perhaps you had to overcome something to reach a goal – be that navigating a new culture or surmounting learning difficulties. How have these challenges and experiences shaped you and inspired you to act? These are the things admissions officers want to learn about.
2. Be authentic.
Admissions officers have many goals, and one is to build a diverse class. The clearer you are on the values that shape your outlook and inform your approach to problem-solving, the better the admissions team will understand you and the impact you may bring to the educational experience. In consumer marketing, some of the most enduring brands are rooted in core values that guide strategic as well as marketing decisions. Consider ways your own values guide your decisions as this is an important aspect of what makes you unique, and can distinguish you from others in the eyes of the admissions committee.
Marketing positioning isn’t developed in a vacuum, and your exploration process shouldn’t be either. Ask those closest to you to describe what they most value in you, and why they rely on you as a friend or colleague. One way to think about your values is to envision what the world would miss if you were not a part of it. How do you uniquely connect with others, shape ideas or support people that are tied to your fundamental values? And in what ways are these connected and lead you to positively impact your world?
3. Connect the dots.
Admissions officers like to “zone in on impact,” something reiterated during the CentreCourt panels. Your ability to connect the dots and tell a story about what has shaped your outlook and led you to contribute uniquely to a situation is highly valuable. Once you do the hard work of reflecting and drafting your story in a way that authentically represents you, this element of the process can come quite easily.
Just as important is how well you convey your sincere interest in a particular MBA program. When mentoring MBA students at Kellogg on their career journeys, I drew upon my two decades of management experience when I shaped and led teams. I could quickly determine if a candidate had sincere interest in our organization based on their interview responses – and so can a seasoned admissions reviewer. I advised them to truly do their homework on a target organization; its products, impact, and culture. The same is true when researching MBA programs. Moss from GSB went on to advise, “Dig deeper than the website” encouraging prospects to really do research on an institution.
Finally, a caution: there’s no ‘ideal candidate,’ so don’t try to be someone you’re not. Too many candidates allow themselves to be derailed by imagining what they think the admissions committee wants to hear. Everyone has a unique story to tell, and you are the person best poised to tell that story. Fortuna’s Curtis Johnson says it well in his article, Brand-building & Storytelling for the MBA. “In a pool of excellence, it isn’t the facts and figures of your accomplishment-filled resume that will stand out for a bleary-eyed admissions committee in a marathon day of caffeine-fueled application-reviews – it’s an unforgettable story.”
Julia Brady is a Director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Managing Director at Kellogg & Former Senior Associate Dean, UChicago. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.