Whether you are preparing for MBA interviews or still building your MBA applications to HBS, Stanford, Wharton, and other top programs, it’s critical to be aware of some typical errors that can definitely hurt you in the MBA application process. Every season, I stop talented applicants on paper from making some cardinal MBA application sins.
The Sin of Bragging:
It’s understandable that some applicants feel the need to chest thump in their essays and interviews. With stiff competition at the top schools, they feel they must overwhelm the adcoms with early promotions, academic accolades, and leadership accomplishments. But don’t commit the sin of bragging! You need to stand out for sure, but in a tone that won’t be off-putting to your evaluators. Remember that the MBA is more of a participatory degree than an academic degree, and so likeability and energy are critical given you will be in study groups, learning cohorts, and clubs.
You can still bring up flattering stories, but communicate how you helped clients, impacted your firm’s top-line revenue, or strengthened a university club rather than focusing all the success on YOU. Most U.S. applicants tend to understand this but at times students from Asia try too hard to score points versus others, as they come from very outwardly competitive environments. So be careful. Resumes and application forms have room for awards, recognitions, top-tier bonuses, and early promotions. Those are suitable places to list facts that are flattering. But steer clear of repetitive self-promotion in your interviews and essays.
The Sin of Generic Career Goals:
Adcoms are trying to understand how you will leverage a seat in their next class in terms of advancing your career and making an industry impact. After helping MBA applicants for over 15 years, I have learned that it’s a true advantage in this process to have goals that are both specific and have a sense of mission.
I constantly use the analogy of a career supermarket with my clients. For example, if a client is a biomedical engineer or physician who wants to transition into a business path with an MBA, I have them imagine they have reached the healthcare aisle of the career goals grocery store. But we can’t stop our search there. Healthcare is very broad, and there are so many industry sub- segments. And so, there are different sections and shelves in the healthcare career aisle. Perhaps because the client also has some background in computer science, they want to eventually pursue a career in the Digital Health section of the aisle. Well, on the top shelf of the Digital Health section, there may be perhaps telemedicine players. But this client does not want to be involved with clinical provider concepts and is instead drawn to the bottom shelf—this is where the digital therapeutics companies are sitting. These are software applications that can assist doctors and consumers with disease prevention and drug compliance through gaming interfaces, reward systems, and real-time monitoring. A career purpose in digital therapeutics will, therefore, be a very compelling career direction, and my client will then build a career war document around that positioning filled with trends, venture players, and metrics.
To hear more about how to craft compelling career goals, please watch this video.
The Sin of Cliché Essays:
For some schools, the essays are very traditional and don’t leave as much room for a personal or creative feel. But for Harvard’s current prompt, Stanford’s iconic “What Matters Most”, NYU’s Pick 6, MIT’s video essay, and others, there is definitely room to stand out and create emotional interest in your candidacy. I will admit that it is often hard for clients on their own to judge whether their concept or approach is differentiated and memorable. But I will share that most applicants turn to a career tour de force as their go-to narrative as it feels the most comfortable and appropriate for an MBA application. For HBS and GSB, a career-based story is only 1 one of the 6 archetypes that I have identified over time from essays that were successful. Sometimes clients feel liberated learning this, as it gives them permission to get more personal and braver in their topic selection.
If you want formal help with your essay topics or full applications, please visit us.
The Sin of Writing Your Own Letters of Recommendation:
Fortunately, most schools have moved to the same LOR prompts, though there are some exceptions. It can be quite helpful to prep your writers and jog their memories about your specific impact examples.
But it is not ideal to write your own drafts. First, it is not allowed. I can usually tell 8 out of 10 times when a client has penned their own letter, and the adcoms will also recognize certain typical give-away tendencies. It may be the case that with increasing technology available, MBA programs are using more pattern recognition and plagiarism-type software.
Therefore, I do not advise you to offer to write your own rec letter or accept your writer’s preference to just upload your draft. Reference writers are generally older and more experienced, and they will do a solid job if you trust them and prepare them with some helpful reminders. And when you prepare them, provide condensed bullets versus full arguments they might just copy and paste.
The Sin of Thin Interview Responses:
When you get that coveted interview invitation, don’t commit the sin of interviewing with a lack of specifics!
Interviewers don’t just want to hear you claim, for example, that you came up with an innovative new marketing strategy for your company. Rather, they want to know the specific business insights you had about the old strategies and the specific actions you took to deliver this new way of attracting and converting customers. Did you drive a site redo with better meta tags, did you employ a blog and video-driven strategy, did you create a new channel partnership…? In other words, show, don’t just tell.
Sometimes clients who don’t go deep are concerned that they are talking too much and for too long. And that is a fair concern. But you must, at the end of the day, show your interviewers how you thought and acted as a businessperson, what analytical insights were critical, and how your impact or the impact of your team was measured. This is what an MBA does every week in their careers, and you must focus your interviewing to deliver this type of transparency and specificity.
For more advice on behavioral interview questions or to book a mock interview, please visit us.
Alex Leventhal is a Harvard MBA, and one of only three admissions consultants in the P&Q Hall of Fame. He has been providing personalized attention to MBA and eMBA applicants for over 15 years. Alex has also been a regular lecturer at the Harvard Club on career advancement and the MBA process. Prior to founding Prep MBA, Alex worked in tech startups, management consulting, and some large US life sciences corporations. Alex was a collegiate Varsity soccer player and is currently a 4-handicap golfer who brings his competitive spirit to every client engagement.