Alice was a Senior Manager in Vancouver in the corporate credit risk department of a large Canadian bank. She was doing really well (recruited out of 1000+ candidates for their rotational program, solid promotions). However, she had decided at age 32 that she wanted to completely change careers using an MBA. Alice hoped to go into international development and sustainable energy after graduating from a top program… but her GMAT-equivalent GRE was only 630.
The motivation for this career change was her recent work on a couple of pro-bono projects for nonprofits in Indonesia and Malaysia. She helped small indigenous communities move away from resource extraction (cutting down old-growth trees) and monocultures towards sustainable agriculture and ecotourism, getting them a $70k grant to get things started. She had also raised $40k from her employer for a local food bank and started a pro-bono consultancy to assist local social ventures with their marketing, operations, and fundraising.
These activities didn’t come out of the blue, even though her career to date had focused on different areas. Alice had a seminal experience in rural India while she was in college, which woke her up to the reality of poverty and hunger in developing countries. Over the years, she spent summers volunteering on small farms in India and Latin America, building chicken coops and fencing and learning animal husbandry.
However, her prior education was focused on finance. She graduated from a well-regarded Chinese university with a degree in accounting and already had a couple of masters: an MBA in investment management and a master of financial economics (no top-name schools).
Our main challenge was to show that she was really serious about this career change, all the while highlighting her potential for future success. What was driving her to make this switch at this point in her life? Why hadn’t she taken steps earlier in her career, if she was so passionate about the issues?
Your MBA Application Must Tell Your Story
This is where forthrightness and careful articulation of a candidate’s strengths can make a big difference. We set about showing that, although it had taken over a decade for Alice’s life goals to crystallize, they had deep roots and were informed by a careful reflection on how she could be most effective. Her early idealism complemented by a slow maturation process enabled her to dig deep into the issues and their underlying causes. This is why specificity of goals is so important: it not only helps a candidate stand out from the competition, it also shows the adcom that they “know their stuff” and know exactly how they’re going to use their professional degree to reach their long-term goals.
Whenever possible, we aim to make a strong emotional connection with the reader so they can put themselves in the candidate’s shoes and, seeing the world through their eyes, will feel moved to support them and their future. This is exactly what we did with Alice, crafting a narrative that connected the dots from that vivid experience in India during college, witnessing “children gathered around near-empty pots”; through the volunteer experiences in Latin America to the pro-bono consulting gigs in Southeast Asia, where she was beginning to make a difference in people’s lives; to her ability to enroll colleagues around good causes closer to home, and her community initiatives improving the financial prospects of NGOs in Vancouver.
Your Story Can Outshine Your GMAT Scores
We didn’t know what to expect given Alice’s atypical profile, but the results soon showed that the adcom believed in her story and were willing to take a risk. She got accepted into the very best programs in international development and environmental management, including Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Emory, Tufts, Columbia, and Sciences Po, some with sizable scholarships.
Alice’s story shows the power of narrative in the admissions process. Many clients’ instincts are to identify their “most impressive” achievements (quantified by budget, direct reports, etc.) and make those the centerpiece of their application. But in the case of someone like Alice who wants to switch to an entirely different career, big accomplishments at work are less important than the “smaller” activities that relate directly to proposed future goals. Potential is what the adcom was looking for, and Alice delivered.
After getting his MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1996, Mark headed south to Brazil to become the Marketing Director for SPVS, one of the Nature Conservancy’s most successful in-country partners. While Mark is our nonprofit specialist, he has spent his life honing his passion for and expertise in the consulting business.