As The World Sterns: Being Authentic In The MBA Application Process

NYU MBA students outside Stern School

My path to NYU Stern was a winding one.

A little background: I come from, as they say in MBA circles, a “non-traditional background.” What that means depends on who you ask. To me, a “non-traditional background” means people in your immediate network aren’t getting MBAs. I graduated from NYU Tisch in 2015 with an undergraduate degree in acting, followed by five years of experience in a variety of eclectic jobs. I hosted activities on a cruise ship, gave black bear tours in Alaska, and started a small business selling vintage clothing from home. It’s safe to say I did not know a lot of people who were applying to business school.

It’s a long story of why I decided to pursue an MBA, but one of the biggest factors was wanting to have a bigger impact on the way that business is conducted. Having worked a lot of jobs – in more entry-level positions – I never felt like I had much ability to truly make a difference. For example, I spent five months teaching at an outdoor science school. While there, the workers were constantly overworked and underpaid, with the excuse being that it was “for the kids.” I saw how much influence those in higher-level positions had on the lives of workers, and I wanted to be able to provide a different perspective to those decision-makers.

A side-by-side comparison of Penny: 10 years ago vs. now.


When I began researching the MBA application process online, I came across a lot of messaging from schools that gave me hope. “Career switches are totally possible!” “We welcome people from non-traditional backgrounds!” “Your skills are transferable!”

However, throughout the process of meeting people at U.S-based MBA programs, I started to realize that few students seemed to have a background like mine. There were some students who came from non-business backgrounds, such as engineers or school teachers. From what I could tell, everyone had at least had a job with an annual salary and benefits. Let’s just say, I felt like I was the only one who hadn’t heard of “management consulting” before they started applying to business school.

Faced with this reality, I started to wonder: Do I belong in this world? All the MBA programs push the idea that you should “just be yourself.” But it didn’t seem like people like me ended up at MBA programs.


I started applying to MBA programs in round two of the application season. Following the advice I found online, I applied to five schools. Based on my GMAT and GPA, I thought I had a good chance of being accepted. However, when it came to the application essays, I found myself struggling. To be honest, these schools would not have been my first choice. They were located in areas where I didn’t particularly want to live, and they didn’t offer classes that got me excited. While everyone was incredibly nice and friendly, I just never felt like I had found “my people.” However, I allowed external personal influences to overly impact my location preferences. Therefore, when the essay prompts and interviewers asked, “Why do you want to go to this school?”, I knew my answers were unconvincing.

Ultimately, even with what I considered a strong application, I only got into one out of the five schools. Fortunately, I decided at that point to disregard external factors and focus entirely on what I wanted out of my MBA experience. Unfortunately, I had very little time left. It was round three or four in the admissions process for most schools, and some deadlines were closing soon.

I had to be honest with myself: Why did I want an MBA?

One of Penny’s “Pick Six” photo essay pictures from the NYU Stern application (demonstrating her love of Survivor).


I had determined that my guiding career goal was to make things better for workers on a day-to-day level. With this as my main motivation, I was looking for a school with aligned values, a community where I could belong, and value for what I brought as a student. At this point in the search process, I returned to looking at the schools on the East Coast, where I really wanted to end up. While many of these schools had welcoming communities, NYU Stern was the only school that was overtly looking for “EQ.”

As Stern explains it, EQ (or emotional intelligence) skills include “self-awareness, empathy, communication and self-management.” I knew that I needed more foundational knowledge in business. However, I was confident that I had years of practice in these EQ skills. To me, Stern felt like a place where I would feel valued as a member of the community.

With all this in mind, Stern’s MBA program became my top choice. I attended as many info sessions as I could and my conviction was strengthened. Everyone I met seemed like someone I would want not only to go to school with, but also become friends with them. The more I heard about the types of clubs and activities that were a part of the Stern culture, the more I believed that I would find “my people” there.


I approached my application differently this time. When I had been applying for round two, I had asked as many people as possible to read my essays and give feedback. Those essays went through dozens of edits. With my Stern application, I only had one trusted connection take a look. Editing was kept to a minimum. I could hear my own voice in the finished product, not a regurgitation of what I thought everyone wanted to hear.

In my essay, I was genuine about the impact I wanted to have on the business world. My goals statement concluded:

“I want to prove that caring about people and promoting an equitable society doesn’t mean sacrificing success. […] I want to attend a business school that doesn’t just teach the way things are, but discusses how we can make a difference as future business leaders. A focus on social responsibility is something that I knew was important to NYU while I was a student, and it’s something that I always want to be at the forefront of my career.”

Penny on a boat after returning to New York City

Suffice it to say, I was fully myself in this application. I was unsure of what the outcome would be, but I kept telling myself: ‘Penny, if you get in, you’ll know it’s because of who you actually are.’

I applied in early March and interviewed in mid-April, but I had a feeling my chances might be slim being such a late applicant.

The day I got the phone call that I had been accepted into Stern’s MBA program, I sat on the floor and cried (happy tears, of course!). I knew the course of my life had just completely changed. I felt incredibly grateful and proud of what I had accomplished.


So what did I learn about being authentic in the MBA application process? I had three major takeaways from my experience (uh-oh, someone’s a consultant):

1. Know what’s important to you. A great way to figure out what you want is to determine your priorities. For me, my top priorities in an MBA program were a down-to-earth student body, an exciting location, and a fun culture (Stern has a comedy stage show at the end of the year called Stern Follies that really pulled me in). For me, that made NYU Stern a perfect fit. However, only you know what you’re looking for! The more you can express that to schools, the more they’ll be able to see if you are a good fit.

2. There is such a thing as too much feedback. During the round two processes, I ended up getting too much feedback on my essays and deviated far from what I actually wanted out of an MBA program. However, when I trusted myself and had one close connection to present myself authentically, my results were much better. Schools can tell when you’re just telling them what you think they want to hear. They don’t actually want to hear that; they hear it all day long. They want to know who you genuinely are.

3. Figure out what makes you uniquely you – and value that. Trust me, 99% of the people you meet in an MBA program (or outside of an MBA program) have experienced imposter syndrome. It’s always surprising to me how the people I consider the most impressive still doubt their abilities. The sooner that you can figure out what you bring and how valuable it is, the better. With my unique background, I didn’t think schools would see the worth I could bring to their class. Fortunately, I started to figure out what it was through the application process. By owning and explaining what value I could bring to the class – strong EQ, presentation skills, enthusiasm – I was able to help the admissions teams see it too. Don’t make it difficult for them to see why you’re a great fit.

The advice “Just be yourself” gets tossed around a lot when applying for an MBA program. But if you can legitimately work out who you are, how you are unique, and what you are looking for, you can gain a serious advantage in the MBA application process.

If you need evidence that authenticity is important in the MBA application process, look no further than me!

Penny is a current second-year student in NYU Stern’s Full-Time MBA program. After graduating with a BFA in Acting from NYU Tisch in 2015, Penny spent the next five years exploring a number of adventurous hospitality roles. In the summer of 2020, she started looking into MBA programs and discovered it was difficult to find information specifically geared towards non-traditional candidates. She hopes to pay forward everything she has learned about applying to MBA programs, the student experience at Stern, and entering the business world through a non-traditional lens.


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