I’ve worked with many non-traditional MBA applicants as a Fortuna Admissions coach, yet Shelley was my first opera singer turned business school candidate. Shelley was seeking guidance in navigating the complexity of MBA admissions, having set her sights on an M7 business school. She had a bachelor’s degree in Music from the University of Minnesota (3.28 GPA) and a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance from a small school in North Carolina (3.8 GPA) and had been performing in opera houses around the world ever since.
Despite a dazzling stage career, she worried that MBA admissions would overlook her due to a lack of previous business experience. The GMAT was also a formidable hurdle for someone whose last brush with “real math” was high school calculus, but after some intense studying and help from Target Test Prep, her determination paid off and she secured a 730 score on her second attempt.
That said, she was still nervous and uncertain about how to best position her profile for the MBA admissions committee. “Other singers I knew who transitioned to business school had some business experience prior to applying. Breaking 730 on the GMAT definitely helped my confidence, but I knew it was just one piece of the puzzle.”
Every candidate has a unique story to tell. As a former Associate Director at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and seasoned Fortuna Coach, I know what business schools are looking for when building a diverse class, and the qualities that convey a successful applicant. Shelley’s nontraditional path to success was studded with gems that would catch an MBA admissions reader’s eye, but that she herself might overlook. Our challenge was to convey her distinctive lived experience and career aspirations while lifting up the qualities that would connect the dots for an MBA admissions committee. To get there, Shelley would have to excavate that confidence and clarity of purpose for herself.
“Gone are the days when the serious MBA contender had to possess a certain academic and career pedigree,” says my Fortuna colleague Judith Silverman Hodara in her article, Advice for Non-Traditional MBA Applicants, “Nowadays, business schools are aggressively seeking diversity among MBA candidates, with a particular interest in candidates’ leadership experience and potential.”
Honest self-reflection is so important when crafting your narrative, and the results extend far beyond an acceptance letter. During our first meeting, Shelley and I reviewed the strategy questionnaire that she (and all Fortuna Admissions clients) complete before jumping into the application process. Thus began a months-long process of self-discovery designed to help Shelley better understand herself by thinking through and articulating her professional accomplishments, meaningful life experiences (both positive and negative), values, and ambitions.
“After our first call, I had a clear understanding of my strengths and weaknesses which made me feel prepared to tackle the MBA recruiting process,” said Shelley, who set her sights on Columbia Business School, Wharton, Stanford GSB, and Duke Fuqua. “As a bonus, it also gave me a sense of what to focus on during business school in order to succeed in recruiting.”
Working together, Shelley was able to clearly outline the skills and experience she brought to the table, the specific training and experience an MBA would provide, and how each school would enable her to meet her short- and long-term goals. We met weekly to check in, talk through ideas, and troubleshoot different aspects of the process whether it was connecting with current students, clarifying MBA career goals, or articulating transferable skills acquired through her work as an artist.
For example, being a full-time singer is very similar to owning your own business – you are a brand and must market yourself to your target audience. We needed to highlight the analytical skills, communication skills, and relationship-building skills required to achieve and maintain success. She also traveled the world, worked collaboratively with artists from vastly different cultures and backgrounds, learned to troubleshoot and adapt on the spot, and deal with challenging personalities. These abilities and themes – of vital interest to the MBA admission committee – needed to come across in her resume, letters of recommendation, essays, and interviews.
Moreover, Shelley herself needed to believe it. “It” being the valuable qualities, unique characteristics, and finely honed skills that made her a strong candidate for an M7 MBA. This is often the greatest challenge – from artists to bankers, it’s not uncommon for excellence-driven professionals with early career success to simultaneously suffer from imposter syndrome. As a coach, one of my favorite things is helping clients build their confidence by focusing on all the amazing things they bring to the table rather than their perceived deficiencies.
By taking the time to get to know Shelly on a personal level and establish trust before jumping into the tactical aspects of the application process, we were able to work collaboratively in ways that pushed her to go deeper. Beyond mere strategy and editorial support, this relational and iterative process supported Shelley in expressing herself more authentically and persuasively.
“It made it so much easier for me to feel like I was talking to a friend rather than a consultant,” Shelley told me. “You always kept me on track and focused (as much as you could) but I never felt like there wasn’t room for a joke or a discussion. I could be vulnerable, especially with some of the more private aspects of my story, and you were able to call me out when something just wasn’t right and continue to push me until I got it.”
Ultimately, Shelley received four MBA interview invites, and while she was initially waitlisted, she was accepted to Columbia Business School, her top choice. Says Shelley: “Navigating the waitlist, crafting updates, and engaging the admissions committee in new ways was stressful, but it paid off in the end!”
From her story, I hope you’ll take these lessons for your own MBA journey:
- Spend substantive time on self-reflection. Know what makes you unique and what you care about.
- Connect the dots for the MBA admissions committee between where you’ve been and where you’re going; showcase your leadership skills and potential.
- Release “imposter syndrome” and focus on your strengths rather than perceived deficits.
In this series of MBA applicant profiles, Fortuna’s expert coaches illuminate how clients have overcome common pain points to achieve admissions success. Our first in this series featured From a Low GMAT to HBS Success.
Fortuna Admissions is a dream team of former MBA Admissions Directors from the world’s top business schools, and this year is our 10th Anniversary. Our DNA hasn’t changed since our founding a decade ago: our goal is to provide inside-track expertise to candidates and leverage the insights of those who truly know the schools inside out. In this series of MBA applicant profiles, Fortuna’s expert coaches share how clients have overcome common pain points to achieve admissions success. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission to a top MBA program, reach out for a free consultation.
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