Arun was an older client who had worked at a top tech firm for 10 years as an engineer, gradually working his way up in responsibility. He was hoping to get an MBA to pivot into more of a business role, but his profile was tricky because not only was he on the older side, but he had a highly technical background. Arun also suffered from a lack of confidence – he had a speech impediment that had plagued him throughout his life. Although he had engaged in speech therapy and had improved tremendously by the time I worked with him, he had difficulty believing that he had a great story to tell.
“My biggest concern was applying to a full-time MBA program with 10 years of experience,” says Arun. “And I wanted to get admission to a top five MBA program, so I was unsure how to make myself a compelling candidate given I was in the far end of the distribution in terms of work experience. Also, I mostly had technical leadership experience, and lacked managerial experience.”
I vividly remember working with Arun early in the application process. We were working on identifying his MBA leadership stories – specific, detailed examples where he had demonstrated one of the many leadership qualities that the MBA programs look for. He really delayed submitting something for me to review and discuss, and soon we began to fall behind schedule. Finally, I set up a call with him to see what the issue was, and he said, “I just don’t think I really have any stories to tell.”
This is a common fear for applicants who have not had formal management experience. If you have not been directly supervising a team, how can you show you are a leader? But as Arun and I worked together to review everything he had done, I was able to help him see how leadership is much more broadly defined – and can be shown in many ways.
For example, Arun had led cross-functional teams to launch products, overcome many obstacles to get these products to market, shown a lot of creativity in solving problems, and developed a real understanding and empathy with the end user that allowed him to make great suggestions for improvements. Moreover, he had started a company on the side relating to his passion (cricket) – hiring and leading a team to build an app that had gained serious traction. He had even used his network of tech engineers to secure quite a bit of free digital advertising.
Arun was initially unable to see how these examples were exactly the type of leadership that schools are looking for – to him they felt mundane. He had already convinced himself that he was not a good candidate. But I knew, having seen and coached many successful applicants like Arun, that with the right framing, he had a great story to tell.
We did a lot of work to hone his career vision, leaning heavily on the skills he already had and developing a strong case for how an MBA would help him to pivot into management. In that process, we realized that he actually would be able to achieve his goals through a one-year program targeted at mid-career professionals (any of the many EMBA programs, or Stanford’s MSx or MIT’s Sloan Fellows).
In the end, I was able to convince Arun to have a go – what did he have to lose? When we finally had the whole package ready to submit, I almost cried. He had come so far since those initial days when he felt he had nothing to show, and our iterative process had lifted up his distinctive traits and unique contributions in such a compelling way. Business Schools thought so too – he was eventually accepted by Stanford MSx, UC Berkeley EMBA, and Yale EMBA programs.
I could not have been more pleased with the outcome for Arun – not only was he admitted to great programs, but he had found his voice and was confident in his abilities. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
From his story, I hope you’ll take these lessons for your own MBA journey:
- Having a technical background does not need to be an impediment – but you need to work hard to identify how you have demonstrated leadership (in its broadest sense).
- As an older candidate, you need to make a strong case for why an MBA makes sense for you at this stage in your career, and to find the right programs that will help you achieve your goals.
- While these are competitive programs and admit rates are often very low, there is a 100% chance you won’t get in if you don’t apply. The process itself is worthwhile and can have many additional benefits.
This is the third in Fortuna’s series of MBA applicant profiles, where our expert coaches illuminate how clients have overcome common pain points to achieve admissions success. View previous articles in this series: From a Low GMAT to HBS Success and MBA Application Tips for Non-Traditional Candidates.
Heidi Hillis is a former Stanford GSB Alumni Interviewer and Senior Expert Coach at Fortuna Admissions, a dream team of former MBA Admissions Directors from the world’s top business schools. Our DNA hasn’t changed since Fortuna’s 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. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission to a top MBA program, reach out for a free consultation.