Self reflection and how to position your candidacy; GPA and GMAT; the résumé (featured in The Economist)

February 20, 2013 | by Matt Symonds

Fortuna Admissions has been asked by The Economist to write a four-part series explaining how to improve your chance of getting into a top business school. Our experts from Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth,  IE Business School, Kellogg and UC Berkeley Haas are answering readers’ questions over the course of the coming weeks.

Part two: Self reflection and how to position your candidacy; GPA and GMAT; the CV (résumé)

Whether you are convinced that you want to do an MBA, or are just entertaining the idea, we recommend that you spend a long time on self-reflection. Most business schools want to know more about you than just your CV. They want to get a sense of what makes you tick. You will have to answer some profound questions in the application essays and at the interviews. Why are you unique? What are your ambitions? Chicago Booth asks candidates to “Tell us something that has fundamentally transformed the way you think.” Answering such questions in a way that will attract the admission officer’s eye requires considerable self-awareness and maturity.

So before dashing off your admissions essays, our advice is to take a big step back and think about where you are in your life and career; where you have been and where you are heading. With the hectic pace of life, especially for young fast-track professionals, it can be hard to find the time and tranquillity of mind to pay sufficient attention to such questions. But if you do, you are more likely to end up with a compelling application and will be more authentic and confident in the interview.

It can be difficult to look beyond your current horizon. Introspection does not come naturally to us all. Some may feel uncomfortable about thinking far ahead, and unsure about how big they should dare to dream. Insight may not come immediately. But as Gianpiero Petriglieri, an INSEAD professor, commented in the Harvard Business Review, “it is often when we yearn for an answer that we stand to learn the most from staying with the question”. So do not start this process of introspection two weeks before your application deadline. Ideally you should be doing some deep reflection at least nine months ahead, to give yourself time to ruminate and allow inspiration to come. You may well find that answers arrive at odd moments—when brushing your teeth, reading an article or waiting in an airport lounge.

Start by coming up with a good list of questions. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What have you learned about yourself from times you have excelled and times you have failed? What do you want from your career—wealth, meaning, work-life balance, time abroad, high status, power, interesting colleagues? No job is going to be perfect all of the time, but what will produce high points that make the slog worthwhile? Do not do this in a vacuum. Ask colleagues, friends and family to tell you what they perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses or what you might be doing in ten years’ time. The answers might be surprising.

You may not realise it, but when you are just a few years out of university, as is the case for most MBA applicants, you stand at a crossroads. You probably have just enough work experience to take stock of your career progression and assess your strengths, weaknesses, interests and dislikes, in a way that you could not have done when you were in college. You are also still young enough that you can switch paths pretty easily. This becomes more difficult the older you get. This is a sweet spot in your life. So don’t skimp on introspection—or waste the gift of choice.

Your academic record: GPA, GMAT and GRE

With all the focus on studying business, it is easy to overlook the fact that the M of an MBA stands for Master’s. Any self-respecting business school will ensure that you have the academic ability to handle a graduate degree. You will need to be adept at maths, critical reasoning and language. So your academic achievements, as defined by your grade point average (or another international university equivalent) and the GMAT or GRE standardised test you will probably have to take before applying to business school, are important components of your application.

Because they are easily comparable data points that can be measured against the other students at a business school, they have become a subject of near obsessive importance for many MBA applicants. Both need to be placed in context, as they are one piece of a broader application.

A below average GPA might be overcome by other achievements or a strong GMAT or GRE score. If you think your undergraduate GPA falls short of a school’s standards, there are still things you can do to compensate, such as take a class to demonstrate your quantitative ability.  Additional coursework shows determination, and can help admissions officers decide whether you are ready to tackle the academic rigour of their classrooms. And if there was a reason why your grades suffered at some point during your studies—a time consuming part-time job or a personal problem, for example—provide a short and straightforward explanation, not an excuse, preferably with an illustration of your academic potential when you were able to focus on your studies.

Is your GMAT or GRE score decisive? Most schools will tell you it is not. As directors of admissions at Wharton, INSEAD and other top schools, we have seen plenty of 790 GMAT scores denied (the top mark is 800) because the candidate had nothing else to offer. Most schools will publish the range of scores achieved by the middle 80% of their admitted students, giving you a better sense of what has proved to be competitive. Though you can achieve a good overall score if you do much better in either the verbal or quantitative parts, schools will see the breakdown of scores and might be concerned with the weaker section.

Certainly you do not want an admissions officer to trip on a low test score while reading your profile. But ultimately you will not be admitted or denied because you broke the magic number for your school. There is much more to the application process than that. However, do not make weak excuses for having a poor GMAT or GRE. Whereas your undergraduate studies are in the past, you can still influence your performance on these standardised tests with committed study. Admissions officers roll their eyes when they read “my GMAT does not reflect my true academic potential” or “I could have done better on the GMAT, but was on an incredibly intense project and didn’t have much time to prepare”. These are among the most overused phrases in applications. Remember you are up against candidates who are so hungry to get in they will get up at 4 o’clock every morning to prepare for their test (and that is before they volunteer at a local shelter and then head off for another 14 hour day to work on their spectacularly successful start-up!)

If are wondering whether your GMAT or GRE is good enough, perhaps the rule of thumb is this: if you have any reason to be concerned, take it again. By that we don’t mean turning a 730 in to a 740, but rather finding the 30, 40 or even 60 points that bring you within the competitive 80% range that we described. The last thing you want is a feeling of “could have, should have and would have”.

The CV (résumé) and data form

As some business schools, such as Harvard and Tuck, have reduced the number of essays they require, CVs and biographical data have become more important. Often overlooked, or reduced to an uninspiring list of dates, places and job titles or qualifications, the CV is an important overview of your experience.

In little more than a page, you have the opportunity to highlight what you have accomplished, share the qualities you have demonstrated, and prioritise the attributes and experiences that underline your future potential.

We have read thousands of CVs and have the following recommendations:

  • Pay attention to the details and focus on progression. Just as you tweak your résumé depending on the job you are applying for, tailor your application for each school. Highlight the experience, skills, and personality traits that the programme is keen on. Spell out accomplishments or actions that led to specific results, not just roles and responsibilities.
  • Explain how your work affected your organisation, whether it was improving efficiency, saving money, building market-share or some other outcome. Numbers have greater impact than words. So include the number of people you managed, the size of your budget or the percentage growth you achieved.
  • Use language similar to that used by the school.  The admissions officer will make the connection and be more likely to view you as a “fit” for the programme.  But avoid tiresome industry jargon, technical terms, financial lingo or management speak.
  • Display a pattern of leadership. Schools look for recurrent demonstrations of your success when taking charge, not just a one-off situation. So highlight leadership roles in all job functions as well as extracurricular and community activities.
  • Keep it simple and to the point and make it easy on the eye. Use concise phrasing; avoid long winded or overly complex sentences. Include no more than three to five bullet points under each position, using 11-12 point font. If you can fit everything on one page, all the better, so remember what you have included on the biographical data form to avoid unnecessary duplication.
  • Do not forget about life outside of work. Schools want applicants who can demonstrate a history of involvement in formal extracurricular activities, whether volunteering, sports or sitting on a local board.
  • Finally, edit, and then edit again.  It is also always wise to have a third party review and provide feedback on your CV.

Read part one of this series here.

The remaining two parts of the series will look at:

◦     Application essays

◦     Letters of recommendation; the interview; waiting lists; next steps

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