Women applying to b-school: What is the best strategy?

February 04, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Here’s some advice for women applicants from Caroline Diarte Edwards, former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD and Director at Fortuna Admissions.

Providing b-school application tips specific for women could be questioned, as some believe that there should be no differences in applying to b-school for women or men. But based on my admissions experience (seven years as Director of Admissions at INSEAD), I know there are similarities in the way many women navigate the MBA admissions process, as well as some common mistakes which can be avoided.

Although the percentage of women in top business schools today is higher than it was ten to fifteen years ago (35% – 40% women in 2014 vs 25% – 30% or lower in the early 90’s), many b-schools are still working very hard to increase the number of women in incoming classes, for example through offering women-specific recruitment events. So as a female candidate, you should know that business schools very much welcome your application. So here are a few tips for you as you approach the admissions process.

Don’t downplay your achievements. Relative to their male counterparts, some young women are more modest about what they have achieved, and have a tendency to underplay the impact of their accomplishments. But applying to b-school is not the time to hold back. You don’t want to go overboard, and risk being perceived as lacking humility, but do have the confidence to clearly and concretely highlight what you have achieved.

Ask for individual feedback. Reach out to a few personal or professional contacts for 360 feedback on your talents and strengths. This can offer some new insights that you might be overlooking which you can highlight in your applications.

Be proud of an unusual background. Some women worry that b-schools aren’t looking for applicants whose backgrounds are not from the typical pre-MBA career categories like finance or consulting so they don’t showcase their own unusual experience. In fact, most schools look to put together a classroom of diverse profiles, so having a non-traditional background can actually be an advantage. Just be sure to show how your background and perspective can add value to classroom discussions and to your fellow classmates.

Get others on board. Another challenge I noticed a lot of women face was making decisions about b-schools based on personal situations and relationships. We’ve seen an increase in the number of male partners following women to business school, although there are still many more female partners following male MBA students to b-school. Women with families may want to look for programs that offer options to accommodate your personal situation and you’ll find that many programs offer facilities for students with partners and children. There are even MBA clubs offered for partners/spouses of MBA students so be on the lookout for options that will help your significant other adjust to the new community that you would be joining together. Take time to discuss your plans early on in the process so you can brainstorm together how to make your relationship work during your MBA studies.

Prepare your recommenders. It’s easy to assume that your recommenders will focus on the topics that you want them to emphasize, but don’t expect that they will. After you’ve selected your recommenders, set up a time to discuss your recommendation and the points that will be included. This is a great time to remind them of some of your proudest accomplishments, especially if they happened a while back and may be hazy in your recommender’s memory.

Proactively address weaknesses. Take the time well in advance to understand how your target schools evaluate candidates and then do an honest assessment of how you compare on the evaluation criteria. As an example, if your analytical experience is not that strong or if your quant section on the GMAT is low, consider ways to strengthen your quant background. One way is to sign up for some extra quant classes (either at a local university or through a reputable online source like UC Berkeley Extension). Addressing any obvious weaknesses is a way to show the school that you are dedicated to pursuing an MBA and are already preparing yourself for your MBA coursework.

Be open to making a financial investment in your future. I have observed women applicants who can be more hesitant than their male counterparts to take on the financial risk that is often part of pursuing an MBA, especially for students who require loans. It is important to research the ROI of different MBA schools and consider the potential payoff in the future in their desired career. They could also investigate opportunities for student scholarships as well as work-study opportunities to help cover the cost of their MBA studies.

If you would like to speak to us for additional admissions tips and to see how we can help you with your b-school applications, please contact us and find out more about Fortuna at FortunaAdmissions.com.

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