How to Stand Out in the MBA Applicant Pool

February 23, 2016 | by Matt Symonds

The following is an edited transcript of a video interview between two of our Directors: Judith Hodara, former Wharton Director of Admissions and Caroline Diarte Edwards, former INSEAD Director of Admissions, and John Byrne from Poets and Quants.

Watch the full video

Question to both Judith and Caroline: Probably 80% of the applicant pool at Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard, and Stanford are fully qualified to attend. But only a very small percentage get the chance. How do you stand out in that pool of qualified applicants?

Discover and Explore Your Unique Qualities

Judith: Sometimes candidates only think of themselves as a consultant, or a banker, or someone who’s been doing IT. What they need to think about are the little pieces of their past or things they might want to do in the future that are very different from other individuals. We advise that you, the applicant sit down with someone who knows you very well and go through what’s brought you to the present point in your life and career. It’s often surprising what you’ll come up with that’s different and unexpected and could be an important part of your story.

Take Advantage Of Unique Opportunities

Caroline: It’s important to plan ahead to pursue an MBA by thinking about it early and have something that will really help you to stand out. This could be looking for a particular project that would have an impact you wouldn’t normally have. A client of mine last year took on a project none of his peers wanted. It was a very unsexy consulting project working in the energy industry in the middle of nowhere. He had an amazing story to tell, including how well regarded he was by the client. So think about those projects (both in and out of your workplace) that will enable you to have a bigger impact. If such opportunities do not present themselves, think about your extra-curriculars, things outside of work and study but which come with opportunities to take on some leadership or to do something a bit different from your peers.

Start Early To Find A Recommender

Judith: Getting a recommender to be your champion early is important. It’s part of an overall theme, namely, start early. Start early with your application process. Start early with recommenders. You need to find a recommender who can speak volumes about who you are, what you’ve brought to the team and who understands what you want to do next. It is also important to include what you haven’t done so well. Your recommender may be asked “tell us what kind of constructive criticism you’ve offered the candidate and describe how he or she has managed it”. This will speak to your growth, how willing you are to “go for it” and how you have developed, so far.

Develop Passion For Your Career Vision

Caroline: Think about how you can get the business school excited about bringing YOU in versus another candidate. It could be something that you’re particularly passionate about such as, starting your own business, reaching a certain level or perhaps having an impact in some way. Link it to your past so that it’s not simply something pulled out of the air for application purposes. Make it something really genuine, really coming from the heart. This may enable you to stand out versus another candidate who perhaps isn’t able to convey such passion about the future.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Judith: Be genuine and true to yourself. Business schools do not expect you to be superhuman, speaking eight different languages and with experience in 40 different countries. Be reflective. Tell stories that are important to you. You want to convey what deeply matters to you, who you are as an individual. Strip away all the other things you think you have to be. Being who you really are is going to make a tremendous difference in your application.

 Watch the full video

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