The One Thing You Can Do to Dramatically Improve your Business School Application

December 30, 2016 | by Matt Symonds

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You may or may not be celebrating the holidays this week but you’re most likely surrounded by some sort of year-end celebration. I’ve been reflecting on how to use the end-of-year to your strategic advantage. All over the world, the New Year brings the opportunity for reflection and future resolution. Thinking about what we’ve been doing and what we would like to do in the future can become an important turning point towards achieving the kind of life we want for ourselves. For young professionals, the decision to apply for an MBA can be a significant step toward building a career and future life to which you aspire.

Having reviewed many thousands of applications during my career as Director of Admissions at INSEAD, I have come to the conclusion that one key action you can take to dramatically improve your MBA application is this: to spend a considerable amount of time on self-reflection—no matter where you are in the process. MBA programs don’t just want to hear about your academic excellence and professional experiences. They want to know who you truly are and what  motivates you.

From the application essays to the interview phase, you’ll have to answer some very challenging questions probing your unique qualities, guiding values, and academic and career ambitions. For example, Duke asks you to “Tell us 25 random things about yourself” while Stanford asks you to write about “What matters most to you and why”.  And if you’re invited to interview, you’ll be asked additional challenging questions such as, “How will this school help you achieve your career goals,” or “Describe a defining moment in your life.” Answering such questions well requires considerable self-awareness and maturity.

So I suggest taking a big step back and think about where you are in your life and career—what you’ve been doing and where you’re heading before racing off to write your admissions essays. With the busy life we all lead, especially for young and ambitious professionals, it can be hard to find the time (and a quiet mind) to focus on such questions. But if you do, the chances of writing a more compelling and authentic application will greatly increase.

Here are three top tips to inspire a process of introspection:

1. Great insights begin with great questions. Begin your reflection process by compiling an intelligent list of questions. For example: What are my strengths and weaknesses? What have I learned about myself from times when I’ve excelled and from times I have failed? What matters most to me in my career —money, sense of purpose, work-life balance, international exposure, professional status, power, or stimulating colleagues? What have been the defining moments, or turning points, in my life? What are my values? What am I passionate about, and what experiences have shaped this passion? Why do I really want an MBA—what further skills do I need to gain to succeed? On my retirement day, what do I want to have achieved professionally? Asking these kinds of questions can generate insights that will help clearly communicate how you present yourself in an MBA application.

2. Look beyond your current horizons. Self-analysis and reflection does not come easily to many of us. Some may even feel uncomfortable about thinking far ahead, and fear dreaming too big. Realistically, you should be doing some deep introspection several months ahead of the application deadline to give yourself time to reflect and think things over. Inspiration might not come right away, but just asking the questions and inviting the answers can trigger insight. I suspect you’ll find that answers arrive at odd moments—when reading an article, out on a hike, or gazing through an airplane window.

3. Reach out to other people for input. In addition to pondering all of this on your own, speak to your family, friends, and colleagues and invite them to participate in the process. Ask them how they view you and what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. How would they describe your unique attributes and talents? What personality traits do they think you have? Ask them what they see you doing in 10 years’ time. You might be surprised by their feedback.

Deep introspection can seem counter-intuitive in the digital age; many of us are more comfortable with projecting an image rather than reflecting on who you truly are. As a result, too many applicants over-analyze what they think admissions officers want to hear. Also, the bombardment of perpetual distractions makes it hard to disconnect and really ruminate deeply. A little distance—and silence—can really do the trick. Attempt to go for a long walk without your phone, or simply leave aside your screens and devices for a period of time.

Reflection will elicit greater self-awareness, and this may well help you to come across as genuine and mature in your application. In the end, the more authentic and honest you are in your application, the more interesting you will appear to the admissions committee. Imagine that you are part of the adcom reading your profile. I’m sure you’d prefer to read something that seems sincere, ambitious, thought-provoking, and even a little entertaining. There isn’t “one profile” that has a stronger chance of being admitted than another, and schools pride themselves on really getting to know you as an individual during the admissions process. So contemplate this New Year’s resolution: Don’t skimp on introspection.

By Caroline Diarte Edwards, Director at Fortuna Admissions & Former INSEAD Director of Admissions, Marketing, and Financial Aid

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