You distinguished yourself as a professional wunderkind, rising to the senior ranks at your company in your early 20s. Clocked long hours at work to keep the boss happy and meet client deadlines. Pulled all-nighters in college amid competing commitments to keep your dean’s list standing. Aced your interviews and accepted an enviable position with a world-class bank, consulting firm or tech giant. Mastered critical reasoning and data sufficiency on the GMAT to net a 730+ score.
Bravo. Your excellence and initiative are admirable. Even so, it may not be enough to confirm admission to one of the world’s top MBA programs.
Because it’s exactly your remarkable kind of profile that great MBA programs are attracting in droves—ambitious, highly capable doers distinguishing themselves early on in their careers. Especially from the ranks of competitive fields like finance, consulting and, increasingly, tech. While it’s a given that excellence is imperative for all top tier b-schools, it’s also incumbent on admissions committees to build a diverse student body.
Last year, software engineers, consultants or bankers comprised some 60 percent of HBS applicants. That’s about 5,500 candidates from the three most common MBA profiles in the running, competing with everyone else to be among the fortunate 12 percent of admits. Across the US, Stanford GSB had 8,116 applicants last year for only 417 spots. The lucky few in the incoming class hailed from 312 organizations across tech, investment management, NGOs, government, education, consulting, military and other sectors. Meaning the program was selecting the best of the best of the best – in very small numbers – among the hundreds of worthy applicants from BCG, Google or Goldman.
Schools that have smaller cohorts like Dartmouth Tuck are no less of a challenge. How many acceptance letters can UC Berkeley Haas offer to talented Bain & Company consultants given its class size of 252 achievers? (Answer: Not many.)
And what about your stellar GMAT score? It sounds promising that a 700 means that 89 percent of test takers have scores below yours. Yet the average GMAT for an M7 school is 728, ranging from 717 at Columbia to an eye-popping 737 at Stanford. And while applying with 730 to a top school won’t guarantee admission, a much lower score means there’s heaps of other talent with comparable profiles for adcom to choose from.
It’s humbling that more than 80 percent of hopefuls applying to Stanford, INSEAD, Harvard, Wharton, Booth and other top tier schools are fully qualified to attend. The reality is that only a relative few get the opportunity. So how will you position yourself to stand out?
Consider this: Your excellence is your golden ticket. Once you’re in the ring, you win by conveying your unique qualities. I assure you that they’re there – it just takes effort to surface them.
My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former admissions directors of tier one MBA programs, are skilled at helping candidates like you to stand out in a sea of excellence. Caroline Diarte Edwards (former INSEAD Director of Admissions), Judith Silverman Hodara (former Wharton Director of Admissions) and Cassandra Pittman (former Admissions Officer at LBS and Columbia Business School alumna) offer these six tips to maximize your chances of admissions success:
1. Identify and Articulate Your Differences:
Too many applicants over-identify with their professional identity – as a tech wiz, banker or consultant. Consider the elements of your history or future ambitions that are distinct from those of your peers. Get there by sitting down with a mentor, colleague or trusted friend and talk through what’s brought you to this moment in your life and career – and your desire to pursue an MBA. It’s a reflective process that helps you mine unexpected and unique qualities that can you craft into a compelling narrative.
2. Tailor Your Experience:
If you’re confident an MBA is for you, you’ll want to immediately begin curating your career experience to distinguish yourself from colleagues. So if you’re working at a consulting firm like McKinsey, BCG or Bain and on track to apply within your first two years, this gives you a short runway to shape your experience. Be proactive about claiming opportunities that are outside the norm and volunteer to drive projects beyond your current scope. Seize the chance to gain international exposure in the form of trips, conferences, projects or work abroad. If you artfully connect these opportunities to your future goals, all the better, but the main point is that anything out of the ordinary on your resume goes a long way toward positioning a more memorable application to admissions officers.
3. Participate in Meaningful Extracurriculars:
It’s not uncommon for the typical MBA profile to have an array of co-curriculars like sports and volunteer projects through undergrad, which fall by the wayside when a heavy work load descends. Staying connected to at least one or two of your outside interests shows you’re both dedicated and dynamic – values highly lauded by MBA admissions. This means extracurricular activities that appear mere months before the MBA deadline won’t be taken seriously. Programs are looking for the fuller picture of what makes you tick, and extracurriculars are another platform to underscore your leadership qualities – from leading a fundraising effort to mentoring others.
4. Articulate a Compelling Career Vision:
A powerful and coherent vision for your future can be exciting for an adcom to read, since it’s their job to convene a diverse community of talent who will represent the school into the future. Not to imply you should present far-fetched ambitions of greatness, but rather that your narrative should present your compelling, motivating yet realistic aspirations, and illuminate both a vision and a path to realizing them. Get introspective early on about what you hope to do after your MBA, and how you’ll make it possible; and be able to convey the impact you hope to have on your future community and peers. Think about why the admissions team should pick you versus another candidate. It could be something that drives you such as starting your own business or making a difference in your field or industry. Even if you’re seeking to pivot in your career, make the link between your past and vision for the future so it doesn’t look fabricated for the purposes of impressing admissions officers. If it comes from the heart, it will read as thoughtful and sincere. Your ability to be genuine may be just what distinguishes you from another candidate who didn’t convey such clarity of purpose.
5. Collaborate with Your Recommenders:
HBS will look first to your resume and recommendations when considering your MBA application. If it’s likely your resume resembles rival applicants, think about how your letters of recommendations can solicit interest. Identify the best person possible to serve as your champion, and then coach them in advance to write the strongest possible letter on your behalf. This means ensuring your recommender can clearly articulate your exemplary traits, with supporting points, and offer it in a powerful and consistent way. Cultivate a relationship with a recommender early on who both knows you very well and is senior in their field or profession. Proactively discuss your qualities, strengths and future vision. Then don’t hesitate to give suggestions or offer concrete examples they might use in their letter – your specificity will greatly assist them in their task. The idea is to avoid a formulaic, template letter and instead solicit a personalized account of your top qualities that conveys genuine feeling for your candidacy.
6. Stay True to Yourself:
In the push for positioning your excellence for others to judge, remember to stay true to yourself by being authentic. Even if it seems like it, business schools don’t expect the superhuman. It’s not about speaking seven languages with experience in 30 countries while saving a rare species from imminent extinction. Successfully telling the stories that are important to you in a way that’s compelling for others is about being sincere and self-aware. The goal isn’t to project an image of the ideal profile (because who really knows?) – it’s about getting attention by portraying, with sincerity, what matters most to you. Peel away all the other things you think you have to be and get personal about who you are. It’s this feat of both confidence and vulnerability that can make a tremendous difference.
Standing out from your peers is essential to gaining the attention of any top school, but thoughtful planning is the key to illuminating a unique and compelling story. Reflect on your aspirations early on, explore other passions outside of the office and create opportunities to choose the path less traveled. Chances are you’re one among thousands of qualified, impressive candidates competing for a few top spots. Your challenge – and opportunity – is to position much of your excellence to shine through your academics and resume, while crafting a narrative throughout the rest of your application that’s distinctive, powerful and leaves the admissions team eager to know more.