Making good on a resolution that’s truly life-changing takes both courage and introspection.
If yours is to apply for an MBA this year, you’ll also need determination and a great strategy to develop your business school application.
Are you ready?
I’ve reviewed thousands of applications during my career in MBA admissions, from serving as head of Admissions at INSEAD to my Director role at Fortuna Admissions, and I feel strongly that the most important action you can take is this: spend substantive time on self-reflection. Business schools don’t just want a litany of your professional triumphs and academic excellence. They want to know who you are, what makes you unique and what you care about.
Throughout your b-school application process – from crafting essays to the admissions interview – you’ll encounter some formidable questions designed to excavate your unique qualities, guiding values, and academic and career ambitions. For example, a Stanford GSB essay asks, “What matter most to you and why,” while Kellogg wants to know, “How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?” This season, Berkeley Haas debuted an essay asking you to distill an emblematic life experience into a six-word story. Meanwhile, MIT Sloan’s video statement declares simply (if open-endedly), “introduce yourself to your future classmates.” Answering such questions in a succinct, authentic and compelling way that piques an admission officer’s curiosity to know more requires profound self-awareness.
Before crafting your admissions essays, start by taking a big step back to consider where you are in your life and career – where you’ve been and where you want to go in the future. Especially for fast-track young professionals, the breathless pace of life makes it hard to find the time (and mental quiet) to get introspective about such questions. The reality of constant distractions and competing priorities makes it hard to pause, disconnect and think deeply. But you’re much more likely to conceive a distinctive and powerful application if you do.
Initiating a process of outcomes-oriented introspection requires intention and discipline. Here are four steps to get started:
1. Great questions lead to great insights. Start by brainstorming a relevant list of smart questions, such as: What are my strengths and weaknesses? What have been the defining moments, or turning points, in my life? What have I learned about myself from times when I’ve failed and from times I have excelled? What are my core values? What do I want from my career – work-life balance, international experience, meaning, high status, power, wealth, brilliant colleagues? What am I truly passionate about, and what perspectives or experiences have shaped this passion? What are my main reasons for seeking an MBA, and what do I need to learn? What do I want to have accomplished in my career on the day I retire? Asking these types of questions can surface insights that will help both clarify and focus how you position yourself in an MBA application. They will also help you cement in your own mind why this next chapter of your life is important.
2. Look beyond your current horizon. Most of us don’t have a reflexive practice of self-reflection, making the idea feel daunting or awkward. You might be uncomfortable thinking too far ahead or feel hesitant about how big you dare to dream. Initiating a process of thoughtful introspection at least seven months ahead of application deadlines gives you both ample time to get reflective and to make the habit routine. Insights may not arise immediately. But just vocalizing the questions and inviting the answers can inspire surprising connections. Answers may appear suddenly or at odd moments – gazing through the cabin window of an airplane, reading an article or walking to the subway.
3. Take time to intentionally unplug. Introspection can be a downright radical act in our digital age, where social media evokes our compulsive self-projection. Many of us are more practiced at curating a persona we hope to live up to than grappling with the big questions. A little distance – and silence – can do wonders for re-grounding. Try a daily stroll without your phone in tow, or unplug from your devices and screens for regular intervals. Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain initiated a practice she calls her “Technology Shabbat,” where she and her family disconnect from all their devices from Friday evening until Saturday night. If the thought of it makes you break into a sweat, remember it doesn’t have to be an entire day. But it’s this kind of practice that can boost your creativity while also lowering the stress of being in constant communication with everyone but yourself.
4. Invite input from others. In addition to reflecting at intervals on your own, invite a trusted colleague, family member or friend into your process. What top character traits do they think you possess? How would they describe your unique talents and assets? It’s useful to get a sense of how others perceive you and what they’d say about your strengths and weaknesses. Ask where they see you in five-to-10 years’ time. I suspect some of responses will surprise you, and give you valuable grist for your application.
Too many applicants squander valuable time overthinking what admissions officers want to hear and exacting a narrative to fit their perception of the “perfect profile.” Introspection will inspire greater self-awareness, which, in turn, will help you to come across as sincere and mature in your application. In the end, the more authentic you are, the more interesting you will be to the MBA admissions committee.
Picture yourself in an admissions reader’s shoes: You want to read something that seems ambitious, thought-provoking, true and even a little entertaining – something that you can’t set down until the very end. Programs pride themselves on getting to you know you as a person during the admissions process, and there’s no single profile that’s more admissible than another. So consider this resolution: Don’t skimp on self-reflection.