Brand-building & Storytelling for the MBA: Your How-To Guide

July 13, 2019 | by Curtis Johnson

We all have a personal brand, regardless of whether or not you intentionally manage it (and if you don’t, let this be your impetus to start).

In short, your personal brand encompasses what you represent, what you stand for and what comes front of mind to people when they see your name. What traits, qualities and values does your personal brand summon for others – especially those in a position to assess your candidacy for the MBA program of your dreams?

The exercise of crafting a personal brand is both extremely important and a significant challenge. Doing so in a way that’s authentic, poignant and clear requires considered introspection and self-awareness –precisely what the MBA admissions process looks to inspire and evoke.

When the admissions committee gears up to analyze and consider your candidacy for business school, you want yours to be memorable for all the right reasons. That’s why strategic personal brand building is something my Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I sharply calibrate upon initiating the MBA application process.

If you don’t yet have a distinct and logical personal brand, don’t fret. Now is the opportunity to undertake some self-reflection and get intentional about both the medium and the message. Yes, LinkedIn is influential, but social media outlets are merely the low-hanging fruit. Your brand infiltrates every touchpoint imaginable, and perceptions of your brand must be considered in all facets of your life, especially through exchanges beyond the digital. In the words of my Fortuna colleague Brittany Maschal in her piece about cultivating professional presence: “Whether through in-person, email, or written communication via the application, you are always – with every word and interaction – “presenting” yourself and your professional aura.”

As a Wharton graduate, my enthusiasm for brand-building and storytelling led me to brand development at the Walt Disney Company, an organization widely extolled for delivering on its brand with fervent commitment and clarity of purpose. In many ways, the elements for flourishing corporations and individuals is the same. Those who customarily invest the time to sincerely reflect upon their motivations, foundational values, unique aptitudes, guiding purpose and ambitions for the future will be well poised to influence people and industries.

If I’m partnering with an MBA hopeful at the onset of the application process who has yet to figure this out, I’ll encourage them to tap into their authentic self via a series of probing questions. What motivates you? What events or incidents have influenced you, and how have they shaped your decisions? If money weren’t an issue, what types of things would you be doing with your life? The more you explore who you are and what makes you tick, the better prepared you are to determine – and deliver on – your personal brand.

It can also be useful to solicit feedback from others. I recommend talking to a few colleagues you’ve partnered with, as well as a couple trusted people in your life outside of work. Ask questions such as, what qualities come to mind when they think of you? What makes you distinctive and what do you care about? What do you stand for and what do they believe matters most to you?What you garner from this may surprise you, and it can be equally affirming and informative. Parsing through the differentiations between how others perceive you and how you view yourself advises your capacity to be authentic.

The notion of authenticity is critical. In my years in MBA admissions, I’ve seen many applicants struggling to fit a mold or project an image of the ‘ideal candidate.’ It’s a huge error to style yourself to what you assume a program is searching for. This intrinsically disrupts your capacity to be authentic and it is bound to backfire. Beyond introspection, authenticity takes fortitude and commitment. Admissions committees want to see that you maintain the humility and honesty to investigate your authentic self and the confidence to embrace it. And when you do, you stand to present yourself much more effectively than someone who’s pandering to an assumed audience.

THE IMPACT OF STORYTELLING FOR BRAND-BUILDING IN YOUR MBA APPLICATION

It is requisite upon a successful candidate to be thoughtful and details about what makes them distinctive, because all of us have a unique story to share. You can take two applicants from the same undergraduate institution, with nearly interchangeable professional experiences, job titles and academic track records, and there will indubitablybe variations that help differentiate them as individuals. The key to cultivating a dynamic brand is powerful storytelling.

There’s vigor in connecting the dots through storytelling to help awaken your personal brand. An impactful story can take theoretical ideas from the abstract and make them relatable. A compelling story will evoke trust, connection and even familiarity – the kind that makes an admissions reviewer excited to meet you face-to-face and continue the conversation.

Stories can elucidate your communication style, which connects back to relaying your personal brand. Your values, beliefs and decision-making style can be most effectively transmitted through story. There will be stories you’re excited to convey more overtly and those you may want to impart with subtlety along the course of your narrative. In any great storytelling, what you omit can equally as compelling as what you opt to express.

Remember: In a pool of excellence, it isn’t the facts and figures of your accomplishment-filled resume that will stand out for a bleary-eyed admissions committee in a marathon day of caffeine-fueled application-reviews – it’s an unforgettable story. Experiment with  different options around the narratives that resonate most, both for you and for your potential readers. Do this effectively, and your story will be the vehicle that drives your MBA application to the top of the pile.

For additional guidance and insights on how personal brand-building can elevate your business school application, watch my short video blog with Fortuna co-founder Caroline Diarte Edwards.

Fortuna Admissionscoach Curtis Johnson is a journalist, brand builder and an alumnus of Wharton Business School, where he served as a William P. Lauder Wharton Leadership Fellow.

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