Have you slogged long hours at the office to keep the boss happy and meet client deadlines?
Pulled all-nighters in college to accumulate credits and maintain your dean’s list standing? Aced your job interviews and secured a spot at an A-list consulting firm? Distinguished yourself as a career wunderkind who’s risen to the senor ranks in your 20s? Congratulations. You’re super smart with a great job, and your commitment and excellence are laudable. Alas, they may not be enough to secure admission in one of the world’s top MBA programs.
Why not? Because you’re not the only one who’s been going the extra mile to be the best—especially in a hyper competitive field like consulting. Alas, the management consultant is one of the most common profiles in the elite MBA applicant pool (along with finance and tech). So while your academic and professional excellence is requisite, these are not the data points that will set you apart.
So how will you position yourself to stand out in such an over-represented applicant pool?
My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions, former admissions directors of tier one MBA programs, consolidated their most essential advice for applicants in three of the most over-populated pools: candidates from Consulting, Finance, and Tech / Engineering. We’re drawing upon our decades of insider industry expertise and MBA coaching experience, along with findings from Fortuna’s Deep Dive Analyses of Stanford GSB and HBS admits to the Classes of 2020.
This first in our Sector Savvy series zeros in on seven tips for consultants on how to position a compelling application when the best isn’t the barometer.
7 TOP TIPS ON HOW TO STAND OUT AS A CONSULTANT
1. Don’t explain the nuts and bolts of what you do.
There are a lot of people applying to business school with this credential, so you can assume admissions reader is well versed in the type of work that you’re doing on a daily basis. They know your sector, and the typical career development rates. This being a given, don’t waste valuable real estate in your application explaining your tasks. Instead, really focus on the impact that you’ve had – and get to that very quickly. Go beyond what you did to convey what you learned from your experiences. And then connecting what you’ve learned to what you’re going to bring to the MBA classroom.
2. Reveal greater dimension to your candidacy.
Don’t let your identity be defined only by your job. Most consultants feel it’s who they are, a common condition among high-achieving rock stars. Take this opportunity of applying to b-school to step back from a breakneck 80+ hours-a-week schedule to understand what really drives and motivates you, and where you wish to have the most impact. Reflect on what’s brought you to this moment in your career and your life – and this decision to pursue an MBA. Excavate unexpected and unique elements from of your past or future aspirations that can you craft into a compelling story and offer as evidence of your leadership potential. Being able to tell stories that are important to you is about being reflective and self-aware. The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be – because so few people are.
3. Shape your experience.
If you know that an MBA is right for you, you’ll want to start immediately curating your professional experience to distinguish you from peers – and the earlier you begin the better. And if you’re currently with a consulting firm like McKinsey, Bain or BCG (MBB for short), you may be applying within your initial two years, which gives you a short runway to tailor your experience. Proactively seek opportunities that are out of the ordinary and volunteer to lead projects outside of your scope. Seize any chance for international exposure (projects, conference, trips or work abroad). If you can connect these experiences to your future aspirations, all the better, but the key point here is that anything out of the ordinary on your roster of experiences will go a long way to making your application more memorable. What will give you a different edge over peers with the same title, and show you’re bringing something unique to the MBA classroom?
4. Explore meaningful extracurriculars.
In our team’s deep dive analysis comparing Class of 2020 admits to both Stanford GSB and HBS, we discovered that the MBBs and big fours that were admitted to the world’s most elite programs all had a level of community engagement that spoke to a sense of higher purpose, and a desire to contribute to society. Their extracurricular pursuits reinforced a pattern of leadership and commitment that was both distinctive and compelling – whether it was part of a nonprofit board, mentoring effort, sports team or Bollywood dance club.
While many former consultants were highly engaged undergrads, it’s typical for outside activities fall by the wayside in the face of heavy workloads. Staying involved in at least one or two of your commitments outside of work demonstrates that you’re both dynamic and passionate – values highly prized by MBA admissions. Also, know that extracurricular activities that appear three months before your MBA deadline won’t be taken seriously. Schools would rather see just one or two long-term interests that offer a fuller picture of what makes you tick.
5. Ensure your exceptional quant ability is a given.
The incoming class average GMAT scores for top schools are already quite eye-watering – 734 for Stanford GSB, 732 for Wharton, 730 for HBS – and seem to creep up a bit every year. Yet know that the average score for management consultants is typically about 10 to 20 points higher; it’s a given they possess extraordinary analytical abilities. Consultants also tend to apply a bit earlier than other candidates and are normally very good test takers. So if your GMAT is not at least to the average for the school, if not above, then it won’t be considered a competitive score.
And don’t expect an Ivy League degree to set you apart – our deep dive research revealed that 1 in 3 GSB candidates and 1 in 4 HBS students in the Class of 2020 was an Ivy League undergrad. As a management consultant, you ideally need to tick all the boxes – great academics, strong test scores, and extracurricular distinctions to stand out.
6. Coach your recommenders.
When HBS considers an MBA application, they look first to the resume and recommendations. Consider how your recommendations can capture an admissions committee’s attention, as it’s likely your resume is similar to rival applicants. You’ll need to find the best recommender possible and to work with them in advance to write an outstanding letter on your behalf. Build a relationship early on with a recommender who is both senior and who knows you very well.
If you’re coming from a traditional feeder company like MBB, know they are very likely getting multiple requests from other MBA hopefuls. Make no assumptions about your recommender’s bandwidth – and prepare them accordingly by giving ample time and sufficient detail to do a great job. Proactively discuss your achievements, strengths and career vision. And don’t hesitate to offer suggestions or remind them of concrete examples to share, as this kind of specificity will greatly help them with their job. The goal is to deliver a personalized description of your top qualities that conveys genuine feeling for your candidacy, and to avoid a formulaic, template letter recycled from previous years.
7. Communicate your self- and situational awareness.
In a candidate pool whose sharp self-possession can veer quickly to overconfidence, your communications savvy will be under scrutiny. For example, certain qualities that may have helped you thrive as a strategy consultant can come across as impatient, arrogant or misaligned with the MBA Admissions Committee. My Fortuna colleague Karla Cohen, former Associate Director at HBS, has a spectacular story of being interrupted by a prospective candidate in the HBS interview who corrected her mid-question (No, no, what you should be asking me is…’). The MBA interview is a relational experience, not a pitch meeting. Establishing that you are who you say you are on paper means staying alert and curious, maintaining eye contact, and asking thoughtful questions when given the opportunity. Your ability to be authentic, and to discern the line between confidence and arrogance, speaks to your acumen and maturity.
Want more insights? View this focused, five-minute strategy huddle with P&Q’s John Byrne and Fortuna’s Caroline Diarte Edwards as part of their MBA Adventure: Making it Happen series: 3 Tips for Management Consultants. You can also sign up now for a free consultation for a personal, candid assessment of your chances of admissions to a top business school.
And, stay tuned for the next in our Sector Savvy series: Top Tips for Finance Candidates.