Sector Savvy – Top Tips for Engineers Applying to B-School

April 17, 2020 | by Caroline Diarte Edwards

When it comes to over-represented profiles in in the MBA applicant pool, engineers are at the top, alongside candidates from consulting and finance (part 1 and part 2 in our sector savvy series, respectively).

Set your sights on a top 10 business school, and you can assume your peers have equally impressive academic and professional distinctions, along with stellar GMAT scores. So, it’s rarely these elements that will set you apart. If you’re an engineer, you need to approach the MBA application differently.

First, take heart: It’s fantastic to have an engineering background plus a degree from a top business school to launch you into your future career. Both place you in an excellent position to advance to a lot of different roles in an array of industries. They’re a great combination.

The top business schools think so, too. According to our Fortuna Deep Dive Analyses of Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School, the best of the best from the tech giants continue to enter the ranks of the world’s most competitive business schools – more than 10% of the HBS Class of 2020 and close to 5% of the GSB admits hail from a Silicon blue-chip tech company.

The question is, if you’re in tech or engineering, how do you position your application to stand out in a sea of excellence?

Consider how to get the admissions team motivated about choosing you versus another candidate. Do you bring an unusual academic background, noteworthy distinction in your field or experience in a non-traditional industry? What unique perspectives, characteristics or stories can you weave into your narrative? It’s not just what you do, but who you are, and your ability to convey your uniqueness in a way that’s coherent and persuasive that set you apart.

Before you sit down to write, consider seven essential tips gleaned from my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions.

7 ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR ENGINEERS AND CANDIDATES IN TECH

1. Avoid industry jargon.
Working in the tech industry means you’re steeped in industry-specific jargon – which may not seem like jargon to you because it’s so ubiquitous in your professional circles. Don’t assume that the admissions reader will know what you’re talking about. The technical jargon that might have helped you in a job interview won’t go far in translating your credentials to the admissions office, and it’s a real turn-off. Keep your audience in mind and strip all technical jargon from your application and essays. Likewise, don’t over-focus on the technical aspects of your role in your narrative, because that’s not what’s relevant to what you bring to business school.

 2. Lift up your transferable skills.
The tricky thing for many engineering applicants is that the role you have and the work that you’ve done may not be directly relevant to the MBA classroom. (Or to your post-MBA career – many engineers are looking to make a career switch.) Step outside your narrow role and take a bigger picture view of the skills and talents you’ve acquired in the job. As you do, reflect on the transferable skills that you’ve developed – in realms like communication, teamwork, leadership and/or presentation skills. This may be quite different from the way you think about your skills in the context of day-to-day demands and not be so obvious at first. Consider the patterns of behavior that flow through your professional performance and how they extend to your engagement in the community, the roles you took on, how you made a contribution.

3. Invest in extracurriculars.
What you do in your free time (what little you might have of it) is as interesting and important to the admissions committee as what you do at work, because it sends a signal about the kind of student and alum you’ll be. It’s all too common to see engineering applicants with plenty of undergrad extracurriculars, which then fall by the wayside in the face of 80 to 100-hour work weeks. But your extracurricular involvement is vital, and it’s one element that can really help bring your application to life. “When the admissions committee starts to review a new candidate, especially from a common profile, they often go straight to the ‘Other Info/Extracurricular’ section of the resume,” says Fortuna’s Heidi Hillis, Stanford GSB alum and former MBA admissions interviewer. “That’s because it’s where they can gain real insight into the type of person they are considering. Business schools are looking for students who will do more than excel in class – they are looking for active contributors to the community.”

That said, it’s about demonstrating commitment over time, impact and leadership, not just joining a club or working at a soup kitchen on holidays. Schools would rather see just one or two long-term interests that give them a fuller picture of what makes you tick. Remember that extracurriculars are another avenue to demonstrate your leadership experience—from mentoring others to chairing an initiative.

 4. Let your personality shine.
Focusing too heavily on work-work-work makes you seem less human. The objective here is to give them a genuine glimpse of who you are, and to reveal a greater dimension to your candidacy beyond your professional identity. To this end, think about why you’ve done the things you’ve done, the events and encounters that have shaped you as a person, your values and attitude toward life. 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.

A terrific example is a recent candidate’s 60-second video presentation to MIT. Instead of a breathless recitation of his successes (common mistake), he focused in on just one story from his life – a single encounter – which in the telling revealed a distinctive aspect of his personality. “Frankly, it was an anecdote that might easily be overlooked, if it weren’t for the artful way he used his story to illuminate the personal values and attributes that made him a great fit for MIT,” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal, former member of Wharton’s Admissions team. “What he achieved was a winsome glimpse into what made him unique, and it exuded warmth, sincerity, and authenticity. He even managed to convey a personal ‘ah-ha’ that was both profound and relevant. And what he chose to omit was so intentional and well-tuned that you couldn’t watch his video statement without wanting to meet him. Slam dunk.”

5. Present a coherent career trajectory.
There’s a lot more movement in the tech industry than in others like consulting or finance. Top programmers get lured away by competition, and an admission office will be familiar with a higher degree of mobility in your sector. For example, it’s not uncommon to see the software engineer who started at Oracle, then continued at Salesforce before moving on to Uber. What’s vital is to ensure coherency in the career narrative that you share.

Rather than being perceived as the ‘hired gun’ with a mosaic of employers, you’ll want to convey that you’ve had the time and opportunity to really take ownership of a project and see it through. Really focus on the impact that you’ve had – and get to it quickly. Go beyond what you did to convey what you learned from your experiences and be able to connect what you’ve learned to what you’ll bring to the MBA classroom.

 6. Be a passionate visionary.
A bold and coherent plan for your future can be exciting for an admissions team to read, as it’s their job to shape a diverse cadre of talented individuals who will go on to represent the school in the future. I’m not implying you offer overly far-fetched ambitions of grandeur, but rather, do you have a thoughtful plan of action, and is it ambitious enough to be interesting?

It could be something that motivates you such as launching your own business or leveraging your skills and experience to make a positive impact in your field or industry. Even if it’s a pivot in your career that you’re seeking, create the link between your past and vision for the future so that it doesn’t look plucked from thin air for the purposes of your MBA application. Your ability to be candid and authentic may be what distinguishes you from another candidate who wasn’t able to convey such clarity of purpose.

7. Coach your recommenders.
They may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your recommenders will know exactly what’s expected from them. Unlike the consulting industry, where it’s common for senior leadership to have an MBA, it’s not a given that your boss went to b-school. Set your recommenders up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. This doesn’t mean telling them what to write – you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead. But you also don’t want them to dive in blindly – especially if they’re unfamiliar with what’s entailed. Business schools want substance, with stories that really back up the fact that you’re an amazing person and stellar employee with enormous potential to succeed.

In preparing your recommender, be sure to share your goals and how business school will help you get there. Having this discussion is critical to ensuring coherence across your application. The added benefit is that your conversation may elicit insights that you haven’t considered about how your abilities are perceived, or how you’ve contributed on a team or project. Your recommender can also convey aspects of your personality or character traits that will add color to your candidacy.

Want more insights? Sign up now for a free consultation for a personal, candid assessment of your chances of admissions to a top business school.

You can also view the first two articles in our Sector Savvy Series:
Top Tips for Consultants Applying to Business School
Top Tips for Finance Candidates Applying to Business School

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