It’s tempting to want to plug your winning story into play for each business school on your list once you’ve done the hard work of reflecting on where you’ve been, where you want to go, and how business school is going to get you there. If it’s good enough for Columbia, it’ll be equally compelling for NYU Stern or Duke Fuqua, right? Now that you’ve got your story straight, can’t you just cut and paste?
No, alas, it doesn’t work that way.
My Fortuna Admissions colleagues and I have read many applications from aspiring MBAs who had done just that – either the essay was a clear cut-and-paste from another application, or they were not really answering the question posed. Even worse, I’ve reviewed applications of careless candidates who hadn’t mastered the ‘find and replace’ feature, professing their love of Stanford GSB to the admissions committee of Chicago Booth. That’s embarrassing.
So what does it take to customize your application to a specific MBA program?
What’s essential in crafting each application is making each school believe that they’re your first choice. Of course, programs know that you’re applying to other programs – they expect that and it’s a sensible thing to do. But to win their acceptance, show them the love. This means going the extra mile to prove you understand a school’s unique culture and values, and that you’ve given considered thought both to how you’ll contribute to their community and what you hope to gain from it.
So make the effort now to tailor each application to your target programs. The last thing you want to do is undermine your incredibly hard work by submitting a generic MBA application.
7 tips to customize your MBA application
1. Do your research.
Research each school to learn what makes them unique. Go beyond what’s offered on the website and probe for the heart of their differentiators and values. This level of awareness and detail can and should come across in your application. Cite specifics that are relevant to your career vision and goals – specializations, electives, clubs, and the myriad of opportunities that will be available to you. As there are many different elements you can speak to for every school, ensure you choose ones that are genuinely connected to your future, and to what you personally hope to gain from the experience.
2. Make meaningful connections.
Work to build relationships within the community at each of your target programs. Explore your current network to reach out to alumni and students, or query the admissions team about being put in touch with someone with a similar background. As you do, ask intelligent questions that help you learn what the school cares about and what it’s looking for in new members of its community. It really shows when someone has spoken with alumni and students, and you can even drop names in your application. Duke Fuqua, for example, urges alumni and current students who have met with potential candidates to contribute direct feedback via online submission if they sense an applicant’s a particularly strong fit for the program (if this happens, Fuqua waives your application fee).
3. Make an effort to participate in MBA events.
During the Covid pandemic, schools scrambled to create virtual experiences that cultivate meaningful interaction with prospective candidates, and many have continued to offer robust virtual offerings. These sessions are your opportunity to really try to assess and understand the unique aspects of the school that fit with your career vision and future goals.
“I speak with so many candidates who have no idea that schools track event registration/attendance on the back end, and that it’s directly tied to the applicant’s file in many cases (many schools use the same software platform for both the application and event management, so it is all tied together),” writes Fortuna’s Julie Ferguson in her post, Tips for Maximizing Virtual MBA Admissions Events. “Whether you take full advantage of these opportunities or not can set you apart.”
4. Reference Specific insights, conversations & events.
In your application, take the opportunity to mention you had great conversations with ‘X student from X year,’ discussing, for example, all the excellent club opportunities, and what this led to in the context of your aspirations and interests. While every school has its own process, and each application is different, there are always savvy ways to demonstrate how much research you’ve done. Not just by writing your essays with detail and depth, but literally mentioning, ‘I’ve met this member of staff,’ or ‘I’ve been to that or this event.’ Admissions committees will take note of the volume of effort you’ve put in.
It’s effective from the staff perspective, too; seeing your name and thinking, ‘ah yes, I recall that person, I met her in San Francisco at an MBA event,’ helps connect the dots. I always found it gratifying to learn that someone enjoyed our conversation and found it useful enough to reference in their application.
5. Build smart connections and seek ways to contribute early.
If you’ve got your MBA career vision and goals figured out, and you know how this school is going to help you take the next step in your career, you’re poised to start making connections that are going to support the journey. If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, for example, you’ll want to reach out to leadership in the entrepreneurship club. Perhaps you discover the club’s president is running an event, and help them make some contacts. Even before you’ve joined the program, it’s not too early to start getting involved and demonstrate that you’re really passionate about an issue and that you’re the sort of person who will positively contribute.
6. Solicit feedback from a trusted source.
Having an expert MBA admissions coach who can guide and support you can be of enormous value. My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions are former business school gatekeepers who can offer insider expertise. Beyond their expertise and insight, a seasoned coach will push you to go deeper, helping to illuminate the stories and reflections you may have overlooked that will distinguish you to the MBA Admissions committee (you can request a free consultation from Fortuna to see if it’s right for you).
Alternatively, if you’ve cultivated trusted alumni or student connections, you can ask if they’d be willing to review your essays and offer you some frank feedback. Their first-hand understanding of the school’s culture and what makes it unique will offer an invaluable perspective. Invite them to be candid with you, so they’re emboldened to offer helpful critiques, such as, ‘no, this essay isn’t coming across as truly Berkeley,’ (for example).
7. Brief your recommenders.
Your recommenders are a key element of your strategic positioning. Meet with your recommenders and talk to them about your vision, your goals, and how this program in particular is going to help you take the next leap in your career. This important groundwork will allow your recommenders to include specific snippets that might resonate with your school in their recommendation letter.
When I was manager of admissions and recruitment at London Business School, like the other top schools we had no shortage of strong GMAT scores, high GPAs, and qualified profiles with fast-track professional records. This means your ability to convey your genuine and ardent commitment to each target school is part of what will help you stand out. In reviewing your MBA application, you want the admissions committee member to think, ‘wow, this applicant really gets us – let’s invite them for interview.’
Updated December, 2022
Amy Hugo is a former manager of admissions and recruitment at London Business School. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation with Fortuna Admissions.