Harvard, Stanford and Humility: The MBA Admissions Trinity

October 01, 2012 | by Matt Symonds

With 17 applications for each place in the MBA program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and close to 10,000 applicants hoping to join the incoming class at the Harvard Business School, it is no secret that leading MBA programs have a highly competitive admissions process. Schools like Chicago Booth, INSEAD, UC Berkeley-Haas and the Indian School of Business present similar challenges.

It is no surprise that candidates feel enormous pressure to secure a strong GMAT or GRE admissions test score to accompany their undergraduate grades, and then make every effort to stand out in the crowded applicant pool by producing impressive application essays and letters of recommendation for their admissions file.

But do some candidates go too far in a bid to secure their place, and replace authenticity and self-confidence with chest-puffing and swagger?

“Humility is the magic word,” asserts Dee Leopold, Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, “and it is a quality that is not diametrically opposed to confidence. The challenge that applicants face in the written applications is to be honest and to be clear. That should be the guiding principle. By all means they should tell us about their achievements, but be honest and clear.”

The idea of ‘Confidence without attitude’ is a defining characteristic that UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business explicitly seeks in candidates. “We’re looking for developing leaders who possess strong values that align with our culture,” says Berkeley-Haas Admissions Director Stephanie Fujii. “Surprisingly, this quality of confidence without attitude, or the lack of it, is often clear even in the written application. A candidate who can express his or her achievements and potential without being boastful, and can reflect on both successes and failures with humility and awareness is more likely to be admitted and more likely to thrive in our program.”

Derrick Bolton, Assistant Dean of M.B.A. Admissions at Stanford GSB acknowledges that boastfulness can be an easy trap to fall into when candidates spend their time worrying how they compare to other applicants. “If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally. So what if a score or grade is below the school’s average? It is far more constructive to concentrate your time on why you feel like you are an above average candidate, and reflecting on that experience. The GSB will be able to discern and judge merit based on the accurate telling of your story.”

To best capture this, Bolton’s advice is to write the application as if you were writing it for yourself, and not going to turn it in. “You don’t need to lie to yourself. Self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

So while there are many approaches to creating a compelling application, there is clearly an appropriate tone to strike in your application.  Rather than pumping up your accomplishments in the hope of impressing the admissions reader, or indulging in heavy self-promotion to blow away the competition, it seems that striking a humble tone with thoughtful illustration is the best way forward.

At the Harvard Business School, Dee Leopold confirms that the symmetry of asking candidates to share 3 accomplishments and 3 setbacks is deliberate. “If wisdom is true, we learn more from what didn’t go well.” She also insists that the application to business schools is not an essay-writing contest. Beyond the first step of the written application the school invites selected candidates – known as the ‘finalists’ – to interview. The message remains the same. “At the interview we are not looking for those who act humble, but those who are humble. The admissions team is experienced enough to spot the difference.”

“Personal humility is not inconsistent with professional ambition and professional drive,” reassures Derrick Bolton. He also points out that essays don’t stand in isolation for learning about the candidate’s experience. “Letters of recommendation are another important piece in the puzzle. They can give us all the details, experience, context and help us to understand why the candidate is impressive.”

But he warns against the temptation to seek the most senior recommender at the expense of quality of the letter. “The recommender’s title is not important – the referee will see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves, and provide an objective view without crossing the line into arrogance.”

Whether for the admissions essays or for letters of recommendation, the advice is, “show don’t tell.”  Specific anecdotes and vivid details make a much greater impact on a reader than general claims of greatness. The focus should be on what you thought, felt and said, which leaves the admissions reader the opportunity to then judge your success for him or herself.

Though the competition to a top business school like Stanford is undeniably tough, Derrick Bolton underlines that the admissions team are looking for reasons to admit an applicant, identifying their strengths and thinking about how they could best contribute to the M.B.A. program. “Show us the great reasons to admit you”, he says. “We are on your side.”

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