How to Stand Out in the Application Pile

October 21, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Matt Symonds published an online article on this topic for Poets and Quants. Below is an adapted version.

With Round 1 deadlines behind us and with many top business school R2 deadlines rapidly approaching, a topic on applicants’ minds is how they stack up compared to the thousands of others applying. You’re not alone in trying to convince the admissions committees that there’s a compelling reason to admit you over others with similar educational pedigrees and work experience. It’s not too late to understand how you will be evaluated and to think about what you can do to help your chances of gaining admission to your dream program.


“Buckets” are a metaphor to categorize common professional backgrounds of candidates applying to business school each year. One of the biggest challenges for the droves of finance professionals, management consultants, and IT associates applying every year to the top business schools is that their files will find themselves in a bucket that is overflowing.

It’s not enough for an applicant to show positive career achievement and progression at companies like Goldman Sachs, Bain and Co., or Apple. For every applicant there are many more rivals, often at the same organization, with similar backgrounds, work experience, and career accomplishments. Schools like Harvard, Stanford and Wharton seek out diversity in the MBA program, and have the luxury of selecting the top candidates who will contribute unique perspectives, both inside the classroom and in the business school community.

So your pedigree at a desirable consulting firm, financial institution or technology giant means that you are competing with colleagues and peers from Madrid to Manila to Mexico City.


My colleagues at Fortuna Admissions were faced with the challenge of building a diverse and balanced classroom when they worked in Director of MBA Admissions roles at Wharton, INSEAD, Booth, the London Business School and other top schools. They also recognize the strain such selectivity can place on the relationship between these important feeder organizations, which also recruit MBAs heavily, and the schools, as the feeder companies compete to get more of their staff into the top business schools.

So what do they suggest if you have an over-represented background that categorizes you in a bucket that may be flooding? Here are their suggestions to help your chances of admission.

Don’t expect your academic background, GMAT and professional experience to get you admitted. These are a hygiene factor, and though important to your chances, are not likely to be the elements that set you apart.

▪ Start planning your MBA early on. The optimal time is when you begin your career, especially if you are from a company like McKinsey, Deloitte, or Bain and will be applying to business school within two years. To make your candidacy appealing, this means you should be thoughtful about what you can do on both personal and professional levels.

▪ Seek out experience that not everyone else will have, such as unique project or sector experience, or international involvement. Even better if this also links to some distinctive career goals,

▪ In your application, highlight what is unique about your perspective and what unique contributions you will make that will be valued by the school community.

▪ Applicants coming from intense careers such as consulting or banking can sometimes have less to show for extra curricular involvement. Often in these cases they have some impressive accomplishments from several years back, but much less since they started work (as a result of long hours and travel schedules). However, this can be a great opportunity for some candidates to stand out from the competition, if you can show consistent extra-curricular engagement that goes back at least a year or two (and you have not just signed up to something a few months before school application deadlines).

▪ Start early on building your relationships with your recommenders. It’s important that they act as your champions and rate you extremely highly. The schools will be evaluating how you rank versus your peers, and even how you rank compared to other candidates the recommender has recommended to the school in the past.

Top schools like Wharton and Harvard, along with others, are looking for innovative thinkers – candidates who are not saying exactly what everyone else is saying. So how about creating your own bucket, filled with what you alone can bring to a business school program lucky enough to have you?

For some additional ideas as you work on your application itself, see the complete article written by Matt for Poets and Quants, click here.

Sign up for a

Free Consultation