Imagine the scene: It’s a Tuesday in early January, about 3:45 in the afternoon.
You are a persevering MBA Admissions reader who has just spent the last five hours poring over the profiles of investment managers, senior associates, private equity analysts (excepting a 25-minute break when sandwiches were brought in). There’s a point of saturation when all their professional exploits become indistinguishable. You’re grasping for something that brings you alive with delight.
It’s the last line in someone’s resume that snaps you awake – ‘this guy is a world champion surfer?’ – and flips the image you’d initially formed on its head. Or maybe it’s a startlingly fresh essay that leads with the candidate’s mushroom hunting hobby, artfully positioned as evidence of her relentless dedication and creativity. (Both of these real applicants were HBS admits.)
“High achieving people are so conditioned to think that their achievements matter most. But once you get to a certain level, those things don’t matter as much anymore,” says Fortuna’s Brittany Maschal, former member of Wharton’s Admissions team. When unwavering excellence is a given, then it’s about your story and the qualities that make you unique. Brittany affirms this can be a hard sell to candidates accustomed to wunderkind status: “It can feel like a riskier approach – shouldn’t I talk about my greatest hits? All my accomplishments?”
The point is, being in finance is what you do, but it’s not who you are (even if most of us are conditioned to believe our career is our identity). And given that candidates hailing from finance are among the most over-represented profiles (along with consultants and engineers) you need to approach your application differently to really uncover those points of uniqueness if you want to catch the attention of the MBA Admissions Committee.
“I recently worked with a young woman who was exceptionally bright, Ivy League undergrad, worked at Goldman – a common profile. But she also happened to be a competitive figure skater,” says Brittany. “The whole first 15 minutes of her MBA interview was questioning related to her figure skating, which was a less than one-line mention at the bottom of her resume. Why? It said the most about the type of person she was, her dedication, and what she was passionate about. They won’t always ask you ‘tell me about this project.’ They’re digging into elements of your story that they don’t already know. You can position a much stronger application by thinking outside the box.”
In this third installment in our series on over-represented applicant types, we hone in on key insights for financial candidates (view advice for Consultants and advice for Engineers). We’re drawing upon the Fortuna Admissions team’s decades of insider industry expertise and MBA coaching expertise.
5 Essential Tips for MBA Candidates in Finance
1. Identify and explore your unique qualities.
As noted above, many candidates believe their identity and profession are synonymous, which makes for a one-dimensional narrative. Make sure that your application illuminates the other qualities of your personality, your background, your motivators, and things that are important to you as you tell the full story of who you are and why you want this degree. 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. It’s this feat of both vulnerability and confidence that can make a tremendous difference in your application.
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. 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 show up. Get reflective about your curiosities, how these qualities are steering you toward your dreams. The earlier you start this process of introspection, the stronger your application will be.
2. Convey what you’ve learned, not just what you’ve done.
Similarly, don’t make the mistake of creating the “resume to prose” type essay that will put your wearied admissions reader to sleep. Showcasing a highlights reel of professional accomplishments is a common mistake, and it robs your narrative of the potential for making an emotional connection. Go beyond what you did to convey what you learned from your experiences. And then, connect what you’ve learned to what you’re going to bring to the MBA classroom.
“For example, you might talk about a failure in the essay – a time you fell and picked yourself back up,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen, former Harvard Business School Associate Director. “Underscore what you learned from the experience and how it shaped you as a human being. It’s so much more compelling when you allow people to connect to your experience.”
3. Know your story and present a clear rationale for your decisions.
“Sure, there’s plenty of variation in the finance industry – being in sales and trading is very different than being in private equity, working on Wall Street or in any of the international markets,” says Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara, former head of Wharton Admissions. “All of these realms are really quite distinct. But its less to do with where you’ve worked than why you worked there, your understanding of your role, and your rationale for making different moves at various stages of your career.”
What does it say about what makes you tick and the environment that you thrive in if you’re a day trader? What was it in your personality that led you towards one field or another, and why, for example, did you choose an investment management route? Your ability to articulate the thinking behind each of your decisions is critical, along with your motivations and ambitions beyond the MBA.
4. Start at a big bank but gain additional experience.
Our Deep Dive Analysis of the HBS Class of 2020 revealed a striking trend: Successful HBS applicants who started their careers in Investment Banking often made a career switch within two years of graduating from college. Many of these applicants secured an interesting position working in Private Equity or Venture Capital (e.g. KKR and Blackstone) after roughly two years of a rotational program, which seems to really work for HBS – as well as for Stanford GSB. Far fewer of those individuals were still with JPMorgan or Morgan Stanley by the time that they actually applied to these elite schools. This indicates a big bank is a great please to launch your career, but that you stand to be more interesting to the admissions committee if you bring additional experience in PE, VC, consulting, nonprofit, or strategic and product manager roles in tech.
5. Persuasively connect your career vision to the MBA.
Beyond the power of its MBA brand, the admissions committee wants to know that you understand what’s being offered through its management curriculum – what it will do for you, and then how that connects to your specific professional goals. You’ll need to be logical and convincing, not only about why an MBA, but why right now, and how an MBA is going to serve as a catalyst for your own success post MBA. Reflect early on about what you want to do after your MBA, and what you’ll be doing to make it possible; and be able to articulate the impact you’ll have on your future peers and community. Keep in mind that the Admissions Committee is looking at your file thinking, how is this candidate going to look to a future recruiter? They want to bring people in who are going to be successful in achieving their post-grad goals.
Want more advice?
View two more installments in our Sector Savvy series:
Let’s Get You In.
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Updated January, 2023