What do business schools look for in applicants?

To sum up business school applications using a borrowed phrase from Gen Z: “It’s a LOT.”

You’ve got (1) application essays, (2) the resume, (3) letters of recommendation, (4) interviews, and more. We can dive right in and talk through each component, but let’s take a giant step back and ask think through two key questions:

The first is: How can I stand out as a business school applicant?

Well, it’s a common question, and an intuitive one. But before we attempt to answer it, we need to consider a different question first:

What are business schools looking for?

Let’s start there. If we can get inside what MBA programs are after, and really get inside the “what’s in it for them” angle, we’ll start to see The Matrix like Neo.

Please grab a box of popcorn, and a pair of Admissionado-grade “Cynicalized Lens” Googles and put those one … now. (It’ll enhance the ride.) Even if some of the following claims are contestable, we find them incredibly useful as a TOOL to help you navigate the business school application process, such that you emerge victorious at the end of the process. That’s our aim here.

If you’re HBS or Stanford GSB or any of the M7 or T15 MBA programs, what’s your ROI? Think like a businessperson now, and let’s do some analysis. Keeping the lights on requires a ton of overhead: buildings to maintain, recruiting professors, recruiting applicants, there are salaries to pay, guest lecturers to invite to attract attention, a lot a lot a lot. That stuff costs money. Where does that cash come from? Two main sources: tuition and alumni donations. Sorry Desiree, but in this case… money DOES make this world go-round.

Let’s look at donations for a second. What type of person writes a big check later in his/her career? On the one hand, someone who feels indebted to the experience, but more meaningfully, someone is able to easily stroke a big check, who has the inclination to do so. People who have (made)(a lot of) money. So, crudely, graduates who make a lot of money are more likely to be potential future donors.

But there’s an indirect way to fuel this, also: brand ambassadors. People who go out into the world, and do highly visible, cool things. It can be a guest speaker at a JP Morgan event, and it blows the doors off the place and you find out that that lady went to Chicago Booth, and you can’t help but connect those two dots. Or, you’re a big tycoon type modern day industrialist, and the name Kellogg shows up and it burnishes the brand. That person might not stroke a huge check (if asked), but the school’s name likely shows up NEXT to that person’s bio when they make appearances (on television, or at movers and shakers conferences, wherever). And an association is forged to anyone looking in: (1) attending THAT PARTICULAR BUSINESS SCHOOL may have played a part in (2) THAT INDIVIDUAL’S achievement story. That stokes demand in the potential applicant pool. Among the potential pool of FUTURE DONORS (who might stroke those big checks), they have a choice to attend hundreds of business schools, but if they develop an appetite for THAT SCHOOL based on ‘shiny’ ‘newsworthy’ achievements, the school has just improved its desirability to DRAW future check-strokers.

Let’s flip the script for a second and play out a scenario where a place like Harvard Business School churns out graduating classes who go on to achieve (by all reasonable measures) “impressive things in life” but… (1) not enough to write gargantuan checks, or (2) make any headlines. Would they be perfectly content to keep that up, year over year, even if they were helping individuals achieve their personal best in their business aspirations? Helping scores of family business types achieve slightly more than they’re achieving today? Helping scores of folks advance themselves in meaningful ways, but not necessarily in terms of monetary compensation? Top business schools might offer a full-throated rebuke of that claim, but ask yourself what YOU think the answer is. Suppose you invest in a company’s stock, and twenty years later, it’s time to sell and collect. You find out that the company has grown by 10,000% in these twenty years, led to creation of tens of thousands of jobs, so so so many lives improved, and you helped make that happen, wow! But the stock price gets you to break-even. You are not likey to regard all those other measures of success as being all that positive UNLESS it accompanies the ROI you are focused on––and in this crude example, it’s usually something like some kind of profit at the end of the day. Business schools also want profit, and it boils down to $ and rep. Everything else is gravy.

Before you get too bent out of shape over these mercenary-seeming incentives, just be careful, because you guys (aka the DEMAND side of the curve for business school admissions) help fuel it. Consider why you’re going to business school in the first place. It isn’t to learn stuff cuz learning’s fun, whether or not you end up making the same amount of money after all is said and done… is it? One of the FIRST PLACES business school applicants look is the average salary of a graduate from School X or School Y. And on THOSE GROUNDS, develop an appetite for those schools they believe are most likely to ADVANCE their ability to earn more, succeed more, advance their goals more. And why shouldn’t that be the case.

But so, these are the two keys to the problem: applicants want schools that will MAKE THEM MORE SUCCESSFUL, and business schools aim to select students who will succeed and then become ‘use cases’ as evidence to future applicants. And thus the cycle perpetuates. Makes sense, right?

Now, how do business schools ensure that their graudating classes will be successful? There are two components here:

  1. They determine which applicants are ALREADY-MARKED with future success. Folks who are more or less near-guaranteed to succeed based on evidence from their applications (past success, clarity of goals, and a whole host of other factors).
  2. But also, the positive effect a COHORT as a collective might have on an individual’s ability to succeed. Put together the right class, with the right amount of diversity, the right balance of interests, and backgrounds, and static electricity potential that results when all the individuals mix… and that should have a positive net effect on an individual’s ability to advance his/her interests.

So let’s put it all together and revisit that primary question: “What are business schools looking for?”

  1. Evidence of Future Success. How ‘sure’ a thing is your future success? How likely are you going to be someone who succeeds in a way that aligns with the ROI goals of the school?
  2. Evidence of your Indirect Impact on The Class / Your Colleagues. Are you somoene who adds to the texture of an overall class, in a way that––when looked at as a whole––strengthens the “class’s” ability to positively bend the curve of any INDIVIDUAL’S future success?

Maybe it’s 80/20 (Bullet 1 vs. Bullet 2), but it’s definitely both.

If in your business school application, you can make a convincing argument that you score EXTREMELY HIGH ON BOTH, business schools lower your ‘risk’ score. Just like any investment, all else being equal with the prospects for reward… the lower the risk, the better the gamble.

Here’s where a business school’s reputation comes in. The more attractive a business school is (brand awareness, those “positive associations” we talked about earlier), the greater the demand, the greater the number of top quality applicants VYING for seats––and thus, the more SELECTIVE a business school can be to maximize potential reward at the same time as they minimize risk by choosing from folks who have not just (1) incredible ideas and potential for future success, but are also (2) almost-guaranteed to succeed.

Schools that don’t enjoy as lustrous a reputation (any school outside the Top 25, say), are forced to “gamble” on folks who are riskier, or whose future success may be more modest.

So now let’s get back to that other question: “How can I stand out as a business school applicant?”

Simply put: you need to demonstrate that Future Success is more or less etched into your destiny.

You need to make the Risk-Reward proposition for your target MBA program as attractive as possible. Many applicants focus their attention on the REWARD portion of this equation. Bigger goals, loftier visions, etc. Tempting, but unless you can back all that up with enough evidence to just about guarantee your abilty to succeed, you’re better off figuring out (first) how to mitigate risk.

How can I mitigate risk in my business school applications?

  1. Connect the SKILLS aspect of your past experiences to your future goals. This is easier said than done. If you can demonstrate a razor sharp link between (1) what skills led you to succeed thus far in your career to (2) the skills required to succeed in your future goals, you will instantly (instantly) dust a large percentage of your competition. Most business school applicants will have the goods, but fail to connect the dots sharply, and admissions committees will simply move onto the candidates who DO articulate these crisply.
  2. Show that you have Planned. It. Out. Easier said than done, and this is weird to say, but we know it when we see it. If you have thought through your plan carefully, it reads. So, Step 1, actually plan the living hell out of it. If this happens, then I’ll do that. But if that doesn’t play out, I will go to Plan B. A lot of if/thens. Show us that you have multiple outs. Show us that whatever is thrown your way, you have anticipated it, and have developed a strategy for responding. This is the mark of someone with “future success” etched into their DNA.
  3. Align the “amplitude” of your goals with your past successes. This is a variation on #1 above. Whereas with #1, we want to see that the skill TYPES of your past align with what’s in store for you based on your goals, here we want to see that the ‘size’ and ‘scope’ of your goals makes sense given what you have accomplished so far. If you have successfully managed a team of three, awesome. It does not ‘therefore’ provide evidence that you are capable of managing an organization of several thousand. Amplitude alignment. It should all fit elegantly.

Those are the basics. And even just that part is hard hard hard. But, if you can pull that off, you have just smoked a significant chunk of the competition. From here, it comes down to some intangibles, because there will still be far more applicants who achieve those three bullets above than there are available seats. And in order to edge out those folks at THIS stage of the applicant funnel, you need to get into stuff like:

  1. Crackle. Passion. Restlessness. You might have all the theoretical pieces to succeed in theory, but do you have the drive? Do we get the sense that when the going gets tough, you have the grit and relience to power through? What’s driving you? What’s stirring inside? Is it a flame that just won’t quit, ever? This is less teachable, but will come through in expertly-crafted essays engineered to showcase these otherwise invisible inclinations.
  2. Likeability. Humility. “I want to have a beer with this person.” You can have future success written all over you, and amazing-sounding goals. But are you an asshole? Are you smug? Cocky? Are you the kind of person no one wants to be around? Admissions committees are ultimately humans, and humans don’t love douchebags. If you seem like one, it won’t overcome the highest of marks elsewhere.
  3. Value-Add to the Community. Do you have a background, or a point of view, or some trait that makes your addition to the community slightly more interesting than the next guy? At some level, a few hundred grand here and there in annual take-down comes out in the wash. If you possess the ability to share intriguing insights others might benefit from, you get an edge. This doesn’t mean you need to hail from a random domicile, or have a rare demographic trait, and that if you don’t have either, you’re toast. You simply need to lay bare your influences, your thought process, the whys behinds the whats.

Breakdown #1 –– The Applicant

So far, we’ve understood that you need to sell business schools on future success, and demonstrate that you something interesting to contribute to others in your class. But how does that translate to you? Let’s break you down in to six pieces.

At Admissionado, we use the IMPACT™ framework (Impact, Management, Passion, Awareness, Creativity, Teamwork). This is simply a methodology we use to turn the abstract (“prove that you are destined for future success”) into the practical.

Influence

Let’s start with “Influence.” We’re interested in finding out not just that you’ve led teams (a million folks will lay claim to that, and it may all techincally be true), but what we’re really trying to tease out is this: is your claim to ‘leadership’ marked with ‘the stuff’ that improves our confidence that you’ll be a future talent? Part of the answer lies in tha “Influence” dimension. When you’re describing leadership stories, it’s crucial to remember the ways in which you exerted influence. The whens and hows of it all.

Management

Another example is “Management.” Lots of folks have found themselves in a managerial role. But how many of them are actually great at management? What does it take to be good at management, and more interestingly, which traits translate into a future win for you and therefore a future win for the business school? The answer has something to do with how well you plan. How many moves into future you’re able to see. How good are you at assessing risk? How good are you at playing fourth dimensional chess, essentially. Laying all this bare when you tell your stories is precisely HOW you convey to your business school gatekeepers, whether you are more or less bankable than the next guy.

Passion

You can influence and you can manage. But are you fired up? This is where you convey why you do what you want to do, and where your influences come from and how it sums up to a relentless, restless spirit. Most folks convey passion without recognizing that it isn’t passion for passion’s sake. There’s a point to it. To be more passionate is to be more likely to stick with a thing, to try that much harder if the going gets tough, to pour that much more of yourself into a thing… all of which sums to increasing the likelihood that you’ll succeed. Aka, lowering the business school’s risk. (Seeing it now?)

Awareness

When you win, do you pat yourself on the back, buy a round for fawning admirers, and then look at yourself in the mirror while flexing your biceps? Or, do you take a moment to assess WHY you won. When you lose, do you pout and groan and blame the system? Or do you do exactly what that other version of you did and sit down and pull it all apart and assess why? Folks who introspect, examine, take a moment to step outside themselves and from outside look IN… are the kinds of people who are more likely to get back onto the horse when they’re inevitably thrown. They’re that much more likely to turn a modest win into blockbuster win because they took the time to investigate. Demonstrating this Awareness trait in your applications improves your future success index. (At the same time as your ‘risk’ index goes down.)

Creativity

Ever do something common in an uncommon way? Ever think outside the box? Ever question the status quo? You might have an answer to all of these things, but to simply address it is to miss the point. The purpose behind all of it is that the sneaky trait encoded in those behaviors is a tell. It’s a leading indicator of future success. The ‘kind of person who’ thinks outside the box, and has a lust for it, a knack for it, is the kind of person who––when he/she comes up against a lock that’s not easy to pick––will have the instinct and ability to pivot, get creative, find another way. If you’re gambling on someone else to be a future success, you damn well better make sure they know how to ‘get creative’ if things don’t go 100% according to plan. Just read about any successful entrepreneur or CEO. Can you find even a single one who says “Well, I began with a vision and a plan, and it all worked out exactly as I’d hoped!”

Teamwork

It’s not just THAT you’ve participated on a team, and didn’t cause a disruption. Or that your teammates like you. It’s way more. Are you coachable? Do you always need to be the Alpha? Can you adapt if things don’t go your way? Are you able to disagree with someone in a productive way? Folks who score high on this dimension tend to be the kind of people who can leverage the power of groups and teams. It is an art form, it requires real skill. The way you talk about teammwork––knowing this context––should help you convey the kind of thing that makes the reader go “Aha, this person’s story about teammwork here just made me able to imagine in his/her success that much more.”

Summary – So, what do business schools want? Like really?

They want to know that you are almost SURE to succeed.

They will look for evidence of that in your resume, and in your essays, and your LORs, and in your interview. Do you have ‘all the tells’ of folks we know are bound for future success? How risky a proposition is this?  If you’re going to concern yourself with either the Reward or Risk ends of the equation, best to focus on LOWERING RISK. Why? Because business school applications are lousy with big ideas, big potential wins, visions of the next game-changing… you name it. What are in shorter supply are folks who make convincing arguments on why a school should gamble on THEM to be the ones who go after those goals.

Knowing this, should help you contextualize every single decision you make, for every stitch of your applications.