Aight friend, you’re considering an MBA.
Nice. Maybe your vision is clear and your plan is set. Or, you’re asking yourself whether you should even apply to business school in the first place. Or, you’re somewhere in between: I think I want to apply to business school, but is it worth it, when should I apply, where can I get in, is it worth it if I don’t get into a top school, what’s my opportunity cost? Let’s assume that you’re leaning “yes” and are curious about next steps: what do I need to do, when should I start, how should I start, someone smart just please tell me what to do. Aces, we’re about to answer that call. Let’s go.
First up, let’s take a giant step back and address the most fundamental question of them all:
What do business schools look for in applicants, and why?
In a word (or two, more accurately), business schools are looking for: Future Success. Think about it, and it’ll make perfect sense. If I’m a business school, I’m about to make an investment in you, and like any investment, I want a return on my investment. There are two ways this plays out:
- Financially – Most saliently: alumni donations
- Brand Burnishment – Your success will inspire others to apply to my school in the hopes of achieving similar success; more applicant competition is ‘good for business’
So as a gatekeeper (the Admissions Committee), I’m looking for signs in your application today for how likely you are to be a Future Success that will translate into a Win in either of those two categories. Your ability to telegraph Future Success in your application is what will determine my risk appetite in taking a chance on you. The lower the risk, the likelier I am to admit you to my class. Simple, logical.
Now the question becomes: Between now (today) and when I click “SUBMIT” on my final applications to business school, what can I do to improve my candidacy, or put another way, to help build my case that I am likely to be a Future Success?
Answer: A f*$%&*(g lot.
Before we get to the nitty gritty details about test scores, requirements, and timelines, let’s not overlook one of the hardest and most time-consuming parts of the application process: the assessment and introspection stage! The project of building a case to showcase your candidacy strengths should strike you as doable, but challenging. This can’t be overstated. Assessing your strengths and weaknesses is harder than it sounds. And then even if you succeed there, conveying those insights into clearly articulated arguments is the next and final challenge. There tends to be an inverse relationship to these, however. The more work you do on the assessment and introspection piece, the easier it becomes to convey those messages during the essay writing and interview prep phases. This is why it should come as no surprise that the folks who begin the process early and give themselves ample time to excavate and analyze and soul search tend to be the ones who are most successful at cracking the most competitive MBA programs.
How to Get into a Top MBA program: 5 tips to show FUTURE SUCCESS
We’re going to hit 5 things to do to get the ball rolling. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be talking about 5 things you should be doing now that you have the most control over. Of course, your professional history and test scores will matter and no one is questioning that. However, people tend to overlook what MBA admissions look for in applicants: a compelling and convincing narrative. This takes a lot of time and mental energy (we’ve seen it take years sometimes) to craft so let’s start today:
1. Flex Your Leadership Traits
By the time you’re done with your MBA applications, you’ll hate the word ‘leadership’ you’ll hear it so often. Get used to it. Make peace with it. Let it be your snuggle mate for the foreseeable future. Why’d we make it weird? Cuz it’d be boring otherwise.
Why the business school obsession with leadership? Quite simply, there’s no better indicator for future success than a person who is marked with natural leadership talent, and the track record to back it up. Leaders are the folks who ascend the ranks within organizations, add value to organizations, move and shake, and are generally restless unless they’re succeeding (and therefore flourishing in a way that sets a positive example).
You can’t necessarily change your past unless you’re Marty McFly or Jake Epping. So let’s focus on what you can do now, and in the near future. The best MBA candidates are always on the hunt for an opportunity to lead – you may not be able to ask your boss for 10 employees to lead just for fun, but you CAN start NEW initiatives you think will add value to the org, you CAN lead social/volunteer efforts, you CAN take on mentoring roles, you CAN run fundraisers, or organize department outings that add value. If you’re already in a role as a leader, there are things you can do to go deeper. Are there members of your team who are underperforming, and you’ve felt resigned that this is the best it’ll ever get? Turn that around. Then live to tell the tale about how you identified an opportunity with an underperforming team member, and set a course to lift them up. Once you start looking, you’ll find that there’s a new leadership opportunity everywhere. The work you do in the next six months could very well become the focal point of a mainstay essay that becomes a prover for your leadership credits.
2. Understand Your Goals
It’ll start to lose its effectiveness if we say “no but THIS is the most important feature of your MBA applications.” And then one bullet later “No THIS is the most important…” Can we all agree that “it’s all important” and will you allow us the space to get excited every single time, please? We are human after all, and we get excited about things.
So like, seriously, this, this one right here is the most important element of your apps. Until we say it again two seconds from now.
Why are ‘goals’ so important to a business school? This is where things get weird––ready for it? Check this out: your actual goals don’t matter. Yah that’s right, no one cares about what your goals are or whether you achieve them. If it truly mattered, they’d vet you like a bank does before giving you a loan. Business schools, unlike banks, don’t follow up afterward. Once you’re in, they move on to the next crop and never look back. So why then does every single business school seem to care about goals on applications, if they don’t actually follow up?
The manner in which you establish your goals, the manner in which you develop your plan for them, the manner in which you understand the interdependencies between all the steps required, and the fall-back plans for when things don’t work out as planned… it all adds up to indicators of (yeah) Future Success. The kind of person who shows up with (1) clear goals, that (2) make sense given the applicant’s track record, work history, and future aspirations, and for which (3) there’s a logical, achievable plan, is the kind of person WHO WILL LIKELY SUCCEED AT ANYTHING THEY SET THEIR MIND TO. Regardless of their goals at the time of their business school application.’ All I want to know as the admissions committee is “are you the kind of person who will succeed at whatever awaits you after you graduate”? If the answer is yes, I’m interested.
I’m not judging the goal by its merits. Instead, I’m judging the soundness of your plan. The sincerity. The evidence that you’ve thought it through. “Show me how you think.”
Side note: this is arguably the most fun part of being an admissions consultant. Leading our clients down this journey to interrogate this methodically and deeply. The end result, when done properly, is a set of goals (short-term and long-term) that provide all the evidence in the world of someone who has done the thinking, such that the plan and the contingencies, and the logic of it all rings with the clarity of a Donnie Osmond high A circa 1992. Nail your goals, for the right reasons, and you will instantly advance past droves of otherwise competitive applicants who seem riskier by comparison. Remember, it’s not the goals themselves, but the soundness of the thinking that went into developing them.
3. Understand Your Strengths
This is not to be confused with understanding your Value Proposition. Also, notice we didn’t say “identify.” If all you’re doing is generating a list, you’re doing it wrong. We’re interested in why your strengths are strengths, and how they can translate into wins for others down the road. Remember, business schools don’t really care if you succeed on your own in a way that doesn’t ultimately benefit them at the same time. They want to understand how your wins will ultimately translate into their wins, and wins for everyone else around you.
So, rather than ask yourself “what are my strengths,” ask it this way instead “when I have succeeded, what was it about me that enabled it”? “What was the trait I brought to the table that led to success”?
“I’m a natural leader.” Great, what does that mean? “I am able to handily manage large teams.” Cool, but why? “I have good organizational skills.” Awesome, so does your average ant. “People respond to me because I don’t just lay out to-do lists, I sell them on the end vision first and then––––” Aha, now we’re getting somewhere. So we drill further and keep hammering until we hit something substantive and meaningful. When you do this process properly, you end up with a sense of your strengths that’s rich with context, substance, and real insight. When you do it correctly, the reader goes “Aha, put this cat in front of any team and I can easily understand how this TRAIT mentioned here translates to a future win in another circumstance” etc.
What does this have to do with starting business school applications early? Because this process––when done properly––takes time. It’s harder than it sounds. But well worth it. After all, this is the most important–––nevermind.
4. Understand Your Weaknesses
Same idea here as strengths, but think of missed opportunities, or failures and losses and ask yourself, what was it that I did specifically that contributed to it? This gets uncomfortable fast because you may need to confront aspects about yourself that you’ve known all along, head on. Here’s the key: the folks who end up at Stanford GSB, and HBS, and the rest of that illustrious list––they are MARKED by a comfort level facing their failures, and being unafraid to acknowledge their hand in it. It has the opposite effect of showing weakness. It is a feature and not a bug. It is a killer indicator of Future Success. Those who introspect, and are able to acutely assess their own participation in a project’s failure are that much more likely to self-correct, and grow, and emerge as stronger leaders the next time around.
In the context of starting early, it can also be an important opportunity to catch something you can set out to shore up between now and your eventual application. Then tell THAT story on your apps: how you identified a weakness, set out to plug it, and then did it.
At a more practical level, there are low-hanging fruit opportunities like “I’m not the best standardized test taker.” But you’re starting early like we recommended right? Now you have months to shore THAT up and melt away what WOULD have been an unfortunate weak point on your eventual application.
But there’s another facet to consider also, which relates to the next bullet. How does your candidacy stack up against your direct competitor pool? Suppose your goal is to go into a quant field but you don’t necessarily have the work experience that showcases your quant chops. You might anticipate needing something as a ‘prover’ here, and set out to take a class in quant, get an A and then say “Oh and in case you’re wondering about my ability to hang at your program, check this out.” That’s another example of what a weakness might look like, that––if detected early––you can improve before you click submit.
5. Understand Your *REAL* Competitive Pool
Here’s where it starts to get fun. I know what you’re thinking: STARTS?! (Thank you.) You know that scene in one of the recent Rocky movies where Rocky is training Apollo Creed’s son and he says to him your real opponent is that guy right there (and he’s pointing to Creed’s image in a mirror)? Cool. Well, the take-home here (and boy it’s a stretch), is that “you really need to understand who your real competition is in order to win.”
Same thing here. In this case, it isn’t you versus yourself. But it’s also not you versus all other applicants to your target dream school. You’re competing with ‘like-kind’ applicants. See, all business school applicants get grouped into certain categories. Stuff like: consulting, IT, family business, entrepreneurship, and so on.
Business schools are essentially making a salad. And because we’re from the west, we’re going to envision a proper American-style salad: Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, olives, candied walnuts (obvi), slice of fruit? sure, and some dressing. When they’re assembling ingredients, and choosing tomatoes, say, they’re comparing tomatoes with tomatoes. They’re not comparing a tomato with a piece of lettuce wondering which one deserves to be in the salad––both will be in it ultimately, but ‘which tomato’ and ‘which lettuce.’ This is a crucial concept to understand.
If you’re looking to pursue a career in consulting at an MBB-type firm, they’re going to compare your candidacy with someone else pursuing roughly the same goals, with roughly the same background. They won’t look at your analytical skills the same way they scrutinize a family business applicant with an entirely different value proposition to the school. They hold consultants to their own standard. Entrepreneurs to their own standard. And so on.
Why make a salad at all? Why not get the best of the best, and if that’s all tomatoes, so be it? Why not just pick the most lucrative fields or individuals with the highest potential for future success and call it a day? An MBA class with variety itself has a positive effect on the future potential for success for individuals inside that group. So if you end up with a class that’s 90% consultants, it doesn’t “lift all boats” the same way that a class that’s rich with diverse interests and backgrounds would.
The key question––obviously––therefore is… what salad component are you?! Pipe down Buzzfeed, yah heard it here first. Are you a tomato, or are you an almond, or are you fresh cracked pepper? It doesn’t matter what you are. What matters is that you identify your ‘salad category’ and know what makes for an attractive version of that component, and what other folks in that category are looking like these days. (This is where the perspective of an admissions consultant can help, since we know the answer, that’s literally what we’re able to see.)
Understanding your competitors changes everything about how you talk about the features that will edge out the competition in your pool. You’ll be dead in the water if you make your differentiation argument too generally, all of the time. Starting early affords you the ability to get a handle on this, and to develop the right strategic casing as you develop your arguments over time.
If this seems like a lot, it is. And it’s not for the faint of heart. But here’s some tough love: the folks who get into M7 MBA programs all share one thing in common: their hearts aren’t faint. They’re doing all this work. They get accepted into these programs because they’re showcasing everything we’re talking about here, the stuff that serves as a strong predictor for future potential.
Best advice we can give is to start early and allow yourself the time required to develop all of these arguments and angles in the best way possible so that they can then shine brightly on your finished apps. Good luck, comrades. And yep, that sure was Kenny G.