Once the school deadlines are three months away and you have started the MBA Prep Steps™ Program, you’re going to be in execution mode – creating your resume, writing your essays, and corralling your recommenders. The best that you can do at that point is to emphasize your strengths and attempt to explain away your weaknesses.
In later chapters, we will talk about the qualities and attributes that admissions committees will be looking for when they review your application. In this chapter, we are going to reveal the other side of the coin – the reasons an admissions committee might reject your application. Our goal is to teach you to start thinking like an admissions officer so that you can identify the strengths and weaknesses in your MBA candidacy and take proactive steps to reinforce your strengths and address your weaknesses.
A successful business school application is a marathon not a sprint. In this lecture, we will share with you what things you can do now – in your “training period” – that will give you an advantage over applicants who didn’t know about these remediation steps or didn’t take them.
We are going to show you how to evaluate your MBA candidacy in five distinct areas:
- Academic Profile
- Career Progress
- Leadership Portfolio
- Career Goals
- Personal Qualities
The slang term for a rejection letter from a business school is a “Ding Letter.” You might hear someone say, “I got dinged.” In this chapter, we will help you to identify the possible “dings” in your profile.
As the dings add up, the risk that you will get “dinged” by the most selective programs increases. To help you to identify the dings in your candidacy we have created the Ding Diagnostic™. The good news is that in addition to helping you identify potential dings in your candidacy, we will provide remedies so that you can proactively address each potential flaw and increase your chance of being accepted.
As you’ll see, some of the prescriptions, such as enhancing your personal qualities, require significant lead-time – perhaps a year or more. Other prescriptions, such as taking additional college-level courses to improve your academic profile, can be accomplished in the months before you begin assembling your application.
To ensure that the dings in your profile don’t result in a rejection letter, you must decide what needs to be done and design your action plan in light of the remaining time you have before submitting your applications.
Let’s begin your Ding Diagnostic™ assessment with your academic profile.
Academic Profile Ding Diagnostic™
Admissions officers will evaluate your past academic performance and standardized test scores to judge whether you have the smarts, discipline, and drive to perform in their MBA program. As you’ll see, there are a number of things that you can and should do if you are concerned that your academic performance isn’t competitive for the programs you are applying to.
First of all, don’t count on the accuracy of your memory when it comes to your university grades. Order your transcripts right away before it is too late to take advantage of the steps we are going to tell you about.
When an admissions officer reviews your Academic Profile there are a few things that might raise concerns:
❌ Low cumulative GPA or GPA in major
❌ No classes or average performance in quantitative, business-oriented, and/or communication and writing courses
❌ GMAT score below the school’s median
❌ TOEFL score below the median
❌ A 3-Year Bachelor’s Degree
❌ Degree from a school with a questionable academic reputation
Let’s briefly examine each of these Academic Profile dings and some prescriptions for addressing them.
❌Ding: Low cumulative GPA or GPA in major
Your overall GPA and GPA in your major matter because they provide important signals about your academic aptitude, discipline, and attitude towards academic learning. A cumulative GPA below a 3.25 puts your academic ability in question, at least for the most selective programs.
First, the most straightforward way to enhance your academic profile is to complete additional college-level or even post-graduate coursework. Second, everyone benefits from a high GMAT score, but your standardized test scores will be even more important if you need to combat a low GPA.
❌Ding: No classes or average performance in quantitative, business-oriented, and/or communication and writing courses
While your overall performance matters, a letter grade of a C or lower will also register on the “ding meter.” Admissions committees will pay particular attention to your performance in quantitative courses, such as Calculus and Statistics, core-business courses, such as Finance and Accounting, and business-oriented courses, such as Economics. Communication courses, such as Writing and Public Speaking courses, will also be reviewed carefully because an MBA program requires excellent written and verbal communication abilities.
Take college-level courses in areas where your academic profile needs strengthening. Clearly, you want to take courses that award a letter-grade because taking a pass-fail course may prove you are motivated to prepare for an MBA but won’t do much to counteract weak undergraduate grades.
An “A” in a college level business calculus course will mitigate concerns about your ability to handle the analytical rigor of an MBA degree. Taking part-time classes in statistics, finance, and accounting and scoring well will help your profile if your grades in business-oriented courses weren’t solid or if you simply haven’t taken any. If your written and verbal communication skills might be questioned then sharpening them in a business communication or public speaking class is recommended.
College extension courses typically take 12 to 16 weeks to complete; so you need to get started well in advance of the application deadlines.
Another way to address concerns about your academic profile is through high-achievement at work, or outside of work, on assignments that demand the academic skill set in question. For example, you could demonstrate your analytical abilities by performing well on a very challenging quantitative assignment at work.
If such a role is not available to you at work, be creative and find a way to demonstrate those talents outside of work. For example, one MBA Prep School student built a complex financial model for the non-profit organization she volunteered with.
If your transcripts leave question marks about your communication skills, you could volunteer to deliver a training class at work or join a public-speaking club like Toastmasters International in your free time.
❌ Ding: GMAT score below the school’s median
A GMAT or GRE score below the median will raise concerns. As will verbal or quantitative scores below the 80th percentile, especially for the top programs.
Take a GMAT (or GRE) prep course, or hire a tutor and retake the test. You should refer to the policies of your target schools about retaking the GMAT, but to our knowledge, just about every MBA program out there only considers your top score; therefore, you have an incentive to continue taking the GMAT until you beat the medians or decide that you’ve maxed out with a given score.
❌ Ding: “Test Of English as a Foreign Language”(TOEFL) score below the median
If English is not your first language and you didn’t study at an English-language university, then most English-language business schools will require you to take the TOEFL Exam. As with the GMAT, many schools report their median scores for the TOEFL and you need to score above that median to be competitive.
Taking classes or working with a tutor to improve your English language skills and your TOEFL score may also be called for. For that matter, even if your TOEFL score is excellent and you know your language skills need work, then you should invest the time improving them now.
❌ Ding: A 3-Year Bachelor’s Degree
One ding that some international applicants – such as those from India – run into is that they hold a 3-year bachelor’s degree. This will make them ineligible to apply to some U.S. MBA programs. Even programs that officially accept applicants with a 3-year degree may consider you less competitive than candidates with a 4-year undergraduate degree.
If you only hold a 3-year bachelor’s degree then you may need to complete a fourth year master’s degree in your field of undergraduate study or a 2-year degree in another discipline to be eligible for some MBA programs. Do keep in mind, however, that prior MBA-level coursework may make you ineligible to apply to most MBA programs.
If you have a 3-year bachelor’s degree, some schools will accept an application if you have a professional designation such as a Chartered Accountant or Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.
❌ Ding: Degree from a school with a questionable academic reputation
Even if you have a stellar GPA, your Academic Profile will be weakened if your school doesn’t have a solid reputation in the academic community. If you went to what is affectionately known in the United States as a “party school” or if your degree is from a program that very few people have heard of, we encourage you to take some additional steps to fortify your academic profile.
Post-graduate study may also be a good idea if your undergraduate degree is from a school with a questionable academic reputation or if your university transcripts are simply abysmal.
For the avoidance of doubt, we want to reiterate that this advice does not extend to earning a Master in Business Administration with hopes of then doing a second MBA at a better school. Most schools will not consider applicants who already hold an MBA.
A professional designation such as a CPA or CFA may also strengthen the academic profile of candidates with lower grades in a 4-year program or a degree from a school that’s relatively unknown or less respected.
Career Progress Ding Diagnostic™
If the admissions committee is convinced that you possess the Academic Profile to succeed in their program, they will then turn their attention to what you’ve accomplished since graduating – your Career Progress.
The time to take a hard look at your career progress isn’t a couple of weeks before you sit down to finalize your resume and write your application essays. Long before you apply, you’ll want to evaluate your career progress and predict how your career story might sound to an MBA admissions committee. Even if you’ll be applying just a few months from now, you should view every day as an opportunity to add another exciting chapter to your career story.
When an admissions officer reviews your Career Progress, there are a few things that might raise concerns:
❌ Lack-luster resume: low-level role(s), unknown company, and/or limited achievements
❌ Limited evidence of career progress: promotions, increases in responsibility, new skills and relationships
❌ Weak references and/or limited evidence of recognition by superiors
❌ “Too technical” — limited evidence of managerial potential
❌ Ding: Lack-luster resume: low-level role(s), unknown company, and/or limited achievements
Returning to school for an MBA isn’t about jumpstarting a flailing career. Top business schools admit candidates who are on the way up in their career.
Name brand firms on your resume – such as McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, Google or Apple – will definitely help. If your resume isn’t full of blue chip firms, you will have to work harder to convince the admissions committee that the quality of your experience is comparable to that of candidates from the “name brand” firms.
Everyone has to start somewhere but if it appears you haven’t progressed far from an entry-level job and made some significant achievements in your positions, then applying to business school is probably premature.
We will start with the most radical prescription first and then provide more targeted steps for accelerating your career progress.
If you are more than 18 months away from applying for an MBA, you should evaluate whether changing jobs, companies, or even your career path as a whole is the best choice given your alternatives.
If, despite your best efforts to make the most of your current situation, your learning curve has flat-lined and opportunities to enhance your management and leadership skills simply aren’t presenting themselves, then you should seriously consider a job change. All in all, if a career change is the best next step in a well-conceived career action plan, then it’s also the best next step for strengthening your MBA candidacy.
If you are less than 18 months away from applying, then we wouldn’t advise changing jobs except under the rarest of circumstances because you won’t have enough time to establish yourself in your new setting and make any significant leadership contributions. Under these circumstance, you should also consider postponing your application to give you time to make a career change and accelerate your career progress.
❌ Ding: Limited evidence of career progress: promotions, increases in responsibility, new skills and relationships
Admissions officers need to see evidence that you’ve made significant career progress. There are a few different ways your career progress will be measured: promotions ahead of schedule, increased responsibility on your team, the acquisition of new skills, and the formation of important relationships.
Volunteer for stretch assignments and unique projects. Showing up for work and doing what you’re told is a good formula for staying where you are, but it won’t get you promoted and it won’t get you into business school. If you want to earn a spot in a top business school, then you have to show initiative and distinguish yourself from your peers.
If you’re working in an over-represented field for MBA applicants like investment banking or consulting, you will have to pursue unique projects that will set you apart, which may mean volunteering for projects that others are unable or unwilling to tackle. For example, one successful applicant from a consulting firm volunteered for an international assignment in the Middle East in the middle of summer that none of his colleagues were willing to sign-up for. His admit letter was a great reward for the months he spent outrunning sandstorms and baking in the desert sun.
❌ Ding: Weak references and/or limited evidence of recognition by superiors
If you take the other prescriptions about enhancing your professional profile to heart, then your superiors should have no problem writing you a stellar recommendation letter. They’ll have plenty of great examples to draw on, showing how you’ve excelled and been there for your team. If you don’t feel that you have superiors who will be willing to write you outstanding reference letters, then you need to address this problem immediately.
Cultivate mentor relationships. This is simply common sense career advice. Mentors will help you navigate important career decisions.
You should also seek to emulate the qualities you observe in your superiors; they have advanced in the organization because they possess these qualities and by emulating them you should progress more rapidly.
Solid mentor relationships are critical to a successful business school application. Reference letters from a mentor who has worked with you closely, knows you well, and has a vested interest in your future success will be many times more powerful than one from a supervisor who doesn’t have insights about you and your experience and isn’t invested in seeing you succeed.
On a related note, you should remember that you’re going to need two to three references for your application, and in an ideal situation, these won’t all be from supervisors at work. Building solid relationships with mentors in a community service setting will provide admissions officers with a view of the person you are outside of the office.
Our advice is to start forming these relationships now! There is a major difference between cultivating a mentor relationship over time and trying to manufacture one a few months before applying.
❌ Ding: “Too technical” – limited evidence of managerial potential
There are some cases in which exceptional career progress doesn’t always correlate with MBA admissions success. Candidates who have made outstanding progress in a technical field may not be accepted into a top MBA program unless their technical achievements are matched by evidence of managerial potential.
If you’re a software engineer, a biochemist, or a derivatives trader then you probably have a number of technical accomplishments to be proud of. If you want to apply to business school, you need to be looking for opportunities in your current job to develop and demonstrate the skills business schools are looking for: management skills, interpersonal abilities, and leadership capabilities.
If formal opportunities don’t present themselves in your current role then you need to be creative. That might mean proposing and implementing a survey of current customers, working on a business plan for a new division, or convincing your manager to lend you to the marketing team for a few months. We’ve even had a couple of MBA Prep School students who started businesses on the side.
The point is that if you’re serious about going to a top business school, then you must be scanning the horizon for every opportunity to show the admissions committee that you are more than just a gear-head, quant jock, or rocket scientist. You must convince them that you are a future business leader.
Leadership Portfolio Ding Diagnostic™
Accelerating your career progress includes finding ways to acquire leadership skills and reaching for opportunities to demonstrate your leadership potential at work. Whether you’re an investment banker, a management consultant, or a software engineer – the stories about the times you have taken the lead are critical to earning an acceptance letter at a top business school.
In the same way we encouraged you to evaluate your career progress months or years before you apply, we are going to ask you to take a critical look at the current state of your Leadership Portfolio – the collection of leadership experiences that are indicative of your abilities to lead others.
A weak Leadership Portfolio will seriously undermine your candidacy for a top-tier business school. Admissions officers will be concerned by:
❌ Limited evidence of leadership at work
❌ Limited evidence of leadership outside of work
❌ Lack of insight about leadership capabilities and leadership development needs
❌ A leadership style that appears authoritarian or self-serving
❌ Ding: Limited evidence of leadership at work
Some candidates are initially intimidated when they come across a leadership essay question in their application. They don’t think they have any leadership stories to tell. Admissions committees understand you are early in your career and don’t expect you to be running a division of your company or leading large teams of people. Nevertheless, they will expect you to have influenced others and made a positive impact on a smaller scale.
Leading in “ordinary situations” but doing it “extraordinarily well” is what admissions committees are looking for in your Leadership Portfolio at work.
In the months and years leading up to your application submission, you need to take every opportunity to make a leadership impact at work. This isn’t a matter of climbing over others in a mad scramble to the top of the corporate ladder. Rather, you should be looking for ways to serve your team and make your organization stronger.
Pulling a week of all-nighters alone in your cubicle building the ultimate financial model is an impressive individual accomplishment but it is not an example of leadership.
Look for opportunities to:
✅ Coordinate efforts to solve a long-standing problem faced by your organization
✅ Persuade your colleagues to follow you in a new direction
✅ Help others work together more effectively
✅ Assemble and lead a lean, high performing team that achieves something significant
✅ Mentor and teach others, thereby enabling them to succeed
The common denominator is that a leadership accomplishment has to do with achieving something that simply can’t be done on your own. It requires the cooperation, contribution, support, and energy of other people. Leaders form a vision of the way things could be, tap into other people’s passions, and devote energy to rallying others to work together to make a difference. It’s important to keep this definition clearly in mind when you’re evaluating ways to enhance to your leadership portfolio at work.
❌ Ding: Limited evidence of leadership outside of work
Most applicants have heard that community service is important to admissions committees. Armed with this knowledge, they volunteer for a few community service activities and list these on their application forms. Unfortunately this misses the point. Although your participation in a community service project is laudable, taking the lead in this setting is what really matters. If you’re a candidate from a technical field, an over-represented industry, or simply don’t have many opportunities to lead at work, community service leadership is practically mandatory for admission to the most selective schools.
If you want to be competitive for a top school you must be able to demonstrate a “habit of leadership” both inside and outside of work.
MBA Prep School students often ask us what kinds of community service activities business schools want to see. We feel this question misses the point. No community service organization is better than another from an admissions officer’s standpoint. Admissions officers really want to see that you have engaged with a community that you are passionate about serving and that the volunteer work you have done has importance and meaning to you.
The quality of the experience is more important than quantity when it comes to community service. One significant leadership achievement can outweigh a laundry list of more limited volunteer work.
If you’re looking for an effective way to get involved then look for an organization that has a mission that you want to be a part of. Find an emotional connection and work on a problem that you have a passionate interest in solving. For example, if you are a first generation American who benefitted from free English language classes, then you could volunteer to teach classes in that program or, better yet, work at the organizational level to raise money and expand program offerings to reach more students.
If you can’t find an organization that turns you on and you see an unmet need in your community, then start your own organization! If you’re successful, you’ll have an amazing story to share from your leadership portfolio.
If you’re already volunteering for a community service organization, you should be looking look for the same kinds of opportunities to lead that we talked about in the prescription above about building your Leadership Portfolio at work. You need to harness the energy of other people, generate results, and make a real difference. Your leadership could take any number of forms: you could lead a fund raising drive, pull together a team that addresses a long-standing organizational issue, or work with board members to develop a five-year strategic plan.
❌ Ding: Lack of insight about leadership capabilities and leadership development needs
Admissions officers are interested in your insights about your leadership style and capabilities and what you’ve learned about leadership. Lack of insight about what leadership is or what your own leadership development needs might be are weaknesses in your candidacy that you need to spend time correcting now.
Libraries are stocked with books about leadership, and as an individual who is interested in being a leader of consequence in the future you should be reading as much as you can about the art and science of leadership. In addition to reading what others have to say, you should develop your own personal definition of leadership and leadership philosophy.
Actual, hands-on leadership experience is ultimately the best way to learn about your leadership style and capabilities. Then again, you may be too close to the action to see your leadership strengths clearly. In a later exercise in the Discover Your Strengths section of the book, you will learn how to analyze your leadership achievement stories to generate insights about your leadership capabilities and development needs.
❌ Ding: A leadership style that appears authoritarian or self-serving
Not all leadership styles will be valued equally. Admissions committees will likely be turned off if the evidence in your leadership portfolio suggests that you are authoritarian or self-serving in your leadership style.
Admissions committees want to see evidence that you can work collaboratively as part of a team and that you put the needs of others and your organization ahead of your personal ambitions. If your leadership style appears authoritarian or self-serving you may be passed over for candidates with more team-oriented leadership styles.
Adapt your leadership style now in favor of a more collaborative and team-oriented leadership approach. The “Servant Leadership” style is highly prized by admissions committees. “Servant leadership” demands that you place the organization’s missions and values first, your team second, and your own needs a distant third. This style is the opposite of the leader who seeks to accumulate power and influence for its own sake or to satisfy a hunger for control.
It bears mentioning that community service leadership is by definition servant leadership – there are no promotions, raises or bonuses for a job well done; so community service leadership will provide exceptional evidence that you are a “giver” not a “taker” as a leader.
Career Goals Ding Diagnostic™
The primary reason for pursuing an MBA is to prepare for a future career as a business leader. Focused career goals are important when applying for an MBA.
Admissions officers will be evaluating your career goals closely and there are several shortcomings that they might ding you for:
❌ Undefined career vision
❌ Career goals lack a sense of purpose: passion, meaning, and significance
❌ Lack of evidence that candidate understands his or her future industry
❌ Dots don’t connect between prior skills/experiences and post-MBA career goals
❌ Unconvincing motivations for pursuing an MBA
❌ Weak case for pursuing an MBA from our school
❌Ding: Undefined career vision
When it comes to essay and interview questions about your career goals, the “I want to figure my goals out once I’m in business school” answer isn’t sufficient. If you haven’t determined what your career goals are, then how can an admissions officer be sure an MBA is your best next step? More importantly, how can you?
The bottom line is that your candidacy will not compare favorably with other applicants who know where they want to go and can explain clearly how an MBA will help get them there. Admissions officers know that once you are in business school you’ll have more work to do than there are hours in the day – there’s simply not much time for self-reflection and career planning. In fact, within weeks of arriving on campus for your first year, you’ll be polishing your resume up and submitting it to recruiters for summer internships. If you don’t have a vision for your career, you probably won’t benefit from the MBA experience in the same way as other candidates who do have a defined career vision.
Now is the time to do some serious thinking about where you want to be ten years from now and how you plan to get there. Don’t wait until it’s time to write your essays to start your career planning. When the application deadlines are approaching, it can be hard to find time to do any serious career planning.
Establishing and clarifying your career goals can be a time-intensive process so the sooner you start this process the stronger your candidacy will be when it comes time to apply. If you invest time now developing a well-designed career action plan then you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes time to answer the inevitable career goals questions that you will confront in application essays and admissions interviews.
❌ Ding: Career goals lack a sense of purpose: passion, meaning, and significance
MBA Programs were founded on the belief that business leaders can and do play a powerful role in contributing to the prosperity of society. The schools are looking for future leaders who aren’t just in it for themselves. Admissions officers are proud of the fact that their job is to find and accept future business leaders who will make a positive difference in the world. Therefore, if your career goals are a thinly veiled plan for climbing the corporate ladder and making loads of money, then your candidacy is in trouble.
You need to let admissions officers know the deeper motivations for following your career path and reveal that you possess a true sense of passion and purpose. Your “Career Purpose” is what you hope to achieve in the world in a larger sense. It has nothing to do with climbing the corporate ladder or making loads of money – it has to do with service to others.
For a lucky few, their Career Purpose becomes clear early in life. There are others who never quite figure it out. Admissions committees are looking for candidates who do know what matters to them and who do have a sense of where they want to go in their career. You will be required to articulate those things in a convincing essay about what you believe you were born to do. If your Career Purpose has yet to reveal itself to you, then our prescription is to go looking for it. We will show you some helpful places to look in the Define Your Career Goals section of this book.
Let us be clear that we are not suggesting that you need to write an essay about starting a non-profit organization to get into business school. The world needs investment bankers, consultants, and corporate CEOs too, and business schools still have room in their classrooms for candidates with these kinds of ambitions. You just need to work that much harder to convey your passion for your career path and explain why your career goals are meaningful to you.
The caveat to this prescription is that admissions officers read thousands of these essays and so they can tell the difference between aspirations that have integrity and those that are simply engineered for effect. In short, admissions board members have world-class B.S. detectors so make sure your career goals are sincere.
❌ Ding: Lack of evidence that candidate understands his or her future industry
Once your long-term career goals are in focus, you should further educate yourself on the industry you plan to work in. Admissions officers are skeptical when an applicant claims to want to work in a particular field like venture capital or sustainable energy or social enterprise but doesn’t seem to know much, if anything, about the industry.
Admissions committee members will expect you to be fairly well versed on the strategic landscape of the industry you plan to be a part of.
Do career planning research so that you can answer questions like:
- Who are the market leaders?
- What opportunities, issues, trends, and threats are confronting the industry?
- Who are the innovators and what do they do differently?
- Which business leaders in this industry do you admire? How did they get where they are and what special skills, knowledge, or talents do they possess?
Another important step that you should take now to help better understand the industry and to lay the ground work for your future career is to seek out mentors in the industry you plan to work in post-business school. These mentors will educate you about the industry and help you chart the ideal career path. Moreover, they will prove helpful when you’re trying to find a summer internship or a full-time job in the field after you’ve completed your MBA.
❌ Ding: Dots don’t connect between prior skills/experiences and post-MBA career goals
Many candidates undermine their chances for acceptance by proposing a set of lofty career goals that don’t appear realistic when viewed in the context of their past experiences and strengths.
An admissions officer will examine your resume through the lens of future corporate recruiters. If your career goals essay says that you want to work in strategy consulting post-MBA, then admissions officers will evaluate whether your resume plus the skills and knowledge you will acquire in their program would appeal to a recruiter at a strategy consulting firm. If that equation doesn’t add up, your application will be less competitive.
With enough lead-time, you can think strategically about your career and go for assignments that will prepare you for your longer-term career goals. For example, if you are working in public accounting but your long-term career vision is to be a brand manager, then do whatever you can to be assigned to Consumer Packaged Goods clients at your accounting firm. Candidates who know where they want to go and have taken proactive steps to get there will impress admissions officers.
If you don’t have time to make headway toward a new career before applying, another prescription for addressing this problem is to modify your career goals or your proposed career path. Grand ambitions are fine but you can undermine your chances if you are unable to convince admissions officers that the dots connect from your past accomplishments to your future aims. Chose career goals that capitalize on your assets – the skills, knowledge, and relationships that you have already acquired. At the end of the day, it is your job to persuade admissions officers that your career aspirations are achievable.
❌ Ding: Unconvincing motivations for pursuing an MBA
Your career goals directly relate to your motivations for pursuing an MBA. Therefore, defining those career goals is on the critical path to explaining why you want an MBA.
Unconvincing motivations for pursuing an MBA can be another big weakness in your candidacy. If the only answer you can come up with for “why you want an MBA” is “I’m in a two-year analyst program and everyone goes for an MBA,” then we want to strongly encourage you to do some more thinking about your motivations and reasons for applying to business school. If you haven’t built a solid case for this huge investment of time and money, then admissions committees would be justified in wondering what kind of business leader you’re going to be in the future.
When it comes to your motivations for pursuing an MBA, you’ll score top marks if you make it clear that your future career requires an MBA—not just the diploma on the wall or the letters on your resume but all the things that an MBA imparts: skills, knowledge, leadership experience, the network, and personal growth. To achieve this, you need to educate yourself on the value of an MBA degree and engage in extensive research on the various MBA programs that are out there. This is all work that needs to be done before you assemble your application.
Going to business school is a major life decision – not to mention a major investment decision. You need to show the admissions committee that you fully appreciate what business school has to offer and the value of spending two years in an MBA program.
❌ Ding: Weak case for pursuing an MBA from our School
Similarly, admissions officers will want to know why you are applying to their school. If the only answer you have for that one is “You guys were ranked #1 in Businessweek” then we want to persuade you that it’s time to start building a stronger case for your choice of schools.
The good news is that the prescription for addressing this weakness is fairly straightforward – you need to invest time now building a convincing case for applying. The not-so-good news is that this is hard work!
In the Select Your Schools section of the book, we will share the research work required to choose the schools that are the best fit for your academic goals, career aspirations, and cultural expectations. You’ll learn how to look beyond the magazine rankings, the school’s marketing messages, and second-hand opinions to really identify the schools that are the best ones for you.
Once you’ve narrowed down your choices of programs to a handful, we highly recommend that you visit those schools. Things like culture and campus dynamics are impossible to ascertain from a website. In terms of building your case for applying, first-hand observations about what impressed you are much more powerful than quoting the admissions website.
In addition to visiting the schools, we suggest that you meet with alumni and current students. The insights that you’ll gain from asking them why they decided on their school over the alternatives will help you with your school selection and provide additional reasons that you can use to build your case for applying.
Personal Qualities Ding Diagnostic™
In the final section of this chapter, we’ll touch briefly on a few personal qualities that might be considered “dings” in your candidacy and offer some prescriptions for addressing these concerns.
There are four weaknesses in this category that, if perceived by admissions officers, may reflect poorly on your candidacy:
❌ Candidate is from an “over-represented” pool
❌ Lack of self-awareness and maturity
❌ Limited international experience and/or global perspective
❌ Lack of dimension — Too much of a “poet” or too much of a “suit”
❌ Ding: Candidate is from an “over-represented” pool
The word “diversity” is sometimes mentioned in regards to MBA candidates – as in “Will this candidate add diversity to the class?” Admissions officers understand the value of a diverse class; so if you’re just like everyone else who applies, you will be seriously handicapped in the application process. The question is, “Is there anything that you can do about that?”
The question to ask yourself is “Are you just like everyone else?” You may be from an over-represented pool of applicants, but it is up to you to prove that you are different from the others in ways that matter to admissions officers and your future classmates.
Every candidate is unique in some way, but many of my clients struggle to articulate how they are different. In the Discover Your Points of Difference chapter, we will help you to identify the things that make you unique.
Applicants are not passed over because they are just like everyone else – rather they are passed over because they don’t explain to admissions officers exactly how they are different.
❌ Ding: Lack of self-awareness and maturity
This weakness goes hand-in-hand with the one we just discussed. A high-degree of self-awareness is necessary so that you can identify the things that make you unique. A lack of self-awareness and maturity is impossible to hide in the application process. You need to use the application process as motivation to get to know yourself better and take advantage of the exercises recommended in this book to increase your self-awareness.
Self-awareness is your secret weapon in the battle for a spot in the most competitive MBA programs. The better you understand who you are, what you’re motivated by, and what makes you unique, the easier it’s going to be to communicate those things in your application.
One specific step to expand your self-awareness is to start a daily journal. We aren’t talking about recording the lurid details of your love life. Instead, we are suggesting that you devote about 30 minutes a day to wrestling with some big questions like these three:
- What matters most to me and why?
- What are the most important decisions I’ve made and why did I make those choices?
- What have been the defining moments in my life? What did I learn from each experience, and how have those experiences changed me?
If you need more convincing that tackling these kinds of questions will be worthwhile, we will just point out that every single one of the questions listed above has been asked in one form or another on an MBA application for a top program.
The point is that not only will you be increasing your self-awareness, you will also be assembling the raw materials of your future essays – that’s time well spent.
Another step that will increase your self-awareness is to take personality tests and self-diagnostic exams. There are many interesting tools out there like the Myers-Briggs Personality Profile that can help you to identify your strengths and gain insights into your motivations. In the Discover Your Character Strengths section of the book, we will point you to a diagnostic test you can use to assess your “Character Strengths” – which are the qualities that society and, it follows, business schools hold in high regard.
If you’re truly committed to expanding your self-awareness you could work with a life coach or, as they used to be called, “a therapist.” We aren’t suggesting you need therapy, but some of the most dynamic and effective business leaders out there work with executive coaches, and we would wager that more than a few have spent time on a therapist’s couch.
❌ Ding: Limited international experience and/or global perspective
Another weakness that falls into the Personal Qualities category and requires little explanation is limited international experience and/or global perspective. Admission committees are looking for candidates who have a global perspective and will be capable of one-day leading businesses that are global in nature. If you don’t have a passport and have never travelled outside of your home country except for a Spring break trip to Cancun, then you should consider some of the following prescriptions.
Travel experience is certainly one way to expand your international point of reference. Personally, we think candidates who have taken trips abroad as part of volunteer efforts or educational programs benefit more from the experience than those who have travelled as tourists.
Participants in those kinds of programs learn important lessons about adapting to unfamiliar situations and people who are different than them – lessons that simply aren’t available if you’re traveling by tour bus and museum hopping all day. As a practical matter, those candidates can also write about their educational or volunteer experiences in their essays.
If you don’t have the time or resources to travel, you could also demonstrate global awareness by studying another language. In fact, some international MBA programs (for example, INSEAD) require practical knowledge of a language other than English to be eligible for consideration.
For that matter, you don’t have to go abroad to reach out to another culture. Just about every major city has well-established international communities. To reach out to another culture you could teach your language to new arrivals in your country and learn about their culture while teaching them about yours.
Another aspect of your global perspective has to do with your career goals. Think about how you can make your career goals global in scope – that might include spending a few years outside of your home country as part of your career action plan. You want to demonstrate your awareness that many businesses are global in nature and that you are going to prepare yourself to be a leader whose vision extends beyond his or her domestic borders.
❌ Ding: Lack of dimension – Too much of a “poet” or too much of a “suit”
The final weakness in this category is a lack of dimension. You could be “dinged” if you’re too much of a “poet” – or for the exact opposite reason – you’re too much of a “suit.”
Let’s talk about the poets first: If you were an English major who blogs about the romantic poets and has Lord Byron’s picture on your nightstand, then you probably have some work to do if you’ve decided that an MBA is the best next step on your path.
By the same token, if you are a strategy consultant who dreams in 2×2 matrices and is President of the Michael Porter Fan Club, then you also have your work cut out for you before you apply for a top program.
The operative phrase in this ding category is “too much” – meaning that you need to take steps to add some dimension to your profile.
The prescription for this ding is easier said than done. It can be difficult to venture outside your comfort zone, but we showing admissions officers that you have dimension is incredibly important if you have your sights set on a top-tier school.
Poets can start by diving into a few business books, subscribing to the Wall Street Journal, and by linking up with business-oriented organizations. One of our MBA Prep School students, who had limited business experience but wanted to be an entrepreneur, joined the local chapter of MIT Sloan’s Entrepreneurial Forum – a networking and professional development organization for current and aspiring entrepreneurs. He was very active in this group, convinced the President of the local chapter to write a recommendation letter for him, and was eventually accepted to Sloan.
If you’ve been “all business,” then you should take some steps to make yourself a bit more well rounded. Explore a hobby, sign up to do some volunteer work, and (why not?) write some poetry!
Unit Review: How to Strengthen Your Candidacy Before You Apply
In the introduction to this chapter, we promised to help you to think like an admissions officer. You should now have a much better understanding of what admissions officers will be looking for, some insights into the kinds of weaknesses that you might want to address, and the prescriptions for overcoming those weaknesses in the time remaining before assembling your applications. Let’s review the key takeaways from this chapter.
We talked about potential weaknesses in five distinct areas of your candidacy and we offered a number of prescriptions for strengthening your application in these areas before you apply.
- Improve your Academic Profile through additional courses and by demonstrating skills at work and in community service.
- Accelerate your Career Progress by changing jobs or making the most of your current one.
- Build your Leadership Profile by making an impact at work and a difference in your community.
- Define your Career Goals Clearly and expand your knowledge and relationships in the field you want to work in. You can also build a convincing case for an MBA through extensive diligence on the schools to which you will apply.
- Expand your Self-Awareness and venture outside your comfort zone – both globally and interpersonally.
We encourage you to use the precious time between now and your application deadlines to make your candidacy as strong as it can be. The proactive steps you take now will offer you a competitive advantage over candidates who are praying that the flaws in their application will go unnoticed. At best, they’ll be trying to explain away weaknesses, whereas you’ll be able to point to the substantive ways that you’ve addressed any perceived concerns upfront.