Demonstrating your Business School “Fit” is Essential to MBA Application Success

Earning an acceptance letter to a top-tier MBA program will require you to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you are a great “fit” with their business school. But how do you prove you are a business school fit?

Applicants who “fit” possess the MBA qualities the school values most, so proving you fit is about figuring out what these valued qualities are and using that knowledge to shape and customize every element of your application – especially your essays.

While it would be beneficial if the programs would simply tell you which qualities are prized by their school, only a few schools are that transparent. Therefore, you’ll need to do your detective work. Additionally, you will need to distinguish between generally “Valued Qualities,” characteristics that all MBA programs value, and “Fit Qualities,” specific attributes that a particular school prioritizes.

This article will show you how to discover, define, and prioritize your target schools’ Fit Qualities. First, we will explain the difference between Valued Qualities and Fit Qualities. Next, we’ll outline a step-by-step process to identify the Fit Qualities for the schools you are applying to as part of your school research. Lastly, we’ll advise you on how to rank the Fit Qualities based on the quality and quantity of your supporting evidence.

Nine Qualities You Should Feature in Your MBA Essays

Before we discuss Fit Qualities, it will help you to understand the general qualities that all top-tier MBA programs value. We have listed nine valued qualities below, and we’ll define them for you:

  1. Leadership
  2. A Collaborative Nature
  3. Integrity
  4. Analytical Intelligence
  5. Emotional Intelligence
  6. Creative Intelligence
  7. A Community Orientation
  8. A Global Viewpoint
  9. Self-Awareness

All nine of these qualities appeal to admissions officers, but you won’t be able to emphasize every one of them to the same degree. Moreover, it would be rare that an applicant possesses these characteristics in equal degrees. When designing your application strategy, you will need to decide which of these attributes you want to spotlight in your MBA applications.

The definitions that follow will help you select essay topics and stories that exemplify your strengths and qualities.


Leadership is the ability to rally other people and motivate them to work together to achieve an important shared vision or goal. Some candidates struggle to distinguish between an individual accomplishment story and a leadership story. The best way to tell the difference is that, by definition, a leadership achievement cannot be accomplished without engaging other people. Leadership is about making an impact by harnessing the energy of other people.

A Collaborative Nature

A collaborative nature relates to your ability to be a team player and your willingness to contribute to your teammates’ success. It’s the opposite of selfishness and self-interest.


Integrity is a big word — it has to do with honesty, ethics, morals, and your sense of right and wrong. It boils down to character — doing the right thing, building trust with others, and keeping the promises you make to yourself and others.

Analytical Intelligence

Analytical intelligence has to do with your ability to run the numbers, solve problems, identify patterns in information, and make data-driven decisions.

Emotional Intelligence

By comparison, emotional intelligence — also known as interpersonal intelligence — has to do with your aptitude for understanding other people’s feelings and your capacity as a leader for tapping into emotion to inspire your followers to realize a higher degree of success.

Creative Intelligence

Creativity, or creative intelligence, relates to your ability to cope with new and unusual situations by drawing on existing knowledge and skills. It also means seeing the world in your own way and developing something that hasn’t existed before.

A Community Orientation

Community Orientation means that you devote energy to serving your community and making it stronger. Your community service accomplishments provide an important signal that you are a giver, not a taker. Remember, schools are looking for students who will contribute just as much as they take away.

Global Viewpoint

A Global Viewpoint has to do with life experiences outside your home country. In your essays, you can emphasize your cultural and international experiences in your stories or through the global scope of your career goals.

Self Awareness

Self Awareness relates to your capacity to see yourself objectively, assess your strengths and weaknesses, and learn from your mistakes, growing beyond existing limitations. Self-assessment will prepare you to create an application that captures the essence of who you are and what makes you unique.

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Knowledge of these generally Valued Qualities is helpful as a starting point for understanding what characteristics to feature in your applications in general. Your application’s core will be the same from school to school: 80% of the content building blocks you use will be identical across all of your applications. After all, each application is a representation of you.

Nevertheless, imagine the advantage you would have over other applicants if you knew what qualities the schools you are applying to valued most of all. We refer to those qualities as the school’s “Fit Qualities.” The secret to proving you fit with a particular school is to choose the “right” 20% of the building blocks that are different from program to program and to use that knowledge to tailor each application. We aren’t suggesting you try to fool the admissions committee into believing you are a fit – it is merely about tailoring your application based on your knowledge of what each school is seeking.

Practically speaking, this might mean choosing to feature one of your character traits over another or highlighting a specific differentiator a particular school you are applying to will care about most. This may mean selecting different stories or essay topics or, at least, tailoring the stories you tell to ensure the qualities you want to emphasize in that particular application are front and center.

This strategy is simply good marketing. Much of your competition will send carbon copies of the same application to every MBA program. In contrast, you will be thoughtful and strategic about the mosaic you create for each of your applications.

Let’s explore a few examples of Fit Qualities for some of the top-ranked MBA programs.

Fit Qualities versus Valued Qualities at Leading MBA Programs

Fit Qualities usually originate from Valued Qualities; the difference is how each school uniquely defines that Valued Quality. For example, one of the Valued Qualities we listed above is leadership. While it is clear that leadership is a quality that all MBA programs value, are they all looking for the same kind of leader? The Haas School at UC Berkeley specifies that they are looking for “innovative leaders” – leaders whose leadership abilities are matched by their creative capacity. If you were applying to Haas, then “Innovative Leadership” would be on the top of your list of Haas’ Fit Qualities.

Similarly, some Fit Qualities span across several Valued Qualities. Stanford values “Intellectual Vitality,” a combination of collaborative nature, analytical intelligence, and emotional intelligence.

Lastly, certain Fit Qualities might not be derived from one of the Valued Qualities. Columbia has stressed the importance of an “Entrepreneurial Mindset.” Sloan’s website tells us that the school values “Drive.” Our point is that the nine essential qualities we listed above are only a starting point for your Fit Quality research.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefit of knowing what a school’s Fit Qualities are. Imagine for a second that you could plot the qualities a school is looking for on a 2×2 matrix based on the amount of evidence you’ve gathered that the school values a certain quality and the amount of evidence you can present in your application to prove that you possess that quality.

Clearly, your goal is to ensure that you showcase the qualities in the upper-right hand corner of the matrix in your application. By doing so, you will prove that you fit and take a significant step toward an acceptance letter.

Let’s proceed to the process of uncovering the Fit Qualities for each of your target schools. There are three steps in this process:

  1. Research the Fit Qualities
  2. Define each Fit Quality
  3. Rank the Importance of the Fit Qualities

Research the Fit Qualities

To reiterate, admissions offices may not publish a definitive list of their fit qualities of a business school student– nor should you raise your hand in an information session and ask them for one. Instead, you’ll need to do some leg work to identify the Fit Qualities for each of your target schools. For example, listen carefully and note whenever admissions officers, professors, alumni, or current students say things like “intellectual vitality is essential at our school” or “we’re looking for students who can defend their beliefs.” In statements like these, members of the program send critical signals about the qualities the school values most.

Excellent sources for your Fit Qualities research include:

  • The school’s website
  • The Admissions Office web pages
  • Presentations by Admissions Officers, the Dean, and Professors
  • Meetings with students and alumni
  • Interview transcripts
  • Essay questions
  • Online discussion forums
  • School guides

If you listen closely to admissions committee members, alumni, professors, and students, your research will eventually yield a list of Fit Qualities. While it won’t be easy, the good news is that your Fit Qualities list will offer you an incredible edge over your competition.

Compiling a list of possible Fit Qualities is a significant step forward, but you’ll want to do more detective work to clearly define each quality. The best sources for your definitions are again: admissions officers, current students, professors, and alumni.

A clear definition of each Fit Quality is vital because you will be using those definitions to guide the content choices you will soon be making in your application design.

Define Each Fit Quality

If a Stanford Admissions Officer asked you to write an essay displaying your “Intellectual Vitality,” would you know what to highlight? Your next logical question might be, “What do you mean by Intellectual Vitality?” Before you could begin brainstorming possible stories to tell the admissions officer, you would need a working definition of what that term means.

If the admissions officer told you that an Intellectually Vital individual is “a person so intellectually alive that they inspire other people to learn and contribute to other people’s learning,” then you would have a better sense of what kind of story to write. However, you probably will not be handed this definition on a silver platter; you will need to go looking for it.

Generating plenty of evidence is crucial because you will weigh that evidence to create a definitive list of Fit Qualities and then rank them in the next step in our process.

Rank the Importance of the Fit Qualities

Once you have gathered sufficient evidence about possible Fit Qualities for the schools you are applying to, take a step back to weigh the evidence, create a shortlist of Fit Qualities, and rank them in importance based on the quantity and quality of your evidence.

Quantity of evidence matters. If one Stanford admissions officer mentioned intellectual vitality in her speech, it may or may not qualify as a Fit Quality. But if you have heard intellectual vitality or a synonymous term mentioned two or three times by a few different sources, you are almost certainly on the right track, and the quality should make it on your list.

Quality of evidence will also influence your ranking, and that requires considering your sources. If three friends who go to Stanford have told you that Global Work Experience is essential, it should undoubtedly be on your Fit List. But if the Director of Admissions at Stanford stressed “Legacy Leadership” in the information session you attended, you would want to rank it more highly than Global Work Experience on your list.

Although the qualities you choose to emphasize will ultimately come down to your judgment, your judgment needs to be backed up by plenty of evidence.

Final Thoughts on Your Business School Fit

Knowing the school’s Fit Qualities is a powerful weapon in your application process, but it can backfire if not used correctly. Peppering your essays with buzzwords from your list of Fit Qualities is a flawed strategy. These aren’t magic words that will win points with admissions officers and cause the school’s doors to fling open. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a mistake to fill your essays with terms like “intellectual vitality” or “legacy leadership,” thinking that you have a secret password for admission.

Instead, use your Fit Qualities to guide your decisions about the content of your essays, resume, reference letters, and interviews. If being accepted is “all about the right fit,” then the key to earning an acceptance letter to your dream school is to prove you are a better fit than your competition. When it comes to Fit Qualities, knowledge truly is power!

Talk to an Admissions Expert

Do you know what admissions officers are looking for and how to stand out from other applicants?

Talk with one of our MBA admissions experts to design a winning application strategy!