Making Your MBA Application Stand Out: Highlight Your Unique Strengths

To “fit in” as an MBA applicant, you must prove you possess the abilities and qualities that MBA admissions officers value. Although fitting in is step one, if you hope to be accepted by one of the world’s best business schools, you must also ensure your MBA application will “stand out” from the competition.

There are many more qualified candidates applying than there are seats in the elite MBA programs; therefore, the admissions committee wants to know what you will add to their MBA community. Directly and indirectly, admissions committees will be asking: “What is unique about you? How can you enrich our incoming class?”

One of the secrets to creating an outstanding MBA application is to figure out how you are different from other business school applicants. When designing your MBA admissions strategy, you must brainstorm the unique benefits you bring to the table: your “Points of Difference.”

Points of Difference or “PODs” is a term used in the marketing world. It refers to the positive ways in which a company’s product differs from competing products. Applied to the MBA application process, your PODs are the things about you that set you apart from the thousands of other MBA candidates who are applying. In this article, you will learn how to identify your “Points of Difference” and how to make your MBA application stand out by spotlighting your PODs.

By showcasing the positive ways in which you are different from other MBA applicants, you will communicate how you can contribute to an MBA community if accepted. Identifying your top five PODs arms you with a robust set of content building blocks to utilize throughout your application to help you stand out from the crowd.

Identifying Your Points of Difference

“Differentiation” is key to an effective MBA Admissions Strategy – and brainstorming your Points of Difference will help you develop a plan for differentiating your candidacy from the many thousands of applications that each top business school will receive this year. We will refer to your differentiation messages as your Points of Difference or PODs.

Your PODs can come in many different forms. They capture the essence of who you are, what you’ve experienced, your strengths, and what you stand for. Collectively, they represent the various ways you can contribute to the MBA community at your target school. Your PODs should be the things that are so important– so core to who you are– that without them, the admissions committee won’t have a complete picture of who you are and what you bring to the party.

Many applicants struggle when confronted with the question, “How are you different?” To help you answer that question, we have created eleven separate POD categories that will aid your brainstorming efforts:

  1. Important Life Experiences
  2. Significant Personal Achievements
  3. Cross-Cultural Experiences
  4. Talents
  5. Expertise
  6. Things You Have Started
  7. Things You Have Created
  8. Passions and Interests
  9. Honors and Awards
  10. Causes/Communities You Care About
  11. Friends in High Places

The POD category list above is not exhaustive. However, it is a great starting point that will trigger ideas around what differentiates you from other applicants. More often than not, a unique experience or ability emerges during brainstorming that you hadn’t thought to mention in your applications. If compelling PODs come to mind that doesn’t fit neatly into one of the above categories, write them down!

Let’s look at an example in each category to help spur your discovery process. You will also read about some PODs that surfaced when past MBA Prep School clients used the categories to guide their brainstorming efforts.

Important Life Experiences

Definition: Experiences and situations that are literally “life-changing.”

Example: One of our past clients had served as a special forces soldier in the US military. The collection of experiences he had during this period of his life forever changed his outlook, goals, beliefs, and dreams. While that wasn’t a surprise, by digging deeper into some of those experiences, he came up with some fascinating subject matter for his essay, including the contributions that he and his combat unit had made to providing security for a country’s first free election.

Significant Personal Achievements

Definition: Significant individual achievements that make you proud.

Example: One of our clients recalled the harrowing time he and his wife had when their first baby arrived two months ahead of schedule. His son had to spend the first six weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Overcoming the stress and sleepless nights that he and his wife endured leading up to the day when they could bring their son home from the hospital was his proudest personal achievement.

Cross-Cultural Experiences

Definition: Those times you’ve ventured outside your comfort zone or been in an unfamiliar cultural situation and relied on your adaptability, empathy, and communication skills to navigate the experience effectively.

Example: One candidate spent 18 months early in her career living in Indonesia as an exchange student and English language tutor. This experience significantly influenced her career aspirations. She ultimately founded a non-profit organization focused on ensuring improved access to high-quality public education in Southeast and Central Asia.


Definition: Consistent, near-perfect performance in an activity that you truly enjoy.

Example: Talents are a fertile area to explore when you are designing your PODs. Be sure to expand your search beyond those talents you think are business-oriented or work-related. One of our clients spent a year between college and the start of her management consulting career as a professional dancer on Broadway. In her time outside of the office, she continued to express her passion for dance by founding a non-profit organization that taught ballet to children in the inner-city schools of New York.


Definition: Expansive knowledge and recognized skills in a particular field.

Example: Like talents, areas of expertise don’t have to be professionally-oriented to qualify as PODs for your MBA application. One MBA Prep School client had a long-held fascination with archaeology and ancient history, culminating in his participation in an archaeological dig in Egypt. Ultimately, he wrote an exciting essay about this passion for archaeology and how the things he’d learned as an archaeologist would make him a more effective business leader.

Things You’ve Started

Definition: An idea you had that you turned into something real.

Example: The category “Things You’ve Started” could include anything from an entrepreneurial experience in high school to launching a book club at work because you were alarmed that most of your colleagues hadn’t opened a book since college. During a period in her life when her brother was battling drug addiction, one client started an addiction recovery support group for families in her community who had a family member with a substance abuse problem. This leadership experience was on a small scale, but it had a considerable impact on the families that took part in the group she created.

Things You Have Created

Definition: A time when you were innovative and imaginative and drew on your talents to produce something you’re proud of.

Example: Things you’ve created might be anything from a product you patented to a self-published book. One candidate wrote a symphony that her hometown orchestra performed on tour.

Passions and Interests

Definition: The things you do for enjoyment and relaxation in your free time.

Example: One of our candidates had a passion for cinematography and video editing. At first blush, she wasn’t sure why business schools might want to know about this. She ultimately positioned this POD as valuable to her class because she could be the class videographer, capturing the “key moments” of their time together.

Honors and Awards

Definition: Special recognition you have received personally and/or professionally.

Example: You will have an opportunity to list honors and awards in your application forms, but they are also a good trigger for PODs because they remind you of ways in which you’ve stood out from others in the past. One candidate wrote an award-winning economics thesis on U.S. investment in China – talking about the project reminded her of how much she enjoyed research and her talent for identifying and communicating significant investment trends.

Causes/Communities You Care About

Definition: Causes you feel strongly about and communities that you care deeply about helping.

Example: Causes and communities that you care about are of interest to the admissions committee because they are looking for leaders who devote time and energy to impacting the communities that matter to them. Think about the communities you are a part of and how you have made those communities stronger. One MBA Prep School client cared deeply about the shift to clean energy and worked with an organization that helped homeowners install solar energy panels.

Friends in High Places

Definition: How your relationships might be valuable to your future classmates.

Example: This isn’t about showing off your elite Rolodex. Instead, think about which of your relationships might be valuable to your future classmates. One of our candidates was from a prominent manufacturing family in China and could take his interested classmates on an “insider” tour of China’s factories.

We hope that these examples give you a sense of the fantastic range of possibilities that can serve as a source for your Points of Difference. Now it’s your turn to identify and prioritize your Points of Difference. However, keep in mind that not every POD will make it into your final application. Just as a marketing strategist must decide which product benefits to focus on in their marketing campaigns, we recommend choosing five PODs to focus on during your application campaign. Your goal is to select the unique things you believe will most appeal to MBA admissions officers and your future classmates. Next, we’ll talk about the process of narrowing your list of PODs down.

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!

Choose Your Top Five Points of Difference

The POD’s you have discovered make you unique; the question to ask yourself next is:

“How could these different, interesting, and unusual things about me benefit the program and my future classmates?”

You need to translate your list of differences into specific benefits to the program and your classmates. When you try to translate PODs into benefits, you will find that some of your unique qualities don’t appear to add any obvious value to an MBA community. You want to identify and underline those that do.

After your efforts to translate PODs into benefits to an MBA class, you will probably have a much shorter list. If you still have more than five PODs vying for attention, ask yourself: “If I could only tell the Admissions Committee five things about me, which would they be?

If your top five still don’t emerge, you can seek out the advice of others who know you well and ask them to help you pick the PODs that would best represent an appealing, well-rounded picture.

The first step in our exercise is to work through each category and write down all of the ideas it inspires. You want to suspend judgment at this stage and come up with as many things as you can. Once you identify a long list of possible PODs, you want to decide which will be your “Top 5.” You might consider using a prioritization grid similar to the one featured in the famous career guide What Color is Your Parachute. The prioritization exercise will help you weigh the importance of each of your Points of Difference.

Remember, you are looking for about five items that are central to what makes you unique and without which the admissions officers’ picture of you would be incomplete. You will be asking yourself: “If I could only tell the Admissions Committee one thing about me, which would it be? Item A or Item B?”

Once you’ve winnowed down your list of PODs down, it is time to think about where and how to feature them in your MBA applications.

Conveying Your Points of Difference

After you have narrowed down your top 5 Points of Difference, you may be wondering how to use your PODs to shape your MBA application. Ultimately your goal is to feature the “best of the best” of your PODs in your application essays, recommendation letters, resume, and interview answers.

MBA Application Resume

Your MBA application resume is the perfect starting point for featuring your PODs. While you have limited real estate on the page to work with, you can often briefly incorporate some or all of your PODs into your professional experience, academic history, or extracurricular activities sections. You can feature honors and awards you have received, highlight an initiative you led for a club with a mission that you are passionate about, or simply list some unique talents and hobbies as “personal interests” at the bottom of your MBA application resume.

MBA Application Forms

While the form responses in your MBA application forms might seem like throwaways, think of those forms as great places to communicate some of your PODs. For example, there may be a section to list awards or activities. Indirectly, your answers to other questions can showcase your PODs. For instance, many MBA applications now ask for family information or undergraduate funding. If being a first-generation college student is one of your PODs, admissions officers may learn about that from the information you provide in their online form.

MBA Recommendation Letters

A well-chosen recommender often knows an applicant well enough to comment on their PODs. In fact, the goal of a recommendation letter is to obtain an outsider’s view about how you stand out from your peers. Depending on your relationship with them, your supervisors may even be familiar with your accomplishments and interests outside of work. Having your recommenders comment on some of your PODs can show that your unique strengths can make a difference in your professional community.

MBA Application Essays

Your application essays are the ideal place for featuring your PODs. In fact, many MBA essay prompts offer you a direct invitation to discuss your PODs. A “What Will You Contribute” Essay can give you the space to share Things You Have Started or Created or the place to tell a story about the impact you’ve had on a Cause/Community You Care About. An Important Life Experience might naturally lend itself to serving as the subject of a Leadership Story Essay. Take advantage of the Your MBA application essays to go beyond listing your PODs and show admissions officers how what makes you unique will benefit your peers in the MBA program.

Final Thoughts

Top schools have far too many candidates for the limited number of seats available in each class. As a result, MBA applicants are fighting for admissions officers’ attention and seeking every opportunity to “stand out” when crafting their MBA applications. If you want to build an application that differentiates you as a candidate, then defining your Points of Difference is an essential step in the design of your MBA admissions strategy. Taking the time to brainstorm what makes you unique and how those differentiators will benefit your future MBA classmates will form the core of an effective MBA application strategy.

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!