One of the secrets to creating an outstanding MBA application is to start with a thorough understanding of how you are different from other applicants. As you know, there are more qualified candidates applying than there are seats in the class; therefore, the admissions committee wants to know what you can bring to the table. Directly and indirectly, admissions committees will be asking: “What is unique about you?”
Points of Difference (“PODs”) is a marketing term that refers to the positive ways in which a company’s product differs from its competitors.’’ In the exercise in this unit, you’ll identify your Points of Difference — the positive ways that you are different from other applicants. Taken together, a product’s PODs define the brand. Similarly, your PODs will serve to brand you in the eyes of the admissions committee.
Differentiation is key to earning an acceptance letter, and our PODs Discovery exercise will help you to discover the ways you are different from the thousands of candidates who apply each year to the top business schools.
Identifying, your top five PODs will provide an excellent set of Content Building Blocks that can be used for your essays, recommendation letters, and interview answers.
Exercise: Discover Your Points of Difference
Step 1: Brainstorm Your Points of Difference
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 help guide your brainstorming efforts:
- Important Life Experiences
- Significant Personal Achievements
- Cross-Cultural Experiences
- Things You’ve Started
- Things You Have Created
- Passions and Interests
- Honors and Awards
- Causes/Communities You Care About
- Friends in High Places
This category list is not meant to be exhaustive. If compelling PODs come to mind that don’t fit neatly into one of these categories, write them down!
Before you get started, read the definition of each category and the examples that emerged when previous MBA Prep School students used these POD categories in their brainstorming efforts. The descriptions and examples are intended to spur your own discovery process.
Important Life Experiences
Definition: Experiences and situations that are literally “life changing.”
One of our students had served as a special forces soldier in the military. The collection of experiences he had during this period of his life forever changed his outlook, goals, beliefs, and dreams. That was obvious on the surface but by digging deeper into some of those experiences, we came up with some amazing subject matter for his essay including the contributions that he and his combat unit had made to providing security for Iraq’s first free election.
Significant Personal Achievements
Definition: Significant individual achievements that you are extremely proud of
One of our students remembered the harrowing time he and his wife had gone through when their first baby was born two months premature. His child 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.
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.
One candidate spent 18 months early in her career living in Indonesia as an exchange student and English language tutor. This experience was a major influence on her career aspirations, and she ultimately founded a non-profit organization focused on helping ensure improved access to high quality public education in Southeast and Central Asia.
Definition: Consistent, near-perfect performance in an activity that you truly enjoy. Talents are a fertile area to explore. Be sure to expand your search beyond only those talents that you think are business-oriented or work-related to include all areas of your life and experiences.
One of our students 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 founded a non-profit organization that taught ballet and dance to young children in the inner-city schools of New York.
Definition: Expansive knowledge and recognized skills in a particular field.
Similar to talents, areas of deep expertise don’t have to be professionally focused. One MBA Prep School student 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: The category “Things You’ve Started” could include anything from an entrepreneurial experience in high school to launching a book club in your spare time after graduation because you were alarmed that most of your friends hadn’t opened a book since college. The key element here is that you had an idea and turned that idea into something real.
During a period in her life when her brother was battling a drug addiction, one of my clients 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 huge 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.
Things you’ve created might be anything from a product you patented to a book you self-published. 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.
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 being 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.
Honors and awards will be listed in your application forms, but they are also a good trigger for PODs because they will remind you of ways that you’ve excelled at various points in your life. One candidate wrote an award winning economics thesis on U.S. investment in China – talking about the project reminded her about how much she enjoyed research and of her talent for identifying and communicating important investment trends.
Causes/Communities You Care About
Definition: Causes you feel strongly about and communities that you care deeply about helping. Think about the communities you are a part of and how you have made those communities stronger.
Causes and/or communities that you care about are of interest to the admissions committee because they are looking for the kinds of leaders who devote time and energy to the communities that matter to them. One MBA Prep School student cared deeply about the shift to clean energy and worked with an organization that helped homeowners install solar energy panels in their homes.
Friends in High Places
Definition: This isn’t about showing off your elite Rolodex. Rather, think about which of your relationships might be valuable to your future classmates.
One of our candidates was from a prominent political family in China and would be able to take his interested classmates on an “insider” tour of China.
Step 2: Choose Your Top 5 Points of Difference
Just as a marketing strategist must decide which product benefits to focus on in their marketing campaigns, you need to choose five PODs to focus on in your application campaign. Your goal is to select the unique things about you that you believe will most appeal to admissions officers and your future classmates.
The PODs you have discovered make you unique; the question to ask yourself is:
“How could these different, interesting, and unusual things about me benefit the program and my future classmates?”
Your PODs signify your potential to make a unique contribution to an MBA class. You need to take those differences and translate them into specific benefits to the program and your classmates.
Case Study: Richard’s Points of Difference
One of our MBA Prep School students was an army brat who had moved to a new city every three years growing up. Now that’s somewhat unique by itself, but he needed to figure out how that difference might be a benefit to his future classmates.
After some thinking, he realized that his army brat upbringing had taught him how to build new friendships quickly where ever he went; he was quite adept at breaking the ice and making friends. He realized he could help his new classmates connect with one another – a role he had played well in other communities that he’d been part of in the past.
When you try to translate PODs into benefits, you will find that some of the unique things about you don’t easily translate into benefits to your classmates. The one’s you want to identify and underline are those that will.
After translating PODs into benefits, you will probably have a much shorter list. If you still have more than five PODs vying for attention, then 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 of you.
Unit Review: Discover Your Points of Difference
- Points of Difference (“PODs”) are the positive ways that you are different from other applicants.
- To help you identify your strongest PODs, we provided eleven separate categories and example PODs to spur your brainstorming efforts.
- Like a marketing strategist, you need to choose five PODs to focus on in your application campaign.
- Choose the 5 PODs that will be relevant and beneficial to your future classmates.
The PODs you feature in your application need to capture the essence of who you are, what you’ve experienced, what you stand for, and how you can contribute to and enrich an MBA community. They should be the things that are so core to who you are that without them the admissions committee won’t have a complete picture of you. Ultimately, your PODs will serve as powerful Content Building Blocks for your application essays, recommendation letters, resume, and interview answers.