9 Mistakes To Avoid on Your Business School Application
August 14, 2014
In speaking with my colleagues - former admissions officers from many of the most competitive business schools - there are some very common business school application mistakes that turn an otherwise highly competitive application into one that is thrown into the “maybe” list or worse, passed over completely.
1. Resumé which is a monologue, instead of a dialogue. Forget listing all the tasks you accomplished in hopes of impressing the reviewer. Describe what you did that made the organization better than it was before you arrived. Don’t brag, use data or tangible evidence to support your achievements. Sales increased, customer complaints decreased, satisfaction scores soared. Were you able to solve a problem that had been a real issue for customer service? Or did you guide a team through a difficult project and still delivered a flawless effort? How did you handle it and how was your effort the one that made the difference? This is what the reviewer wants to read about.
2. Personal statement that is not personal. Following the same thought as the resumé, the personal statement should be about you and what makes you different from other applicants (in a good way, obviously): why will your presence in the community be a benefit for the school? What do you offer the school that others cannot? Why is that offering important? It is alright to address other people (most frequently, grandparents) in your personal statement, but just remember: after reading the essay, the admissions office should be impressed by you - not by the other person you wrote about. One of the biggest business school application mistakes I see is not taking advantage of the personal statement
3. They are running away from something, not running towards something - According to a long-time admissions reader from Wharton (who requested to remain anonymous), one of the biggest red flags and business school application mistakes is when a student appears to be pursuing an MBA more to escape what came before it than to prepare for what lies ahead of it. That is, often times it is clear that applicants have no clear vision of how an MBA will help them in their future endeavors (sometimes, that’s made most abundantly clear where applicants appear to have little or no idea of what those future endeavors might entail).
Too many students do not do their research to find the right fit and this resonates loudly both in the application and interview. Don’t make the business school application mistake of getting caught up in the hype of rankings, find a school that you can relate to and then tell them why you are a great fit for it.
4. Career aspirations do not seem to fit the school. Not everyone would benefit equally by attending a Harvard, Stanford or Sloan. In fact, you may be better served by attending a school that is lower ranked, but which has more offerings related to your true passion(s). It is in those schools where you will be challenged because of the fit both with the academics and the community of the student body.
If you insist on “judgment by rankings”, then at the very least ensure that you’ve done your homework on the school. Don’t write to Wharton about your deep passion for pursuing entrepreneurship when it would take you only a few seconds to see that numerous schools which are lower ranked than Wharton nonetheless rank higher in this regard. Basically, play to the school’s strengths, as well as your own. The only exception would be if you have a really compelling reason why this school is right for you (e.g., Wharton may not be the best MBA program for entrepreneurship, but maybe it has the leading expert on “X”, which so happens to be your area of interest).
5. Even when they have an answer for “Why this MBA program”, their answer is incoherent and often jumbled. For someone who has not done their homework and found schools that resonate well with their passions, trying to articulate the “why” will end up being a long and arduous explanation rather than a clear, concise and informative statement. Admissions offices don’t just want to hear about what they can offer you, they also want to hear about what you can offer them. Making it clear that your answer to “why this school” is a two-way street goes a long way in persuading someone to pull for you in the admissions office.
6. Last minute scramble. One of the worst business school application mistakes is treating the application as an event, rather than a prrocess. Admissions officers have read thousands of applications. They can distinguish ones that are thrown together hurriedly from those that are thoughtful, have well constructed essays, and have components of the application which act in harmony to tell a single, central story about a unique individual (hint: you). If you are going to rush it, better to wait until you have more time.
7. Spelling and grammar mistakes jump off the page at reviewers. You would be surprised how easy admissions officers can pick them out. This is one thing that is totally under your control. In a tight situation where applicants who are very equally matched can be the difference between being put in the “admit” pile and “waitlisted”. The margins for error are very slim. This is one where you should get a 10 out of 10.
8. Trying to beat everyone by playing the same game. If I told you that you needed to win an olympic gold medal next year, and that getting the gold (regardless of the event) was the only thing that mattered in your entire existence, what event would you compete in? Swimming? Gymnastics? Sprinting? No - none of the above. Why? Because they are incredibly competitive. You would compete in alpine sniping, beach soccer, or four-man synchronized horseshoes (yea, that one is real).
I haven’t met an admissions officer who doesn’t lament this business school application mistake: you are not unique because you went to a great college, and then worked at a very prestigious consulting, investment banking, or other financial industries firm. In fact, approximately half of HBS’s admitted class from last year hailed from this less-than-atypical background. In speaking with former admissions officers from HBS, Stanford GSB, Stern, Wharton, Haas - and many others - almost everyone repeats some version of the following: “We already know what you did at McKinsey, at Goldman Sachs, at Deloitte….don’t be the millionth person who tells us about being a first and second year associate at the same firms which sent us students last year…let the previous applicants and their applications do some work for you, and focus on the things that make you different from everyone else with your educational background.”
9. Going for big names in letters of recommendation, rather than big value. A lot of applicants - particularly those from reputable financial and/or consulting firms - neglect the possible recommenders who have had genuine and profound exposure to the applicant. Instead, these applicants think that if their recommendations are coming from the head honcho, they are better off. This is a common, and sometimes fatal business school application mistake. It is abundantly clear when someone is writing a letter of recommendation based on a tired, old, overused template which could describe any of 1,000 young associates. Make sure your recommenders actually know who you are, have seen you perform at your best, and who can credible attest to how you generate success, and overcome failure.
This article was written with the help of several members of InGenius Prep’s MBA admissions team, including former admissions officers from: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Stern, Haas, Columbia, Booth, Kellogg. To talk to one of these admissions officers about avoiding the worst business school application mistakes, just sign up for a free consultation.