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MBA Applications: The Secret Sauce


February 16, 2021


Josh Jones

What makes a great MBA application?

The facts, obviously. But the facts are largely beyond your control.

At this point, at least.

Besides, which facts matter?

If you’re Bill Gates’s son, you’re probably getting in.

If you’ve just launched the next Google, you’re getting in, but you probably shouldn’t go.

If the stock market hangs on your every word, I’d like a moment of your time, and I’d like to congratulate you on your admission to the school of your choice.

But if you’re not in any of those categories, then the “facts” of your application are nothing more than ancient history — things you’re stuck with, like it or not.

[Unless, of course, you still haven’t taken your GMAT/GRE. If so, then it’s time to get busy with us preparing to change the one fact you still can change.]

So, what can we do about the “facts” now that we can no longer change them?

First, we need to think like an admissions officer, not an applicant. First and foremost, we need to remember how incredibly boring their jobs are; literally, they’re locked in a room reading hundreds of applications, all of which basically say the same thing in basically the same way. Let’s face it, most of us just don’t have any incredibly unique experience; we’re not motivated by any incredibly unique inspiration, and we don’t have any incredibly unique goal. Most of us are “average” applicants – if only because the extraordinary amongst us don’t need any help because our stories “speak” for themselves. For the rest of us, we need to take the same raw materials that everybody else has and make something completely new and different.

But don’t worry! That’s pretty much what great chefs do each and every day! That is, everybody has access to flour, sugar, and eggs, but not everybody can bake a great cake – the trick is presenting our “average” story is some “extraordinary” way.

Now that doesn’t mean as a rap video or in oil paintings.

Nope, it means really, truly thinking about who you are, what you want to do, and why you want to do it. It means taking some generic universal or quasi-universal truth and adding your own unique understanding.

It means taking “meeting new people from different cultures” during your “back-packing trip across Europe” and adding how “Kebab pizza” got you thinking about the impact of immigration on product innovation and realizing that many “new” products are really blends of existing products and wondering why some blends work and some blends fail, which led you back to your experience launching Product Q, which succeeded or failed because of Lesson Y, and so on.

Do you see how a fairly ordinary experience combined with a fairly ordinary insight can lead to an extraordinary insight that ties back to the rest of your resume?

Second, learn to ignore the question. When I was a political commentator on TV, my boss sent me to a very experience media training program; I’ll tell you what I learned in one sentence: ignore the question. True experts know that questions are merely an excuse to say whatever it is you wanted to say in the first place. You decide whatever you think your strongest selling points are, and you jam those ideas into whatever question(s) they ask.

Third, you are not recreating your resume in essay form! That’s the biggest mistake most people make. Your audience is neither illiterate nor dim-witted, so you shouldn’t need to repeat yourself, and – frankly – if you do need to repeat yourself, it’s probably not worth repeating. If your resume is incredible, your essays won’t matter much; here, I’m assuming that your resume alone won’t be adequate, so we’re trying to go further — we’re trying to re-imagine your resume, not recreate it.

Fourth, think story, not essay. People like stories. Admissions officers are people. Therefore, admissions officers like stories more than essays. Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you went to an essay? When’s the last time you went to a movie – to see a story? As a writer, I’m always a bit skeptical of craft, but even us skeptics have to concede that craft has its place. The more you can make your essay read like a story, the better you’ll do.

So, don’t say, “I think diversity is important because of X experience”; rather, tell a story from your life about a conflict that arose as a result of diversity-related issues. Remember all great stories have conflicts – it doesn’t have to be a life-and-death struggle, but you need a conflict. It’s not, “I went to diversity training because I saw how important it could be when X happened”; it’s, “We were only hours away from our client’s deadline, and we were fighting, rather than working. How could I lead my team into a presentation when I couldn’t even lead them into the same room?” Same idea, but the latter presentation is far more interesting because it reads like a story.

Fifth, remember they want a diverse class, not a diverse person. There’s nothing wrong with doing one thing extraordinarily well, particularly when you acknowledge your need to grow. If you were the best at X, then it doesn’t matter that you never tried Y and Z, especially if you acknowledge your desire to learn more about Y and Z and you explain why attending Program Q will strength you in those areas. (After all, if you’re already perfect, why would you need Program Q?) Don’t make the mistake of claiming you did everything unless you can truly demonstrate that you excelled at everything. If nothing else, claiming you did everything makes you seem calculating and unreliable; on the other hand, if you admit your faults, people will assume you’ve been honest.

Which leads me to my next point: what about your problems and mistakes? Face it, none of us is perfect, so we’ll have something we have to address. The Admissions Committee isn’t going to overlook your shortcomings, so what should you do about them? MAKE THEM YOUR STRENGTH! If nothing else, you’ve learned never to do that again.

But the most important point to remember is that every mistake/problem/shortcoming is an opportunity – an opportunity to say what you’ve learned or what you’ve overcome or why you’re driven to do better. A well-crafted explanation may be better than a perfect resume because nobody likes perfection and because nobody thinks “perfect” people are telling the truth.

If you don’t identify a problem with your resume, they’ll just invent one for you, so fill in the gap! I began this essay by saying you need to decide your strongest selling points, but you also need to decide your weakest point. Then, you have to decide how to turn that weakness into a strength.

I won’t lie: there’s no easy answer, no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why you need help. Introspection is hard, which is why we invented mirrors (to help us look at ourselves). With expert, independent advice, you can craft your best-possible essay and, thus, acquire your best chance at admission to the school of your dreams.

If there’s one last piece of advice I can give you, it would be this: start sooner, rather than later. Writing is re-writing. Writing takes time. Nobody gets it on the first draft. Sometimes, not even the twenty-second.

In the final analysis, nobody can write your essay because nobody is you. A great essay doesn’t capture your resume in prose; a great essay captures you. Ultimately, the Admissions Committee wants to know you, not your resume, and that requires time, expertise, and courage – the courage to introduce yourself (the real you, not just your public persona) to strangers.

And, remember, Test Prep Unlimited is here to help!

This article was written by Chris and Michele, our lead admissions consultants. They each have a Harvard MBA and have helped many of our students craft compelling applications. Contact us today to work with Chris and/or Michele!


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