Make sure you enjoy applying to business school. Push aside the inevitable anxiety about M7 selectivity rates, ever-higher GMAT scores, and the fierce competition among talented peers. This is your chance to step back from the relentless pace of professional commitments and really think about where you would like to see yourself five to ten years from now, what matters most to you, and what you have to offer in both the MBA classroom and in the wider community that is so much part of the business school experience. The MBA application is a welcome reminder of this meaningful road to self-discovery. If you bring awareness to the process of applying, and not just the outcome, the benefits will extend far beyond an acceptance letter.
I spend a lot of time at Fortuna Admissions talking to young professionals hoping for a coveted spot at one of the world’s top MBA programs. And I love witnessing their reactions when I suggest that they enjoy the road to MBA admissions. For many of them it is like releasing a safety valve of apprehension about their chances of admission, and understanding that their personal stories and unique experiences are as worthy and compelling as any other.
The sooner you start your personal journey of introspection, the more you will enjoy the MBA admissions process, and the greater your chances of admissions success.
That’s the essence of the ‘early bird mindset.’ My Fortuna Admissions Co-Founder, Caroline Diarte Edwards, puts this into context: “Having reviewed thousands of applications during my career in business school admissions, including as Director of Admissions at INSEAD, I believe that the single most important action you can take is to spend significant time on self-reflection. Business schools don’t just want to hear about your academic excellence and professional triumphs. They want to know who you are, what you care about and why an MBA is essential to achieving your highest aspirations.”
Herein lies the rub: Answering such questions in a way that’s compelling, concise and credible to an MBA admissions officer means first summoning that clarity of purpose for yourself.
From written essays to the admissions interview, the MBA application process is riddled with formidable questions designed to surface your unique qualities, guiding values, intrinsic motivations and career aspirations. Stanford GSB’s iconic admissions essay, for example, wants to know, “What matter most to you and why,” while Kellogg asks, “How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg?” Columbia’s recently re-tuned essay asks for “an example of a team failure of which you have been a part” (and what you’d do differently). And if that doesn’t make the quants among us break into a cold sweat, last year Berkeley Haas debuted a Hemingwayesque prompt that asks you to distill a memorable life experience into a six-word story. Winning the admissions committee’s favor with your ability to access and express this level of self-awareness requires considerable introspection.
It can seem impossible to find the time (and presence of mind) to ponder such questions given the accelerated pace of life, especially for fast-track, high-performing individuals. Professional necessity has conditioned most of us to be connected to our external devices more than our interior lives, more devoted to multi-tasking than mindfulness. Yet that’s precisely what the business school admission process is trying to exact from applicants.
“Not allowing yourself that time and space to be introspective early on is a missed opportunity,” says Fortuna Admissions expert coach Sharon Joyce, former Berkeley Haas Associate Director of Admissions. “For most of the people we’re working with, who have been incredibly successful in both academics and career to date, the missing piece at the outset is often thinking deeply on why the MBA is the vital next step and being able to express this from a place of authenticity and depth.”
Injecting the b-school application process with this level of self-discovery is something Sharon is passionate about. “I’m an astute observer of applicants’ strengths,” winks Joyce. “I am intrigued by the unique qualities of the clients I coach and love hearing the one-of-a-kind stories that applicants share with me.”
I asked Sharon and other of my Fortuna Admissions colleagues for top tips on the early bird mindset and how to set yourself up for admissions success.
#1 Uncover your ‘personal brand.’
“Before diving into the application process, I am a huge proponent of doing some reflective work. In my experience, using self-assessment tools such as CliftonStrengths helps candidates clarify their passions, purpose and ‘personal brand,’” says Joyce. “Generally speaking, self-assessment tools include activities that illuminate values, skills, strengths, cultural and personal workstyle preferences and communication styles. Guiding prospective students to define their strengths, affinities and talents lays the groundwork for powerful application materials.”
In addition to her years of admissions experience with Berkeley Haas and Fortuna, Joyce is a certified CliftonStrengths coach and leverages the assessment as a way to ground candidates in an understanding of what makes them unique and uncover new angles in their story to distinguish their application from others. One of her recent clients, an engineer with an overrepresented profile had “relationship-building” among his top five strengths. This awareness sparked a new conversation about the way he manages teams, surfacing stories he never thought to share and making connections to his leadership style. By lifting this up in his overall narrative, he was able to tell his story from a unique perspective and leverage it as something exceptional. “I can see students having these ah-ha moments – I am good, I do bring this,” says Joyce. “To paraphrase a recent client, it provides users with a clear look at themselves which can be difficult to accomplish on your own.”
#2 Look beyond your current horizon.
It’s not uncommon for excellence-driven wunderkinds who have attained a certain level of success early in career to simultaneously suffer from ‘imposter complex.’ The relentless pace of striving and achieving can leave little room for sincere self-reflection. Take a big step back to consider where you are in your life, and why are you choosing to pursue this type of degree in this moment of your career. You want to be excited entering this process, not anxious.
“Many of us don’t have a habit of self-reflection, making the idea feel awkward or challenging. You might feel unsure about how big you can dare to dream or uncomfortable thinking too far ahead,” says Fortuna’s Diarte Edwards. “Beginning a process of deep reflection at least six months ahead of application deadlines gives you both time to get introspective and to ritualize it as routine. Insights may not arrive immediately, but just voicing the questions and inviting the answers can elicit unexpected connections. The answers may appear suddenly or at odd moments – reading a blog, commuting to the office or gazing through the cabin window of an airplane.”
#3 Great insights spring from great questions.
Create a smart list of relevant questions, such as, what strengths and talents do you bring, how are you prepared to leverage them in service of your highest aspirations? And how will an MBA program help you tap into your greatest gifts? Not just make you a better marketer or hone your crack finance skills, but how will the degree support your leadership development. This level of substance and sincerity, connecting your strengths to your story, is way more appealing to the top schools on your list. There’s no substance to, ‘oh, I’m a perfectionist.’
“Consider the circumstances, defining moments and pivot points that have shaped you, the achievements you’re most proud of, and the challenges you’ve faced and overcome along the way,” says Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara, former Wharton head of MBA Admissions. “What’s compelling to the admissions committee is what you’ve learned from your experiences, and how they’ve grown your personal and professional ability to imagine, act and lead.”
#4 Release the tyranny of the ‘perfect profile.’
Too many candidates waste valuable time speculating what admissions officers want to hear and crafting a narrative to fit the ‘perfect profile.’ The question isn’t what do business schools want to hear, but what do I need to tell them? “Having passion and a sincere conviction about what you’re doing translates so much better to a standout MBA application than crafting what you think the school will be looking for,” says Silverman Hodara.
It can be a challenge to articulate who you are and why you’re worthy. It’s subjective, and you’ll be judged, but delivering your narrative with authenticity is about daring to get personal. “When you take the risk to be vulnerable, it inspires a human connection, and it’s so much more appealing to read,” says Fortuna’s Karla Cohen in her article, What Harvard Business School Really Wants. “The more personal you can be in terms of why you do what you do, the more interesting and memorable you’ll be. Because so few people are. Few people are honest, and fewer are vulnerable in the process of storytelling. But there is something so powerful about the truth when you read it – it hits you.”
#5 Understand how you’re perceived.
It’s also incredibly helpful to get a better understanding of how you’re perceived by others. Beyond initiating a formal 360, reach out to friends, family and coworkers to solicit their unvarnished comments. Start by asking how they might describe your unique assets and talents, or what key character traits you exude. You also want to hear what they’d say about your weaknesses and blind spots. Ask them what they see you doing in five years, and in 10. What you stand to learn may supply invaluable fodder for your application and perspective on the ‘personal brand’ you’re projecting.
It bears repeating: It should be exciting to think about applying to grad school, and the more enjoyment you can inject into a long and taxing process will make the difficulties more surmountable. There will be inevitable ups and downs (studying for the GMAT can feel fairly irredeemable). But committing to this self-reflective work not only increases your situational and self-awareness, it’s likely to grow your sense of possibility and confidence.
“Dare to have a little fun,” Joyce likes to say. “There is no right story other than your own. And the person best positioned to tell that story is you.”