Let me start with some good news:
Tip 1: I assure you, you’re good enough to get into business school.
Apparently at least half of us suffer from Impostor Syndrome. But even if you aren’t one of the impostor half, you’ve got to admit: you don’t like being judged— as you inevitably are when you submit to interviews, networking, and business school applications.
To cope with the anxiety evaluation causes, we’re taught from a young age to pretend – to try to be who others think we should be, rather than to dig deep and figure out exactly who we ARE.
By the time you get to bschool apps, it’s practically second nature to ask: “What do schools want to hear?”
In my free MBA Strategy calls that I do for potential clients, by far the number one question I get is some version of this:
“What do I need to tell SCHOOL X so they’ll let me in?”
Oh the humanity!! The temptation to be “who they want us to be” is so strong.
To make matters worse, many supposed experts on this process just augment this perspective. Indeed, a lot of advice out there encourages you to present an overwrought, over-rehearsed “brand” or “pitch” that is entirely devoid of humanity. This is actually the worst thing you can do for your candidacy.
Tip 2: If you’re applying to business school, please don’t try to brand yourself.
In the end, packaging yourself like a consumer good doesn’t persuade, influence, or inspire. It just increases the distance between you and your audience, rather than drawing them to you.
What I’m aiming for here is a fundamental change in your mindset about communicating yourself. I’d like to persuade you that...
To gain MBA admission, the best strategy is to be your authentic self. Plus do a little research. That’s it.
But since so many people get this so wrong, I am going to spend a few more words laying out all the reasons you should stop trying to tailor your communication to what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.
Once we’ve disabused ourselves of some of the popular but horribly wrong notions about what it takes to successfully gain MBA admission, in the second half, I’ll explain a new way to approach your MBA applications for maximum MBA admissions success and outline the steps you can take to communicate your fit systematically and authentically with your target schools.
My hope is that you’ll stop taking fit to mean that YOU have contort yourself to fit what you presume to be THEIR mold (they don’t have one, as you’ll soon see) and instead begin to understand that fit really works more the other way. Your job is to figure out how each school fits YOU and then show that.
Let’s start with some of the silly things pandering to the adcom might lead you (and has led many a great person before you) to say. Stuff like…
- “My goal is to start my own company right after Stanford,” because you’ve heard that entrepreneurship in en vogue at Stanford even though you’ve never started a business, never had operational experience, and don’t currently have any ideas.
- Or “I’m all about education, Yale.” Even though you’ve worked in finance for 5 years.
- Or “Oops, better not apply to Booth, that’s for quant jocks and I haven’t taken math since 11th grade!”
- Or the subtler, but equally problematic “My most important leadership experience was this tiny thing I did in college where I led a team.” Even though it was a long time ago and wasn’t all that important to you, because you’ve heard Kellogg is all about teamwork and so far in your career you’ve only been an individual contributor.
This is not to say any of these stories are wrong.
If you’re really passionate about education even though you’ve been in finance, great. The MBA is definitely for career switchers. But then there’d better be some evidence for that passion in your extracurricular choices.
If you have no interest in the quantitative curriculum at Booth, fine, but read more about it first. Booth has a lot more going on than just numbers (and in their own right, numbers might just be the very best thing your MBA will teach you anyway!)
If that college team experience was truly meaningful, fine (it would need to have been a formative learning experience or one where your impact was palpable.)
All of these examples COULD be very compelling stories for your business school essays. But only if they’re authentically yours. If you’re contorting your stories to fit your narrow preconception of the school’s brand, then you’ve got no chance to connect with the adcom. It’s like fumbling the pass before you even throw it.
If you’re pandering, the admissions committee will see right through it.
Think about it. These are professionals. Most of them have MBAs themselves. They’re passionate about their schools. And all they do, day in and day out during admissions season, is read essays.
And can’t you just tell when someone is telling you something just because it’s what they think you want to hear? (Like, “Oh yeah, you look GREAT in that two-sizes too small bathing suit.”). Don’t you think they can too? Give them some credit. They’re good at what they do.
But even if you think YOU can construct a foolproof ruse that they will take hook, line, and sinker, you’re making a mistake if you do it. Pandering has the very unfortunate side effect of making your application boring.
There is a reason Harvard says “don’t overthink it,” and Stanford says: “Resist the urge to ‘package’ yourself into what you think Stanford wants to see. Doing so will only prevent us from understanding who you really are and what you hope to accomplish. The most impressive essays are the most authentic.”
The schools are trying to help you here, because when you “package” yourself, overthink your “brand,” or try to micromanage the big picture of your application, you end up leaving the reader completely unmoved.
Think about the difference between a mass-produced Hershey’s chocolate bar and a hand-crafted, fair trade, artisanal chocolate bar with unique ingredients. Like one of these, for example. Wouldn’t you pick the artisanal one from the pile every time? Especially if it was your job to eat 10,000 candy bars. Wouldn’t you thank your lucky stars that finally one came across your table that didn’t taste flat and waxy just like all the others?
Tip 3: Your life is an artisanal product. Don’t dumb it down to mainstream by pandering.
The admissions committee is human; they will predictably reject something that feels banal. Wouldn’t you?
But beyond the practical reasons that pandering, stretching the truth, or overpackaging yourself will create a sucky MBA app, it has two deeply insidious side effects for your whole life and your level of self-confidence.
First, if you pander, it means you’re effectively letting the opinions of others dictate your choices.
Does that feel good to you?
Well, if you’re a leader, a pioneer, a visionary, a servant, purpose-driven, intent on having an impact, or wanting to make a difference, my guess is that it feels pretty crappy.
You’re probably going to business school so you can create a bigger life of your own design and with further-reaching impact.
Tip 4: Let your app be the start of your journey to leadership: boldly take ownership of your story and your life.
It will feel a lot better as the acceptances (and inevitable rejections) roll in.
And second, don’t forget impostor syndrome. Bschool is tough and competitive. If you get in, you’ll be vying for jobs side by side with some of the best and brightest of your generation. Your sense of self-confidence will take a hit if you can’t look back on the process that got you into school with pride.
Don’t leave that window of doubt in yourself open by writing essays that don’t fully represent you in all your awesomeness and all your humanity.
Commit to showing the adcom who you truly are now, so when the going gets tough during your MBA program, at least you can always kindle the inner confidence that you truly belong there.