Before you submit your applications for MBA programs, stop and choose some empowering mindsets. Doing so will maximize both your MBA success and the joy and growth you enjoy on your journey to the outcome you want.
Year after year, the most successful applicants in gaining admission to Full-time MBA programs, Part-time MBAs, and even Executive MBA programs, are not the ones with highest test scores nor are they the ones with the sexiest undergraduate degree. The are the ones who adopt the MBA Mindset.
You have to start with mindset.
Because your mindset determines the outcome and the process. This article will lay out our 6 mantras to keep in mind as you tackle the long road to MBA admission.
Head over to our Ultimate Guide to MBA Admissions if you want an overview of how the MBA admissions process really works and an organized approach to the complete application journey, including everything from the application deadline to the role of test scores, the online application, interview invitations, and much much more.
But before you write word one of essay one, let me start with some good news.
Based on over 15 years of experience, I assure you…
Mantra 1: 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 graduate degree apps, it’s practically second nature to ask: “What do schools want to hear?”
In our free MBA Strategy calls, by far the number one question we 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 if yu want favorable admissions decisions.
Mantra 2: Never ever try to brand yourself.
In the end, packaging yourself like a consumer good doesn’t persuade, influence, or inspire. It doesn’t set you apart from other applicants either. It just increases the distance between you and your audience, rather than drawing them to you.
What we’re 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.
My hope is that you’ll stop taking fit to mean that YOU have to 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 look at some of the silly things pandering to the adcom might lead you (and has led many a great person before you) to say.
- “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 “I definitely 100% want to go into tech product development even though I’ve had no experience beyond my military service to ascertain what kind of work I would actually enjoy doing.”
- 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 you know tech product development is your future without any other private sector experience, then by all means go for it
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. Many of them have MBAs or another advanced degree themselves. They’re passionate about their schools. And all they do, day in and day out during admissions season, is read essays from the many many applicant pools that apply.
And can’t you just tell when someone is telling you something 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 Business School 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?
Mantra 3: Your life is an artisanal product.
You’re not a basic bitch. (Sorry for the potty mouth, but I mean it!) So don’t dumb yourself down to mainstream by pandering, following an essay template, or letting other people (including consultants) edit the crap out of your essays.
The admissions team is human; they will predictably reject something that feels banal, commonplace, and just like everyone else without so much as inviting you for an interview to answer additional questions. Isn’t that what you would do? Save yourself the time and boredom?
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, someone who’s purpose-driven, intent on having an impact, or wanting to make a difference, my guess is that it feels pretty crappy.
You’re probably getting a business degree so you can create a bigger life of your own design and with further-reaching impact.
So let your app be the start of your journey to leadership:
Mantra 4: Boldly take ownership of your story and your life.
It will feel a lot better as the business school acceptances (and inevitable rejections) roll in.
The second reason pandering will screw you: impostor syndrome.
B-school 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.
OK, so HOW do you go about showing the adcom who you truly are now?
Start by focusing on what YOU want.
What do YOU really want?
Think about this in light of the HBS question:
As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA Program?
- They have your resume. Which had better be awesome. If it’s not, check out the MBA Resume Protocol and get after it. This is serious. Most schools will assess the majority of your professional progress and potential via the resume.
- They have your letter of recommendation. This is also serious. What others say about you will always echo louder and longer than what you say about yourself.
- They have some other stuff you’ll write, listing out awards and jobs and odds and ends. This may be a lot or a little, but it’s basically an extension of and complement to your resume.
Given that they already have all that information, the key words here are You and Want. What do YOU WANT them to know?
They want you to show them something different, something important to you, something that lets them know more about who you are as a person and a multidimensional human being.
Take a look at Harvard’s stated evaluation criteria:
- Analytical aptitude and appetite
- Engaged community citizenship
- Habit of leadership
Whatever the other schools say about their evaluation criteria, it boils down to some version of these qualities. Take Haas’s 4 Defining Principles:
- Question the Status Quo
- Student Always
- Confidence without Attitude
- Beyond Yourself
Different words, same ideas.
Want to check out more? Here are 10.
*If a school in the top 15 is missing from the above, it’s because after 5 minutes of searching. I couldn’t find their stated principles and evaluation criteria. Doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it just means they’re not putting this information out there for you to find. Draw your own conclusions about what that means about the school’s values and culture.
If you look at what schools say about their own values and what they look for in students, you’ll quickly understand this:
Business schools want principled leaders.
People who think for themselves. People who intend to have a positive impact and have a thoughtful plan to achieve that.
High on NO MBA Program’s List?
- Spin doctor
- Butt kisser
And yet if your question is, “What do I need to tell Harvard to show I am a Harvard kind of guy/gal?” that is pretty much where you’re coming from.
Mantra 5: The right story to tell is yours.
There is No “Right Story” for Harvard Business School
Or any other school.
Ok so I know we are starting to get into dead-horse-beating territory here, but just one last perspective on this.
Contorting yourself to fit the judgments you PRESUME others have is no way to live. Hopefully you agree with that.
But still, I could understand if you felt like…
“Yeah, but, Angela, I HAVE to get into business school and this is the best way!”
If you still don’t want to take my word for all this, just go to the source, and check out school class profile and placement data. You’ll see that there can’t possibly be a “right story” for any given school. MBA admission is not about your career background, your GMAT, or your grades.
- Harvard Class Profile
- Harvard Placement Report
- Stanford Class Profile
- Stanford Placement Report
- Kellogg Class Profile
- Kellogg Placement Report
- Booth Class Profile
- Booth Placement Report
If you click some of these links, you’ll find detailed statistics and information about the students at each of these programs and the astonishing diversity of professional backgrounds they represent. You’ll also find that MBAs from top schools go into absolutely every line of work imaginable after they graduate.
This should reassure you that yes, indeed, there is room for you in the next MBA class of your dream school. You—with whatever education, career background, and genuine passions you have.
This data is all publicly available. Look closer. You’ll see some surprising things.
For example, the school among these four with the highest percentage placement in finance is not Booth, or even Harvard. It’s Stanford with 41%.
Despite the supposed importance of STEM majors and coding experience in Silicon Valley, in fact the near majority of Stanford’s class (48%) are humanities majors.
And although Kellogg is known for marketing, they place 53% of their graduates in consulting and finance, vs. only 20% in Marketing. (For even more information on all this, check out our Career Report.)
The stereotypes don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Because MBA admission isn’t about your choice of career post-MBA either.
Schools are assembling a portfolio of students
It’s easy to push beyond the stereotypes when you understand why applying to business school is different from applying to a job. To fill a single job, a firm is going to look for the single BEST candidate. But an MBA class has anywhere from 200–1000 spots. There is no objective measure for what makes the “Best” MBA student. If there were, then only people with 760 GMATs would get in. And that fo sho ain’t the case.
Instead, they’re seeking a well-rounded portfolio of students — one that includes a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, goals, and perspectives. One word you’ll find high on EVERY MBA program’s webpage is “diversity.”
But diversity is a double-edged sword.
It means that your background will be considered. But it also means that not every great applicant with your background will be accepted. Otherwise the class would be 100% ________________ (insert your background here). The class has to be a mix.
This is a big part of the reason why you need reach, match, and safety schools in your application set.
No matter how amazing you are, the likelihood that any one specific school will accept you is low because it also depends on how many strong applicants like you apply and how many spots they’re able to allocate to your diversity profile. (So don’t put all your eggs in only one or two baskets.)
But once you have settled on your mix of schools, understand that there simply is no “Harvard type,” or “Booth type.” And the representatives of these schools will be the first to tell you that.
So beware of the claims of MBA admissions consultants
As a final little rant on this subject, it sort of shocks me every year that some former admissions consultants command a client base of MBA applicants on the basis of claims to elite, insider knowledge about what works for a given school.
This is folly.
Because MBA admission is not about insider secrets about the school.
I served on the Dean’s Student Admissions Committee in my time at Booth. I was an app reader. But that experience gave me no skills that I use in my job today. For a few years post bschool, as an alum, I thought I knew exactly what it took to get in since — well, *I* was successful so what I did must work for everyone!
LOL. I now know I did absolutely EVERYTHING in my MBA applications wrong. I didn’t even follow the specific advice I consistently give on our MBA admissions blog. It was a miracle I was admitted. So on a related note…
There’s no magic bullet, no formula, no secret to what the schools want to hear, no secret code that will unlock their doors to you. Those things don’t exist.
So if you’re trying to find the right story to tell on the school’s website, in their marketing materials, in the voice of current students or MBA alumni, or even in the words of a current or former adcom member, you’re looking in the wrong place.
The right story is inside of you. It’s just your job to bring it out and tell it as inspiringly and authentically as possible.
Mantra 6: Think for yourself before you take your (alumni) friends’ advice.
If we at Career Protocol are good at our jobs as admissions consultants, it’s not because we have the secrets to schools or all the answers about what your dream school is looking for. Rather, it’s because of– as one client recently claimed — “how adept they are at finding the awesomeness that lies in everyone.”
Alumni, even well-intentioned ones, can ruin your story, so proceed with caution.
Successful MBA applications are not really about the school in the end. They’re about YOU.
OK, now that you’ve disabused yourself of some of the popular but horribly wrong notions about what it takes to successfully gain Full-time MBA admissions or admission to the program of your choice and set yourself with inspiring mantras to keep in mind, you can move on to a new way to approach your MBA applications for maximum MBA admissions success.
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