Whether you plan to go to business school one day, are in business school now, just graduated, or simply want to present yourself as a business leader, you need an MBA Resume.
Coming to you with more straight-shooting MBA admissions advice. Sooo without further ado, let’s talk resumes!!
This might be the last set of articles on the MBA resume (or any other kind of resume!) you ever need to read. Here’s everything I’m gonna cover in this post and its shorter, linked brothers.
Table of Contents
Tackling the MBA Resume
It’s human nature to tackle challenges as they come, so when you realize it’s time for a job transition or to apply to business school, THAT’S probably the moment you turn to look at your Frankenstein mess of a resume. And if you’re like most people, what you have is something that started in college (when you had very little work experience to showcase) and overemphasizes school activities and key skills, and then just got a quick update once or twice if you changed jobs.
Your current resume is probably not only outdated and poorly structured given the current state of your career (e.g. is your undergraduate education still the first thing listed there even though you’ve been working for four years?), it’s probably also a job resume targeted for an audience within your current company or field and so is completely unintelligible and unengaging to an outsider.
When you’re applying for a job, LinkedIn may be a source of referrals, and personal connections may be a more important way to get your foot in the door at a new company, but a resume is still a sine qua non in any professional recruiting process. And it’s even more essential to a successful business school application.
First things first: You need to understand the point of the MBA Resume.
When you are applying to business school (or reaching out to potential employers), at some point, you have to tout your accomplishments. You have to brag.
The interview, however, is not the time or place to do that. Strengths-based interviews are a rising trend, and in those interviews you won’t even be asked about accomplishments or career progression. It’s all about preferences and feelings (“When are you happiest?” “How do you know when you’ve had a good day?”). But even in Behavioral or Competency-based interviews (“Tell me about an accomplishment,” “tell me about a time you led a team,” “tell me when you were a forward-focused, strategic leader,” etc.), if you come off as smug or arrogant, you’ll be dead in the water.
Many people worry about bragging on the resume, but that is precisely the place to do it. A resume should in fact be like a highlight reel, a greatest hits list, a succinct and potent delineation of your most noteworthy achievements, educational qualifications, outstanding results, and competitive wins.
Said another way: The point of an MBA resume is swagger: it should read like a brag sheet of the greatest results you’ve produced in your profession, community, education, and personal life.
That’s how you grab the attention of an admissions committee.
This MBA Resume Protocol will help you transform your resume into a brilliant showcase of your finest accomplishments. Along the way, I’ll share some of the fundamentals of understanding and communicating real accomplishments in a succinct and compelling way.
In the end, a strong resume should tell a story of expanding impact, increased effectiveness, awareness, and wisdom, and enriched credibility, trust, and authority.
How to Write a Strong MBA Resume
(a.k.a. 10 rules for building the best possible resume to support your B-school application)
1. Format it simply and chronologically
- Professional experience: most recent to oldest; be sure to show career progression
- Significant community service activities: entrepreneurial or volunteer activities and extra-curricular activities not associated with your job (Note: Many people don’t have enough experience to justify this section, and that’s ok! Just leave it out.)
- Education: include graduate school and any volunteering activities or extracurriculars that coincided with school (If your GMAT and GPA are strong – i.e., above the schools’ average, then you can include them here)
- Skills and Additional: any extra educational qualifications, advanced computer skills (not Microsoft, e.g), hobbies, and other meaningful activities
2. Use powerful verbs in the past tense
Now we’re going to get into the Art of the Bullet. I like to tell my clients that great resume writing is like Haiku – Every. Single. Word. Matters. To write a great bullet, you need to understand yourself, your actions, the result of your actions, the way the business world is structured, and how everything rolls up to the bottom line. You also need to be a master of language.
You probably know you’re supposed to choose strong action verbs. Most people know this, but few go far enough in choosing precise words for their actions.
Consider the nuanced differences among these verbs: led, spearheaded, coordinated, managed, initiated.
On the surface they’re synonyms, but each one has a slightly different meaning. Led and managed are actually the weakest choices because they have the most nebulous meanings. Coordinated is far more precise – it means that you brought the different elements of a complex activity or organization into a harmonious or efficient relationship. That has much more meaning than “led.”
Initiated means you caused a process or action to begin – it implies ingenuity and the fact that you started something that wasn’t necessarily going to happen. (Much clearer and more powerful than “managed.”)
Make the thesaurus and the dictionary your friends in this process, and strive to choose the verbs that most clearly capture the essence of your accomplishments, actions, career progression, and contributions.
And why past tense? As I have already mentioned, a resume is an accomplishment list, and every bullet needs to convey a result or an outcome. Results are by definition something that has already happened. If a bullet is showcasing an accomplishment, it has to be in the past tense.
If you’re using present tense for a bullet, it’s not an accomplishment, it falls in the category of tasks, responsibilities, or activities – useless information for reasons that will soon be clear.
So strive to open each bullet with a powerful, vivid past tense verb.
3. Couch your MBA Resume in Universal Terms (*cough* cut the industry jargon)
Your resume needs to resonate with the person (or people) reading it. A key thing to recognize is that it is most likely the first and, in many cases, the only document recruiters will screen when they are evaluating your candidacy. It is also the foundational (and likely first-read) component of an MBA application.
Think about who will likely be doing that first resume screen. Within a firm, it will most likely be a member of the human resource team who has never done the actual work in your target position and may have no experience outside of the HR department in their industry. Likewise, for business school, the reader will be an Admissions Committee member who may or may not have had some professional experience before going into higher education.
In any case, these are very, very busy people who will likely be screening dozens if not hundreds of applicants’ resumes in a single sitting. It’s easy to understand how someone in that position would be put off by a lot of technical jargon and firm-specific terminology. Rather than taking the time to read your bullets three or four times to figure out what you’re trying to say, a busy reader just might put your resume in the “no thanks” pile.
Honestly, with a mountain of resumes to sort through, isn’t that what you would do?
Aside from making life difficult for recruiters and admissions personnel, sending a resume with inscrutable bullets signals a meaningful lack of emotional intelligence to your reader.
Use universal terms when you’re describing your accomplishments to ensure that what you say crosses industries and functions. If you send a resume full of jargon, it implies that you lack the ability to empathize with your reader – with what they know and don’t know. If you are ultimately targeting a managerial role, such a resume could be an absolute deal breaker.
To make sure your resume hits the right mark and lands with your audience, put your bullets through the Career Protocol High School Test. <-There’s a much more detailed article about how to do that.
4. Do NOT give the reader a laundry list of your achievements
I’ll keep this one short and sweet, because the section title pretty much says it all. As I hope I’ve made unmistakably clear by this point, your resume should be a very carefully curated collection of your greatest accomplishments. Experience matters. So it needs to showcase where you truly excelled, rather than listing every task you ever performed and everything you were ever involved in.
It’s a great idea to list your various accomplishments (professional, community, personal, etc.) as you prepare to draft a resume, essay, or cover letter, but a vital part of your resume drafting process is narrowing and targeting this collection of possibilities.
5. Showcase your communication skills (Read: Don’t mince words.)
Writing clearly and concisely is a gift to your reader. As I suggested with the High School Test, sending a resume with convoluted bullets signals a meaningful lack of emotional intelligence to your reader. Your professional life – especially if you are a manager – will require you to communicate complex problems and concepts in terms other people can understand and to do it efficiently. As you probably know, the human attention span isn’t very long.
6. Uncover your individual contributions to shared outcomes
If you’ve worked largely on team-based projects and tasks like most applicants, this can be one of the most challenging aspects of creating a compelling MBA Resume. You never want to appear to be claiming an outcome that was a team effort. Instead, you want to specify your role in driving particular outcomes (or aspects of an outcome) and ensure your resume bullets contain impactful results the CEO of a company would care about. Look to see how your work impacted your team’s work and the shared outcome – this reveals a collaborative attitude and an ability to be a team player.
If you find yourself struggling to understand the results of your individual efforts, consider discussing it with your managers and teammates. Your colleagues can sometimes help you connect what you did to the outcome that resulted.
7. Please, oh please, don’t use the verb, “led”
As I mentioned in Step 2, you want to build your resume on a foundation of powerful, vivid, and specific verbs. Led—that enticing crutch and universal donor for all resume bullets—is not among them. I feel so strongly about this that I wrote a whooooole article on how real leaders don’t use the word, “led.” So please don’t pepper your MBA Application Resume with it!! (And, if you’re going to use that pesky little word anyways, make sure you don’t use it incorrectly. *face palm* . )
While you’re at it, check out these other commonly misused terms in business communication.
When it comes to showcasing your accomplishments, “led” is way too nonspecific. It doesn’t give the reader a sense of what actual concrete actions you took to deliver the results you’re touting. And, in the same vein, listing your responsibilities (“responsible for”) isn’t the way to go either. Find a fresh, powerful, and directed verb to use instead.
Want a great list? Check out this one from Stanford GSB and replace the tired ‘ole regulars. (We’re looking at you, “led,” “supported,” and “responsible for”…) Indeed also has a nice categorized list for those moments when the fresh verb game has you scratching your head.
8. Make every bullet (i.e. accomplishment) meaningful
Once your bullets make sense to a lay person, what you have accomplished can truly shine. Or – if your resume is like most people’s – your complete lack of accomplishment will stick out like a sore thumb.
That’s not because you haven’t accomplished meaningful things in your career. It’s because you haven’t structured your bullets to emphasize results.
Making sure your resume passes the High School Test will enable you to hold the reader’s attention long enough for them to identify your true accomplishments. That’s where our next test comes in: The CEO Test.
Remember, you are seeking more responsibility. You want to manage and lead; you want to have a bigger impact. Your ability to do each of those things rests on your ability to understand the impact you have already had and how the work you have done has influenced real business outcomes, even if you were the junior-most member of the team (take note consultants, accountants, and bankers!!).
So that means that each bullet on your resume needs to contain a result worth reading.
The outcome and impact need to be visible and, where possible, measured. (See Step 9 for more on this.)
This is why I say the resume is a brag sheet or highlight reel. It’s not the whole movie, it’s just a montage of the high points that showcase your career trajectory and the ways you’ve helped business growth!
9. Measure your results in quantitative terms as much as possible
Do your best to measure your results in real terms – dollars or time, for example – and in a way that translates directly to the bottom line wherever possible. Did your work lead to estimated time or money saved? Did the relationship you built result in a quantifiable sale? Did your analysis drive a key recommendation that changed the final result of the project in measurable ways?
While it’s great if you can express results in quantitative terms, you can use qualitative terms (the human impact) as well when necessary or appropriate.
Let’s look at some good examples:
- Decreased finance report production time by 40%, saving 20 man-hoursper week
- Enabled follow-on project sale, resulting in incremental $10M in revenue for the firm
- Recommended process streamline, reducing waste by 10%, saving $20Kin cost per year
- Implemented new customer success process, which led to 20%increased customer retention and $5M in retained revenue
Notice how all of these bullets convey results that are measured against a bottom line in terms of money or time.
If you ensure your bullets convey the impact you have had in real business terms, you will already be going a long way to demonstrating your competence and professional potential and standing out from other applicants. No fancy fonts required!
A word about Relative vs. Absolute Measures
Your reader does not work at your company, and probably doesn’t even personally do the work of your industry. So absolute numbers might not be terribly meaningful to them.
For example, the fact that you decreased costs by $20K might be a REALLY big deal. Or it might be a rounding error. Is your company Apple? Or is it Grandma’s Apple Pie Company? Decreasing cost of production at Apple by $20K might represent a .01% reduction, or even less. At Grandma’s Apple Pie Company, on the other hand, $20K might be 20% of costs – a much greater relative impact on the bottom line.
Your individual impact depends on the scale of your company, your division, your product, your project, etc.
So as you choose your measures, think about what will be more meaningful to the reader: absolute ($, hours, etc.) or relative (% change). You might include both.
While concrete measures like dollars and time are ideal, it won’t always be possible to translate your accomplishment into these terms. The earlier you are in your career, the harder it may be to understand how the work you do translates into real results for your company. So let’s talk a little more about measurement. Remember, every bullet needs to convey an outcome the CEO would care about. For example…
CEO Test Fail:
- Implemented training program for all 300 employees for environmental awareness
CEO Test Pass:
- Reduced environmental non-compliance 40% during internal audits on manufacturing floor through designing and implementing company-wide awareness programs and training
This is an example of a qualitative concept that has been quantified. If you dig a little bit, you might be surprised by how many things can be measured or are already being tracked by your company or your clients. If you offer measures that stray from dollars and time, make sure that any numbers you cite (in this case, the 40% non-compliance reduction) can be backed up with empirical proof and not just made-up numbers.
CEO Test Fail:
- Involved in campus recruiting for firm
CEO Test Pass:
- Spearheaded recruiting initiatives at multiple schools by organizing, leading and attending recruiting events; identified as a top 5% contributor to recruiting efforts last year
Again, something more qualitative (contribution) is measured – in this case, in terms of contributor ranking.
Sometimes quantifiable results are simply not available. In those cases, be sure to offer more qualitative measures of your success. Awards are a great example of a qualitative result. But they do not mean much by themselves, so if you have been lauded for excellent performance, be sure that those acknowledgements are included as part of the bullet that cites the award.
CEO Test Fail:
- Work extensively at client offices; communicate with clients frequently through in-person meetings, email correspondence, and formal letters
- Star Performer Award for outstanding work performed
CEO Test Pass:
- Met unrealistic demands and deadlines, kept team morale high, and mastered client software quickly on tax compliance project, leading to a Star Performer Award for my work
Note how this bullet integrates both the specific work that was done and the award that resulted. This makes it meaningful from the CEO’s perspective and it also helps with the High School Test, since an outsider would likely have no idea what a Star Performer Award specifically means in this organization.
Even qualitative results matter to a CEO, and they will matter to your future employer and bschool admission committees as well. So if you can’t credibly connect your work to a quantifiable outcome, ferret out the results that are nonetheless measurable, even if that means relying on more qualitative information.
10. A final, golden rule: Be specific (about everything)
If you ensure that each of your resume bullets not only conveys your results, but also reveals the specific actions you took to produce these results, your resume will truly help you differentiate yourself and stand out in even the most competitive field. The idea here is vividness: you want your MBA resume and each individual bullet to paint a picture the reader can actually envision. <- read that article for much more about this!
When you talk about your accomplishments, home in on things like: What was your precise value add? You want to pinpoint your actions and results. Don’t generalize.
When it comes to crafting a standout MBA Resume, you need to think really deeply about what you did in these various life situations and what it meant. You need to understand the specific nature of your contributions and how they fit into the bigger picture. You need to be able to trace their effects as far out into the world as possible and appreciate the change and improvements that ultimately resulted from your efforts.
Doing this well will not only enable you to create an awesome resume, it will actually transform how you communicate yourself, the value you add, and your accomplishments. When you have certainty about the results that you helped produce and the specific role you played in achieving them, your self-confidence and communication abilities will naturally expand.
What I’m really saying here, is: Give yourself some credit. And do yourself justice in your MBA Resume!!!
If you follow these 10 steps, then your MBA Resume is sure to stand out from the pile. Have fun!!!