5 Questions MBA Applicants Need To Be Able To Answer

There’s no great way to put this: getting into an MBA program is hard. Your MBA application can fail for all kinds of reasons that are difficult to pin down, but often the adcom will just feel you’re not ready yet: lacking a clear sense of goals, values, ability and the soft skills to communicate and achieve them. 

The MBA won’t teach you these. Business schools want people who are already ready to be leaders. That means if you want to get in, you’ll probably have to develop your character before you apply. Angela Guido is here with 5 key questions to guide your self-development as you become the kind of MBA applicant that adcoms will be desperate to admit.

We LOVE the Harvard Business School essay because “what more do you want us to know” gets to the root of who you are (and can be) as a business leader. Stay tuned to find out more!

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Welcome back to MBA Monday. We are deep into application season, and before things go too much farther, I want to give you the chance to really think about some important questions that you're going to need to answer in the process of applying to business school and in the process of constructing your essays and preparing for interviews. So today I have the five questions you need to answer before you apply to business school.

Okay. I'm Angela Guido, the founder of Career Protocol. This is MBA Monday, where I share everything I've learned over the last 15 years of being an MBA and Career Coach, a Recruiter of MBAs, formerly at the Boston Consulting Group, and someone who's generally committed to you being happy at work. These five questions I'm going to share with you today are designed not only to help you think through the substance of your application, but to also help you get to know yourself a little bit better en route to becoming a leader, which is why you're applying to business school in the first place. If you just want more money, there are a lot of easier ways to go about upgrading your career and making more money. The MBA is a degree for people who want to lead. For people who want to manage teams, manage processes, and have an impact through their work as a leader. So all of these questions are really helping you advance your self-knowledge and communication skills before you apply. Those are the two biggest ingredients of leadership, self-awareness, and communication. As a leader, that's mostly what you're going to be doing in your life and business schools will respond when they can see that you already have those skills, that you're not counting on the MBA to help you develop those critically important soft skills. The people who get into the best schools are the people who already have those skills because the MBA doesn't really teach them. The MBA teaches you the harder skills of the industry and functional roles that you will take post MBA so that you can be a good business thinker and a good business decision maker, but if you want to truly have an influence, those are soft skills you're going to have to develop on your own. So let's see if we can start to move the needle on those skills while you're applying to business school by having you answer five really important questions that you need to be able to address in your application.

  1. What Matters To You?

Question number one, what matters to you? It’s a little bit of a vague question so I'm going to clarify it and I'm going to say, when you think about what matters to you, what we're really looking at is what are the values that you strive to uphold in your daily life? What are the principles that govern how you're going about living your life, doing your work, and having an impact? It could be something as simple as kindness. You try to be kind in everything that you do. Maybe your job is to manage spreadsheets, but you approach the management of spreadsheets with kindness so that whoever touches them, whoever uses them, whoever is at the receiving end of these spreadsheets has the easiest life possible, can use them, can make sense of them, and the work that you're doing just generally makes life in the world easier and more workable. So, what matters to you doesn't necessarily relate to your job function, to your industry, to your career, even on the surface in any way. It's a core value and usually, for most of us, there's a small handful of values that really shape your worldview and how you approach the work that you do. It's in the how of examining your life, examining the how of how you live and how you go about your work that you'll really start to understand much more clearly your values, the values that are driving you in your career. They're driving you to get an MBA in the first place, and they will drive you to become a leader post MBA. So when I say what matters to you, that's really what we're talking about. It's, what are those values that are driving your life? You're going to need to be able to speak to those and reveal them in your application.

2. How Do You Want To Be Known As A Leader?

The second question you need to be able to answer is how do you want to be known as a leader? This question maps pretty well to Harvard's MBA essay question. It's a subtly different cut at it, but it's the same basic idea. It's like, how do you want to be known? What is your mark? Who are you? Put a stake in the ground and tell me who you are as a leader. As part of this answer, you might include how you want to make the world a better place. That's part of you making a mark as a leader. There might be a particular arena of life that you're passionate about, where you'd like to see a change happen. There might be a particular way of doing things that you'd like to enact in order to be the change you want to see in the world. There might even just be a way that you're going to go about your career that is going to make a difference regardless of the industry or function that you hold. For example, you might just be passionate about leading great teams and building culture within your organization, no matter what organization that is. That's a really meaningful way to be known as a leader and to make a mark. The answer to the question almost doesn't matter. The important thing is that you answer it for yourself, and no two people are going to have the same exact answer to this question. Think about it really carefully and make sure that that aspect of who you are is expressed clearly throughout each application you submit.

3. What Do You Need To Gain From Business School?

Question number three is, what do you need to gain from business school? What do you hope to get out of the MBA? It's really simple. What are the skills, what are the experiences, what are the relationships that you want to build through this program to help you become that leader that you want to be? What's the value that the MBA has to offer you? And don't forget, that will also include you making contributions to the MBA while you're there. A lot of times the greatest value that we gain is through contributing ourselves. So don't neglect that side, but really think about what do you need? What do you need from business school and what do you hope to gain from your program, whichever program you attend? That's question number three.

4. What Are The Top 10 Things You Have Achieved So Far?

Question number four is a really big one, but it's actually less important than the other three. And that is what are the top 10 things that you've achieved throughout your life and work so far? You're going to have to talk about your accomplishments in your resume first and foremost, likely in one or more of your essays, and definitely in the interview. You're going to need to be able to discuss your accomplishments and you need to have an opinion about which of your achievements are the most important, the most meaningful to you, the most revealing of who you are as a person vis-à-vis the first two questions I laid out. You're going to need to be able to talk about them in a fair bit of detail as well. So take the time now to decide, of all the things I've accomplished in my life, what are the things that I think are the most important? And then think through some of the details. That's going to form the substance of your essays and many of your interview answer questions. For deeper guidance on how to think about that question in particular, check out my book Interview Hero, which has a lot of advice about storytelling, about story exploration, and about prioritization when it comes to thinking about your achievements.

5. What Are (At Least) 2 Major Failures That You’ve Learned From?

And finally, the fifth question you need to answer before you apply to business school is what are at least two major failures that you've learned from? And when you think about failures, when you think about major failures, it doesn't have to be something that ended your career or got you fired or resulted in a negative performance review. When I say major, I don't mean necessarily a failure that had major external consequences. Now, you may have had failures that had major external consequences, and if that's the case, those are definitely good ones to look at. But a lot of the people that we work with don't have any major failures that would stick out on a transcript or resume. The failures that are sometimes the most important are ones that maybe no one other than you even know about. Sometimes the most important failures happen when we fail to live up to our own values. So this question is actually closely tied to question number one. As you're thinking about the values and the governing principles of your life, the most significant failures are the times when you didn't live up to those values. Maybe you tried to live up to them and failed or maybe you made the wrong choice. Maybe you chose path A and you immediately learned that path A violated a value that was really important to you. Those are the moments when we really discover what we're made of. We shape our own resiliency and we further refine our commitment to who we are and who we want to be vis-à-vis our values. So being able to talk about significant failures, whether you do it in the essays or whether it just comes up in the interviews, it's really important that you be able to do this with confidence and in a way that strengthens the picture of your character rather than weakening it. So be sure to think about failures as well as you're seeking to get ready to apply to business school.

So that's it! Those are the big five questions. If you decide to work with us on our discovery process, you're going to answer a whole lot more questions than that. But if you're going through this process on your own and you really want to get down to the core of your character and figure out who you are in the process of applying to business school, those five questions will give you a really good start. Hope you enjoy learning more about who you are and advancing your self-awareness while you apply to business school. I'm rooting for you! I'll see you next week.

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Angela Guido

Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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