The best way to approach your MBA application [Show summary]
You have your GPA and test score but how should you approach the actual application? In this episode Linda Abraham, Admissions Straight Talk host, shares Accepted’s DARE framework to help you confidently apply to your dream schools.
The essential ingredients that adcoms look for in an application [Show notes]
Welcome to the 444th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, Accepted’s podcast. Thanks for tuning in.
I decided to do a solo show today, just me and you. Because this is a particularly packed episode, we also have a worksheet for you. You can use it to take notes or use it later independent of the podcast to perhaps jot things down that you remember from the podcast and add to it. You can download your worksheet at accepted.com/444download.
Before we explore today’s topic, I want to invite all Admissions Straight Talk listeners to take advantage of a fantastic special that Accepted is offering this week: up to $1,000 off our services purchased by November 19th, which is Friday. The coupon code is SAVENOW. Whatever graduate program you’re considering, the time to buy and save is really right now. Go to accepted.com/services to find the right service for you. Get details about the special, and then use the coupon code saved now on this investment in your future.
This, our last special of 2021, also relates directly to the topic of today’s show, Creating Compelling Round 2 MBA Applications. Now, dear listener, if you’re not an MBA applicant, you may still find relevant nuggets in this show, which really is focusing on strategy and maximizing your application. All the examples will be related to MBA applications. I recently delivered a webinar on this topic, and frankly, it was very well received – so well received that I decided to provide much of the content from the webinar here. If you attended the webinar, you’re certainly welcome to stay for a review and also for a few tidbits that weren’t in the original.
Now, let’s start with some basic assumptions: you’re dreaming of a career that excites you, you’re aspiring to MBA programs that will launch you towards that career, but you face obstacles. You have a problem.
How do you build an application that portrays you at your best and is a perfect match for the schools you’re aiming for? How do you move your application reader from your stats to your story? [2:51]
I’ll tell you, you use a framework that allows you to use your application strategically making the most of every inch of application real estate available to you. That part of the strategy that I’m going to outline is something that is true of every single applicant to any graduate school. Whatever program you are applying to, you want to make the most of every inch of application real estate available to you. So, part of implementing this strategy is going to start right now.
You can download the worksheet, if you haven’t already, from accepted.com/444download, and use it. My recommendation is to get a pile of little sticky notes and on each one, put an idea for something that you want the schools to know. Talking about business schools, I would focus on achievements, obstacles overcome, leadership examples, teamwork examples, examples of your resilience, initiative, organizational ability, but you only need three for this exercise. Put one idea on each post-it note and then put the post-it note on the part of the worksheet where you feel it most belongs.
It’s quite possible you might be thinking that some experiences could exemplify leadership and overcoming obstacles and an achievement, that’s fine. You can copy the ideas into multiple squares. That’s just fine. But at the end of the day, you want to make sure that your application is revealing a multifaceted portrait of you and that you have demonstrated these different qualities. As ideas come to you during the podcast, or as additional ideas come to you later, please keep adding to your post-it notes or your pencil notes on this worksheet, and then you can continue to add to them after the webinar.
If you’re exercising or doing something else while listening today, no sweat, well probably you’re sweating, but no worries. You can come back to this later and still use either the worksheet or you can continue on your own paper or set up your own spreadsheet or mind map online, whatever works for you.
Now, I mentioned a four-part framework. It’s Accepted’s framework represented by the acronym, DARE. [5:15]
You might be wondering, “Why do you need a four-part strategy or any strategy specifically for approaching the MBA application?” I’ll tell you. First of all, you have a lot of competition. Top schools have acceptance rates of under 20%; a couple even have acceptance rates under 10%. So it’s not easy to get in. [Click here to see the acceptance rates at top MBA programs.]
Part of what you have to do via your application is show that you both fit into the cultures and communities at the individual schools, that you belong at the individual schools while at the same time showing that you’re a standout in the applicant pool. That applicant pool is trying to do the same thing that you are and on a superficial level has a similar background to you. That paradox is kind of tough to manage or balance. The final reason that you need this strategy for maximizing your application and optimizing your application is that it’s just plain old hard to apply effectively while working full time. In addition to making the most of the application real estate, you want to make the most of your time investment in the application process.
You might be thinking, “What you’re telling me is true of any round. What’s specific about Round 2?” Well, Round 2 is the round when most business schools say they receive the most applications. Furthermore, some seats are already taken by Round 1 applicants who got admitted. I had a client years ago, who at the time got feedback from his number one choice. It’s a choice that most of you would give an awful lot to get into, where he had applied for Round 1. He was told in the feedback that he would’ve been admitted had he applied in Round 1. He wanted to apply in Round 1 but he got sick and he simply couldn’t. He would’ve been admitted, but too many people in his profession applied in Round 1. So Round 2, he didn’t make the cut.
Those are the reasons why you need this framework and why you need a specific approach to the application process. Let’s start discussing what that approach is. I mentioned the four part framework is represented by the acronym, DARE. What does it stand for?
D: Determine what you want the schools to know. [7:38]
That’s the first step. What do you want the schools to know? Well, let’s take a look at what do schools want in applicants. That will make it easier for you to match your experiences and qualities to what they’re looking for.
The first thing that every MBA program wants to know, and this is of course true of graduate schools in general, is that you can do the work. For business school, it’s going to be primarily evident in your GPA and test score, for those schools that require the test score. It’ll also be reflected in your work experience, any certifications that you may have earned. It’ll be reflected in post-college coursework and in your recommendations.
The second thing they’re going to be looking for is that you have a goal requiring an MBA from their school. What is a good post-MBA goal? It’s one that is usually defined in terms of the industry you want to go into and the function you want to perform, what you actually want to do. Sometimes geography plays a role. For example, if you want to work on Wall Street or you want to work in a particular region of the world. Those also can be part of your short-term goal or your long-term goal. Long-term goals are usually more aspirational and usually also have to do with the impact you’d like to have in the course of your career. They should flow organically from the short-term goal and from what you’re going to learn in the MBA program. Now, what do I mean? That’s the goal, but how about the part about requiring an MBA from their school? Well, let me give you an example.
Let’s say you’re interested in human resource management, and the school that you’re applying to has no concentration in human resource management. They’re going to think, we’re not the right school for you. Or let’s say you’re interested in value investing, which Columbia has a great program for, but the school that you’re looking at has no classes in value investing. Again, they’ll be wondering, why are you applying to our school? You really haven’t done your homework. Now, the fact that your significant other lives in that particular city, or is attending that particular school, might be one of the reasons that you want to go to it, but again, the school itself is not going to be impressed with your professional reasons for wanting to apply as revealed by your goal.
So, number one, you want to show them you can do the work. Number two, you want to have a goal that requires an MBA from their school. Number three, you want to show them that you meet their criteria and share their values. Some schools are wonderfully explicit about their criteria for admissions: Harvard, Stanford, Chicago Booth, they’re really, really clear. Other schools may not be quite as clear. But a thorough examination of websites or attendance at online events should really illuminate what the school considers important and whether you genuinely belong there. In both cases, whether the school is explicit, and there are other schools that are explicit also, or not quite as explicit on its website, you have to show that you share the mission and values of the schools you are applying to.
And number four, you have to show that you’re going to contribute a distinctive background, level of achievement, experience or perspective to your class and community. Schools value a diversity of thought, background, experience and perspective. What are you going to contribute? They want people who have excelled in different functions and industries. So use your application to show your authentic individuality.
How can you make sure your application provides these four critical elements that you want the schools to know? I would make a separate spreadsheet list or mind map of everything you could want them to know going back to college. Indeed, if you look at page one of your worksheet, which is the part you started working on, that’s exactly what that table does. So that’s the D, determine what you want the schools to know.
You can even start thinking about what the different events, experiences, elements, etc. actually reveal about you.
A: Assess what information each application element asks for. [11:54]
You’re going to have to present a resume, essays, short answer questions, activity history, job history and there are going to be some short answer boxes in the application. I would suggest either using the worksheet or creating a spreadsheet for yourself, a list, a mind map, with each element of the application listed for different schools. Obviously you do this for each school and each one is an opportunity for you to share information about yourself.
So, let’s go through some of the more common elements:
- Resume. It’s frequently the first item that admissions committee members look at. It’s a great place for you to make a great first impression on an application reader. And you want to present an impact-filled, achievement-oriented resume, not one focused merely on your responsibilities and tasks, but really on your contribution. What difference have you made? The best way to do that is to quantify your accomplishments, whatever possible, to make them more concrete, credible, and frequently significant.
An example would be a particular applicant who volunteered at a vaccination drive. He wrote, “Led vaccination drive.” But he didn’t say that he actually led a vaccination drive that vaccinated 1,000 people. Adding that number definitely made his contribution and his achievement that much more significant.
- Essays. How do the essays map the school’s mission values and criteria? The Tuck podcast, which we had just a couple months ago, where co-directors Pat Harrison and Amy Mitson, mapped Tuck’s essays and application as a whole to specific criteria that Tuck has, does a great job of really illustrating how intentional schools are about their essay questions. You can find that particular podcast at accepted.com/430.
Realize that most schools are very intentional in the questions that they ask. They are genuinely both revealing what’s important to them and wanting you to answer those questions very specifically, because that’s what is important to them. In the essays, whether it’s one or two or three of them, you can go into greater depth about different experiences. You can show how you handled leadership and teamwork challenges or interpersonal difficulties. You can reflect multicultural fluency probably better than you can in other elements of the application. You can discuss if the question asks personal background, challenges overcome to achieve what you’ve achieved, perhaps highlight diversity elements, so that can also come in other areas of your application.
You want to make sure you answer the questions posed andtake advantage of the opportunity given by the essays to go into a bit of depth and reveal facts about you not present in the boxes and resume. If asked about goals, show both self-awareness and knowledge of their program depending upon what exactly is asked in the question and how it will help you realize your goals. For heaven’s sake, if they ask, “Why do you want to attend my school?” Don’t give an answer like, “Superior faculty, outstanding student body, great courses,” because anything that can be said about every top MBA program is absolutely utterly worthless and will probably get you rejected because the schools will just say this person hasn’t done any homework.
Many questions will ask what happened, and why did you do this. Don’t forget to answer the why. Schools are very interested in your motivations. So don’t forget that. Many schools like Stanford GSB also have short answer questions. They have some required ones, but most of them are optional and I’m dealing with optional ones right now. Don’t save them to answer at the last minute when you’re rushing, especially the boxes. I’m talking about the ones that are kind of semi-essays. Those ones that you think, “Eh, I can just take it. I can do it really fast.” No. Plan it out. Plan out your approach to each application so that those short answer questions, and even the boxes are revealing something valuable about you.
What else can you bring out and highlight not mentioned elsewhere? Admittedly, you won’t have any chance for depth in a box, or most of them, but bring out something else. Now, I mentioned Stanford. It has two optional questions each up to 1200 characters, which is approximately 200 words. That’s not a lot of space. The first question is, “What are some times you’ve created a positive impact, whether in professional, extracurricular, academic, or other settings. What was your impact? What made it significant to you and to others?” The other question is, “Tell us about a time within the last three years when your background influenced your participation in a situation, interaction, or project?” These are two really different questions. They’re very different from Stanford’s required questions. So, again, make sure they’re bringing out something that answers the specific question and reveal something else about you. Give them more reasons, more data that will merit an acceptance.
- The job history section: How many boxes do you have and for what? What detail can you include that isn’t mentioned elsewhere, or that you can go into a little bit more detail about.
- The activity history section. This probably has more opportunity for new activities not mentioned elsewhere. That could be participation in sports or the arts in college or since. An initiative that you started in your community. Community service activity in general. Could be tutoring or teaching. Perhaps through your religious affiliation. It could be political activism, environmental activism. Again, hobbies. All kinds of things can be included in the activity history section. And they should complement and not duplicate as much as possible what is presented elsewhere.
- Recommendations. You can, depending upon your relationship with your recommender, influence recommendations. First of all, make sure that your recommenders are willing to comment positively about their association with you about your work. Ask them if they can comment positively on your leadership and management potential. If they’re open to your input, give them a short summary of what the individual schools value, t and perhaps remind them, that would be if they’re not using the GMAC common recommendation, and perhaps remind them of some of your accomplishments that really spotlight those qualities.
R: Relate what you want them to know to what the school is asking for. [18:53]
How would you do this? Again, you can use the post-it notes. You can use mind mapping software, which might work great. You could use a multi-colored spreadsheet. But you should perform this exercise for each application because they’re all different. What works great for one application might lead you to duplicating in a second application or leaving off important information. So do it for each application.
You’re going to inevitably find that you can’t fit in everything that you want the schools to know. That’s okay. Prioritize based on the instructions given, the school’s values, and what you think best represents you.
E: Establish a structure for your MBA application. [20:09]
I will admit that the E in DARE is a little bit fuzzy, but otherwise I wouldn’t have had a good acronym.
So Determine what you want the schools to know, Assess what the schools are asking for, Relate what you want the schools to know to what is being required by the application and that will Establish the structure for each of your MBA applications.
And that’s how you will create a compelling Round 2 MBA application. Or I should say how you’ll create compelling Round 2 MBA applications.
Let’s do a quick review because we’ve covered a ton of ground here. [20:23]
First of all, Determine what you want the schools to know.
- That you can do the work.
- That you have a goal requiring an MBA from their school.
- That you share the school’s mission and values, and that you meet this criteria.
- That you have the distinctive background, experience, perspective to contribute to the richness and diversity of the class, that you’re really going to add to the class discussion and the school’s community.
And that’s the DARE approach to giving them what they want to know. Again, Determine what you want the schools to know, Assess what information does each application element seek, Relate what the schools seek to what you want them to know and all three of these things will Establish a structure for your compelling MBA application for each and every school.
We’ve covered a ton of ground here today. I want to thank you for staying with me. You know what the schools are looking for, you have a framework for giving it to them, but do you really know how to do so? Do you have the time to do so? If you aren’t confident of your ability to submit a compelling Round 2 application, take advantage of the special that I mentioned earlier, we’re offering it now because we know your application will be so much stronger with an early start. Don’t wait till the week before they’re due. Save your money and get started now working with an experienced expert MBA admission consultant. Again, the coupon code good until Friday,November 19th, is SAVENOW. This is the last special of 2021. Grab it now.
Thanks again for coming. This is Admission Straight Talk, produced by Accepted, and I am your host, Linda Abraham. I’ll talk to you again next week.
- Round 3 vs. Next Year: When Should You Apply? an on-demand webinar
- What’s The Rush? Round 1 vs. Round 2 For MBA Applicants
- Accepted’s Business School Consulting Services
- The Most Important Asset in Grad School Applications: Time, a podcast episode
- How to Prepare for a Successful Round 1 MBA Application
- How to Respond to a Rejection