Often, when we work with MBA applicants who are from a traditional information technology (IT) background, they begin the process already feeling the odds are stacked against them. Their first question is usually, “How can I stand out in such a crowded field? How can I show them I’m not like everyone else with my background?”
This post is here to help.
Let’s start with the undeniable facts: IT applicants do represent one of the largest categories of applicant “types,” and the competition to distinguish yourself from the pack will be fierce. Second, as unfair as it is, you are often saddled with the image of a cubicle-bound “techie”–a Dilbert-like fellow or gal who may have amazing tech skills and knowledge but who lacks the broad experience and leadership exposure to merit a spot in top management.
Now that we’ve confronted these hard truths, let’s look at the upside. You can break past these obstacles by showing the elite business schools who you really are. Here are five suggestions to help you shine as an individual in your applications.
#1 Don’t apologize for your strengths
Your IT background gives you an advantage over some other applicant groups, such as those whom admissions committee members refer to as “poets” — those from communications, arts, or other non-quantitative backgrounds. They are less likely to have the strong analytical and quantitative skills that you have. You’ve got that in the bag through your 3.87 GPA in Comp Sci in college, the bioengineering CAD-CAM program you developed in graduate school, and in your Microsoft, Oracle, and Cisco certifications. In your application, you will want to touch on these achievements without devoting a lot of space to them. Instead, emphasize that your technical skills point to the broad, versatile analytical skills and intellectual ability that you have applied successfully in every aspect of your life.
For example, rather than highlighting all the software tools you know, show how you have used them in a wide variety of applications: an insurance firm, the trucking industry, education, etc. In other words, you not only understand sophisticated IT tools; you have learned to understand the complexities of several industries and fields in order to apply them to their best effect and achieve measurable results.
Likewise, as an IT applicant you almost certainly work in teams. In fact, you’ve worked on dozens of cross-functional and multicultural teams in your career. Frankly, you may already have become rather expert at collaborating and meshing seamlessly with others–across cultures, time zones and varying functions– to achieve specific goals. Tell your schools about it.
#2 Combat the stereotypes by showing your diversity of experiences
If you aren’t careful to illustrate how you are more than the sum of your tech skills and knowledge, your essays might paint you as Joe Programmer, who writes Java apps 80 hours a week so he can go home and write more. If you fall into this trap, the schools will salute your passion but wonder about your managerial potential or ability to contribute fully to your classmates. In addition to showing how you’ve worked in teams and across industries and fields as mentioned above, you can fight these Dilbert stereotypes by showing the schools the varied, fully engaged life that you live through your community involvements, hobbies, and personal life. For example:
- Did you win a poetry contest in college against several English majors and other literary types?
- Did you climb Uganda’s highest mountain with your church’s youth fellowship group?
- Did you decide to major in computer science because you saw the impact that computer games had on helping your brother recover from a life-threatening illness?
- Did you establish a national organization for victims of your rare hearing disorder when you discovered that no such organization existed?
There is much more to you than the experiences on your resume. Show the adcom some of what has motivated and moved you in your life.
#3 Emphasize leadership
Of course, the top schools want more than analytically sharp students with well-rounded lives. They want leaders. But many IT professionals work for flat organizations in team-intensive environments, with no direct reports, no budget authority, and no performance-evaluation responsibilities. How can you demonstrate that managerial potential or leadership the schools demand to see?
One way is to play up the leadership experience that you have been given. You may “only” be a Technical Lead, but that still means you coordinate the efforts of 15 people from 5 departments on a mission-critical project worth hundreds of thousands in revenue. Have you mentored teammates? Effective leadership or mentorship can involve only one other person; it need not be a team. Have you pushed hard for your ideas or solutions when everyone resisted you? That’s leadership, too! Talk about it.
You may also have demonstrated that you are management caliber through your commitments outside of work. For example:
- Do you serve on the board of directors of a local charity?
- Were you elected to the board of your condo’s homeowners’ association?
- Do you teach Tae-kwon-do to inner-city kids every weekend?
- Did you help revamp the programming and help boost membership of a local singles group?
All of these are examples of leadership. With a varied and strong enough record of these kinds of leadership activities, your lack of a managerial title will not appear to be as big a weakness.
#4 Differentiate your goals
Another way to show the admissions committees that you are not the “typical” IT applicant is to ask yourself whether the post-MBA goals you are presenting are described too conventionally or are too limited in scope. For example, instead of saying that you want to make the transition into strategy consulting for Bain or McKinsey (like everyone else!), try to individualize that goal a bit more:
- You want to work for a top strategy consulting firm for 5 years to broaden your experience, but then move into a senior technology management role with a European aerospace firm, or to move into the healthcare space, developing more advanced methods of telemedicine.
- Your goal is to start your own middle-market IT consulting group and then join Bain, McKinsey, or Boston Consulting Group later in your career.
Similarly, make sure to specify your goals to include the longer view and a broader view and perhaps a social good. For example, rather than say you need an MBA to launch your wireless marketing software venture, note that you plan to be a serial entrepreneur who moves on to new tech ventures after achieving success with your first idea.
Finally, you can highlight your individuality by describing unusual career goals–provided, of course, that they are rooted in your past experience and reflect your authentic interests. As long as your ideas aren’t too far-fetched or gimmicky, goals with a creative twist will certainly make you stand out from the crowd. For example:
- Given your experience playing flute in a local chamber group, you hope to become the president of a major symphony orchestra.
- Your lifelong interest in space exploration makes you want to be the CTO of the first Latin American satellite launch provider.
#5 Get the help you need to stand out in the crowd
Bottom line: Applying to top MBA programs as a traditional IT means you need to show the adcom that you are not just a stereotype. Accepted’s experienced editors will help you reflect on your experiences, interests and skills, and guide you in selecting the themes and anecdotes that best portray your singular self. Linking these stories together into compelling essays will grab the admissions committees’ attention for all the right reasons.
Take a look at Accepted’s menu of services to see how we can help you gain admission to the best MBA program for you.For 25 years, Accepted has helped business school applicants gain acceptance to top programs. Our outstanding team of MBA admissions consultants features former business school admissions directors and professional writers who have guided our clients to admission at top MBA, EMBA, and other graduate business programs worldwide including Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, INSEAD, London Business School, and many more. Want an MBA admissions expert to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- Why MBA, a free guide to show you how to determine your MBA goals and weave them into compelling essays
- What Should You Do If You Belong to an Overrepresented MBA Applicant Group?
- Different Dimensions of Diversity, a podcast episode