When I was an admissions director attending MBA fairs and visiting companies to recruit candidates for our program, I often got questions about how an applicant can stand out in the applicant pool. Whether the individual was in consulting, banking, the military, or IT engineering, most were worried that their stories would be too similar to those of other candidates in their peer group. My response was always to give an example of how one person I met found a way to stand out.
I was in Japan interviewing roughly 30 candidates, the majority of whom were in banking, and most had similar stories. They were all charming and likable, but nothing about them really captured my attention. However, one young man did, because rather than talking about his job, he talked to me about a personal interest that he was really passionate about. This was more than ten years ago, and I still remember him!
He wanted to revive interest in the almost lost art of the Japanese tea ceremony. He had observed that the younger generation seemed to have forgotten some of the venerable traditions of Japanese culture, and he feared this would be a huge loss. So he studied to become a master of the tea ceremony. Once he had achieved that, his next question became how to spread the word. He approached one of the major department stores in Tokyo and offered to give demonstrations of the tea ceremony on a Saturday morning. To get buy-in from the store, he suggested that they display their tea services and teas behind him, which would entice the audience to purchase new tea sets. The store hesitantly agreed, and the first demonstration was advertised. It was an overwhelming success, to the point that the store wanted him to offer a demonstration every week. At the time, he was busy working and preparing his MBA applications, so he proposed doing the ceremony once a month until he left for school. Every month, crowds came to observe and ask questions. He was thrilled at the resurgence of interest in this cultural tradition, and the store was happy because of the increased sales and good publicity!
What did this story tell me about the candidate? I didn’t learn about his technical finance skills or about any big deals he had brokered. Instead, I learned that he was someone who acted on his passion, who identified a creative opportunity to promote it to others, and who, at the same time, was clever enough to find a way to generate profits for the store so that they sponsored his hobby. And the benefit to me was that I learned about the tea ceremony from him. This is what schools want to see in candidates – something beyond whatever label might be applied to you.
Business schools sometimes group large, homogeneous populations together during the admissions process, not because of any kind of quota but because they want a diverse class in which students can learn from one another. Each group can be broken down into subgroups, and each candidate is then evaluated on an individual basis so the adcom can identify those who have a special, distinguishing characteristic that supersedes whatever “category” they’re in. And no, it won’t necessarily be their GMAT score or the fact that they worked for a well-known company that sets them apart, but rather the stories they share on a more personal level. You might wonder how to do this with the typical “What are your short-term goals?” and “Why do you want an MBA?” prompts, but I assure you, it can be done.
Okay, so, maybe you are an Indian IT engineer or a white U.S. male in consulting or banking – you can’t change that. But you also possess other qualities that make you who you are. Think about what you do outside of work that might make a difference. Or if you are genuinely passionate about your job, think of a way to explain and convey that passion to the reader of your essays. What excites you? What has taught you a life lesson?
Construct your essays to reveal your interests and talents as well as your strengths and experiences. You have to answer the essay prompts, of course, but, to use a very trite expression, think “outside the box” when you’re coming up with examples. If you can’t think of anything, ask your friends or family members how they think of you. You might be surprised at what they say. And for more experienced support, come to us at Accepted, and we will help you!
You are unique, whether you realize it or not, and our expert admissions consultants can assist you in identifying your individuality and highlighting it in your applications. Check out our MBA Admissions Consulting Services to learn how we can help you stand out from the crowd and get accepted to business school!
Dr. Christie St-John has more than 25 years of higher ed and admissions experience, including ten years in admissions at Dartmouth Tuck. She was formerly the director of MBA recruiting and admissions, director of international relations, and an adjunct faculty member at Vanderbilt University. Having also served on the board of directors of the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance and the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management, Christie has a deep knowledge of MBA and other graduate admissions. Want Christie to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!
- Fitting in & Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
- Writing an Excellent Diversity Essay
- Different Dimensions of Diversity, podcast Episode 193