HBS, Wharton, Columbia, NYU Stern, Kellogg, Booth, they’re all the same when it comes to one thing: “dings.” If you’re applying for your MBA degree this year, you’re probably all too familiar with what that little word means. “Dings” are the marks made against you on your MBA application, the things you’ve done wrong, your failings, the things that will keep you from the MBA degree and business school and career of your dreams. “Dings” = MBA slang for really, really bad.
What if you knew ahead of time though, the top five things that you could avoid that would make sure an MBA admission officer’s “ding” on your application never happened? What if you could in fact, avoid the “dings” altogether and create a stellar application, by avoiding the most common dings, below?
Again, these are the top five things NOT to do:
1. DING #1: Speaking in a general versus personal matter = don’t do it.
This happens way too frequently among MBA applicants. In the essays, the applicant makes very general and sweepingly broad statements about “society” or “the global climate,” or “the issue” and goes on and on from their soapbox making a broad, generalized point, without really letting the admissions committee see them and who they are personally as an applicant. So, if you never use the word “I” in your essay and you find yourself talking about the various “ills of society” too much = DING.
2. DING #2: Not following though with your examples
Let’s say the question is, “Tell Us About A Time You Overcame Failure.” You have an example, you state where you were working at the time; you state what happened…the failure…and then you just stop on the negative. You’ve stated your answer as if it’s a fill-in-the-blank question. However, you have failed to provide any kind of self-reflection in the essay about why this “failure” occurred, how it influenced your life and career, and what you learned and took away from it that was positive (you always want to end on the positive). So, not stating these things, not following through on your examples is akin to answering someone in monotone = DING.
3. DING #3: Not knowing how to write well
You don’t have to be Shakespeare, you do have to be able to write well. Think about it, you’re applying for an MBA degree, and if all goes well, in the future you will be an executive or manager in charge of various employees, teams, and divisions. You better know how to write, regardless of your field. At the management level you represent the company. The MBA essays are the first place they look for clear, concise, logical and properly structured writing. If you can’t do it, get help. If you can’t do it, and you go ahead and turn bad writing in, thinking it doesn’t really matter and your essays are convoluted, unclear, grammatically incorrect or just plain confusing and/ or sounds like your eight year old wrote it = BIG DING.
4. DING #4: Not building a logical bridge
Often people use the MBA degree to bridge the gap between their past career (possibly even in a different field), and their future plans. “Dings” happen on this front however, when applicants fail to make their journey from point A to point B very clear and laid-out. How are you going to go from a mechanical engineer to a strategy consultant focused on tech investments? How does all your past experience figure in? Tell us. Tell us in detail. Make sure your plan is accurate. People switch careers all the time, and what the admission committees look for is simply: is your plan LOGICAL, does it make sense? Have you laid it out? Fail to show the necessary steps, or worse, not be clear about the steps yourself = HUGE DING.
5. DING #5: Not speaking with confidence
This one seems self-explanatory, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across applicants who write in a very self-deprecating way. They say things like, “if it’s possible for me to become a (fill in the blank) and go to your great school…” In other words, they put the school way up here on a pedestal, and themselves way down here in the plebeian mud. Don’t do it. The men and women who will one day be the top executives and leaders in their field KNOW they belong at these schools. There’s no self-deprecation, because they know they have just as much to contribute to the school as they will receive. There is no pedestal. Think otherwise and = DING. Show them you know you belong!
Avoid these five “dings” and you will be in much better shape than most of the MBA applicants out there. Master the essays, and you will have an excellent chance at success!
[I’m a former Harvard interviewer and a Harvard graduate and currently run the MBA admissions firm: www.MBAIvy.com Contact me today for a free phone consultation, and get into the school of your dreams!]
Last year HBS had a 12% accept rate with over 9,000 applicants. The other top MBA programs in the U.S. – Wharton, Stanford, Kellogg, Booth, Columbia and MIT Sloan, just to name a few had similar tight competition. We’ve already discussed the necessary GMAT score ranges and interview skills needed in other blog posts that give you a chance at the top. The question here then is, what makes an applicant’s MBA essay successful, and what can you do to raise yourself among the best?”
The answer to that question is to start by looking at some very successful essays. What does a good essay look like? The best resource I’ve found to pass on to the curious, is this resource here:
65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays
BUT, read with caution because even though I believe this book will help you better understand how to differentiate between a good essay and a bad one (and thereby help you honestly assess where you fall) it doesn’t do much for helping you tell your story, your background, or your professional vision. And, believe me, the ad com has read this book too, so if your essays sound too similar in structure or content to what’s in the book…let’s just say the word “ding” comes to the forefront of my mind.
So, what can you do? How can you make your MBA essays successful and land you a place at the top? HBS of course changed their requirements this year, and only asks applicants for one personal statement and are completely open in what they’re asking (read: pressure!), however other MBA programs are still asking the standard, traditional questions:
“What are your short and long-terms goals?” “Why a Columbia MBA?” (or Wharton, Stanford, NYU Stern, LBS, INSEAD), “What are Your Greatest Strengths and Weaknesses?“ “What Matters to You Most and Why?” and, of course, the “Optional Essay” (which should never be optional – did you hear that… make it optional and you’re passing up a great opportunity to tell the committee even more about you. You’re trying to stand out from 9,000 other applicants…I’d take that opportunity.
So, what do the successful MBA essays have in common that catapulted their authors into the Top Ten?
1. GOOD WRITING: This can’t be more stressed. Having solid experience isn’t enough, you must be able to structure your experience and narrative in a way that makes a clear and strong argument for why you would be a valuable addition to the MBA class. That’s what you’re really answering in every question — “This is what I’ve done, and this is why I am valuable.”
2. Let Them See Your Process: The ad com doesn’t just want to see a static goal, they want to understand the process of how you got there. Your decision making process. How you make and are making the hard career choices in your life and why.
That’s much more revealing about you as an applicant than just a passive, simple statement that says, “I want to be _____ when I graduate.” Show them your decision-making process and why your goals truly make sense.
3. Be Realistic: The best essays are the ones where the applicants have realistic long-term goals. This doesn’t mean your goals can’t be BIG, but it does mean that if they are big, that you already have something in your background (experience at a Fortune 500 company, a degree from an Ivy League school, patents under your name if you’re perhaps an entrepreneur). SOMETHING that shows your long-term vision has a foundation that makes it at least seem possible.
Lay out your course of action, your road map, that shows how you plan to get where you want to go. Too far-fetched with absolutely nothing to back it up = Dinged.
4. Ask for Help: There are a lot of MBA admissions firms out there now, and people are using them; your competition for that elusive HBS “Admitted” 12% is using them. Make sure you either have the confidence in your own writing skills to put your best foot forward on paper, and if you don’t, get help. The top consultants never rewrite your essays for you, but provide detailed comments and suggestions to help you get your own essays back on track.
Applying for an MBA is time consuming, as well as stressful. How many schools should you apply to? Is it even worth it to go to a “lesser” school’s MBA program? Will a mid-tier or even lower-tier school help you get to where you want to go? How many applications are average? What is the best possible strategy before you enter a land of diminished returns?
In my opinion, the most important thing an MBA candidate can do is plan and structure their application strategy. By this I mean, decide upfront if you only want to apply to the top-tier U.S. MBA programs (Kellogg, Booth, Wharton, HBS, NYU Stern, MIT Sloan, and Columbia) and if you don’t get in, reevaluate again for next round or next year….or not. OR, if you would actually be pretty pleased at a mid-tier or even lower-tier school, and if a degree from those MBA programs will truly meet your future professional needs.
I’ve had students who’ve done it both ways: some only want to go to the top MBA programs and if they don’t get in they would rather stay on their current course at their company, and perhaps get a few more years of work experience and promotion under their belt before trying again, or simply try to move up without an MBA degree.
Others, simply want to go to any MBA program that will have them, as their trust is more in the MBA degree itself than the actual school. They simply want the degree.
Which is the right choice?
In my opinion, if you have the credentials, and especially if you’re in the Finance Industry, the top programs are the only way to go. HBS, Wharton, Booth, and Kellogg, if you can get in, and this goes double if you’re an investment professional and intend to work in a large city like New York. The top schools are key in the Northeast region for advancement. A low-range school isn’t going to help you much if your dream is to quickly climb to the top of your field at Morgan Stanley or Deloitte.
However, you may not only be able to get by with a mid or lower range school if you want to set down roots in another region of the country = it might actually HELP you.
For example, say you have family and want to stay in Tennessee, Atlanta, or North Carolina. The Southern schools (Fuqua, Darden, Emory and Vanderbuilt) are going to serve you better in my opinion, than even the Top Ten schools in the NE, because your network, opportunities, and alumni connections in that particular region of the country are going to be that much stronger.
So, what do you do? First, decide where you want to be. In the NYC, shoot for the top. In the South, head for the regional schools, out West in Silicon Valley? Stanford or any of the other Top Ten are key (along with UCLA Anderson). The Midwest? Ross is a great mid-tier selection. Tailor your school choice during this application stage to your long-term location goals. It may actually give you even more opportunity than you realized.
Oh, and how many schools should you apply to? If you’re open to not limiting yourself to top-tier, spread it out so you’ll increase your overall chances, applying to some from each level: top-tier, mid-tier, low-tier. I would also think about applying to 5-6 schools. Remember, you don’t have to make a choice until you actually get in, which I sincerely hope you do!
[I’m a former Harvard interviewer and a Harvard graduate, and I currently run the MBA admissions firm MBA IVY, out of Manhattan. Like more information? Please fill out my contact form and request more info, today: www.MBAIvy.com]