Avoid These Three MBA Application Pitfalls

This time of year, our team is doing a lot of “ding analysis”, which is when someone who applied this past year asks our team to help them understand what went wrong. Below are some of the common pitfalls we see, which we hope will help you know what to avoid as you start the MBA application process this year.

Being Negative (…Even When You Feel It’s Warranted)

Unless you’re a star on Bravo or The Bachelorette, most people can’t get away with complaining all the time AND come across as likeable or interesting. Maybe your boss is a total nut who drives you insane. Or maybe you work at a company that is imploding and everyone is jumping ship as morale declines.

Whatever the situation, be mindful of how much airtime you give to venting about it; that takes precious space that you could be using to write about how amazing YOU are!

You may think that it’s important to explain the full context, so the reader “gets” you and your experience. It’s true that background is important. So is getting personal (see #3 below). However, what I often see is this: someone will write three paragraphs describing how horrible their company is then quickly gloss over how that relates to them and their actions.

Flip that – explain the situation honestly and truthfully…but also concisely. Avoid putting down your boss or your job. People generally react negatively when someone speaks ill of another person. Fair or not, especially when you’re young, people often assume that, in fact, you were the problem or that you’re making excuses.

After you briefly present the facts, focus on explaining how you felt, reacted, rose above, or otherwise operated incredibly well despite the situation around you. The reader will get it (and likely be impressed).

Being a ‘Wanderer’

I really like the quote “not all those who wander are lost”, but it doesn’t relate to b-school applications. The admissions committees at top MBA programs do not want you to be wishy-washy.

It blows me away when I read an application that says something like “my long-term goal might be investment banking but could also be non-profit or general management for a CPG company.” The person reading this is thinking, so basically, you have no idea and you made no effort to have an idea.

Of course, almost everyone who applies to business school is a little unclear on what life will look like after those two years. Admissions committees know that. However, you must be able to demonstrate that you have a target career that is a logical starting point. Maybe you will change your mind (I did), but at least you can show the admissions committee what you’re excited about, what interests you, and how you will get started with the process.

This is also wise from a logistical standpoint. As soon as school starts, the career and internship talk begins. Companies come to campus (or Zoom) for presentations / networking, clubs start prepping people for interviews, etc. You can’t do it all, so you need to have an idea of where to start.

That’s how we encourage people to think about the career goals they describe in their MBA application. Perhaps you are in banking right now and think you want to go into private equity, but also think you might like consulting if you learned more about it. Great! There are fantastic “whys” for each of those, so do your research on both and put the logic behind their appeal down on paper.

For purposes of the application, it’s probably best to focus on one path as your ‘Plan A’ and keep the other in your back pocket as an interesting alternative. Keep in mind that whatever you write is not binding. It’s ok for you to note your starting point and then change your mind once you learn more as a student.

Coming Across as a Robot

Getting personal and sharing more than you would in typical business writing is among the hardest things for many of our clients. It’s tempting, and natural, to default to simply reiterating your resume and then telling a boilerplate story about what you want to do and why you want to go to business school.

At work, your colleagues don’t typically ask you to explain what made you who you are, what influenced your choices in life, and what that says about you as a leader. So of course, writing in this style is not natural for many people. But it’s necessary for a great application essay, especially to top MBA programs like Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB.

Here’s a trick:  most people have a few ideas of stories or experiences that were pivotal in their lives. Take each of these and ask yourself: 1) how/why did I get that opportunity or experience; 2) is the way that I handled that situation reflective of one of my central traits; 3) if so, how did I get that trait and how else does it show up in my life; and 4) how did I feel about that experience (surprised, afraid, cautious, elated, anxious, etc) and why? Questions like this should help you tease out your core values and motivations. Describe these in your essays to give the admissions committee a better picture of who you are as a person beyond your resume.

If you want to discuss how we leverage strategies like these and others to help applicants and reapplicants get into the top MBA programs at a 3.0x higher rate than average, you can request an initial consultation with our team of top MBA admissions consultants.

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