For the Ladies: it’s Not “We”, it’s “Me” for Your MBA Applications

It’s not “we” it’s “me”. For the ladies out there, repeat that one again to yourself.

For a large portion of the women I work with each year who are applying to the top MBA programs, at some point in the process we talk about the “W”:  not win, not woman, “we”. Women, much more so than men, tend to feel uncomfortable taking credit for the amazing things that they do without feeling bad about it. I didn’t come-up with this: it’s a well-researched topic that many only think about in the context of getting to your next promotion (or taking leadership classes in b-school). But as someone who specializes in helping people sell themselves to the most competitive business schools in the world, please let me tell you that taking credit for how awesome you are is very much a part of your MBA applications as well. I know that some men have the challenge of being overly humble too, so please read on if this is you. But since it’s more prevalent for women, I’m going to focus on the ladies for this article.

I’m not a psychologist, but I am a woman, and I know what it feels like to be uncomfortable tooting my own horn. I catch myself all the time: “we thought you would love this”, “we had a great new idea” etc. It wasn’t “we”, it was “me!”

As research, career coaches, and management professors all say, it may be uncomfortable at first, and even unnatural, but you just have to do it. If you don’t talk about how great you are, why would anyone else? You can be almost 100% certain that the admissions committee is not going to get a bunch of letters from people who work with you praising how incredible you are and how, in fact, you are the person who drives productivity in the office but are too humble to admit it.  And the idea that the admissions committee will read between the lines and put together the fact that you were actually the one doing all of the work is also an attempt in vain. They are skimming your application – if you don’t tell them directly, they will likely not get it. Being humble is great – just not to a fault. And it would be a fault to be overly humble when applying to business school.

Here’s why it matters for your MBA applications: top schools estimate that over 75% of applicants are qualified on paper. But we know that the average acceptance rate for the top 10 schools is only 16%. So, competition is already fierce. And a huge percentage of applicants, men, don’t tend to the struggle with the “we” issue as much as women. So if you want to be assessed based on your merits, you need to be upfront about them.

Here’s an example: last year I reviewed two sets of first draft essays around the same time of the application cycle – one for a man and one for a woman. Both applicants worked for large tech companies, both had impressive scores, and both of them had progressed at a good clip throughout their careers. The guy’s essay launched into a story about how he’d “led the redesign of the company’s consumer-facing ordering system”. It was truly an impressive story. For him I had to ask if he had, as his essays suggested, actually developed and led the entire thing by himself. The answer was no – he was part of a team and we discussed how to integrate that into his stories without diluting his contribution to the project’s strategy and direction.

The woman I was working with had also done some really cool things – she’d actually fixed and relaunched one of the company’s orphaned product lines. But interestingly, her stories read like this “we iterated on a variety of different solutions until we found the exact formula” or “we presented the idea to management and were proud when we were approved to move forward”. For her, I asked “who is we?” In fact, there wasn’t much of a “we” after all. She was in charge of the whole thing, she conducted all of the consumer testing, and she was the only full time dedicated team member focused on that project. She had some cross-functional collaborators and some vendors helping with the execution, but in general, the “we” was “she”.

When asked, she explained that she felt awkward being cocky or taking credit for something that clearly required cooperation across an organization. But at the same time, she wasn’t giving herself credit for the fact that she had the new ideas, she launched them, and she steered the ship to be successful working around the clock (and probably being fabulous at the same time!)

So ladies, if this sounds familiar, know that you’re like many talented, successful, amazing MBA women, but also know that it’s time to start overcoming that natural gravitational pull towards using the word “we” when in fact, you should be using “I” or “me”. Your MBA applications are a great place to practice self promotion balanced with tact, grace and of course also giving credit where it’s due.

If this article hits home for you, I probably don’t need to say this, but don’t go overboard and tack the other direction completely. It’s important to show that you have a high level of maturity, team skills and emotional intelligence. Confidence means being comfortable acknowledging how great you are as well as being confident enough to acknowledge when someone else is great. The goal is to highlight your accomplishments and give the admissions committee enough data points to accurately assess your leadership potential, not to force yourself to sound self-absorbed or cocky. The surest way to keep this in check is simply to have other people review your essays at various stages and give you feedback. If it sounds awkward, or not like you, then rewrite until it does.

And finally, if in doubt, don’t forget that you can also use strong but gracious action verbs like “co-led, co-managed, co-developed” etc. If you led an aspect of a project, talk about that. But if you truly partnered with someone else on all aspects of leading it, acknowledge that too. If you stepped up to the plate and really made an impact, make sure that’s reflected in the way you talk about it.

As an all-female MBA team, we know a thing or two about how this goes. Reach out if you’re wondering how to balance the “we” and “me” in your applications!

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