What MBA Applicants Can Learn From the Presidential Debates

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, you’re probably just as tired of this election cycle as the rest of us. That said, the Presidential debates are a Master Class in communication strategy for those preparing their MBA applications. The two candidates, while miles apart on the issues, both seize moments on stage to deliver their messages to a targeted audience; reinforce their overall brands, and (at least try to) show that they’re ready for the role.
What do you have in common with someone standing on a stage contending to be President of the United States? For today’s MBA applicants, you need to clearly craft your message, portray yourself the way you want to be perceived, and ensure that you use the appropriate tone with your audience (meaning youneed to know them first). As such, we collaborated with a former Communications Director from Capitol Hill who weighed-in on some of the tactics used to speak to over 300 million Americans and how applicants to the most competitive schools in the world could consider using similar strategies to present themselves to the equally tough audience: the admissions committee. So for all of you MBA applicants, here are a few things to watch for in the next debate that could be inspiration for the communication strategy you use in your MBA applications.
  1. Mitigate your Weaknesses and Leverage your Strengths:Both candidates have some pretty large issues on the table that voters are concerned about. Hillary is dealing with a perception that she’s not trustworthy. So what did she do? In the town hall debate, she locked in on every person who asked her a question. She faced them, walked towards them, repeated their names, and made a human connection; and in doing so, she tried to establish trust and empathy with viewers at home (eg. mitigate her weakness).Conversely, as a former Secretary of State, Hillary has campaigned on her foreign policy acumen, and she showcased this in the debate. During the questions on Aleppo, Hillary went into detail, correctly naming the leader of ISIS, and discussing the tribal and sectarian tensions in the region in depth. The goal was to overwhelm the viewer with knowledge and facts; and in doing so, reinforce that she’s capable of navigating the U.S. in a complex world (eg. highlighting her strengths).

    For Donald Trump, he knew that the graphic tapes where he discussed women were going to come up, and he was ready for it (eg. he knew his weakness and had a plan to mitigate it). He stayed on message, continuing to describe the contents of the tapes as ‘locker room talk,’ which fits with his tactic of presenting himself as the “anti-polished politician” politician. Whether you agree with his message or not, based on polls the day after the debate, it resonated with his supporters and reinforced the brand identity that he’s building around frankness and being “unfiltered”. Ironically, being “unpolished” has been Trump’s strength among his base according to many analysts and he’s continue to leverage that.

    What does this have to do with MBA applications? Know what may be an issue on your applications and ensure that you overcome it directly. Low GPA? Take an online class and then directly point to it in your optional essay. Limited years of work experience? Reinforce your leadership skills and experience throughout your application so the admissions committee knows that you already have what it takes.

  2. Stay on Message:You can probably recite the buzz words for each campaign by now because you’ve heard them so many times. Trump’s slogan is “Make American Great Again”, and his entire message on stage aligned with his feeling that America needs to be improved. With every question, he went straight to a big issue that he believes needs to be solved. Whether you agree with him or not, what’s clear is that (despite employing some “unique” strategies) he did stay on message. The same is true of Hillary. Her slogan is “Stronger Together”. As such, with most of her answers, she continued to reinforce this theme that our country is great and can be even better if we join together as a team (emphasizing that everyone should be a member of this team, not just some). If you go back and hit replay (which I’m sure no one reading this has time to do, but anyway), you’ll see that she consistently hit on this theme.What does this mean for you? You amass support when someone first understands then believes in your message. We guide all of our clients to start their applications by establishing a clear “story” or “message” so that they can be sure to stay “on message” throughout their applications. You may never directly write your main message word-for-word, but you definitely need to know it cold so that when the admissions committee puts down your application, they feel the way about you that you were hoping for. For example, if you are saying that you need to develop entrepreneurship skills so you can write your business plan in school, you need to ensure that every aspect of your application aligns with that theme – it should make sense why you want to go that route and how you plan to do it. All too often we see applicants declare a goal then write three essays that basically ignore the stated goal, sometimes downright contradict it, and confuse the reader. So remember, stay on message, be clear, and make it your goal for the reader to be able to recite your message after putting down your application.
  3. Be the Part:Both candidates paint a picture of what it would be like if they were President. They talk about why they want the job, why they are qualified, and most importantly, what they would do. And as a result, every person watching the debates has an image of what each of their presidencies could be like. This is not easy to do though. To act the part for President, you must be able to answer foreign policy questions, economic policy questions and many others with ease and confidence (and we’ve seen both candidates waiver at different points in time). Fortunately you will not be grilled in the same way but you still need to act the part in your own way (eg. act as an MBA student at the school you’re applying to) throughout the application. Describe why you know each school is right for you. Explain which clubs you’d lead, how you’d contribute, and what unique ideas you have for advancing the program, school, your classmates’ experiences. And when you are sitting in the interview, be sure you have done your homework on the school, it’s culture, the MBA in general, and of course how your goals align with what the program offers.
Hope this helps and don’t forget, vote for …..! Just kidding – we won’t go there.

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