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7 Ways to Make Your MBA Application Stand Out

Posted in Test Prep on April 26, 2011 by

Last week, we outlined ten ways that non-traditional applicants can set themselves apart from the crowd. Say you’re a traditional applicant, however, or from an “overrepresented pool” of MBA-hopefuls; how should you frame your candidacy and stand out?

1. Display excellent communication skills.

Most people who are naturals for business school have strong quantitative skills. While these are undoubtedly impressive and will form the bedrock of your candidacy, excellent communication skills can make you unbeatable. (Check out another post of mine for a more in-depth treatment of the subject).

First, make sure you nail the aspects of the application process that require verbal prowess. Your essays should be cogent, polished, authentic, and memorable. And don’t underestimate the rigor of the interview. It may only be 30 minutes, but you may be surprised at the challenge of compressing the main aspects of your story into a limited time frame.

Next, take a look at your academic record as represented by your college transcript. If you didn’t touch the written word as an undergrad, don’t sweat it: a high GMAT verbal score will more than compensate for any weaknesses in your academic profile. While a scaled score above 37 is superb, 90th percentile hovers around 40-42. This accomplishment speaks volumes and is bound to impress admissions officers, especially if you were a Math or Finance major. And remember not to blow off the AWA section even though it doesn’t count toward your score out of 800! Admissions officers will use it to evaluate the authenticity of your essay. A perfect “6” does add a bit of sparkle to an otherwise solid package.

Finally, one of the most valuable ways to demonstrate your communication skills is simply to excel at the verbal parts of your job and try to have something to show for it, whether a promotion or a recommendation letter. Remember that most applications require recommenders to rate the applicant’s communication skills. So, if you’ve been stumbling through presentations or writing incomprehensible memos, you should start thinking about the impression you’re making on your colleagues.

Don’t worry if others’ perception of you is currently low in this regard. You still have the summer to make a difference, and you may be surprised at how quickly perceptions of you change once you take the appropriate steps.

2. Highlight interesting or unusual college experiences.

Yes, your work experience and your most current achievements are the most important aspects of your application. However, admissions officers will look at your entire profile and the history of your performance, including what you did with every summer since you were 18 (if you’re applying to the most competitive programs).

So, if you taught math to prison inmates for a year, competed in marathons, or designed a popular line of fashion accessories, feel free to incorporate those experiences into your application. The great thing about MBA apps is that you can make nearly everything “count.” And if you have flaws or deficiencies, you can always make up for them if you start now. In this sense, your effort and self-awareness are significant factors in the process!

3. Demonstrate a knowledge of what’s important these days.

Lately, we’ve been noticing that sustainability and corporate responsibility have become increasingly important in the business world. Just check out several of our MBA News Roundups to get a sense of how these trends are changing the corporate landscape. An interest in these areas cannot be faked (there’s a reason why the application process is so detailed and requires you to list the hours and general responsibilities of every position you’ve held). However, if relevant, compelling interests have been a part of your professional profile for years (if you chaired a sustainability club at school, then started an initiative in the same vein at work, for instance), make sure to play them up.

It may seem obvious, but stay on top of the current events and trends in your industry of expertise. General awareness of the world can shine through in your essays and during your interview.

4. Show that you are a team player.

A stand-out individual performer with mind-blowing stats is certainly impressive, but even more impressive is a stand-out performer who is also a team player. If you’re applying to team-focused programs like Kellogg or Tuck, the quality is doubly important.

“Team skills” might seem rather nebulous and undefined to you, but chances are, you’re already a team player if you’re interested in business and management. Just look to see if you’re doing any of the following and highlight specific examples in your application:

  • Help and encourage others at work
  • Mentor others
  • Influence superiors
  • Help a group see the big picture
  • Help groups reach a consensus
  • Facilitate discussion and interaction

5. Don’t overlook your hobbies.

Remember that admissions officers are looking to craft a well-rounded class and to admit students who will contribute to a robust extracurricular life at the program. You will likely be asked what specific clubs and activities you plan to join if you are invited to interview. So take the time to familiarize yourself with the offerings and whittle your list down to 2-3 organizations. Some schools like Chicago Booth even have a set of “blank powerpoint pages” in their application which you can use to showcase aspects of your identity/experience which are not touched upon in the rest of your materials.

6. Show that you evolve.

Once again, there’s a reason why applications require you to list the hours and specific responsibilities of every paid and unpaid position you’ve held since 18. Admissions officers want to get a sense of your trajectory as a professional and as a human being. Just as non-traditional applicants should highlight different sides of their work personality, traditional applicants need to demonstrate that they have a history of making the most out of what they are given in every situation and are thus likely to do the same with the incredible resources of an MBA program. An expensive and rigorous business education is not for everyone, so frame yourself as the kind of person who would benefit from it.

One of the most popular questions asked during interviews is, “What have you learned?” It may seem basic at a cursory glance, but make sure you can actually answer it.

7. Show that you truly need/want the degree.

Traditional applicants can make sure they don’t come across as run-of-the-mill by simply showing that they have given deep thought to the process. In everyone’s book of admission horror stories is that “friend of a friend” who worked at a top investment bank, got a 750 on the GMAT, graduated summa cum laude and somehow didn’t make it into his/her dream program. We don’t know what happened, but best to be on the safe side: know that self-entitlement can be toxic to your application, so don’t skip the self-reflection process and take the essays seriously.

Be prepared to answer the following: “Great goal. But do you really need an MBA to do that?”