The MBA Application Process
Defining an Overall Positioning Strategy
Step 1: Identify Needs
The schools aren't looking for students, they are looking for alumni, remember that! Your job is to understand each schools specific need. As precisely as possible, isolate the qualities sought by each school. All the schools mention the same qualities, but applicants must seek to explain and verbalize what each school means and what they seek (isolate the nuances). Applicants can only accomplish such clarity by thoroughly researching the schools' websites, asking alumni and current students, calling to speak to admissions people etc.
If a school mentions leadership ability, applicants must strive to define specifically why they exhibit those qualities—including through work experience, behavior, stories etc. Applicants who do not gain precise clarity as to the qualities a certain schools seeks will have very little chance of gaining admission to that program. For example, both Harvard and Kellogg seek leadership; however, Harvard seeks individual leadership while Kellogg seeks group leadership.
While all of the schools seek a similar set of qualities, they rank those qualities in differing relative orders. Applicants must understand which qualities each school prioritizes ahead of others. Applicants must also never confuse diversity with different qualities. While all of the programs emphasize diversity of profile, most of them also seek similarity of qualities.
Step 2: Meet Needs by Using Past Experience
Define for each school, the precise meaning and the order of importance of desired qualities. Carefully define the general terms each school mentions in order to very specifically match stories of past experiences. Carefully select from your past experiences those which best illustrate the qualities that the school seeks. Applicants must ensure that the experiences they chose to illustrate these qualities, demonstrate them well. Devote time to thinking of past experiences and do not confine the search to work situations alone.
Step 3: Answer Convincingly by Choosing the Most Relevant Experiences and Presenting them with Maximum Impact
Select experiences that in themselves identify the qualities that a school seeks. Make sure to choose the most relevant experience for each of the desired qualities. The best way to ensure this is to make a list of past experiences then match the strongest and most revealing ones to the qualities desired by the school. Applicants should put themselves in the reader's position and ask whether or not by reading a specific incident or story the reader would strongly believe that the applicant possesses the requisite quality or qualities.
To recap: define and list very precisely the aspects that make the quality, then choose an experience that matches and highlights each of the precise defining qualities that you listed. If part of the definition of leadership, for example, entails developing a vision, communicating that vision and convincing others to follow it, do not choose an experience that highlights how you defined a vision and executed upon it yourself.
Once the experiences/stories that match the precisely defined qualities are chosen, then applicants should employ a writing style as convincing as possible. Such a style includes: drama, profit, demonstration, and results.
Drama: In order to create drama, applicants should choose situations with large stakes, much conflict and difficulty, and as such, heightened atmosphere.
Profit: Applicants should explain exactly how they handled the situation
Demonstration: Applicants should explain the step-by-step process that they employed to achieve their profit. These steps are verbs!
Results: Applicants should quantify the results gained. These include hard data and soft data (yes, do not forget the human side).
Step 4: Reply in a Distinctive and Personal Way (Be Engaging)
This is the only way that applicants can differentiate themselves from other applicants. Ways to do so include: share out of the ordinary experiences (run of the mill experiences do not get noticed); use a sincere and personal style that shows vulnerability and openness (most applicants sound the same...that strong, cold business appeal, this is a chance to gain reader empathy and humanity); link to the overall marketing position of the application (POSITIONING...link everything in your application to three or four themes, this gives the readers an organization in their minds that makes it very easy to synthesize your application).
Step 5: Organize the Application to Meet the Needs of the School
Positioning entails linking everything in your applications (everything in your essays, your resume, your recommendation, and your interview) around three or four strong themes. But positioning must match each individual school's needs. Your application, and as such, your positioning, should correspond precisely to the order of importance emphasized by each school.
Policies regarding interviews differ from school to school. At some schools, all applicants must interview (Kellogg) while other schools only interview candidates who have "made the first cut" (Wharton, Columbia, Harvard).
Interviews last 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the schools offer on campus admission committee interviews or off campus, local alumni interviews. While the schools all claim no difference between on campus admissions staff and off campus alumni interviews, I recommend that applicants, if at all possible, choose on campus interviews. This shows great interest in the school.
Schools conduct interviews for many reasons, such as simply to gauge an applicant's communication, personal and "soft" skills. They also seek to gauge an applicant's charisma and strength of character. Charisma is a key leadership trait that all successful senior executives possess. Meeting someone in person also helps create an impression as to character and possible character flaws.
While all interviews are unique and all interviewers are different, similarities exist in the subjects covered. In fact, all interviewers look for the same key areas:
- Previous education
- Professional experiences
- Extra-professional experiences
- Character and values
- Motivation for MBA in general
Motivation for the interviewer's specific MBA programThe same questions from each of the above categories come up over and over again. The following exhaustively lists the questions from each of the above categories. In the limited span of each single interview, few of the following questions may be asked; however, applicants should study and prepare to answer each one because of the impossibility of predicting which questions will be asked. Furthermore, applicants should be prepared to answer very succinctly and distinctly why a school should accept them: that is, what will they bring both academically and socially to the program. Applicants should also be careful of "canned responses" because those will prompt interviewers to probe with much deeper questions. Other "testing" prompts include questions asked in seemingly illogical order (in order to test how an applicant reacts to instability-- Wharton is known for this) or silences for up to a minute by the interviewer after a candidate answers a question (in order to test how much poise or awkwardness a candidate exhibits).
Questions Regarding Previous Education
- Which school did you attend? Why did you choose it?
- Would you choose the same studies again if you could do it over?
- Why did you choose your major?
- What were your grades? Honors?
- Which courses were you best at? Why?
- Which courses were you worst at? Why?
- What did you like most about this part of your education? Why?
- What did you like least about this part of your education? Why?
- In which extra curricular activities did you participate? Why and what was your contribution?
- How did you pay for your education?
Questions Regarding Professional Experience
- Can you briefly describe your career progress to date?
- What are your long term career aspirations and why?
- Please discuss the factors, both professional and personal, that have influenced your career decisions so far.
- Describe the key responsibilities of your current job.
- Describe the key challenges of your current job.
- Why did you chose this profession? Why this company
- Describe a representative work day.
- What do you like best about your current job?
- Describe your most successful accomplishment at work.
- Describe a failure on the job.
- What can you do to be an even more effective member of your organization?
- Describe a situation in which you have been in a position of leading a group.
- What have you done to develop those under your responsibility?
- What specifically have you done to help your company change?
- How does your performance compare to that of your peers at a similar level?
- Describe your relationship with your boss? What is good and bad about it?
- Where is your industry headed over the next few years
- Discuss the pros and cons of a matrix organization.
Questions Regarding Extra Professional Experience
- How do you spend your time outside of work? What activities do you enjoy most and why?
- Describe a situation in which you have been in a position of group leadership in those activities.
- Describe your key accomplishments in these activities.
- Describe any failure in these activities.
- What is the last book you read? What did you think about it?
- What is your favorite sport? What aspect of it appeal to you?Reasons for Pursuing MBA (And Specifically at This Program)
- Why an MBA? Why now?
- Where do you expect to be right after graduation?
- Where do you expect to be in five years?
- Where do you expect to be in ten years?
- What do you expect to get from an MBA?
- Why this school in particular?
- To which other schools are you applying?
- How did you choose this school list? Why so many/few?
- Which school on your list is your first choice?
- What if you do not gain admission to an MBA program, what will you do?
- What would you contribute to this program that is distinctive?
- Do you have any questions for us?
Questions Regarding Character and Values
- Tell me about yourself.
- How would your friends describe you?
- What are your main weaknesses?
- What are your main strengths?
- What have you done that you are proud of?
- What have you done that you are most proud of?
- Who are your heroes? Why?
- Describe any significant experiences abroad? What have you learned from them?
- Describe an ethical dilemma that you have faced. How did you resolve it?
- How would your group's assistant describe you?
General Interview Advice
1. Set your communication objectives.
Treat the interview as would a politician or an advertising executive. So prior to the interview, define pertinent communication objectives. Define communication objectives that that highlight and enrich the overall positioning strategy. Adapt these objectives depending on the school. After the the objectives have been pinpointed and selected, choose personal experiences that illustrate the qualities that require emphasizing.
2. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Think about answers is step 1, training to deliver those answers in a way that clearly and effectively communicates the message is step 2. Sputtering will show vague and thin preparation. Being fluent without being polished may show over preparedness. But being fluent, fluid and polished to the point will show that the preparation was so good that it became second nature. It will show charisma and poise and allow the applicant to focus on interacting spontaneously with the interviewer, thereby obfuscating preparedness.
3. Be eloquent and passionate.
Two of the main traits of inspired and effective leadership are eloquence and charisma, which can only come from passion.
4. Do not lower your guard.
The interview can get very friendly; do not be lulled by this and let slip any doubts or insecurities.
- Trying to project a fake ideal (or at least getting caught doing so). Best advice: be yourself.
- Lack of preparation
- Lack of humor
- Too apologetic about a weakness (own it).
- Lack of specific knowledge about the school
The key characteristics of a good resume are: coherence, diversity and success. Be careful to note that showing diversity by remaining coherent is a delicate process. Coherence comes from each step in a career leading to another. Diversity comes from different experiences and aspects of experience through a career (starting a product line, managing people, managing budgets etc.) Diversity indicates aptitude for the different branches and multidisciplinary nature of the MBA curriculum.
Characteristics of a Good Resume
You must simply remember your resume must maintain coherence with the rest of your application. It must drive, emphasize, spotlight, and echo the overall positioning. Also, as with the rest of the application, it must adapt to the specific needs of the schools to which you are applying.
For example, a resume sent as part of a Kellogg application must highlight group and project management while a resume sent as part of a Stanford application must highlight innovation and entrepreneurship. Ensure that the descriptions in the resume match those in the recommendations. If need be, give recommenders a copy of the resume.
Finally, use concrete examples. It is essential to provide concrete evidence to support the content of a resume. Provide examples of results achieved, such as sales increase figures, cost reduction figures, positive procedural changes.
Characteristics of a Strong Recommendation
- Applicants must get recommendation from current supervisor.
- Recommendations must stand out.
- Flattering recommendations are key.
- Applicants need recommenders who say that the applicant is the best person with whom they have ever worked.
- Applicants must ensure that they share rapport with the recommender in order to request a positive, enthusiastic recommendation.
- Recommendation should reflect what the applicant has written in the application.
- Application must speak with singular, unified message.
- Applicants should ensure that the recommender has witten a B-School application before.
- If possible, applicants should view and approve the recommendation.
How Recommenders Should Address Questions Regarding Applicants' Weaknesses
The admissions committee seeks to find applicants' weaknesses. Certain faults or gaps, however, will irretrievably penalize an applicant's candidacy. So ideally, recommenders (or applicants during the interview) should recount weaknesses that can be overcome with a proper business education rather than weaknesses that cast doubt on an applicant's ability to achieve business success, receive an MBA, or succeed at business school. For example, “average ability to communicate” is a weakness that will cause the admissions committee to ding an applicant. “Sometimes too direct in communication” is a weakness that is honest and believable, but will assure the admissions committee that an applicant can benefit from an MBA.