How to Think Like an MBA Admissions Officer, Part III

In Part I and Part II of our “How to Think Like an MBA Admissions Officer” series, we discussed how admissions starting forming opinions of your application as soon as they pick it up. While admissions officers truly do want to be fair and objective when reviewing every application, they can’t help but be influenced by the thousand of applications they have read before yours. Today we’ll discuss six signals that
let admissions officers know — whether they’re consciously thinking about it or not — that you’re the kind of applicant they want.

Don’t think that you must have all of these traits; just a couple of them can be enough to get you past that first “moment of truth” and earn more of an admissions officer’s attention:

  1. You’ve taken on leadership roles wherever you’ve gone. In the workplace, as a university undergraduate, and in your community, you want to show that you have taken an active role in making things happen. Regardless of the setting, do you exert effort to make things better, or are you just a passive participant? You’ve done Habitat for Humanity? Thats’ nice, but did you just show up and pound nails once a month, or did you run the event. There’s a BIG difference in admissions officers’ eyes. If you haven’t managed a team on the job yet, that’s okay — that’s why admissions officers look so closely at your other areas of involvement. The impact you’ve had is 100 times more important than the title you’ve held, on the job and outside of it.
  2. Your career is already on the fast track. Many of our clients confide that they’re applying to business school because they’re getting bored or are stagnating in their jobs. While the reality is that’s one of the most common reasons for applying to business school (and we’re glad that those applicants are honest with us), you DO NOT want admissions officers to sniff that in your application. We’ll quote an admissions officer from a top-ten MBA program here: “My favorite candidates are those who are clearly going to soar in their careers, anyway. If they want to add an MBA from [my school] and go even farther, then great. We’re glad to have them.”
  3. You are introspective and mature. Top business schools ask failure- and adversity-related questions not because they want to know your dirty secrets, but because they want to hear you talk about YOU, and “What did you learn from that bad situation?”-type questions tend to be very good conversation starters for the subject of you. Your essays and letters of recommendation should paint the portrait of a young professional who has already seen and accomplished a lot, but who also knows that he or she still has much more to learn.
  4. You’re bright, no strings attached. Why the “no strings attached” qualifier? Every week we talk to multiple applicants who have GPA- or GMAT-related blemishes to overcome in their applications. While some of them can indeed overcome these with the right tactics, think about how much stronger a position you’ll be in if your application’s moment of truth doesn’t consist of an admissions officer asking, “Ooh, what happened with that GPA?” or “Hmmm, that was the best you could do on the GMAT?” Remember, it’s an admissions officer’s reflexive, subconscious first reaction that you’re trying to influence here. The less they have to wonder about how smart or disciplined you are, the better.
  5. Admissions officers have NOT seen your application 1,000 times before. This one seems like a tall order — after all, it’s not in your control whether admissions officers have seen hundreds of applications just like yours, right? Wrong. While you don’t know exactly what applications a top MBA program receives, you know enough of the stereotypes that exist out there. Your goal, then, is to make sure that your application doesn’t look or even smell like one of these common profiles. Are you an “Indian/IT” applicant? Don’t despair… You just need to showcase other traits or achievements to immediately move admissions officers off of those stereotypes.
  6. You’re universally respected and adored. This moves beyond that initial “application in hand” moment and moves into the first glance an admissions officer takes at your letters of recommendation. Are those letters full of “Yes, [your name] has been a very good contributor,” do they shout “[Your name] is easily one of the best young professionals I’ve ever had the honor of working with, and your school will be very lucky to have him/her!” Guess which one the admissions officer is going to keep carefully reading.

It’s okay if you can’t account for all six of these in your application. But, the more of them that you have, the more likely you are to get past that initial moment of truth and get a good, honest, open-minded read from an overworked application reader. That’s the first key step to success in an MBA admissions process that will always be very subjective, no matter how hard admissions officers try to be completely fair.

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