Below, we offer some tips for those who are trying to re-evaluate their MBA candidacies in the wake of dreaded and unexpected “dings” from top schools. Each year, we extend an olive branch to those in the broader applicant pool who plan to reapply to business school in the coming year. Recognizing that many have suffered enough throughout this application year, we offer to review one application for up to twenty applicants, free of charge ($500 value) — hoping to provide some direction for those who plan to move forward next year.
If you are interested in a free Ding Review, please send one complete application to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will randomly select twenty applicants and contact you about your free session.
With this application season nearing its end, the time has come for applicants to make some choices. While many are now in the fortunate position of choosing between schools, some are suddenly confronting a different and unexpected question: “Where did I go wrong?” For those seeking to analyze their applications, we have posed several questions and explored the answers to help you identify common errors, which you may have inadvertently let slip by.
Did you write essays that clearly connect your candidacy with your target program?
Although connecting your goals and ambitions with your target school’s resources is always critical, in a competitive year—when a school can easily accept one candidate over the other for the most arbitrary of reasons—ensuring that your essays have profoundly linked you to your target programs is especially important. As you reanalyze your responses to questions like “What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals?” think to yourself, “How strong was my case for Columbia?”
Without realizing it, many candidates offer very trite and clichéd reasons for wanting to attend target schools. It is not enough to write at a high level: “Kellogg offers a world-renowned marketing program and a strong team environment.” The prospective applicant must truly make his/her own personal case, offering details of classes, clubs, professors, research centers, etc. Then, the candidate must directly tie these resources to his/her specific career goals to create a compelling case. If your rationale for applying to a certain school was not truly compelling, then your target business school likely chose another candidate who exhibited a true passion for and connection with its program.
Did you connect with your target program?
MBA programs do their best to manage their yields (number of acceptances/number of offers), as a high yield can help boost their position in certain rankings. So, the schools want to know that candidates are truly interested in and committed to their programs. While visiting your target campuses is not a prerequisite, it is strongly encouraged; when candidates cannot visit, it is advisable for them to connect in some way with alumni or current students to get to know a target program beyond its Web site. Candidates should ask themselves whether they proved at some point in their applications that they have firsthand knowledge of and experience with their target programs. The candidate who never visited the classroom and did not come to campus to interview may inadvertently send the wrong message and may simply face a relative disadvantage compared with another, similarly qualified candidate. While pinpointing this as “the reason” is difficult, it can be a factor within the bigger decision.
Did you clearly, credibly and profoundly express your career goals?
As you reexamine your application, another potential trouble spot to consider is your goal statement. Without realizing it, many candidates offer superficial goals and do not convey the requisite passion for or knowledge of their prospective careers:
“In the short term, when I graduate from NYU-Stern, I want to become a Brand Manager. After three years, I will climb to the position of VP of Marketing, and then in the long term, I will become a Director of Marketing.”
Providing the most basic information is not enough to answer the question. As you reread your goal statement, ask yourself whether you showed an understanding of the demands of your future position and the value that you could bring to it. Further, consider whether you connected your existing skills and the skills you will acquire via your MBA with your career goals. Finally, the most difficult task, try to discern whether you exhibited true passion for your goals—are they ambitious, but achievable? Is there a personal/professional imperative that you strive for these heights? Again, in such a competitive field, if your goal statement lacked passion, there were certainly many others out there which exhibited it.
Did you offer a diversity of perspective on your candidacy?
Many candidates unwittingly offer a very narrow view of themselves. As you reread your application, ask yourself, “Did the reader learn something new about me in each essay?” While offering two stories from the same sphere (i.e., two stories from your professional life) is not “forbidden,” it is important to ensure that the reader experiences something different in each essay. So if, for example, in one essay, you position yourself as team leader for a major project and then, in another, you position yourself as an individual mentor to a single struggling teammate, you are still offering a new perspective on yourself, even though both stories come from the professional sphere. Of course, optimally, you will have a wealth of professional, community, personal, athletic, international and entrepreneurial experiences (and more) from which to draw and continuously offer standout stories; however, even if you do not have such “riches,” you can still creatively diversify your candidacy. If you only offered one dimension, or even two, it likely was not enough to sustain the interest of an admissions officer who has read hundreds of applications.
Did you select the appropriate recommenders, and were your recommendations powerful?
While the MBA admissions process is largely based on judgment, one “fact” that candidates should be aware of is that admissions committees expect at least one recommendation from a current supervisor, unless the candidate has offered explicit and justifiable reasons (in an optional essay) for why this was not possible. Still, occasionally, some candidates do not explain their reasoning or mistakenly ask an indirect supervisor with a “better” title than that of their direct supervisor to write a recommendation. In assessing your recommendations, ask yourself, “Were my recommenders true supervisors, and did they know me intimately?” If you cannot answer with an emphatic “yes,” you may have missed a significant opportunity to market yourself to the admissions committee.
At this point, with the process concluded, it would be acceptable for you to speak with your recommenders and diplomatically (note: this will require individual judgment) ask to see your letters. If you have the opportunity to read your letters, ask yourself some questions: “Did my recommender capture the essence of my performance?” “Did my recommender make a statement that I am an elite performer and distinguish me from others?” “Are my letters honest and balanced?” and “Did my recommenders provide clear examples to back up any statements of praise?” If your answers to these questions are “no,” then you should consider new recommenders going forward or ensure that your recommenders are educated about what constitutes a compelling letter.
Did you apply to the “wrong” programs?
This is always a challenging question to answer, especially during a particularly competitive year. Just because you did not get into a target program, does that really mean that your decision to apply was a “mistake?” Hopefully, you got some encouraging feedback via interview requests—an indication that your application resonated with the admissions committees and that they considered you competitive. However, if you applied to several schools and did not get a single interview request, you may want to reassess whether you were targeting the right “portfolio” of schools.
In the MBA admissions world, candidates are (surprise!) obsessed with their stats—GPAs and GMAT scores. At mbaMission, we, like admissions officers, tell candidates that stats are just one piece of the puzzle. However, if both your GPA and GMAT scores were well below the published averages for your target schools and you did not get an interview, this may be an initial indication that you were reaching.
After all of this analysis, at the end of this piece, we leave open a possibility: maybe you didn’t do anything terribly wrong? In a competitive year, even candidates who put together very strong applications may find themselves on the outside looking in. So, to some, our message is “Don’t be too critical of yourself.” If you are determined to get your MBA, you may just need to readjust your risk profile and take a more conservative approach, by adding a safe school, expanding your list of competitive schools and reducing your “reaches.” In the end, you may achieve your desired results anyway, but, if you broaden your approach, you will also have greater peace of mind as you approach this process for the second time.