What to Do If You Are an “Overrepresented” Candidate

These days, the applicant pools for the top MBA programs are overfull with talented and experienced investment bankers, consultants, and software engineers. As a result, these candidates are considered “overrepresented” and may have a much harder time standing out from the crowd. However, if you fall into one of these groups, do not lose hope. Although you cannot alter your work history, you can change the way you present yourself and your candidacy to the admissions committees. We at mbaMission can offer a few suggestions for ways to ensure your essays grab an admissions reader’s attention.

Our first strategy is more of a “don’t” than a “do.” We see many candidates who start their essays with a straightforward introductory line that immediately and undeniably overrepresents their overrepresentation. For example, one might write, “When I started as an analyst at Morgan Stanley in 2011, I was immersed in Excel spreadsheets….” But by using this kind of opening statement, the applicant may as well have written, “As one of many indistinguishable banking candidates you will see this year, I have done the exact same work as hundreds of other applicants.”

Consider instead what we call a non-introduction introduction. Rather than using a more formal and traditional chronology, start your essay with a line that immediately immerses the admissions reader in a dynamic story. Consider the following two examples:

Example 1: “When I started my first job after college as a banking analyst with Morgan Stanley, I flew to Houston to meet with a client, ABC Healthcare.”

Example 2: “The first thing I did after my plane touched down in Houston at 5:00 a.m. was call to let the CFO of ABC Healthcare know I was on my way to meet him at his office. My firm, Morgan Stanley, had an important deal hanging in the balance with this significant client, and I had been tasked with the job of….”

By launching into a story and incorporating favorable facts in Example 2, this applicant has put him/herself in the middle of the action and created a story the reader wants to follow. One of the distinct advantages of the “non-introduction introduction” is that it can create a sense of mystery that compels the reader to stay engaged with the essay to its conclusion. It can also make the candidate’s story much more memorable.

Disrupting chronology is another valuable strategy. If your target MBA program asks you to discuss your career history, you are not required to outline your career to date in order from your first position to your current one (a method that can easily highlight your overrepresentation). Again, consider the following examples, in this case for a programmer who rose to lead a team of 30. Which is more interesting to you?

Example 1: “After joining InfoTech, I spent my first six months writing code…”

Example 2:  “As the manager of 30 software engineers at InfoTech, I often call on my early days with the firm when I myself spent six straight months engaged in writing code…”

If the candidate were to begin his essay with a statement like Example 1, he would risk losing the admissions reader’s interest immediately. After all, having written code is not an unusual claim, but few individuals are given the responsibility of overseeing 30 employees before business school. So even though this fact is from the applicant’s most recent position, rather than his first, it is a compelling and impressive one—and therefore much better fodder for a strong essay introduction. This candidate can in part overcome the hurdle of being an overrepresented software engineer by highlighting this differentiating aspect of his candidacy right way, which is only possible by foregoing the classic career timeline approach. Of course, some finesse and thoughtful effort are necessary to ensure you ultimately cover all the relevant phases of your work history—with special attention to formulating creative transition ideas and sentences—but the effort will be well worth the time.

Overrepresented applicants who have unique career aspirations can take the strategy of leading with goals as a way of focusing the admissions committee’s attention on what sets them apart rather than on what they have in common with other candidates in the pool. As with your career history, you do not have to present this aspect of your candidacy in chronological order or only after first detailing your work experience. Be aware, however, that starting your essay with your goals is an effective approach only if you have goals that differ from what an admissions reader might expect for someone like you. For example, an Indian technologist who intends to start a software firm someday would not be particularly well served by starting his/her essay with this information, but one who aspires to open a boutique hotel could very much benefit from this alternate approach. Similarly, a consultant who has plans to establish a competitive windsurfing circuit could stand out from similar applicants by detailing this bold goal right from the start. That said, we emphatically recommend that you do not try to come up with a “wild” goal just to use this strategy—your goal(s) must be authentic and make sense within the context of your career experience, interests, and skill set. But if you legitimately have aspirations that differentiate you from your otherwise comparable peers, rearranging the typical structure of your goals essay could certainly make a difference.

Finally, whether you consider yourself an overrepresented applicant or not, you should think long and hard about how you begin your essay. Even those of us who have not read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities  readily recognize the work’s famous first lines: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” A powerful first sentence can stick with your admissions reader long after he/she has finished reading your submission. Which of the following opening lines better captures your attention?

Example 1: “After I graduate with my MBA, I hope to work in the wine industry.”

Example 2: “Blood may run in the veins of most human beings, but I believe wine flows through mine.”

With respect to opening lines, the possibilities are endless, and no formula exists for crafting the best one. But the first few sentences of your essay set the tone and can greatly influence whether an admissions reader will want to keep reading to learn more about you. So, overrepresented candidates in particular need to be strategic in their approach to ensure the less common elements of their profile get the attention they deserve.

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