By now you’ve heard about some of the more obvious mistakes to avoid when you apply to a business school. We’d like to talk about some of the least obvious yet most dangerous mistakes you can make in your business school applications. You know, the ones admissions committees won’t tell you about. If you’re gunning for a spot at one of the Top Three, you’ll need to navigate these subtle but no less deadly pitfalls to avoid an unexpected rejection. Although this article is intended for applicants who know the ins and outs of creating a good application, anyone can benefit from these tips.
Mistake 1: Writing about grand, pie-in-the-sky ideas that don’t have a strong tie-in to your background
A lot of applicants think their ticket to getting into Harvard, Stanford, and other top business schools is to come up with some brilliant, new plan to save the world. Show how wonderful a person you are and you’ll be a shoo-in, right? Not really. Unless, of course, whatever grand vision you pitch to the admissions committee actually resembles something in your background.
Say you want to work on developing microfinance programs in West Africa. Does anything in your background signal to the powers that be that you’re intrinsically motivated to reach your goals? Perhaps you’re from Ghana and you even have some relevant skills. Great. Perhaps you’ve been volunteering for kiva.org, a microfinance nonprofit, for the past three years. Even better. You’re already putting your money where your heart is.
The key here is to come across as authentic and genuine, which you can’t really do unless you’re, um, authentic and genuine. Simply talking about going into the nonprofit field isn’t enough to win the hearts and minds of admissions officers. If you’re just trying to sell a story for the sake of getting into business school, you might want to rethink your motives.
Mistake 2: Writing about a career vision that aims too low
If mistake number 1 is aiming too high, mistake number 2 is just the opposite—not dreaming big enough. No elite school wants to take a chance on someone whose grand ambition is to climb the corporate ladder or be a management consultant forever. Give the admissions committee a reason to believe that you could become the next Bill Gates or Meg Whitman. You may never reach Steve Jobs’ status, but top schools want to believe that every single student they accept is at least trying to achieve greatness. Don’t sell yourself short: Aim high, back up your goals with relevant experience (see Mistake 1), and, as Thoreau encouraged, go confidently in the direction of your dreams!
Mistake 3: Not reviewing your application before you send it: One inconsistency can be the kiss of death!
Let’s talk about inconsistency. Say you pick two leadership qualities to emphasize—your listening skills and courage, for example. All of your essays and recommendations must support those two qualities. If one of your managers talked in his recommendation letter about your need to improve your listening skills, you can kiss your chances good-bye. Either you’re not being genuine about your qualities or your manager doesn’t really know you. Either way, you’ve lost credibility, and you can’t get it back.
Or maybe your dream is to build a new yoga franchise but one of your mentors mentioned she was inspired by your dream to revolutionize the insurance industry. Uh-oh. Remember: Inconsistency will crumble your credibility and can expose inauthenticity. Make sure everything in your application package meshes with and supports everything else. Everything.
After you’ve crossed your I’s and dotted your T’s (still with me?), take a giant step backwards and look at your application package as a whole. In other words, see the forest, not just the trees. Each individual piece of your package can be perfect on its own, but if it doesn’t contribute to the overall message you want to convey about yourself, it may need some tweaking—or yanking altogether.
Mistake 4: Sounding arrogant, especially if you’re a finance guy or gal
The best application will highlight your accomplishments in a humble way. It may seem counterintuitive to some people, but humility is a characteristic you need to lead others. It’s fine to come across as confident, but do it without being arrogant. This can be tricky. Do yourself a favor and ask a few close friends to read your application and give you brutally honest feedback. Do you sound like a jerk? Like you’re full of yourself? Like you take your success for granted? If so, a rewrite is in order.
The way to circumvent this dilemma is to let your recommendations speak for you and brag about you. A testimonial from a mentor or advisor will always carry more weight than your own self-analysis. This way, you get all the kudos you deserve without coming off like MBA-zilla.
Mistake 5: Talking too much about the end results of your accomplishments (i.e., the destination) and not the process (i.e., the journey)
People in finance, especially young bankers, like to brag about how many deals they worked and how much those deals were worth. Know what? This is irrelevant to admissions committees. They. Don’t. Care. To them there’s no difference between a $200-million deal and a $5-billion deal. What they do care about is how you accomplished something in a certain situation or environment—in other words, how you worked the deal.
People in the CPG industry value things like how much you grew sales or the number of new products you successfully launched. Again, it’s helpful to mention some of this information, but admissions committees care more about the process—how you achieved the results, not the magnitude or quantity of your accomplishments.
A common success metric for insiders in the consumer internet industry is the number of users your product reaches. But admissions committees don’t have the necessary information to judge whether one million users is good or if ten million users means you have ten times more potential to be successful in business. The quanta are irrelevant: You could be working at a big company with lots of existing users, or you could be working at a small company on a completely new product. It’s important to provide some numbers for reference, but it’s more critical to describe how you overcame challenges to realize your end results.
The Good News: You can turn these mistakes into opportunities!
The most savvy applicant won’t simply avoid inconsistencies in his application. He’ll make sure every part supports a single, focused career vision. He’ll make sure his essays, recommendations, and resumé form a strong, cohesive, unforgettable image of him. He won’t limit himself when it comes to defining a career vision. Instead, he’ll shoot for the moon and introduce something game changing, backing it up with various experiences in an honest, humble way.