What can MBA applicants learn from today’s political candidates?

Online media, TV and newspapers are filled with stories about the fierce competition among various candidates for the office of U.S. President. This is a knock-down, drag-out battle for the ages.

A campaign for business school admission has much in common with a campaign for public office. Both contests are zero-sum games with clear winners and losers competing for a finite number of seats. The combination of information, competition and emotion can be overwhelming at times. And, ultimately, the decision as to who is admitted or elected is a highly subjective one, beyond the control of the candidate. Regardless of your political persuasion, we believe that there are some valuable lessons for MBA applicants to learn from the political contest for the hearts and minds of voters. So, what are some takeaways that we believe could be helpful to b-school candidates?

“Answer the question that is asked – and more”
When the admissions committee asks you a question, whether in a set of essays or during an interview, you have both an obligation and an opportunity. Don’t ignore what is being asked since doing so will be considered as evasive. And don’t constrain yourself by answering only what is asked; seize the opportunity to tell your story, and present your most compelling point of difference.

“Be assertive but not arrogant”
If you don’t believe in yourself, why should the adcom? Describe your past, present and future with confidence. Show how you’ve made a positive difference for yourself and others. Take pride in your tangible accomplishments. But always do so with a measure of humility and appreciation for the mentoring of superiors and the support of colleagues.

“Balance big-picture thinking with attention to detail”
Describing your candidacy in broad, vague terms conveys that you’re trying to hide a lack of real substance. Likewise, providing excessive details and minutiae sends the message that you’re a small thinker without leadership potential. B-schools want students who are both strategic and tactical. So provide solid examples that show both sides of your brain.

“Know and address your audience”
The admissions committee that will determine your fate tends to be ”moderate.” They don’t receive a bonus for accepting applicants who are outside the “middle 80%” of admitted applicants. They favor future MBAs who are neither boring nor boastful. So, your challenge is to convince them that you would both benefit from and uniquely contribute to the program if accepted. Help them see what they will gain by having you in the class, and what they will lose if you are rejected.

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over”
Just like political candidates who lose individual state primary elections, being turned down by one b-school doesn’t mean that your MBA campaign is over. The priorities and preferences of each MBA program are different. So, be sure to target any school where you would be happy to attend if it’s the only one to admit you. This is the best way to produce a set of alternatives from which you can choose.

“You can run but you can’t hide”

Mistakes and failures are rarely showstoppers as long as you explain them early, show an appropriate degree of disappointment, and illustrate how you used the learning that resulted in order to grow, develop and achieve positive outcomes going forward. All of us – even MBA admissions committees – are mortals who have dropped the ball on occasion. You can score major points with a b-school by being candid about a time when you fell short of expectations but learned from it and prevailed in the longer term.

“Negative is always negative”

Complaining about an unfair boss, griping about a lost deal, whining about a bad grade, or rationalizing a sub-par GMAT won’t win you any points with business schools. Stuff happens. So, why not take the high road and emphasize how you transcended disappointments, made bad situations better, and created new opportunities out of adversity? That’s what leaders do.

B-school admissions can be as stressful and unpredictable as public elections. But if you plan, prepare for, and run the kind of race that has proved successful for others, then your chances for success will increase exponentially. One of the first steps in any campaign is to get early feedback on the viability of the candidacy from experts — before the campaign begins. The MBA Exchange is here to help you test the waters with a free evaluation of your chances for admissions success.