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Insider Secrets: MBA Application Tips for Aspiring Students

July 1 2023 By The MBA Exchange
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When assembling your application for a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program, it’s natural to feel like you’re gathering disparate parts. The challenge lies in transforming these components into a cohesive and compelling admissions campaign, which is the key to your admissions success. While certain aspects of your profile, such as your GPA or work experience, may be unchangeable (when you apply, at least), you have control over how you present your potential as a student. We understand this process inside out, drawing on decades of experience and thousands of application reviews. We will guide you through the elements of the application that you can shape, including your resume, essays, and letters of recommendation (LORs), offering invaluable insider tips. With our expertise, you can navigate the MBA application journey with confidence and maximize your chances of acceptance.

MBA Resume Tips

Typically 1-2 pages in length, your resume provides the admissions committee with a snapshot of your career and life since the time you enrolled in college. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, the reality is that some MBA applicants misunderstand or even misuse the resume in ways that reduce their chances for admission. Here are six key points to keep in mind when developing your resume for a business school admissions audience.

Present Substance With Clarity and Precision

When reviewing MBA applications, imagine the workload faced by an overburdened admissions staff member with a towering stack of papers on their desk. It’s crucial to consider their perspective and make every effort to capture their attention efficiently. One of the common mistakes applicants make is submitting a lengthy, two-page resume instead of condensing it to a concise one-page format. By adhering to the recommended one-page rule, you demonstrate respect for the admissions officer’s time and increase your chances of leaving a positive impression.

However, it’s important to note that if the application instructions do not specify a one-page limit, you shouldn’t hastily remove essential content that showcases your qualifications. The goal is to strike a balance between providing pertinent information and avoiding unnecessary details. Quality should take precedence over quantity.

Balance the Professional, Academic, and Personal

Traditionally, an MBA resume emphasizes job-related topics over education and personal activities. Makes sense, right? Your career is a significant part of your application. However, your MBA resume should go beyond that. It’s an opportunity for the reader to get to know the real you, even before you meet in person. So, don’t forget to include details about your college experience, personal background, and non-work pursuits. Paint a complete picture of your well-rounded self!

Use Action Verbs and Active Voice

Given the constraint of length limits, the style and tone of an MBA resume should be telegraphic. What does that mean? So, here’s the trick: instead of passively listing your responsibilities and activities, focus on what you’ve actually achieved. Start each statement with an action verb like “led,” “planned,” “drove,” “directed,” or “produced.” This highlights the impact and confidence you bring to the table, and it’s something that truly resonates with the admissions committee.

Show Quantified Results and Tangible Outcomes

Business schools love applicants who can make a measurable difference. Now, I get it. It can be challenging for those in support positions or analytical roles to demonstrate their impact. But don’t worry, it’s not impossible! Regardless of your job, there’s likely some value you’re adding to a process that yields quantifiable results or tangible outcomes. So, don’t shy away from describing specific deliverables that have benefited from your contributions. Also, if you’re relatively new to your current job, it’s fine to include estimated, projected or expected results and outcomes for the work you’re currently doing. Oh, and keep the jargon to a minimum. Remember, not everyone on the admissions committee will be familiar with industry-specific terms.

Avoid Unexplained Gaps in Employment

If you’ve had a gap of more than 60 days between jobs, it’s crucial to explain that on your resume. Don’t try to brush it under the rug by stating only the years of employment. MBA applications usually ask for a detailed work history with specific start and end dates for each position. Consistency is key! Failing to address employment gaps might lead the admissions committee to question your honesty and that’s never a good look.

Convey Growth and Development

Your resume is not just a collection of facts and figures. It’s an opportunity to tell a compelling story of growth and development. Each item listed should contribute to the narrative of your high-potential MBA candidacy. Sometimes, job titles alone might not reveal a clear progression or an expansion of responsibility. In such cases, make sure to describe your current position with evidence of how you’ve advanced from previous roles. Show that you’re leveraging your skills, experience, and past successes to achieve remarkable things.

MBA Letters of Recommendation (LOR) Tips 

Like your transcript, test score, resume and essays, recommendations are a vital piece of your application. Recommendations bridge the “facts” of your resume with the “feelings” of your essays. And, depending on how well they are developed, recommendations can either add credibility or raise doubts about your candidacy. You may be wondering, “How can I relinquish control of 20% of my application to other people?” Know that careful planning and confident action can result in recommendations that add substantial value and help you make a positive impression on the admissions committee. Here are some points to consider when it comes to recommendations and recommenders.

Choose Wisely: The Power of Selecting the Right Recommender

Choosing the right recommender is like assembling the Avengers for your application. Each option has its pros and cons, so let’s break them down:

Top officers at your company

  • Pros: Getting an endorsement from the CEO or Managing Director can make you feel on top of the world.
  • Cons: They may not know you well enough to provide specific examples of your strengths, and they might be too busy to do a thorough job, even asking you to write it yourself.

Direct supervisor

  • Pros: Most b-schools specifically ask for a recommendation from your direct supervisor because they work closely with you and have the best understanding of your abilities.
  • Cons: If pursuing an MBA is seen as a lack of commitment or loyalty, it might not sit well with your boss. Some supervisors may even feel threatened by subordinates who show greater potential or ambition.

Long-time friend

  • Pros: Friends can offer personal insights about you, highlighting your character.
  • Cons: They might not be able to speak to your professional capabilities, and their opinions might carry less weight as the admissions committee knows that friends tend to sugarcoat things.

Alumnus of targeted business school

  • Pros: Having a recommendation from an alumnus can give you a sense of insider advantage.
  • Cons: Many applicants know someone who graduated from the MBA program, so it’s not a significant differentiator but rather a tiebreaker.

Remember, start building a strong personal and professional relationship with your recommenders as early as possible. Be open, honest, and direct about your MBA aspirations. It’s better to find out early on if they are comfortable providing you with a glowing recommendation. Keeping your options open is key!

Prepare Thoroughly: Collaboration is the Key

Now, let’s talk about the mechanics of producing recommendations. There are two extremes to avoid: having your recommender say, “You write it, I’ll sign it” or “Don’t give me any input; I’ll handle it myself.” Collaboration is the name of the game, and here’s how you can achieve it:

Topics and examples

Most recommenders welcome written guidance from the applicant. You can provide them with an “input outline” that helps structure their development process. It’s a win-win situation.

Authenticity and sincerity

Once you’ve provided the outline, let your recommender write the recommendation in their own voice. Avoid having the recommendation sound too similar to your essays. Adcoms can spot that from a mile away. Don’t worry about grammar or style; recommenders aren’t being judged on their writing abilities. In fact, a few rough edges can make the recommendations feel more genuine.

Remember, unless you’re one of the lucky few who get to see the recommendations, you’ll never know for sure how much they influenced your admissions chances. But if you approach this aspect of the application strategically and thoughtfully, the outcome is likely to be positive. And who knows? Someday, as a successful business leader and MBA graduate, you’ll be writing recommendations for your own subordinates.

MBA Essay and (if needed) Video Essay Tips

Hey there, future MBA rockstar! We need to have a heart-to-heart about your essays and video essays because they play a pivotal role in your application. But here’s the thing: don’t rush into writing them too early. There’s important groundwork to be done before you start crafting your profile description. Let’s tackle five crucial questions that will help you prepare and excel:

  • What are the major accomplishments, strengths and measurable results of your professional, academic and personal history? What makes them distinctive?
  • What mistakes, limitations and vulnerabilities might keep your candidacy from being more competitive? What are the circumstances behind these limitations?
  • What are your post-MBA career goals that will convince business schools that you can and will make a difference (and make them proud)?
  • What do your target schools value most in the applicants they admit? What can you say or do that could bridge the gap between those candidacies and yours?
  • What can you do before submitting your application that would leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses to optimize your candidacy?

By addressing such questions candidly and honestly you can improve your profile and help identify the strongest possible topics and examples to be featured in your essays and short answers. So, before you jump in and start writing, do some soul searching. The quality and impact of your writing will soar if you begin with introspection and improvement.

Business schools ask tough questions to test the self-awareness, confidence, values and resilience of future MBAs. When did you have to confront a tough situation? What went wrong, how did you work through it, and how did you grow as a result? What else do we need to know that you haven’t yet shared? It’s tempting to hide from these kinds of questions, but there’s an opportunity here you shouldn’t pass up.

Stay Specific and Avoid Soft Answers

Adcoms aren’t looking for generic statements like “I strive for perfection” or “I care too much.” Such pat replies reveal nothing substantive and can instantly jeopardize your chances of admission. Instead, provide specific examples and tangible evidence to support your claims. Show them who you truly are through concrete experiences and achievements.

Embrace Authenticity and Vulnerability

Being vulnerable in your essays can help convince the adcoms of your authenticity. However, be cautious not to share content that could damage your core candidacy. Choose an attribute and a related experience that showcases your growth and development, without raising doubts about your integrity or character. Focus on tactical topics that highlight your skills and expertise, such as financial modeling, rather than abstract concepts like teamwork.

No Excuses—Demonstrate Self-Awareness and Reflection

Demonstrate self-awareness and maturity by clearly articulating a challenging situation you’ve faced. Share what you learned from it and how you prioritize continuous growth, not only during your time in business school but also beyond. Encourage your recommenders to reinforce this aspect in their comments about your candidacy. Their perspectives can further enhance your credibility, especially when they highlight your vulnerability and efforts to overcome challenges.

Taking a thoughtful, balanced, and strategic approach when sharing potentially “negative” content will position you as a genuine applicant, rather than someone trying too hard to appear perfect. It’s about showcasing your growth mindset, authenticity, and the ability to reflect on your experiences.

And then … smile for the camera!

In some cases, you will produce your own video essay in response to a question provided in advance by the school or about a topic that you uniquely create. In other cases, you’ll have to answer one or more impromptu questions, presented in real time by the school, with a strict time limit for the video response.  For both kinds of videos, the admissions committee’s underlying goals are to see if you understand and represent what the school is seeking for its incoming class and to gauge how effectively you communicate.

As you approach this part of your application, it’s important to note that preparation requires a different mindset and skills. One great thing about written responses is you can produce dozens of drafts, reconsider and refine each word, and then submit only your best work. Likewise, for video essays, you should devote time and attention to planning content. Such planning is easiest when the school has provided the question(s) in advance. 

When you have the option to select the topic, choosing the most beneficial topic for the video is just as important as crafting the response. For impromptu videos, the challenge is even greater since you have to respond within seconds to a question you’re facing for the first time. And in all cases, you have to take into consideration technical factors such as audio and video quality.

Whether writing or recording your admissions essays, embrace this opportunity for discovery, creativity and self-awareness! By thoughtfully planning, producing and submitting your best material, you’ll be taking a giant step closer to the ultimate victory – admission to your dream business school.

MBA Short Answers Tips

There’s more variability among business schools in terms of application prompts and short-answer questions than in required essays. Short answers are typically required but are sometimes “optional.” Complicating things further, these types of prompts can be laser-focused or broad, and length can range dramatically from as little as 50 characters up to “mini-essays” of as much as 300 words. When considering how to best approach short-answer questions, here are five essential tips.

Cut to the Chase

Think of the short answer as a poem compared to the novel-like essay. Get straight to the point and answer the question directly. No need for lengthy introductions or unnecessary fluff. Be concise, impactful, and make every word count.

Answer, then Distinguish

Carefully read and re-read the prompt to fully understand what the school is asking. Once you’ve provided a clear answer, take a step back and let your style and tone reflect your unique personality and values. Use this opportunity to showcase your distinctiveness.

Complement, Don’t Repeat

Short-answer questions may touch on topics similar to those covered in your resume. Avoid duplicating information word-for-word. Instead, paraphrase and provide a fresh perspective. Show how your experiences complement what’s already presented in your CV.

Coordinate with Essays and Recommendations

If the short-answer question overlaps with a topic you’ve already addressed in an essay, choose a different angle or delve deeper into the subject to reveal new insights. Also, be mindful not to use the same phrases that will appear in your third-party recommendations. Keep it authentic and diverse.

Stick to the Facts

Stay true to documented facts. Avoid approximations, exaggerations, or fabrications when describing your achievements, accomplishments, or impact. Remember, your entire application, including the short answers, will be scrutinized during the background verification process. Honesty is the best policy!

A parting thought …

In conclusion, approaching each component of your MBA application with thoughtfulness, authenticity, and strategic thinking is crucial. From your resume to essays and short answers, every step plays a vital role in showing that you are a strong MBA candidate. Stay specific, embrace authenticity, and prioritize content that strengthens your core candidacy. Show self-awareness, maturity, and a commitment to growth. Let your genuine self shine through and present a compelling application that reflects your character, potential, and readiness to make a difference. Good luck on your MBA journey!