Part IV of Building your Business School Application: The sum always has to be greater than the parts

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A holistic approach is key to every successful admissions campaign. You must ensure that all of the pieces of your “story” — academic, personal and professional — are tied together. A strong GPA and stellar GMAT will never compensate for the lack of a cohesive, compelling story about your past, present and well-planned post-MBA future. And, conversely, a great story won’t offset poor grades or lackluster test scores.

A comprehensive consultation with The MBA Exchange will help you “mine” your background and then deliver a cohesive story by maximizing each component of the application.

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Part 4: Application Materials, Short Answers and Other Opportunities to “Explain”

The Short Stuff
Strong essays are essential for admissions success, right? Well a similar but often undervalued and element of an MBA application is the so-called “short answer” question. There’s more variability among business schools in their respective application prompts and short-answer questions than in required essays. Short answers are typically required but 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 300 words.

Regardless of topic and length, your responses to short answer questions can significantly help or harm your application. When considering how to best approach short-answer questions, here are our five tips:

  1. Answer the question THEN distinguish your reply.
    Read, then re-read, the prompt so you know precisely what the school is asking. Once you’ve answered, take a step back and use style and tone to reflect your distinctive personality, values, etc.
  2. Cut to the chase.
    If an essay is a “novel,” then the short answer is more like a “poem.”
  3. Complement (don’t repeat) your resume.
    If the short-answer question asks about work responsibilities, challenges, results, etc., be sure to paraphrase any similar content that appears in your CV.
  4. Coordinate with your essays and recommendations.
    If the topic is one that you would have otherwise addressed in an essay, select a more revealing or insightful subject. Also, for obvious reasons, don’t use the same phrases that you know will appear in your third-party recommendations.
  5. Include only documented facts.
    Don’t approximate, exaggerate or fabricate achievements, accomplishments or impact. Your entire application, including short answers, will be scrutinized during the background-verification process.

Explain, Please!
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?

By following these three guidelines, you can more easily navigate your way past the seemingly “dark side” of your candidacy:

  1. Be specific.
    Adcoms don’t want soft answers like “I strive for perfection” or “I care too much” or “I trust others too readily” or “I’ve always been a bad standardized test taker.” Such pat replies can instantly threaten your chances for admission because they reveal nothing substantive.
  2. Be authentic, even vulnerable.
    This will help you convince the adcom that you’re authentic. But avoid content that could immediately damage your core candidacy. Instead, choose an attribute and a related experience that don’t raise doubts about your integrity or character. Focus on tactical topics (e.g., financial modeling) rather than conceptual ones (e.g., teamwork).
  3. No excuses.
    Self-awareness and the ability to reflect are hallmarks of maturity. Clearly articulate the situation, as well as what you’ve learned and how you will consider further growth a priority at b-school and beyond. Also: encourage your recommenders to reinforce this in their comments about your candidacy since describing a vulnerability and best efforts to mitigate it can be even more credible when coming from a third-party.

    Taking a thoughtful, balanced and strategic approach when sharing “negative” content will help position you as an applicant who’s genuine, rather than one trying too hard to appear as “perfect.”

Parting thought: don’t sideline the aspects of your MBA application materials outlined here by focusing all of your attention on the better-known stuff (see our recent blogs on these topics) like your resume , essays and video essays and letters of recommendation. If you find it difficult or frustrating to craft replies to short-answer questions, negative and/or open-ended optional questions, you’re not alone. Many MBA applicants who are unfazed by the other components of their apps feel anxious about crafting this type of content. Enlisting the guidance and support of an experienced, objective admissions consultant like those at The MBA Exchange can help you plan and produce responses that will add value and improve your chances for admittance!