MBA Admissions: Exceptional or Meaningful?

by on October 3rd, 2017

My colleague Susan, will frequently point to Maya DiRado as the “perfect” MBA candidate.

For those of you who don’t know Maya, she is a 3.6 Stanford grad, having studied both management science and engineering. Her father is from Argentina and she is now working as a McKinsey consultant … And by the way, she won four Olympic medals in swimming at the 2016 games.

Yup, pretty much a lock at getting in, right? Probably, but believe it or not her competition is still pretty stiff. The reason being that top business schools are filled with exceptional people. During my time at MIT there was of course, the stable of Ivy League grads, McKinsey consultants, entrepreneurs, private equity folks, former military … ho hum.

And then there were the truly exceptional: My classmate Ron*, timed his MBA so he could compete in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics in rowing. (Fun fact: in 1996 he “rowed” (one oar) as member of the men’s eights, In 2000, he “sculled” (two oars) in a single. This is basically unheard of, you either do one or the other.)

My friend Alicia was a surgeon. Tom was a Classics instructor at one of the most elite prep schools on the East Coast … and he was African American … and he played professional football. Not to be confused with Gabe who had gone to Princeton and played professional hockey and when his hockey career was over he became a professional tri-athlete.

Then there were the soldiers. Steve came to school with his three kids and lived in married student housing which is ~1000 square feet. Not a problem, his wife was a saint and, having been a submarine officer, he knew how to pack people into tight spaces. Bunk beds in the living room. (For those who don’t know, being a submarine officer is possibly the worst job in the military.)

Celia worked in the White House. Frank was a Navy Seal who hated his summer internship at Goldman Sachs so much that he went to work in educational software. Another classmate founded one of the first websites focused on women. A couple of classmates had founded non-profits, etc.

My point here isn’t to boast; rather to point out that it is really hard to be truly exceptional, unique, or outstanding. The competition is tough and you have to think about your own candidacy through this lens.

While it is wonderful that you have run a marathon, played soccer competitively, speak ten languages and have visited many countries, just remember that your achievements are almost certainly not singular. After all, there is going to be that other applicant who ran a marathon faster, speaks one more language or visited one more country. (I once had a client who had visited more than 100 countries… I didn’t even know there were more than a hundred countries.)

So, if your well-earned achievements—of which you are rightfully proud—are not exceptional, what ARE they? And why do they matter to an MBA admissions committee?

Well, even if they aren’t exceptional maybe they are… meaningful. And by being meaningful, by being important to you, they also become those pieces of your life that, when knitted together properly, can create an absolute winning application.

In the next blog, we will talk about how meaningful can turn into exceptional.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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