Avoid These Application Pitfalls:

by on April 17th, 2019

This time of year, our team is doing a lot of “ding analysis”, which is when someone who applied last year comes to us and asks our team to help them understand what went wrong. Below are some of the common pitfalls that we’ve seen, and that you can avoid as you start the application process this year.

Being Negative (…Even When You Feel It’s Warranted)
Unless you’re a star on Bravo or The Bachelorette, most people can’t get away with complaining all the time AND being someone who people like and are interested in. Maybe your boss is a total nut who drives you insane. Or maybe you work at a company that is imploding and everyone is jumping ship as morale declines. Whatever the situation is, be mindful of how much air time you give to venting about how bad something or someone else is; because of course that takes away precious space that you could be writing about how amazing YOU are!

Why? At first blush you may think that it’s important to explain the full context so the reader really “gets” you and your experience. It’s true that if you’ve experienced something significant, you should explain. Getting personal is important (see #3 below). However, what I often see happening is this: someone will write three paragraphs of venting about how horrible their company is, then they will quickly gloss over how that relates to them and their actions. My recommendation is to flip that. Explain a situation honestly and truthfully…but also concisely. Then focus your precious real estate on explaining how you felt, reacted, rose above, or otherwise operated incredibly well despite the situation around you.

Avoid putting down your boss or your job. People generally react negatively to hearing someone speak ill of another person; and especially when you’re young, people will often assume that, in fact, you are the problem with the job, or that you’re making excuses. Instead, focus on explaining the facts briefly then make the essay or even interview question about how you acted and why. If you present the facts, they will get it (and likely be impressed).

Don’t be a Wanderer
I really like that quote “not all those who wander are lost”; but there is no place for that in b-school applications. It blows me away when I read an application that says sometime along the lines of “My long term goal might be in investment banking but could also be non-profit or general management for a CPG company.” Someone reading this is thinking, so basically, you have no idea and you made no effort to have an idea.

Of course, almost everyone who applies to business school is a little unclear on what life will look like after those two years. Admissions committees know that. And admitting that you want to explore is a very honest and normal thing. However, you must be able to demonstrate that you have a plan of attack and a starting point. By the time you submit, you should have a clear idea of the career path you’re going to start exploring deeper when you get to school and why. Maybe you will change your mind (I did), but at least you can show the adcom what you’re excited about, what interests you, and how you will get started with the process.

From a logistical standpoint, having a starting point is actually really good for you. As soon as you start school, it begins. People will be talking about different fields of interest, clubs will be starting to prep people for things, speakers will be coming in, etc. You can’t do it all, so you need to have an idea of where to start.

That’s how we encourage people to think about the goals they describe for their applications. Perhaps you are in banking right now and you think you want to go into private equity but you also think you might like consulting if you learned more about it. Great! There’s a fantastic “why” for each of those, so focus on that why and then lay that plan out for the adcom so they can see how much you’ve put into thinking through what your future might look like. Whether or not you put both in your essay is another topic, but keep in mind that whatever you write is not binding. It’s ok for you to note your starting point then change your mind once you learn more as a student.

Don’t be a Robot
Getting personal and a little deeper than you would in typical business writing is among the hardest thing for many of the applicants we see. It’s tempting, and natural, to default into simply reiterating your resume and then telling a very boilerplate story about what you want to do and why you want to go to business school.

At work, your colleagues don’t typically ask you to explain how you got the way you are, what made you come to the conclusions you’ve come to, and what that says about you as a leader. So of course, writing in this style is not natural for many people. But, it’s necessary for a great application essay, especially to schools like Harvard and Stanford.

Here’s the trick: most people have a few ideas of what stories or experiences they can highlight in order to differentiate themselves for the admissions committee. So, take each of those and ask yourself: 1) how/why did I get that opportunity or experience; 2) is the way that I handled that situation reflective of one of my central traits, and if so, how did I get that trait and how else does it show up in my life?; 3) how did I feel about that experience (surprised, afraid, cautious, elated, anxious, etc) and why? Going through questions like this should help you to tease out the feelings and motivations that you can describe to give the admissions committee a better picture of who you are as a person beyond your resume.

If you want to discuss how we leverage strategies like these and others to help applicants and reapplicants get into the top schools at a 3.0x higher rate than the average, you can request an initial consultation with our team of top MBA admissions consultants.

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