Assets & Liabilities: Honestly Assessing & Maximizing Your MBA Candidacy
By: Celine Tarrant
When the thought of applying to business school first crossed my mind, I assumed MBA admissions were similar to other graduate or even undergrad program admissions. Anyone I knew who had done grad school had gone to law school or med school, so I assumed the name of the game was to have near-perfect grades and test scores — of which I had neither.
B-school admissions are far more holistic; grades and test scores are very important, but compared to other grad programs, you have infinitely more ways to make yourself stand out. You are essentially trying to share as much relevant information about yourself as possible, in an incredibly small amount of space, tied together with common threads and wrapped up in a pretty bow. How you leverage each piece of the application to convey strengths and minimize weaknesses is absolutely essential and you have to be very pragmatic and scrutinizing about your strengths and weaknesses.
Recently I have been fielding a lot of questions from people who want advice about how to approach their application. Here’s how I used my application “real estate”:
In general, an application consists of six components:
Essays (both long form and “mini” essays in the body of the application)
Extra-Curriculars & Awards
For each component, I thought about what was fixed and what I had control over and really strove to not stress about what I couldn’t change and instead, focus my energy on what I could. Let’s breakdown my approach and what I thought my own assets and liabilities were:
1 & 2: That’s easy. Adcoms look at your GMAT score and GPA to assess your intellectual capacity and your ability to thrive in a rigorous academic environment. It’s pretty easy to see if you are competitive or not since averages for GMAT and GPA for each school are easily available online. The tough thing here is that you have absolutely no control over your past grades, so the GMAT is really your only lever to pull.
My approach: I had a low undergrad GPA (below the school averages I was applying to). I also had a few very low (C-level) grades in key quant classes. I knew this would be my biggest hurdle to overcome, so I made the GMAT my number one priority to compensate — with specific focus on the quant score. After a few attempts, I ended up with a 740 (Q49, V44). Since the GPA was out of my hands, I moved on from these parts of the application.
3: The resume is a lot trickier than your scores. The main piece of information adcoms want to glean from your resume is your work experience, but it’s also good real estate to showcase impressive and time-consuming extracurriculars.
My approach: I knew my work experience was my biggest strength. I worked at a large, brand name company. I did a highly-selective rotational leadership program. I landed multiple promotions after finishing the program and each of my jobs were meaty, high-visibility, roles. In sum, I kicked a** as a professional and wanted to showcase this. The one weak point with my work experience was the fact that I was applying with less than 3 years of experience.
I let my work experience take up the bulk of my resume and had to cut out internships and extras to fit it into a page. I decided to showcase one key extracurricular, which was the organization I started — Smart Girls Sweat. Since I was the founder, and had devoted significant time to it for over a year, had partnered with big-brand sponsors, and won an award for it, it was the only “extra” I gave a lot of space to on my resume.
4: Essays are your time to shine. Since each school’s essays are different, you’ll get to showcase slightly different things in each one. You need to be very self-critical and ask yourself “What themes are most important to my application? What possible shortcomings could I overcome here? What seems implausible about my goals that I could address here?”
Generally, essays come in five flavors:
Random questions interspersed throughout the application
This is a huge topic unto itself that we plan to cover in greater detail in a future post - stay tuned!
For now, I’ll focus on 4 and 5. A lot of applications throw in sneaky 100-300 word mini “essays” in the body of the application — so READ the entire application BEFORE diving into the main essays so you don’t waste or duplicate content. The optional essay (if available), should only be used to directly address weaknesses in your profile and is otherwise not necessary.
My approach: For example, Tuck provided a specific space to talk about international experiences in the application, so I was able to save a lot of word count on my other essays to focus on other stories. If you’re like me and you have one major, glaring weakness in your application (low GPA for me), the optional essay is your best friend. I personally addressed a few valid reasons for my poor performance and named specific ways I was going to ensure I did better academically in b-school. I truly believe this played a key role in my success. Case in point: the three schools I wrote optional essays for accepted me.
5: Most schools let you list 3-6 extracurriculars and 3-5 awards. It’s tempting to just try to fill out all the fields to show how “well-rounded” you are, but it’s smarter to be strategic and focus on the extras you have that support your story. Similar to your essays, the extracurriculars and awards are a good way to complement your story, address weaknesses or implausibilities and demonstrate impact and leadership.
My approach: Since my career goals were fairly straightforward and linear from my current job, I didn’t need to include extracurriculars related to my industry or career focus. Instead, I focused on showcasing two themes that were important to me: health & fitness and advancing women in the workplace. I had led or participated in activities related to these themes consistently throughout undergrad and after, culminating in founding an organization that combined these passions. I thought this showed “grit”, consistency, focus and leadership. I also spoke to the fact that these specific topics are ones that I planned to get involved in on campus.
Emilie had a pretty different scenario than I did, so I wanted her to weigh in on this:
Emilie: My career goals were not only a big departure from my current trajectory, but also relatively unique for MBA students. Like Celine, my few years before business school were in mass retail at Walmart and I had stayed pretty close to the core functions (buying and strategy). However, I aspired to align my passion to my career by switching my focus to entrepreneurship and dedicating my life to furthering protection of the environment through plant-based consumer products. The thing to remember here is that adcoms will not buy this type of lofty goal if you haven’t shown an interest or a commitment to this previously. From undergrad to today, my dedication to this cause has never wavered and I’ve consistently made it a priority in my life. I participated in the Sustainability Club during my undergrad and volunteered at the Toronto Vegetarian Association by doing outreach at various events and educating others on the vegetarian lifestyle, which I underlined in my resume and essays. If you suddenly fancy yourself a career in healthcare but have done nothing in the past to show why this matters to you, then don’t use that as your career goal — it will sound like you’re disingenuous and you’re telling them what you think they want to hear, or like you haven’t actually researched what your so-called passion entails.
6: The recommendation letters are the one place in the application where you can really make your accomplishments and skills seem credible because someone else is putting their name behind you. Aside from the obvious fact that they need to be strong advocates for you, your recommenders should also strive to (1) directly and candidly address how you stack up against peers and (2) address weaknesses in your application. You need to be strategic in who you pick as recommenders and what guidance you give them before they submit.
My approach: In my recommendations, I wanted two things to be crystal clear that I knew may not come across in the rest of my application: my rapid career advancement and my quant skills. From my resume alone, I wasn’t confident that it would be clear that I moved up quickly into competitive roles faster than my peer group, so I strategically picked my former manager who oversaw leadership and talent development for the company. With oversight of all new grad talent, she was a credible source to provide this context.
When it came to my quant skills, my GMAT helped offset my grades a little bit, but I knew this was still my biggest weakness to overcome. In my most recent position, there was some pretty heavy quant lifting to be done, so I made sure my boss touched on that (with details of specific projects I had worked on) in her recommendation.
We strongly believe in the power of your recommendation letters and feel they are underutilized and overlooked by many applicants, which is why we’ve dedicated a full article on recommendations here.
Tying it All Together & Parting Words:
1. Read the whole application first. Find real-estate within the application itself to highlight key information, thereby saving precious word count for your essays.
2. Keep your story fairly simple. Limit yourself to two to three themes max. Don’t be confusing by throwing in tons of irrelevant extracurriculars or one-off experiences that don’t tie into anything else. For example, my themes were:
Career: Retail. This is my current industry — nothing crazy here.
Passions: Workplace gender equality, health and fitness.
Obviously, this is extremely limited and doesn’t even close to encompass everything I am passionate about and all the options I am exploring for my career. But it is simple and plausible and the way I wrote about it made for a compelling and interesting story.
3. Focus on your “grittiest” stories. Using the language of Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, focus on the stories and themes that you have shown the most sustained passion and perseverance for. These are your true differentiators.
3. Your experiences are probably not that unique. But your voice is. We all like to think we are special snowflakes with unique and interesting stories. In reality, there of many thousands of applicants, your applications are unlikely to stand out. The most unique thing about you is your voice and your ability to tie the threads of your life together in a meaningful and interesting way. Focus on your storytelling and don’t fret about your experiences (or lack thereof) too much. Most successful applicants have done ordinary things extraordinarily well — remember this!
4. Address and minimize weaknesses head on. I knew my low GPA was a hurdle. Between my GMAT score, my quant-focused job, a vote of confidence from my boss, and my optional essay, I overcame this hurdle with not one but four parts of the application. I tried to be smart and pragmatic about the rest of the application. I kept my career goals simple and plausible and avoided anything that seemed wishy-washy or unfocused.