2021 is expected to be one of the most competitive application seasons yet.
With MBA applications seeing a surge, admissions will be more selective. But what can one do to stand out in 2021?
Business Insider recently spoke to experts about how applicants can make their application more compelling in a competitive application year.
ENGAGE IN VIRTUAL EVENTS
Many B-schools have shifted in-person admissions to be virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With coffee chats and admissions Q&A events being virtual this year, experts say it’s even more important to be engaged and present.
“The best thing to do is listen, learn, and identify the aspects of the program or business school that resonate with you so that you can authentically talk about them in your application or interview, should there be an opportunity to do so,” Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, tells Business Insider.
Being personable, whether in-person or online, is still one thing that makes a candidate stand out.
“Keep in mind that admissions officers — even at the most selective business schools — work in a high-pressure environment with deadlines and constant demand,” Hillary Schubach, president of Shine MBA Admissions Consulting, tells Business Insider. “If you can lighten up the conversation with a witty comment or something that makes people laugh, that gets remembered.”
DEMONSTRATE QUANTITATIVE ANALYSIS SKILLS
This year, many B-schools announced that they would waive test requirements in response to in-person GMATs being cancelled.
Yet, experts say, B-schools still value quantitative skills. And for applicants who opted out of standardized testing, it’s even more important to highlight quantitative competency.
“While MIT Sloan School of Management, for example, promises that they will review application material ‘without negative inferences,’ it won’t hurt to submit other proof points such as certifications or online coursework, such as HBS Online’s CORe program, edX, or MBAMath,” Barbara Coward, founder and principal of MBA 360 Admissions Consulting, tells Business Insider.
SHOW RESILIENCE AND GROWTH
2020 presented challenges for everyone. But rather than skip over what hurdles came your way, experts say it can actually be helpful to show how you overcame the barriers of 2020.
“Unlike test scores, undergraduate GPA, or letters of recommendation, the essay section gives candidates complete control — and a chance to stand out with a unique story,” Eric Askins, executive director of full-time MBA admissions at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, tells Business Insider. “The essays that are the most memorable for us are ones where candidates are willing to show us their true self — and particularly with COVID this year, that might include showing a vulnerability, a weakness, or a moment of growth.”
Admissions officers want to see how you’ve overcome adversity in your life. And 2020 presents a key opportunity to showcase the challenges that you faced and how you grew through them.
“Ignoring the elephant in the room may be a missed opportunity — especially if you’ve used this time in a meaningful way,” Schubach tells Business Insider. “We’ve heard school after school say that they are extremely understanding to your life circumstances right now, whatever they may be,” Schubach adds. “The key however is: What have you been doing with that time to advance your professional goals, skill set, or instill values into the world?”
The MBA essay is an opportunity to tell admissions officers your story outside of your resume, test scores, and numbers.
And writing a compelling essay is dependent on how well you set yourself up prior to writing.
Sharon Joyce, of Fortuna Admissions, recently offered a few tips on how applicants can set themselves up for a compelling MBA essay.
BRAINSTORM, REFLECT, AND FRAME
Joyce says that prior to writing, applicants should consider the big picture.
To do that, she recommends doing three things: brainstorm, reflect, and frame. At each step, Joyce notes, applicants should ask themselves the following questions:
Brainstorm: What factors have driven your personal life and professional career?
Reflect: What key messages do you want to convey? What are the three or so most important take-aways you want the reader to know in the context of the questions?
Frame: Start with a bullet point version and show a logical flow in your path.
Joyce says asking yourself these questions is key to setting your essay writing up for success.
“In the end, your personal motivations and future ambitions become the filter for crafting a powerful narrative about who you are and where you’re going,” she writes.
REFLECT UPON THE PAST
When writing your essay, you’ll want to capture a key experience or challenge that you went through and how you grew from it.
“Adcoms will often explicitly ask for stories that demonstrate growth of some kind, but even if the prompt doesn’t include that word, pretty much everything on the application should show some sort of progress,” Alex Collazo, Managing Director Of Systems & Content at Admissionado, writes for P&Q. “Meaning that at the beginning of the story you were X amount ready to do an MBA, but at the end of the story you were Y amount ready, where Y is greater than X.”
To do that, Joyce recommends stepping back and reflecting.
“Think about the memorable experience and why it might have brought you great happiness, or proved to be a particularly rewarding challenge,” she writes. “This might be an opportunity to share an experience where you grew in confidence from a lesson in failure or went beyond yourself to succeed.”
Whether you choose to read sample admissions essays or look at the stories of your role models, experts recommend finding some way during the essay process to seek out inspiration.
“Reflect upon self-assessment tools you might have taken in the past, such as CliftonStrengths, and how your unique set of talents and traits can be highlighted in your business school essays,” Joyce writes. “Once you’re sufficiently prepared and inspired, start to play with possibilities on the page. Dare to have a little fun here – humans respond to enthusiasm and your voice conveys your personality.”
University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
As the year comes to a close, a few Michigan Ross alumni shared their strategies for how leaders can grow and thrive.
IMPORTANCE OF RESILIENCE
While 2020 had its challenges, one key lesson revolved around he importance of resilience.
“Creating resilience in yourself and your team is so important to manage change,” Michigan Ross Professor Lindy Greer, faculty director of the Sanger Leadership Center, says. “This can include consistently working to adopt a growth mindset in yourself and with your team.
And resilience can be found through a number of activities.
“Resilience is improved through activities which support healthy emotion regulation. This includes being personally emotionally healthy through exercise, sleep, and connections with others, as well as engaging in healthy conversations about emotions with others, such as taking the time to regularly acknowledge the emotions present in your team and helping everyone to reappraise situations to see positive pathways forward,” Greer says.
AUTHENTICITY & VULNERABILITY
Leaders are often expected to carry the weight of their team and appear without fault.
However, that’s neither fair nor realistic. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there is power in being authentic and vulnerable with what we’re going through.
“Leaders need to share more about who they are and how they are working through these tough times, rather than trying to appear infallible,” Tamika Curry Smith, president of The TCS Group Inc., says. “Be transparent and talk about what you’re struggling with personally and professionally — and how you’re overcoming those challenges. By showing up as humans first, leaders can help their employees push through the adversity and learn resilience, while still performing.”
True leadership is knowing when to ask for help and showing humility in what you don’t know.
“Especially right now, it’s incredibly difficult to lead — both in adapting to changing contexts and working with stakeholders who have very different needs,” Greer adds. “Acknowledging what one doesn’t know, enlisting help from experts, and taking ownership when things go wrong is more important for leaders now than ever.
In 2020, we’ve also learned that we all have strengths and weaknesses. It has exposed the weight we’ve been carrying through the years and taught us the importance of having empathy for one another.
“I think 2020 has been a ‘human moment’ in a couple ways. It’s been a time that has reminded us all of the things we have absolutely no control over (like viruses we can’t see or otherwise detect), but it has also been a moment to remind us all of what is most important,” says Emmanuel Legbeti, a Ross MBA who is now managing partner at Acretiv Partners and founder of GoalSeek Inc. “While COVID knocked the wind out of us all (and still is), it created opportunities for us all to reconnect — virtually but with more intention — with our kids, spouses, families, and friends.”
To that point, Legbeti adds, we need to remind ourselves of the very idea that we are all human at the end of the day.
“As leaders and business managers, we need to extend that same ‘human moment’ to employees and colleagues. To understand that they are home, trying to balance life and work (some with kids in tow) in uncertain times, and have genuine worries about family and their financial well-being,” Legbeti says. “As Michigan Ross grads, we know how to create a positive and engaging work environment even under these circumstances, so that our people thrive. As they thrive — and feel appreciated and acknowledged for rising to the occasion — so will our businesses.”
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