Debunking a few MBA application myths, and the ISB application.

Debunking a few MBA application myths, and the ISB application.

As most of you are aware, the application portals for many schools, including the ISB are now open.  With this article, I hope to give you a little insight on some specific strategies you can use, and elements you need to be careful of, or possibly avoid entirely in your application.  On the face of it, there are many who may disagree with some of these strategies.  Especially to those who are filling their applications for the first time, these tips may seem contrary to generally accepted theories.  It is a fact that it has taken me time as well, to get myself around to what really makes a strong application. When I go back and read my own application essays I wrote years back, I often laugh at the thought of how naive I was – the first essays that I ever wrote were truly embarrassing!

Nonetheless, life panned out just fine. I finished my MBA from the ISB, and worked there for 4 years. During this time, I read many applications, and conducted admissions interviews year on year.  Working with young and ambitions students has been very rewarding and fulfilling, and I’ve been lucky to have forged some very good friendships over the years.  Obviously, the nature of the job, especially when it comes to campus placements, is not without its challenges, and it is difficult to keep everyone happy. But by and large, most students come out clean.  Everyone may not get their dream job, but most of the students are satisfied with the outcome of placements.  The ISB is a great place to be, not only as a student, but also as an employee.  For those alums and future alums reading this, do consider working there.  Come back and build ISB, for the ISB is playing its part in building India, and also the world.

So why am I telling you all this?  A very senior executive search leader once told me, “All experience is great experience.” Had I not worked at the ISB, I would not have acquired skills required to take on admissions consulting. Students teach you a lot – they expose you to careers unknown to you, to effective interviewing techniques, to career planning, to the art of CV writing, to behavioral science, and even to body language. Observing a student’s progress over the course of the 1-year MBA is a fantastic learning experience – with time, and if you are inclined, you will learn to draw patterns for attributes that lead to career success. Yes, crafting a winning application is definitely a skill.  And below are a few things that you should keep in mind when starting your application. Do note that these strategies are all interrelated.

Do not try to cover everything. One big mistake that students make is to try and cover every little detail in their applications.  This is not a very good strategy because AdComs find it difficult to navigate through such essays, and have to make an extra effort to put things in perspective.  Such essays often do not have coherence and logic.  They come across as boring, and the applicant comes across as lacking focus. Moreover, these essays open up a Pandora’s box when it comes to interview questions. When I come across essays with too many tall claims, I usually have many questions to ask the interviewee, who often gets trapped in a web of unconnected dots.  Most often such candidates don’t have good answers, they find it difficult to bring flow to the interview, and ultimately find it difficult to convince the panel. The best essays are simple stories, but told very well. A good idea is to stick to a topic, and narrate an interesting story or give an example, obviously from your own life’s experiences.

This brings me to another important point – write about what you want to tell the admissions committee, and not about what they want to hear.  Every now and then I come across essays in which dreams and ambitions are not grounded in reality, and hence they miss the relevance of what the admissions committee wants to achieve. AdComs genuinely want to get to know you, and if they can’t do that, your chances of getting an accept letter are slim.  There is a method to this madness, but there is no formula or standard for a successful application.  When you begin your application, reflect on who you genuinely are.  Do not wear the mask of who you want to be seen as, for the admissions committee will see through it. While doing so, do not presume that your own story is not good enough. Everybody has a story to tell. If there is only one piece of advice that you should take from this blog, it’s this – be truthful, because if you are not, chances are you will again find yourself in a web of hollow claims and simulated answers that will not make you look good.  Do not fall in a trap – if you cannot talk about a topic at length, do not mention it in your application.

I have come across many candidates who feel they don’t have a success story to share. There are others who don’t have brand names on their CV. I am regularly consulting with candidates who have lower confidence as a result of this, and I spend hours working with them, who are otherwise fabulous, on developing their energy levels! Those of you who fall in this category, remember that MBA programs, for the most part, will not evaluate you on success – they will evaluate you on potential, and hence they are more concerned with your journey.  Winning candidates usually come across as truthful, consistent and real, and across all stages of their application.  They seem excited about the journeys they have taken, and not by the success they have got.

Avoid mentioning star professors and popular courses. Every second application I read mentions how much the applicant is keen on learning from one of the professors or courses.  Candidates think that by doing so, they are displaying interest.  The fact remains that interest will not get you into an MBA program, your credentials will, and you are better off by using the space for something else.  All candidates who apply are interested, and quoting professors alone does not differentiate you. Have you done work for the faculty?  Do you have a background in topics that the faculty is working on? Can you get the faculty to recommend you?  Can you display reasoning for why a faculty’s research is relevant to you? If your answer to some of these questions is a yes, by all means go ahead and quote the faculty. If not, it is better to state more authentic reasons such as location, class size, connections with a particular industry, or overall strength in certain coursework to display interest.  An interest to work in the automotive industry could be a perfect answer for the University of Michigan. A passion for technology is reason enough for Carnegie Mellon, and wanting to experience city life could be a valid reason for NYU.  Obviously, you have to build your answer and back it up with genuine reasoning.

Don’t exaggerate on curricular activities, community involvement, and that international student association where you have had leadership experience.  Community involvement and leadership experience are phrases that are confusing, and not well understood, especially in India. I feel that they have been romanticized over the years.  With such phrases, the AdComs want to know whether you are a well-rounded individual, who has interests outside of work, and has the commitment to carry though these tasks and achieve depth.  I once interviewed a candidate who mentioned that he was deeply interested in origami. Upon asking him to elaborate on his unique hobby, he not only gave me excellent answers to why he loves origami, but also came prepared with paper, and made a few objects to demonstrate his ability, while at the same time explaining every little detail about paper folds and balance.  I knew he had prepared for this in advance, but I was impressed – a very simple interest, a very simple story, but told very well.  He displayed the characteristic of an individual who had the curiosity to study a subject, and commitment to acquire some level of depth.

Do note that any curricular or community interest will not supersede work experience and academics, and hence avoid making outside of work activities your entire discussion topic in an essay or interview, unless you are specifically asked about them.  Your activities can indicate some level of potential, but most of the times they will not outpace the more core elements of your application.  Ultimately, the AdCom is more interested in your professional experience and motivations.  Even during the interview, avoid leading the panel with examples from you curricular interests. Stick to examples from your professional background.  As an example, I once interviewed a candidate whose entire application spoke of his leadership experience with a popular global student organization. Even during the interview, all his answers revolved around his experience working with this organization, and he went on and on about his persistent interest in leadership.  The entire application acme across as shallow, and ultimately I had to ask him whether he was interested in anything else.  Do keep in mind that there are sociocultural differences between American and Asian business schools.  While all the AdComs can very well gauge whether an application has depth, US schools are more likely to be open to certain softer aspects of your profile.

Steer away from resume spikes, fads and anything that doesn’t add depth to your profile. Very frequently I come across essays that mention the candidate’s involvement with an NGO. In case he (or she) is shortlisted for an interview, I make it a point to poke him with a list of questions surrounding the NGO and the work that he has done.  This usually gives him away. A three-month stint done part-time and without interest for the purposes of writing something in the application is really not worthwhile and the admissions committee can see through it. The committee might be impressed with a candidate who has spent 3 years working for a cause, but not by short-term stints.  NGO experience is such a big fad, that even admissions consultants advice candidates in favor of it. Most often this experience neither adds any depth to an application, nor does it convey any genuine interest.  The only spikes there exist on a CV are the achievements you have realized with hard work and persistence.

Avoid flowery English, and focus on what you want to convey.  The MBA application is not a test of creative writing, and people who evaluate your application are not trained to evaluate you on decorative writing (though they may be really good at it themselves).  They are trained to evaluate you on how meritorious your profile is, whether your story has depth, and whether you come across as a high-potential candidate. Unnecessary creativity has a tendency to shift the reviewer’s focus from the story to the writing itself – and this is harmful for your candidacy.

Get over the GMAT – Really. The most common question on any admissions thread is ‘What GMAT do I need?’ I have written a full blog on the GMAT, but will say this again – you need the best score that you can get.  If you have a 700, a 740 is unlikely to significantly increase your chances. Many candidates get in with scores in the mid six hundreds, and sub 700 scores should not prevent you from applying. Having said that, you should not aim for that. You should aim for at least a 700.

I’d be lying if I say that chance does not play a role in the eventual outcome.  Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection has provided evidence in support of people looking out for those most similar to them. If someone similar to you interviews you, chances are that you will be liked. And at the end of the day, likability is one of the factors that will lead to interview success. While staff and alumni are well trained to conduct interviews, they are still more likely to give you the benefit of doubt if they like you.  They are also more likely to give you more opportunities to bounce back, or even bend the interview in your favor in case the first few questions don’t go as planned.  Now I don’t think anybody can guarantee whether the panel will like you, but here are a few suggestions that may help.

Avoid being a smart Alec, or the wise guy. Maverick like behaviour in essays or during the interview is not recommended unless you really have a strong point to make.  Remember that the admissions team is comprised of very smart people, most often alumni, who not only have deep knowledge about various topics, but are also at that stage of life when they are not very receptive to arrogant behaviour. They have been through the drill.  Remain calm, display emotions in a smart way, argue respectfully, but appear genuine, and be very interested in the topic being discussed.  The panel will almost always like modest and sincere candidates because such qualities validate that they can collaborate and work in teams – and teamwork is a key attribute for career success.

Answer the question – don’t keep rambling pointlessly or digress from the topic.  If the panel wants to know more, it will ask you. The interview remains inconclusive if the panel cannot get answers to the questions they want answers to. If you keep rambling, you will neither give the panel any meaningful insight into your life, nor will you have time to answer the more important questions. The best interviews appear conversational in nature.  If you feel that the panel is not enjoying the conversation, cut your conversation short, and allow it to ask you something else. Doing so will make it more likely for you to get questions you can answer better.

A long interview doesn’t mean a good interview, and a short one doesn’t mean a bad one. A short interview could mean that the panel has made its decision in less than the time allotted for the interview. Those of you who understand statistics, remember that the panel will avoid what is called a Type II error – in other words, it will not hang an innocent man (A Type I error is setting a guilty person free). Type II errors are generally more critical, and hence, if the panel has to reject you, it will gather all the evidence before they decide to do so, and this could lead to a longer interview! If your answers are focused, the panel will have more time to give you to bounce back, if required.

Try to maintain reasonable enthusiasm and energy during the interview.  It is true that enthusiasm is infectious.  In a situation in which there are no right or wrong answers, it pays to remain positive. Interviews are really about how you answer, and not what you answer, and enthusiasm is likely to add to ‘how’ you approach the question.

In the end I would like to say that application strategies are aplenty, and no one strategy fits all. A good story is your own, and your strategies have to be tailored for you. Given how unique everyone is, discussing techniques irrelevant to you do not serve a purpose – what matters is what is relevant to you.  I wish you all the luck for this admissions cycle.  If you would like to discuss your profile with me, you may get in in touch with me by clicking on the contacts page of this website.


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