One of the biggest mistakes that b-school applicants make is presenting themselves as someone they think the schools want, instead of being who they really are.

A while ago I worked with a client who almost fell into some serious trouble this way.

The first mistake she made was thinking that business schools really, really want first round applicants. She was almost panicked by the time Round I deadlines approached, thinking she was doomed if she didn’t get her applications in. But the applications she showed me were far from ready. They didn’t portray her as the three-dimensional person she was (and is!), and they didn’t do justice to her unique qualities.

The first thing I did for the client was to put the business of first- versus second-round applications in perspective for her. It’s true that there is a modest statistical advantage to applying in the first round – but, as I explained to her, an under-prepared application is an under-prepared application, and it won’t get you in, ever.

The client agreed to hold back. It wasn’t an easy decision for her. She was so sold on the idea that schools prefer first round applicants that she felt like she’d failed just by missing that deadline. But, to her credit, she listened to me. That level-headedness is one of the qualities I thought her applications could do a better job of bringing out.

The second mistake this client made was withholding information that would have helped an admissions committee understand and appreciate her for who she was.

This was a very active, athletic woman. She’d been captain of a varsity sports team in college and volunteered with a group that got inner city children involved in outdoor sports. However, she had downplayed those things in her application.

When I asked her why, she said that she didn’t want to come across as a ‘dumb jock’ to admissions committees. She was especially concerned that women applicants need to come across as serious, intellectual people.

Having been Director of Admissions at Harvard, I knew this wasn’t true. In fact, one of the school’s most highly regarded faculty members, Rosabeth Kanter, has written and spoken extensively about women and leadership and sports. I gave the client a copy of one of Rosabeth’s columns for the Harvard Business Review, in which she discussed exactly this topic – in fact, if I remember correctly, Rosabeth said in that column that she likes to bring up her soccer-playing experience in conversation whenever she can, because it helps her to connect with people.

That put the client’s worries to rest. She rewrote her résumé and essays to bring out her athletics-related accomplishments, and that change really helped make her application portray her as the interesting, involved, enthusiastic person that she is.

The client applied to several schools in the second round, including HBS and MIT. She was not only accepted by most of them but even received one offer of a full-tuition scholarship – on the basis of an application that showed her for who she was, and not for who she thought the schools wanted her to be.

– Contributed by Senior Consultant Douglas Braithwaite. In addition to serving as Director of Admission at Harvard Business School, Doug is also the co-architect of the admissions process at MIT’s Leaders for Manufacturing Program.

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