Sometimes people have a hard time talking about the very thing that can make the difference for them in business school admissions.

One time I worked with a client whose applicant profile was strong overall but lacking in important respects. On the plus side, he had above a 3.8 GPA from a good state university, a decent GMAT near 700, and respectable work experience.

On the negative side, he had no extracurricular activities, either in college or in the years since graduation.

I explained that he needed to put that lack into context. If he didn’t, he’d be leaving a big hole in the middle of his application that an admissions committee couldn’t possibly fail to notice.

I had to gently push to get him to open up to me. It turned out that he’d had to help support his family at the same time that he was going to school. It was, of course, very much to his credit that he managed to do both things full time – and still maintain that strong GPA. But naturally these dual responsibilities had not left him any time for the kinds of extracurricular and volunteer activities that most college students experience.

Once he finally explained the reasons behind his unique experience, the whole application quickly came together. It put context around his application and showed his strong personal values and qualities. We used his essays and recommendations to explain – without going into too much detail – why his college experience was different from that of his peers and why he didn’t have the extracurricular record that other applicants have. And, of course, providing this context also made clear that he was a very active, driven, and productive person, extracurriculars or no extracurriculars.

It worked. He got in to a top 10 b-school, the one he was targeting. I know that would not have been the outcome if I hadn’t pushed him to explain his situation. He would have kept quiet, and the committee would have been left wondering what was missing – and perhaps unimpressed by an applicant who was actually more impressive than many others!

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