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Tapping Your Hidden Strengths as a B-School Applicant

One of the first clients I worked with had several aspects in his profile that, at an initial glance, were going to present major obstacles as he attempted to gain admission to an MBA program.

He was an engineer with impressive quantitative skills but no obvious experience indicating leadership potential. He was already in his mid-thirties and had much more work experience than candidates for full-time programs usually do, which meant he risked being perceived as "too senior" for the program he was interested in. He said he couldn't mention any interesting things that he did outside of work, partly because in the country where he grew up and went to university, extracurricular activities don't exist. To top it off, because his personal situation made it impractical for him to relocate, his MBA options were limited to one top school in his area of residence.

Despite these obstacles, the client also had many things going for him. He had a clear and logical idea about why he needed an MBA and what he would do with it after graduating. His communication style was articulate and affable, contrary to the stereotype of a number cruncher or engineer. And he had a stellar GMAT score.

We talked about his situation and his options. The obvious alternative to a full-time program, and where he might be a better fit, was the EMBA program at his target school. But that was not an option for him because his employer would not sponsor him or give him the time off needed to attend classes. So we were faced with the challenge of how to overcome the aspects of his profile that made admission to the full-time MBA program a bit of a long shot.

But I knew that people usually have more going on in their lives than they're aware of. That's especially true of people who have already attained a degree of professional success and who could safely remain in their careers but who are inquisitive and driven enough to get off the treadmill and seek ways to further develop themselves. So I approached this client to see what was going on backstage that we could draw out and present in his application. Was he more than a bright engineer with quality work experience and intellectual accomplishments? Had he demonstrated leadership potential in any situations at work or in other activities? And surely he must do something outside of work that made him a well-rounded person…

As we talked, it became clear that the client had many more strengths than he realized. For one thing, he actually had excellent experience to list under 'extracurriculars,' although it involved activities he did not think of in that way. This client had lived through his home country's transition from communism to democracy. During that time, he started an import-export business and even ran for public office. Although the client didn't consider these to be extracurricular activities, they certainly demonstrated his initiative, leadership, and his involvement in the community. This of course is the kind of thing that admissions committees are really looking for when they ask about extracurriculars – it's not just about community service!

It turned out that the client had continued to be active in politics after he came to the U.S. I think he had hesitated to mention that on his applications because he had grown up under circumstances where it wasn't smart to indicate your political participation or affiliation on something like a school or job application. But he didn't have to mention his particular political affiliation on his application in order to explain his community involvement, anyway. The important thing was to convey that he was a person with a lot of initiative and that he was involved in the community.

Now we were beginning to see that we had good raw material to work with for the essays. As he wrote, these started coming together up until he got to the question that asked him to speak about an accomplishment. The topic he had chosen demonstrated how he resolved an extremely challenging quantitative problem. This of course simply restated abilities that were already evident from his transcript, GMAT score, and professional background. He needed to write about something that highlighted his other strengths.

We talked about the fact that he had been put on a management track at work. Of course, that's a huge accomplishment – and it showed that his employer believed he had managerial potential. They believed in his managerial potential because they had seen him succeed in a situation where the problem-solving involved motivating members of the team to work together on an important project. So I advised him to re-write his essay to highlight that achievement. He came up with an essay that did much more to support his application than the original one did.

I've got to say that I wasn't really surprised when this client was accepted to his target school. Once I got him talking about his background and interests, it was clear that he had so much going for him in addition to his obvious intelligence. It was just a matter of digging a bit below the surface to discover the additional strengths that would make him an attractive candidate for a top MBA program and helping him understand how he could draw attention to those qualities in his b-school application.

- Contributed by Senior Consultant Cristina Freeman. Cristina holds a master's degree from New York University. She made thousands of accept/reject/waitlist decisions as an admissions officer for IESE.

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