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What 'Leadership' Means to Admissions Committees

Not long ago I worked with a client who had recently left one of the military services. He had doubts about his chances at the top b-schools because he didn't think his résumé was very impressive. He kept saying that he had only been an enlisted man in the military; so how could that compete with people who had been officers, or people who held management positions in the private sector?

In fact, his life story showed a lot of leadership. In the service, he had worked his way up to sergeant. Having been a Marine myself, I understood that was an important leadership position. This client would have had to see both the little and the bigger picture, relay information and messages up and down the line, and motivate people to do things and hold them accountable for doing them. And I knew that admissions committees would appreciate what making sergeant meant, too.

Another thing in this client's military record that I knew admissions committees would like is that he'd been an aide to a senior officer. That gave him a chance to see senior leadership at work. I encouraged him to think about that experience and to write about it in his essays. He did, to good effect.

This client also had doubts about his academic preparation for business school. He'd grown up in a rural, low-income part of the US and attended public schools. Again, he figured his profile couldn't match that of someone who'd gone to private schools or big city public schools and who would have had access to all kinds of honors courses and extracurricular activities.

But again, his record showed much more accomplishment than he gave it credit for. I was able to explain that committee members don't compare applicants to each other the way he thought they did. They weren't going to look at his application and say, 'he's got good grades, but they're from some little public school, and this other applicant has the same GPA from a tough prep school.' They were going to look at his accomplishments in the context of his life circumstances and the options that were available to him. Again, it was really a very impressive record. He had always applied himself and sought out challenges and performed well. I assured the client that an admissions committee would respect that.

I was proved right when every one of the schools the client applied to accepted him.

Of course the lion's share of the credit for this success goes to the client. He put enormous thought and effort into his applications. He joked to me once that, in terms of work on his b-school applications, "It's like I'm moving the piano and you're moving the piano stool."

But I do think I clarified his understanding of how competitive he was for the top schools, and what his strengths were, and how to highlight them. I think I helped him get where he was going much sooner than he would have on his own. I'm happy to have done that.

- 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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