The “It” factor, Developing your story

I’ve had a lot of feedback on this blog so far. Many people have questioned as to if there was a secret to getting into a top-tier business school that most applicants don’t know about. They assert that there are dozens of people with amazing stats, great work experience, a stellar resume, etc., etc. and demand to know why they didn’t get in, too.  The truth is, I don’t know.  I never will know.  I am not an admissions officer, nor do I know any, so there is no way for me to ascertain why they would accept or reject this person or that person.  However, I can speculate.  Based on my experience with the application process and my interactions with those admitted, f I were to try to pin down the one thing that keeps applicants with all the right numbers back, it would be the lack of a cohesive, purposeful story.

The point of a business school is to mold people into the leaders of tomorrow.  Business schools’ reputations are built upon the notable alumni that have graduated from there.   They want you to come out of that school and go change the world.  They want you to be someone who revolutionizes your field, someone who shakes up the status quo, someone who makes a difference.  They want you to soar to world-renowned recognition in your area of industry; those are the people who reflect the most favorably on the school, the ones who build the brand name.

Picture this.  You are an admissions officers.  You have 2 applications in front of you and 1 spot left in your program.  The two candidates look something like this:

Candidate 1:

  • 750 GMAT
  • Internship with investment bank
  • Volunteering: picks up trash on campus
  • Took courses in France
  • Member of tennis club
  • Essay: about how he wants to further his career in investment banking

Candidate 2:

  • 690 GMAT
  • Internship with biotech company
  • Volunteers in hospital
  • President of medical fraternity
  • Medical service trip abroad to Peru
  • 3 years of research in chemistry
  • Computer science independent study
  • Essay: about how he wants to found a new biological technology company to fight MLS, in honor of his mother

Candidate 1 by himself seems like a pretty solid candidate, right?  He’s got the GMAT score, the investment bank internship, etc.  However, when we compare him to candidate 1, we notice something.  Candidate 1’s experience don’t mesh all that well together.  They’re certainly impressive feats, but we don’t get the sense that these experiences are connected or working towards some larger goal.  With candidate 2, though, it seems like everything was done with a purpose.  All of his experiences tie together and give us a a far clearer picture of what his story is, how his experiences are interrelated, and where he wants to take them.  This is the type of person that a business school wants.  This person is passionate and purposeful.  He has a clear goal in mind and is using every medium to make it happen.  He will be the person to make an impact in his field and contribute to the brand equity of the business school.  Candidate 1 will probably make a lot of money, but it’s not clear what else he will do besides that.

So, when you wonder how a person with an astronomically high GMAT score and an internship at Goldman Sachs could get denied by a top-tier business school, think back to this example.  Admissions is based on more than just numbers, it is based on your passions (What do you care about?), your goals (What do you want to do?  Will this make a difference and/or boost the school’s reputation?), and the experiences you undertake in order to blend the two into your career.  Your story weaves these elements into a narrative.  It will come out in your essays and you will be asked about it in your interviews (e.g. “Why do you want to go to business school?  What are your short and long term goals?”  etc.).

How do I form my story?

  1. Well, the first step is to think about what you’re really passionate about and how this might fit into a career (e.g. I love education, so I’m going to start an education nonprofit).  The other way to do this is to think about your career goal and then think about why you’re passionate about it (e.g. I want to be a market researcher because I love discovering the reasons behind why people do what they do).
  2. Second, if you’re in undergrad still (or if you’re early career), you’ll want to start selecting experiences surrounding these 2 concepts.  Want to work in finance?  Become president of your university’s investing club.  Develop a financial literacy for local high schools.  Travel to Hong Kong to learn about the Asian Economy.  Since you’re still picking your experiences, you have many opportunities to prove that you are passionate about and also want to make a difference in your field.  If you’re near application time, this advice doesn’t help you much.  However, you are not out of luck.  Still do step 1, but instead of going out and doing experiences that relate to and further your goals, think deeply about how the ones you’ve already been a apart of do.  Make a list of every notable thing you’ve done since entering college.  Lists all of your clubs, extra-curriculars, international experience, graduate coursework, independent studies, research, honor societies, awards, etc.  What do they have in common?  How do they point to your passion?  How can they relate to your career goal?  Did the experience teach you a certain skill that will help you in your field?  Did it give you experience with diversity, something that resonates particularly well with your career goal?  If you’ve been active, you should be able to see your passions and interests hidden in your experiences.  Your job is to bring them out and to the forefront for the admissions officers.

Overall, developing your story is vital to your business school application.  You want to be viewed as someone who is passionate, looking to make a difference in your field, and is already working towards doing that.  You want to be seen as someone who will help the brand of the business school grow, not someone who will make big money and that’s it.  This concept is going to be central to several of your essays (specifically Stanford’s — a post on that coming soon!) and very important in your interviews (a post on that coming soon, too).  I would really take the time to sit down and draft out what your story is and how you wish to present it come application time.  You’ll be thankful that you did.




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