People always ask: How do I make myself stand out in an MBA application? I have three words of advice: Answer the questions. Advice so simple it barely seems worth mentioning.
At a recent school panel, a Yale School of Management admissions officer underscored just how much she and her colleagues pay attention to those answers. That’s because business schools craft their essay questions deliberately. They really do care. To put it in modern business jargon, a rep from UVA’s Darden School of Business encouraged audience members to “take ownership” of each school’s questions. She’s right. Let them be a chance for earnest self-reflection; let them guide you through a process that not only gets you into business school, and leaves you with a deeper self-understanding regardless of the end result.
A lofty goal, and it’s a little too easy to get cynical, so try not to. It never gets old. That’s because the questions are deceptively simple and designed to get you to answer the question behind the question. You are given a prompt, for example, “Why do you want an MBA”? That’s pretty straightforward, so answer it. You want to be as unambiguous as you can. I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to change the way health care is delivered around the world, or I want to use private equity to support clean tech investments. There are as many answers are there are people applying, because your answer will be unique to you. But you have to do one thing: answer clearly, and preferably, answer up front. And don’t forget to answer the questions behind the question: why you? Or, more precisely, what is it about you that puts the very special you at your computer writing an application to business school right here, right now.
No matter how you answer whatever they ask, you can still be humble and compelling in your answer. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. Support the statement, just as you would in a business problem or a pitch for angel investor money. You might add to the debate because you were raised speaking three languages, or because you were one of 12 children, or because you are passionate about number theory. Whatever you decide to write about is up to you. But you have to frame your response so it answers the question, and support that response.
Finally, just a little admonishment from another one of the panelists at the outreach program last week. Resist the urge to force answers to one school’s essay questions into answers to another school’s questions. The message to your evaluators is that you don’t care enough about the school or are too lazy to take the time to write a genuine, unique response. I absolutely positively know for sure that you are not lazy, so be forewarned.
That’s all. Just remember that the writers of those questions write them that way because they wanted them answered. And remember, it’s no different from a business assignment. You’d answer your boss’ question, wouldn’t you?