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Describing Leadership in MBA Essays When You’re Not the Boss

Leadership in MBA Essays

Ex-Marine Angie Morgan

The MBA essay questions are coming out, and students are already pondering how they can make themselves stand out and show leadership in MBA essays. It’s no secret that admissions readers want to read about an applicant’s personal leadership experience.

But what counts as leadership experience? And what if you’re not the boss?

Many students who are admitted to the best business schools aren’t the boss, but are leaders anyway.  That’s because leaders show themselves in many different ways.  Even in the Marines, for example.  Angie Morgan, a Michigan Ross MBA, spent eight years as a Marine, and in many cases throughout her career, she was not the senior person on the team.  But she learned how to show leadership by prioritizing the needs of others.  That is, by prioritizing the needs of the team.

In the video below, she explains that as an individual, even if you are not leading a project, or do not have direct reports, or are not in charge of an initiative, you can still help build a team among the colleagues around you.  “If you step up an serve those around you, you’re going to build that team.”

Every business school looks for emerging leaders; leaders who can influence outcomes and inspire others.  Harvard Business School’s mission is big and bold, “We edcuate leaders who make a difference in the world.”  But to be accepted into a program like Harvard, you have to make things happen, and if you think back on times when you have well served a team, that might very well be a great example of leadership.

I like to look at Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Leadership Behavior Grid of character traits and competencies.  Some of the categories that they are defining as leadership traits are “results orientation,” ” influence and collaboration,” ” developing others” “change leadership” and “trustworthiness.”  Read through the highest standard and you will see similar themes: it’s about serving others.  For example, they describe the gold standard for “influence and collaboration” as “builds enduring partnerships within and outside of organization to improve effectiveness, even at short-term personal cost.” 

Read through the grid and you will see that the military model of service to the team is a good place to start when thinking about how you can describe your own leadership patterns.  You don’t have to have a fancy title. You can lead by stepping in and making a diffierence, empowering others, or standing up for what you know is right.

More on leadership and the MBA:

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

On Failure and the MBA Essays

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

Do I Have to Work at Goldman Sachs to Get Into Business School?

To get into one of the best business schools in the world, most people I talk to worry that their work experience isn’t good enough. Even those who have worked for the top names in
their industries: Goldman, McKinsey, Morgan Stanley, or Bain Capital, worry that they would do better to have experience from a completely different firm such as Facebook, Google, or Wired magazine’s newest darling. (Tumblr? Waze? Hulu?).

What if you’ve worked for a company that is not a household word? Will that keep you from getting into Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton?

The answer is, of course not.

Small Companies, but Brand-Name Schools
Lots of students go to and succeed at brand-name business schools who have worked for small companies, growing companies, or even companies that failed. Have you ever heard of NextBio, Keystone Consulting, GenScript, or Astor Pacific? All are based in the U.S., and all produced students who recently attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business and are doing just fine.

If you work for a small organization, you are probably gaining experience and wearing many different hats – opportunities unavailable to people in larger, more siloed firms.  If your firm is relatively young, and fast moving, you’ll be learning a lot and will have lots to teach your classmates.  Or if you work for a company that failed, you’ll also have plenty of stories (and battle scars).  Failure is a leadership lesson!

Small is Beautiful
Even if your place of employment isn’t going to be featured in Fast Company any time soon, you will still have had a chance to lead and influence others. I know someone who single-handedly changed the culture of his medium-sized company simply by insisting that his group start regular brown-bag lunchtime classes.  Furthermore, fewer layers mean you might be able to more directly solve client problems.  It’s what you do with the organization you are in, rather than what the organization does for you.  That’s the way business schools look at leadership.

The real issue is not whether you came from a big firm or not – think about it from an admissions perspective: would they want everyone to come from one firm or one type of firm? How boring!  Says Dee Leopold in her HBS Blog: “Our promise to our faculty and to every student is to deliver the most diverse class – on multiple dimensions – as we possibly can. I’ve never heard an HBS student say: I wish there were more students just like me in my section.’ ”

Myth of the Feeder
You don’t have to come from one type of employer and more than you have to come from an Ivy League school to get into business school. Yes, some firms and undergraduate schools are considered “feeder-schools” but don’t look at these numbers too narrowly.  You could be making the classic mistake of causation vs. correlation, or even worse: selling yourself short.  You bring plenty to the table.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.





“Feeder Schools” and the MBA

I have seen a lot of discussion around the internet about the right “feeder schools” to top MBA programs. Some websites, such as Poets & Quants, back into an aggregation of the top feeder schools, but even before discussing them, you want to be aware of false correlations, and of assuming causation when there really is none.

Harvard Business School has done us all a favor by publishing a list of schools where students from the HBS Class of 2014 come from. It’s encouraging to see the incredible range of schools. The international scope takes your breath away; who knew there were students from the University of Macau? Aalto University in Helsinki, Southeast University, Universidad Pontificia de Comillas?

That just speaks to the exciting diversity of an MBA education, especially at a school that has a worldwide draw such as Harvard Business School. The other kind of diversity is in type of school. Of course Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford and other brand names populate the list (more on that later), but what about a school that is about as free-form as Bard? Or a brand-new school such as the Franklin W. Olin College, or a specialized schools such as Kettering University. I mean, who knew?

Undergraduate institutions represented at the Harvard Business School Class of 2014.

This should cheer a lot of people up, figuring that if they didn’t go to an “Ivy” or a state-school Ivy like Michigan or North Carolina, that all is lost. Good Lord, that’s not true.

So I posted this link on a forum in which I participate called Wall Street Oasis. It’s for young folks who are either trying to break into Wall Street or a similar job. It’s a very humorous venue. In any case, the first comment I got after posting was, “ha ha if your school isn’t on it!.” Well, again, that doesn’t hold water. I work as a resume coach at the Stanford Business School, and get to see people’s backgrounds. I’ve seen students from UC Davis, a terrific California state school which is not represented this year at HBS, Portland State, University of Ulster, my goodness, there’s no one in the HBS class of 2014 from the University of Nebraska? What would Warren Buffet (who was rejected from HBS, by the way)

So if you are worried that your undergraduate school puts you at a disadvantage, as long as you did well there, you should be fine.

Now, a quick note about “feeder schools.” You’ll see on the web that a lot of students did come from schools such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale. But that’s partly a function of the number of students that applied, and partly a function of what people are “expected to do.” In short, if you went to Dartmouth, does it mean you will automatically get into HBS? No. Does it help? Maybe. If you went to University of Nebraska, does it mean you won’t get in? Nope. If you got a 2.5 GPA at Penn, will you be looked at more than someone who got a 3.5 at Arizona State?
Probably not. But it depends on what you took, what that other student took, and on and on.

There’s a rhyme and a reason, and most of it makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense to game your past. If you are unhappy with your previous school or previous GPA, you can take a course an get an alternative transcript. I’ll write more about courses that work for an alternative transcript in another blog post, or if you’ve got a specific question, just email me.

What You Can Do NOW to Boost Your MBA Application

With deadlines for MBA applications about six months away, you might think there’s not much you can do to prepare right now other than take the GMAT or GRE. Even if you’re planning to apply to schools next year, you may think that your profile as a candidate is already set in stone.

But the truth is, you can always improve—and whether you’re a few months or years out, you’ve got time to plan your campaign and enhance your application. Admissions officers are looking for several key things—ability to handle academic rigor, career progression, and leadership potential. “Virtually every MBA program looks for students who exhibit intellect and leadership,” writes Derrick Bolton, Director of MBA Admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Here are three concrete ways you can demonstrate your potential to admissions officers—and even beef up your future employability, too.

 Take Undergraduate Quant Classes

Because business schools are very quantitative, they want to know that you can do the work that’s required. Plus, potential employers will be happy to see that you can handle numbers as well.”We want to be sure that you will be able to handle the rigor of Tuck’s quantitative program.” says Pat Harrison, associate director of admissions at Dartmouth’s Tuck School.

You might think your GPA, that C+ in economics, or the fact that you’ve never taken calculus will doom you—but that’s not the case. You can take an online calculus or business statistics class from any number of accredited universities now, and use those grades on your business school applications. In many cases, accredited, graded courses can mitigate a less-than-perfect undergraduate record.

Another option is a specialized pre-MBA program, like the Tuck Online Bridge program, which offers courses in a number of disciplines, including managerial economics (statistics). If you’re just trying to beef up skills and don’t care about a grade, take a look at MBA Math, which offers very practical lessons in financial math, statistics, accounting, and microeconomics.

Demonstrate Your Career Progression
Admissions officers and potential employers are looking for people who have moved forward and will continue to advance in their careers. Chicago Booth’s evaluation criteria includes “track record of success, resourcefulness,and sense of personal direction.” Success doesn’t necessarily mean title advancement—rather, it’s about taking on an increasing level of responsibility. And not just when it’s offered.

Naturally, if your boss assigns you to spearhead a new product, run with it. But if that opportunity isn’t handed to you, you can volunteer to mentor new employees on your team, or develop an outreach program to educate internal clients about your group’s initiatives.

You can also ask for additional assignments that might teach you about a different part of the company. As long as your boss doesn’t think you’re leaving your current assignments unfinished, see if you can broaden your experience. Ask to join an existing firm-wide committee, or simply offer your services when you see someone else feeling overwhelmed.

These are little things that can expand your influence within your current position and propel you to a promotion, whether it’s official, unofficial, or even into another company. And even if you don’t get that promotion before you turn in that b-school application, the extra responsibilities and your initiative will reflect well on you.

Expand Your World
You can also look outward to the community to increase your leadership experience. “Our students…have to be seen as people who are creating value in society,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria.  I’m not suggesting that you merely add to your list of extra-curricular activities—the way you are involved in an activity can tell an admissions committee member more about you than can a lengthy list of organizations. So, look at what you’ve already been involved in and where you can deepen your leadership role and have a greater impact on your organization.

If you’ve been tutoring at-risk youth, for example, you might create and implement a strategic plan to bring on more volunteers to your group. Or if you’ve been raising funds for an annual 10K, you could develop relationships with corporate sponsors who may be able to help year after year. These types of activities can illustrate your initiative and long-term planning skills, and can be incorporated into the stories you tell in your essays.

As a business school applicant, you always have the potential to learn and grow—even in the months before you apply. Continuing to add to your portfolio of skills and achievements as you’re selecting schools and studying for the GMAT will show a propensity toward mature leadership—and that’s something admissions officers can’t wait to read about.