What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “authentic?” My bet would be that you don’t automatically think of an MBA student. But someday, you just might.
Why? The top business schools are not only looking for applicants with academic potential, but they’re seeking out a new breed of leader—someone who’s passionate, collaborative, and wants to make a difference in the world. They want applicants with more than good grades, impressive scores, and a letter of recommendation from the likes of Bill Clinton. They’re looking for people who can use their hearts and souls when making business decisions—leaders who are authentic.
Many applicants shudder at the thought of revealing themselves in a business school application (“what if I look imperfect?”). But believe it or not, that’s OK! If you try to be the person you think schools want to read about, you’ll end up sounding just like every other candidate out there. So, take a look at these do’s and don’ts that will help you show business schools your true self—and your leadership potential.
Do: Be Yourself
It’s corny, but according to Mary Miller, Assistant Dean of Admissions at Columbia Business School, it works—and it’s exactly what admissions committees are looking for. “Be yourself,” she advised in a BusinessWeek interview. “We’re all unique individuals; we all present ourselves in a unique way…After you read 10,000 applications, it’s pretty easy to pick out who really shares themselves.” So do some self-exploration before you start writing. Figure out your own motivations and influences to get in touch with the genuine you.
Don’t: Presume You Know What They Want to Hear
Don’t model yourself after admitted applicant “essays that worked.” Admissions readers are wise to the templates that are out there, and they’ll take away from your own authenticity.
Instead, write what you want people to read in your application essays. As Director of Michigan Ross MBA Admissions Soojin Kwon Koh says, “the uniqueness comes when you answer questions using your own experiences and your own points of view developed through your unique way of processing experiences. An off-the-shelf approach is a sure way to distinguish yourself—in a negative way.”
Do: Learn By Doing
Of course you can take Myers Briggs or Enneagram tests to determine your leadership style—but the best way to develop it is to go out and make things happen. Take on a new responsibility at work, join a non-profit steering committee, or mentor someone who could benefit from your expertise—and use those experiences to talk about your leadership potential. Take note of how you work with others when you are faced with challenges and actively seek feedback on ways to improve.
Don’t: Be Like the Tin Man
Harvard Business School Admissions Director Dee Leopold claims that the best candidates have a “Wizard of Oz” combination: brains, heart, and courage. We all know plenty of smart, gutsy people—some of whom have risen to the top of their organizations. But many are missing a crucial ingredient: heart.
Authentic leaders show heart, which comes in the form of their dedication to their purpose, and their commitment to their values. Throughout the application process, don’t be afraid to reveal your passion—it’s this quality that makes someone a leader worth following.
Do: Stand Proud of Your Success
It’s OK to be excited about your accomplishments—in fact, you should showcase them in your essays and interviews. Tell stories to illustrate your experiences and potential. . Just don’t forget to acknowledge the contributions of your teammates and supporters too. . Success is something you should be proud to share, but chances are, you didn’t get there alone.
While showing pride can be an asset, don’t get carried away—you can be gracious about your accomplishments without boasting. Dwell on your accomplishments too long, and you risk sounding like what cynics call the “typical MBA,” not a future leader. Also, don’t be afraid to own up to your mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, and admitting that you’re fallible can demonstrate maturity.
As you begin to prepare your essays and applications, you may think your own stories aren’t so interesting. In reality, the opposite is true—the more genuine you are, the more interesting your stories become. That authenticity will improve your chances for admission, and pave the way for success—in business school and beyond.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Muse.