Five Popular Myths about Applying to Business Schools

Written by Kelly Granson. Posted in MBA Admission

Myth № 1: "I'm applying to an MBA program. I must emphasize my strengths and cover up my weaknesses."

Even the most qualified and accomplished applicant has his/ her strengths and weaknesses. This is what we call natural. The admissions people at any school you will be applying to assume that you are a human being and that you therefore share the same tendency towards imperfections as the rest of us. They want to see you addressing this fact as honestly as possible by listing both the areas in which you've excelled and where and why you've fallen short. What's important is the awareness of your shortcomings and your readiness to improve. It's also always a good idea to describe exactly how you've tried to address your flaws over the course of you career and how you intend to continue doing so in the future.

It's not unusual for MBA applicants to be able to list several impressive achievements; if they couldn't, then they probably wouldn't bother applying. These can include GMAT scores, volunteer experiences, special talents and the like. But all too often, whether because of time constraints or simply out of desire to cover things up, applicants will gloss over their weaknesses. In this way, they miss a capital opportunity to discuss these points in open and constructive way, leaving room for the admissions committee to pick out the detriments for themselves and judge them on their own terms.

Do not expect members of the Admission Committee:

  • To ignore your low GMAT scores simply because you came into business from an arts background.
  • To really believe that all you do is work because that's all you like to do.
  • To not pay attention to the blank spot in your resume, exposing the fact that you haven't had a job in a whole year.

They won't. It's infinitely better to address these issues in your application in an explanatory way. There is no need to be apologetic as long as you demonstrate convincingly your ability overcome any perceived shortcomings. Be honest about your failings, what they taught you and how you strove to overcome these setbacks. Overcoming challenges is how people grow and the committee wants to see your determination to growing and learning. Your realness will pay off.

Here are some good examples of how to properly present your weaknesses:

  • "While I found it necessary to work all day and did not have time for social activities and volunteer work I felt my work benefited society as a whole in the following ways ..."
  • "In spite of the fact that since high school I have struggled with punctuality, I've worked a lot on myself to get to where I am today. Now I'm never late for an appointment ..."

Myth № 2: "All the top schools are looking for similar candidates"

Many people applying to business schools mistakenly think that all the schools are pretty much looking for the same prerequisites and personality traits in their candidates. Those who do, tend to write one 'universal' application and copy and distribute it across the board.

Although this approach certainly saves you time and effort, it carries some serious risks that you definitely should take into account beforehand.

What are these risks that you can't afford to take?

An 'all-in-one' application may prove to be all too generic and familiar in style and content, causing it to be immediately relegated to the average pile. Furthermore, every school is similar in terms of the standards they set for applicants but also significantly different in their attitudes on issues ranging from, a student's academic and personal backgrounds, to his/her level of communal involvement.

By having only one application you will deprive yourself of opportunity to fine-tune your documents so that they are in full compliance with the requirements and preferences of each school.

It's also important to understand that the members of the admissions committees are not naïve. They can sniff out a template application and they will not be impressed in the least by your efforts to be efficient. They will instead assume that a) you don't really know how to apply yourself to difficult tasks and that b) you don't really know all that much about the school. Both of these impressions, for all intents and purpose, are equal to a big red X on your application.

When getting started, you might not think that you have the skills and uniqueness to set your application apart from the pack which is why you might settle for a thorough but bland application. Remember though that everyone has a unique trait or point of view that, with a little effort, can be effectively expressed and applied to your application (more on this later).

Myth № 3: "Each top school is looking for a completely different type of candidates"

The opposite, but no less common, misconception among graduate school applicants is that somehow each school's notion of the model applicant varies drastically. Students who think this way scramble to put together several different application packages uniquely tailored to match each school's perceived preferences in qualifications and professional goals. This requires a huge investment in time and ends up limiting the amount of schools you can actually apply to thus narrowing your chances of landing a spot in a choice school.

Granted, the strategy of emphasizing your strengths and most relevant credentials within your application is sound. But being able to do this skillfully is really more of an art than an exact science. You don't want to make your 'pitch' too obvious. At the same time, while it does show initiative and drive, over-specializing your application to fit each school's requirement may lead you to lose yourself in the process. In your application, you always want to balance between matching yourself to the school you're applying to and staying true to who you really are and what you've actually accomplished. Remember to respect these things about yourself and the admissions committee will likely find respect for them too.

Myth № 4: "My candidacy is too similar to others, I don't stand a chance!"

True, the average business school candidates do have similar notches on their belt. For example, the average candidate has had post-undergrad work experience as either, a financial analyst, IT-specialist, economist or marketer etc. He/she will have a strong but not outstanding academic profile, including about a 700 on the GMAT and a 3.5 GPA respectively. In fact, the average candidate will, true to character, display certain personality traits such as sociability, resilience under pressure and a fun-loving attitude. Coincidence? Not likely. Similar people want similar things.

However, the fact that you might fall into the 'average' business school candidate category should not discourage you. Rather, the pro-active response would be to use this as a motivating force to propel you to discover and identify your own unique qualities. To find a way to express in words, that talent, skill set, or personal tendency that only you can deliver. Once you find that point (and you will because everyone is unique in some way) you will have found something that truly sets you apart and transforms your application from run-of the mill to one that dazzles the mind of the reader and leaves a long-lasting impression.

How then, to go about achieving this?

There is no one way. But a good place to start might be with a careful reckoning and analysis of your past experiences. What make you, you? When were the times which you truly felt alive, firing on all cylinders, completely overshooting yours and everyone else's expectations? Who are you when you are at your best? What are the values to which you give top priority?

If you're having trouble with some of these questions, discuss them with family and close friends. The difference between how you see yourself and how others see you may come as a surprise. Use it to your advantage.

The most important thing is to inject some spirit and emotion into your essay. The admissions committee wants to learn more about you, the person and not just the numbers and titles associated with your name. Describe yourself as clearly, honestly and entertainingly as you can. Don't let yourself be too informal, of course, but don't let yourself go on autopilot either.

Finally, take the time to read and re-read your application package. Ask yourself one more, simple question: Would I enjoy reading this?

Myth № 5: "If I desperately need to get an MBA and I really want to gain admission, everything will certainly work out!"

You know the old saying: "Nothing's sure in life except for death and taxes." Well, you can safely add to that list the extremely high standards of admissions to top-tier business schools. No matter the fluctuation in the world economy or the change in any other related circumstances, being that graduating from schools like Harvard, Stanford and Columbia is practically a clincher on any resume and that graduates from these schools easily fetch higher salaries than competitors from other institutions guarantees that the talent pool lining up to apply for elite schools will not be drying up any time soon. With a limited amount of openings available, admissions committees need to be as selective as ever.

When you consider the benefits, it's not surprising that some candidates can literally become obsessed with landing their spot in an ivy-league school. They dream of the respect and the riches it will bring them and fantasize that with their ambition, drive and a little luck they too will soon be on course for easy street. They imagine that the admissions committee will surely pick up on the high-pitch urgency and excitement in their applications and therefore could not possibly reject them.

Obviously, this is not the case. Admissions committees already assume that you are a highly motivated individual and are well aware of the many reasons why you'd want to attend their school. Really, they are looking for much more.

The prospective student must prove that his knowledge, values, experience and uniqueness will benefit the school. Furthermore, candidate must demonstrate that they have the strength of character to carry all of these qualities into the world upon graduation and become a worthy representative of their alma mater. As an applicant and potential graduate of a prestigious business school, you must demonstrate your willingness to share their vision of your prominent role in a better economic future for all, before you'll be accepted and given leave to chase your own dreams.


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