How to stand out when applying to an MBA program

Nathan Dumlao

Every quarter, thousands of hopefuls apply to earn their MBA. In 2020, two in three MBA programs experienced a surge in applications, and many continued that momentum in 2021, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council’s annual survey.

With so many people applying and so few spots available, it may seem difficult to stand out. We’ve shared tips on how to start the application process and how to stay organized. Now we’re sharing tips from an MBA admissions consultant and MBA graduate on how to shine amid an influx of applicants.

Know why you need to stand out

While it’s understandable why anyone might worry about getting lost in a sea of applications, Barbara Coward, an MBA admissions consultant, says you first must ask yourself why you personally want to stand out, so you can develop the best strategy to address it.

“For example, does a candidate want to stand out because they are coming from an overrepresented segment of the applicant pool such as industry or nationality?” she asks. “In that case, do they want to stand out relative to other applicants from the same occupation or demographics to optimize their chances of admission?” 

She continues, “Or does a candidate want to stand out to compensate for a negative in their application, such as a poor undergraduate experience but they hiked to the top of Mount Everest to demonstrate their tenacity in another way?” 

If you understand your motivation for wanting to stand out, she says, it will help you pinpoint where you need to differentiate yourself. 

“If you are one of many management consultants applying from New York City, what can you show that is unique to your work experience?” Coward adds. “Is there a particular vertical (e.g., sports goods) that showcases your expert voice in this area? If you want to stand for hiking to the top of Mount Everest as a distraction from a mediocre transcript, you’ll need to tie in the academic lessons to the activity. While it’s impressive that you hiked to the summit of the highest peak in the world, how does relate to your ability to do well in a statistics class?” 

Learn the art of storytelling

That brings us to another way to stand out on your MBA application: developing a powerful personal story.

“Everyone has a story, and it doesn’t have to be something like, ‘I lived on 5 continents, and I have to tell you about my skydiving extracurricular activity,” explains Coward. “Even the stories you think aren’t interesting really are.”

She says that’s why you should reflect on your entire life, not just your professional career. Telling your story in a compelling way helps the admissions team at your dream school gain a better understanding of who you are as a person.

Coward shares specific tips on how to uncover your stories and distill which ones will benefit your MBA application inside the free MBAchic community.    

Saniya Waghray (@saniyawaghray), a recent Wharton MBA graduate, says the best way to uncover your story is to spend time being introspective.

“Why do YOU specifically want an MBA, and why at that particular school?” she says. “How have your career experiences to date shaped who you are as a leader? How can spending 1-2 years at school – and with all the opportunities this provides – be uniquely additive to your journey?” 

“These exercises in self-reflection and articulating your leadership trajectory will help you articulate why an MBA, as opposed to any other path, is an essential next step – and help you believe it, in moments of doubt,” she says.

Don’t stop at your ‘diversity’

With gender and racial diversity dominating headlines, Coward says simply talking about how you are a diverse candidate isn’t enough.

“I can’t even tell you how many times a female applicant wants to become a CEO to change the gender imbalance in an industry,” she says. “That’s awesome, of course, but when everyone says the same thing in an essay, well, everyone is saying the same thing. You’re not differentiating yourself.”

She says MBA candidates should dive deeper into specific aspects of diversity.

“Maybe describing family dinners in a multigenerational house or a particular function in a company that is struggling with gender imbalance,” she explains. “Go beyond the broad brush strokes to show more context and clarity.”

MBAchic Library lessons from Barbara Coward
Visit the MBAchic library for a deep dive on the different parts of the MBA application,
created in partnership with Barbara Coward of MBA360
Showcase your value

“An MBA classroom is only as valuable as the diversity of its students,” says Waghray.

That means the admissions team at your school of choice wants to build an intriguing class filled with people of varying experiences, not just people who can handle the academic work. It’s important to share rich details that demonstrate why you’d be an excellent contributor to the cohort, and this goes beyond your transcripts, test scores, and resume.

“Your job isn’t to trick the admission panel into accepting you but help them make a thoughtful decision by knowing more about your values, passions, mistakes – everything,” Coward says. “Don’t try to be pitch perfect. Instead, make sure you hit all the right notes.” 

“So, if there are 5 applications for each seat, show why YOU deserve that place,” she adds. “You want the equation to demonstrate how much you will GIVE to the program as much as you will GET out of it.”

Saniya adds that while women, statistically, sell themselves short, her biggest advice is “to find your ‘sweet spot’ in balancing humility with confidence, lean into your strengths, and be fearless in claiming them.”

Coward likens admissions officers to portfolio managers who must pick stocks.

“They have to guess/predict which ones will perform best in the short-term (classroom) and long-term (career),” she says. “They have to make that decision with limited information (resume, transcript, essays, etc.) but you can help them see that you’re not only a safe risk but that you will outperform the market.”

Watch Coward’s exclusive MBAchic mini course on applying to MBA programs.  It’s free to all members of the MBAchic community. Join here to gain instant access.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

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  1. Check out advice shared by MBAchic partner and collaborator Barbara Coward and MBAchic family / community mentor @saniyawaghray !

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