Today, even high CAT scores cannot ensure you a seat in the top business schools in the face of stiff competition, but creative storytelling can. Learn how to influence your interviewers with your story…
As I often meet with prospective MBA students around the region, the question I am asked mostly is “what makes a successful application?” I think what most candidates want to hear is that there are one or two key attributes that they need to demonstrate, or a particular experience or achievement that they need to accomplish. Many of them are disappointed when I tell them that one of the most important aspects of a good application is the ability to tell a good story.
Of course, the better your grades, GMAT scores and letters of recommendation, the better your chances of admission. These days, however, most applicants to the top schools have very good grades and scores. What sets the successful applicants apart from those who do not make the cut is their ability to creatively tell a story that brings their candidacy to life and gives the admission committee a sense of who they are, what they want to accomplish and how the school will help them do it.
So, how do you go about telling the story? As with any compelling novel, there are several key elements;
Character development: Being the main character in this story, your application should reflect that and focus largely on you—Who you are, what you value, what influences have shaped your personality and worldview, what you have accomplished to date, how that has shaped your character, and how your character has shaped your work. Typically, you will have several chances in the application and interview process to provide details on these aspects of your life.
Back story: What have you done to date? Why was it important to you? How has it influenced your desire to earn an MBA? Understanding the back story and the connection between your achievements, personality, and interests will help lay the groundwork for why an MBA makes sense. (And why an MBA from this particular school is most appropriate).
Plot: Where do you go from here? What is it that you want to accomplish? How will your experiences to date move your career along? What do you intend to do while in an MBA programme and are they logical extensions of your work and interests to date? Do your plans build on current strengths or do you hope to shore up areas of weakness? How will the programme help you reach the next step? The plot should tie together the backstory and your character traits to show career growth, a clear goal for the future, a logic behind the goal, and a plan to achieve it.
Supporting characters: The supporting ‘characters’ can be actual individuals, but might also be organisations, schools or particular experiences that provide context and depth to the main character (you). Descriptions of people who have helped you along the way, particular classes that were eye openers or experiences that gave you clarity or insight can all add colour and depth to your narrative.
Style and tone: This one is completely up to you. There is no single right or wrong way to write an essay. Some candidates are successful with humour, with others it falls flat. Some essayists are serious, some more light hearted. You should be comfortable in whatever style you adopt and you absolutely must write in your ‘own voice’. Do not try to sound like someone else lest you come across as stilted and artificial.
Most business school applications today consist of two or three essay questions and, if you are lucky, an interview. These are the main vehicles for telling your story and they must all hang together. Where possible, each essay should support the others and help emphasise the points you want to communicate. You need to make sure that your ‘character’ is as fully developed as possible —even if that means taking the time to write an optional essay. Furthermore, your interview should be consistent with your essays. (I have been in interviews where the applicant’s stated career goals were the opposite of what was written in the application — that does not bode well for a positive decision).
Finally, you need to remember that the story you are telling is not fiction, it is a biography. You need to be authentic, truthful and accurate. Admission officers can sense when an applicant is simply writing what she thinks the committee wants to hear. They really want to get to know you and what you hope to achieve. They want to know what motivates you, how you interact with others, and how their school will help you build the foundations for your career. In short, they want to read your story — make sure it is a good one.
(The author is associate dean for global outreach, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business)