My experience applying to the MBA programs at Harvard and Stanford
Originally posted on LinkedIn.
I’ve hesitated to write this post for some time now as there are already enough self-promoting and pretentious posts on LinkedIn. Please do not interpret this article as such, but rather as one person’s thoughts and opinions on what worked for them and what might work for you too.
In the spring of 2017, I applied, interviewed and was accepted to the MBA Programs at both HBS and Stanford GSB. Believe me, no one was more shocked than I was. I had worked hard to put together a solid application, but everyone knows that getting into these schools requires more than just a strong application, it takes luck or the hand of God or whatever you want to call it. I'm the first to admit that there are plenty of people who haven't gone to these schools who are more talented or deserving than I am.
Since I finished the application process, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience. I’ve had several conversations with close friends about what I think might have helped my application, and recently, I’ve been spending more time with friends on their applications in the hope that something I learned might work for them as well. With their encouragement and in an attempt to help someone else out there, I wanted to write a few brief thoughts on things I learned throughout my application process. I applied as a college senior through the 2+2 / deferred enrollment programs, but the process is the same for traditional applicants, so the learnings can be applied in either situation.
Here we go.
10 Thoughts/Tips on MBA Admissions:
- The level to which your grades and test scores matter in your application is directly tied to the diversity and strength of the rest of your application. This may seem obvious, but it’s the reason why we always hear, “Johnny got a 760 on his GMAT and didn’t even get an interview!” The admissions team wants to see more than just great scores. If there is a large number of applicants applying with a similar ethnicity, experience, and skill-set as you, you better have killer grades and test scores. On the other hand, if your background is unique (but still very impressive), you'll probably get more leeway. Understanding this relationship can shed light on which parts of your application you should improve before you apply.
- Stand out. Building off #1, putting together a unique application is your best chance of getting in – regardless of your race, background, skillset, grades, and test scores. The admissions team needs to feel like they are missing out on a huge opportunity if they pass on you. Yes, do your best to get good grades and score well on the GMAT/GRE. However, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what score you got, you need to make yourself stand out. Sometimes that means you need more experience, other times you just need to do a better job of thinking through and putting into words what makes you different. I think we all underestimate how unique we really are.
- The GRE is just as accepted as the GMAT. I promise. I took the GMAT because I had heard that the GRE was for people who couldn’t crack the GMAT and the admissions team treated it that way. Everything about that is false. I have so many friends and met so many other interviewees who chose the GRE and got into a top school. The GRE and GMAT are built differently and one may suit you better.
- In your essays, share with the admissions team who you are, not what you’ve done. Naturally, we want to use our essays to talk about all of the amazing things we've accomplished. However, that's what your resume and other parts of the application are for. You do not want your essays to be a repeat of everything else they've seen in your application. In your essays, you need to humanize all of your accomplishments by breaking yourself down to the core and explaining to them why you are the way you are and why you do what you do. Be vulnerable and open with them. This was one of the most difficult but most interesting parts of the application for me.
- How well your recommender knows you is more important than who they are. They need to know you well enough to write specifically about your strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. If you to get your grandpa's old friend who was the CEO of some company to write your recommendation it will most likely seem vague, insignificant and disingenuous. Two of my recommenders didn’t even have their MBAs, but they had worked closely with me and could talk in detail about my performance.
- Your recommenders need to know what it takes to get in. Elite business schools are not in the business of accepting average people. Your recommenders need to fully grasp that (or you need to coach them until they do). Their wording should not be, “Johnny did a great job interning for us this past summer”, but rather, “Johnny was by far the best intern I’ve ever encountered in my career.”
- Your recommenders are not your evaluators, they are your advocates and promoters. Obviously, you want your recommenders to be truthful (so select people who think highly of you!), but when you ask someone to recommend you, you are drafting them onto your team. You are not asking them for their unbiased opinion, you are asking them if they can help you get into business school. Great recommenders fully understand that and will involve you throughout their recommendation process.
- Provide as much support to your recommenders as possible, without writing the actual recommendation. It is common for recommenders to suggest that you ghost-write your own recommendation and then they tweak a few things, put their name on it, and submit it. Avoid that if possible! Sometimes it works well, but in my experience, recommendations written by the applicant do not feel as strong as those that are written by the actual recommender. This doesn't mean you are off the hook. You should prepare a document that details the entire recommendation process, questions they can expect, and ideas for how they can answer. Share with them the strengths you'd like them to highlight and real-life examples when you displayed those strengths. Basically, you want to provide them with everything they need to write a killer recommendation, without actually writing it for them.
- Get moving. Beyond everything you can do on your application, relationships and hustle outside of your application can make a huge difference in getting you in. Reach out to current students, go visit the campus, set up calls with your uncle’s random friend who has a weird connection to the school. Just do it. Who knows if one of these calls or meetings will result in a quick note from them to someone in admissions that can sway a decision. This isn’t cheating, it is how life works. Your competition is hustling too.
- Take advantage of the 2+2 / deferred enrollment programs! If you are still in college, I would strongly encourage you to apply for these programs. These universities will not penalize you in the future for doing so, and even if you don't get in, you will have gained valuable experience and learnings for future applications. I was on the fence about applying because I didn't know if I was ready, but schools know that college seniors are different types of applicants. Just give it shot!
I hope this has been helpful to someone out there. If you are considering applying to business school through a deferred enrollment program or even if you are waiting to apply after you’ve worked for a few years, please feel free to reach out. There are so many other things that play into a strong application approach and strategy that I can’t fit on a quick LinkedIn post. I’d love to share those additional thoughts with you.
And if you are reading this and have additional tips or thoughts, please comment them.