Over more than three decades as a graduate and business admissions dean, I witnessed dozens of positive steps taken by business school applicants. These seven particular—and simple—steps will help you get positively noticed by the MBA admissions committee:
1. Carefully prepare first contact: For better or worse, it is not a cliché: First impressions are lasting and take a long time to change. Whether via E-mail, phone, or in person, it is critical to make sure you do everything possible to plan your first outreach to the business school admissions office. Focus on leaving a positive impression.
After that first contact, send a handwritten thank you note. An old fashioned, handwritten message stands out and will reinforce your initial interaction.
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2. Follow directions: This cannot be overstated. Do what you are asked to do—no more, no less. If you have a legitimate question about something in the application, ask. The ability to follow directions sends a very positive message and allows a candidate to move through the application review process without the unwanted attention many applicants receive simply because they did not do as instructed.
3. Seek recommenders who know you: A letter of recommendation from someone famous or a prominent business person may seem impressive, but if these individuals don't know you, the impact is lost. If you do have a connection to a famous or influential individual, take the time to get to know him or her first.
The best thing to do, however, is to seek someone who knows you very well, has been associated with you for at least a year, and can point to specific personal, professional, and academic qualities that make you stand out.
[Learn more about graduate school recommendation letters.]
4. Smile: A smile is part of the universal language. It's simple, easy to do, and can make a huge difference. When meeting any of the admissions staff in person or on the phone, smile. It sounds so simplistic, but it works. It helps lessen nervousness, lightens the air, and makes personal interactions more relaxed. It also shows you're a nice person. And MBA admissions folks, like all of us, like nice people.
5. Stay calm: Admissions personnel are not perfect. They are human and sometimes make mistakes. It's not altogether uncommon for certain elements of an application to be misfiled or to disappear. Worse yet, applicants often get blamed for not sending a complete application package. Given the stakes, it would be easy become unraveled.
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Instead, keep your cool and see it as an opportunity to practice handling disappointment and the mistakes of others, which you'll undoubtedly have to do as a future business leader. Be appreciative and positive. Thank whomever contacted you for their thoughtfulness and resend whatever is needed.
When application issues arise, admissions staffers often receive an applicant's wrath and, on occasion, verbal harassment. Remain calm and unemotional; it will help you stand out in a very positive way.
6. Demonstrate you did your homework: Business school staff and faculty have great pride in their institutions and expect the same from their students and candidates. Showing that you have a broad understanding of the application process and academic programs can be a difference maker.
Familiarizing yourself with faculty research is a great way to impress and to demonstrate due diligence. If you have a particular interest in entrepreneurship or sustainability, read some of the faculty's published research. When meeting with decision makers or faculty authors on campus, be prepared to discuss elements of their expertise in appropriate context.
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7. Express your goal: As a business school applicant, take advantage of every opportunity to let the admissions committee know you want to attend. If a school is among your top choices, or is your No. 1 choice, let the admissions office know that.
And when you do, be prepared to explain what you believe you bring to the table as an MBA candidate. Provide specific and relevant reasons that illustrate the match.
Also, focus on issues that are important and highly valued by that institution. Remember, the application process is a relationship-building exercise, so begin the relationship motivated not by the value an MBA program gives you but the value you bring to the program.
Dr. Don Martin, Ph.D., is a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Wheaton College, and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. For additional tips on the graduate school application process, visit gradschoolroadmap.com.