When Applying to Business School, Own Up to Past Mistakes

From layoffs to poor grades to a criminal record, here’s how to make lemons into application lemonade.

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typing on a laptop
typing on a laptop

Nobody likes drawing attention to their past mistakes, academic or otherwise, particularly when applying for a seat at an über-competitive business school. Failing to address obvious weaknesses, such as a low GPA or gaps in employment history, does more harm than good in the end.

Believe it or not, being up front about your foibles can go a long way toward minimizing the damage and can actually boost your chances for admissions. Below you'll find three so-called blemishes, which many M.B.A. applicants face and how to deal with them successfully.

[Avoid these deadly sins of b-school applicants.]

1. Explaining a layoff: Many people assume that a significant gap in their employment history will raise a red flag in their application. While the admissions committee will certainly notice the time out of the workforce, I'd wager that they're more interested in discovering how you spent that time. After all, recent economic developments led to layoffs of even the most qualified candidates, so job loss is not necessarily a mark of shame. The goal is to show how you used that break in your career productively.

Short and sweet is the best way to explain the layoff, and then draw attention to how you bounced back from the experience. I've had several clients in this situation, and I advised each to approach the challenge differently. Some may have used the time away to hike solo through Tibet; others dove into volunteer work that allowed them to hone their business skills while giving something back; and still others used the time to flesh out their entrepreneurial dreams unencumbered by the 9-to-5 grind.

2. Handling a low GPA: After a few years in the workforce, most M.B.A. applicants would say they've matured significantly from their college days and are ready to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the academic rigors of a top-tier business school. The trouble is that a ho-hum GPA—meaning anything below a 3.5—will follow them to every admissions office and is seldom well received.

When M.B.A. programs look at academic records such as GMAT scores and GPAs, there's a question of aptitude ("Can this applicant do the work?") and a question of application ("Will this applicant work hard?"). A low GPA might signal to admissions officers that the applicant would have trouble dedicating herself or himself to the M.B.A. coursework.

[See four ways to boost your chances of getting in.]

Addressing this roadblock may require a two-pronged approach, depending on the individual circumstances. Some clients have chosen to take pre-M.B.A. courses to boost their quantitative profile and alleviate any concerns about their ability to handle M.B.A.-level coursework. I also typically advise such applicants to use the optional essay to address the matter directly.

While I can sympathize with not wanting to draw attention to a poor academic performance, if you don't provide all of the details, assumptions will be made and they won't be in your favor. Isn't it better to supply the admissions committee with the facts and tell them your story, rather than have the committee jump to the wrong conclusions?

One client made no excuses, but freely admitted that he had lacked the maturity to see the big picture during undergrad, and had only worked hard in classes that he considered intellectually interesting. Coupled with his career trajectory and assorted extracurricular involvements, his essay demonstrated clear evidence that he had since developed that maturity and was prepared to dedicate himself to his M.B.A. studies.

3. Addressing a criminal record: This issue may seem insurmountable, but I have helped more than one client explain an embarrassing episode from their past. In one such case, the applicant had been arrested for underage drinking and a DUI during her sophomore year at a well-regarded liberal arts college. Having to disclose this information on her M.B.A. applications mortified her, and she feared no top business school would accept her due to her criminal record.

In this case, honesty is the only policy in order to assure that the background check yields no surprises. We turned this setback into an opportunity, and decided to actively address the arrest in one of her essays for each school. Because the incident sparked a period of serious self-reflection and change, her story was ultimately inspiring.

[Get tips for crafting your M.B.A. admissions essays.]

Many M.B.A. programs ask you to explain a mistake you have made, or discuss a challenge you overcame. The most interesting candidates have faced difficulty and learned from it, preferably changing their behavior for the better. We took a youthful mistake and showcased a person determined to improve her life. 

Admissions officers look for applicants who will succeed in their particular program, as well as in the world after graduation. Showing who you are, your potential, and even how you have overcome blemishes to your otherwise perfect record gives the school insight into your potential as a student and as a future business leader. We all fail sometimes, but the trick is to try to look at your failures through a fresh lens and figure out the good that came from it.