Finally, the interviewer states, "You have an impressive résumé, strong work experience, and interesting extracurricular activities. However, your résumé looks like countless others I've seen this year. What makes you different from other qualified applicants?"
Your answer may make the difference between acceptance and denial into the MBA program of your choice. Top b-schools accept only a small percentage of applicants drawn from a highly competitive pool. Candidates need more than great test scores and a solid résumé. Success ultimately lies in understanding how to market yourself effectively throughout the application process.
[Learn how to narrow your b-school application list.]
Understand your target market: Like any marketing project, understanding your target market is critical. As a first step in the application process, you must research the schools and get to know them well. You should read the websites and brochures, attend information sessions, speak with students and alumni, and, if possible, visit the school.
The knowledge you acquire will help you determine how best to sell yourself. It will also help you articulate why you have selected a particular school. Citing specific reasons from firsthand experience gives you an advantage over the other applicants.
Positioning is key: Every school has a need. It may be assembling alumni who will donate generously, or changing its reputation as a party school. Understanding a school's needs and positioning yourself as part of the solution will make a difference.
For example, consider Columbia Business School, which you may want to attend because you plan to pursue a career in finance. Realize that Columbia hears this frequently. If you do your research, you'll learn that the school embraces entrepreneurship as a major initiative and has just launched the Columbia Business Lab for recently graduated Columbia entrepreneurs. Speaking to this may be a way to align yourself with the school's objectives.
[Read about a study that suggests b-schools don't connect social media dots.]
Differentiate yourself: Even highly qualified applicants worry about finding a way to stand out. Fortunately, the personal essay portion of the application allows you to showcase what makes you unique. Examples that may seem less than extraordinary to you can provide the admissions committee with clear evidence of your talent.
One of my clients worked as a strategy consultant and couldn't fit traditional volunteer work into his hectic travel schedule. He decided to contact his alma mater's career center, offering himself as a resource to those interested in a consulting career. He ended up giving back on his own terms, in a very significant way. Excellence comes in many different packages, and sometime small examples can brilliantly illustrate your distinctive contributions.
Remember, a simple example is often the most effective. One b-school applicant needed a good story for a question on leadership. The example he used involved revamping a monthly report. Although this may not seem like an impressive task, once written, it showed initiative, a desire to challenge the status quo, and an ability to execute tasks and influence others. If you want to convey your worth, don't just state it; prove it with examples.
[Learn why MBA programs seem to downplay writing skills.]
Don't be afraid of failure: In addition to highlighting strengths, an essential component of marketing is effectively managing weaknesses. Most applicants dread the "Tell us about a time you failed" question. The best approach is honesty.
One b-school applicant I worked with had been laid off three times during his four-year career—something he initially felt terrified to reveal to the admissions committees. However, by discussing the situation and circumstances with honesty, he demonstrated self-awareness, an ability to learn from mistakes, maturity, resilience, and determination.
Introspection allows the admissions committee to get to know you. Adopting a frank, yet thoughtful, attitude toward failure allows you to capitalize on a weakness and make it work for you.
Although negotiating your acceptance into a top MBA program seems daunting, by showcasing your individuality, you can do so with success. Research each institution and understand how your personal strengths and differences can benefit the programs of your choice.
Take advantage of the application's essay portion to illustrate your unique qualities, and don't shy away from discussing your weaknesses, as well as what you've learned from moments of failure. Effective marketing can take your application from good to great—and make all the difference in this highly competitive process.