Today I'm answering a question that's extremely common in the world of business school applications. MBA hopeful William contacted me with this conundrum:
"Hi Stacy, I believe that I'm a strong candidate for a top business school. The problem is that when I look around me, most of the people that I know, who also graduated from a top school and have a high-powered job, are similarly qualified. I struggle with how to make myself stand out from my peers when we really don't seem all that different."
Like countless others, William is undervaluing his uniqueness. Prospective students often shy away from sharing small but important details about themselves that can help them stand out from the crowd. They think, "Admissions committees don't want to hear about that side of me," or "Business schools don't want people who are interested in that." Or, "If I talk about this, it will sound like I'm boasting."
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It's time to get over all of that. If you want to do well in the admissions process, you have to communicate who you are, not just what you do. Bruce DelMonico, director of MBA admissions at Yale University School of Management, isn't kidding when he says the best tip is to simply be yourself.
"This sounds obvious, but many applicants get tripped up trying to get inside our heads. Don't outthink yourself. Tell us about what you care about, not what you think we want to hear," he wrote.
Here are three tips to keep in mind if you find yourself falling into a rut thinking that you as an individual are the same as on a one-page résumé:
1. Tell your personal story: Whether in writing the essay or during an interview, every time you talk about what you've done, also tell why. Share the things in life that inspire you, what matters to you, or what moved you to make the decisions you have made.
Derrick Bolton, director of MBA admissions at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, has said the best advice is: Don't try to stand out.
"I think standing out is a byproduct of telling your story in a really natural and compelling way. It takes some reflection," he told the Wall Street Journal.
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If you have trouble getting started, try creating a "brag sheet" for inspiration. While the résumé is a solely professional document, the brag sheet is the opposite. This manuscript talks about who you are outside of your professional career and discusses information about your family, passions, and obstacles.
You can make your own sheet by answering questions such as: How many languages are you fluent in? How many countries have you traveled to? Does your family have any interesting traditions? Have you encountered and overcome any significant obstacles in your life? Once you have filled out your brag sheet, you can sort through it and select the themes that resonate most.
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2. Tell what you value and believe in: Business schools really do want to know who you are—the whole you—not just you as a professional. You want to present a balanced, well-rounded human being who has many dimensions to contribute to an MBA class. When you talk about your love of basketball or your concern for global warming, explain why those subjects are meaningful to you.
"Often times, applicants belittle [or] overlook their hobbies," said Megan Solinger, assistant director of admissions of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, in a recent live chat on standing out in MBA admissions.
"This is a great way to highlight some uniquely defining characteristics and experiences you've had that make you, you! Know that there is no 'cookie cutter' student we're looking for, and when we're developing a class, we want diversity. We want people with various educational and professional backgrounds, non-traditional students, and those who have done some interesting things in their life [or] career," Solinger said.
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3. Add some personality: Top b-schools know you have the credentials; the essays offer them a chance to see your personality. You may not be a natural writer, but that doesn't mean you can't make an effort to inject some humor and empathy, or talk about your vision or your fears. Peel back the layers a little bit, because talking about what's inside is what will differentiate you from all of the other analysts and engineers in the applicant pool.
To paraphrase Jay-Z, there's nobody built like you—you designed yourself. Keep that in mind as you're going through this process and you'll be able to submit a distinct application that reflects who you really are.