Know Your Buyer to Sell Yourself in MBA Admissions

Understanding how the b-school admissions committee works can help you tailor your application.

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Your entire MBA application should communicate the qualities and strengths that are relevant to those you are trying to persuade.

Many applicants tell me crafting their application would be so much easier if they knew exactly what business schools were looking for in a candidate. But if you ask any MBA admissions officer, the likely answer is that all-too-elusive "fit" with his or her program.

Schools have to determine if your experiences, both personal and professional, make you an intriguing addition to the class they are forming, and they also need to be convinced that your career goals and their program are a good match.

Since my background is in marketing, I often explain it in marketing terms: the admissions committee is the buyer and you're the seller. As a marketing strategist, you want to get to know as much about your buyer as you possibly can.

[Remember to consider fit when choosing between admissions offers.]

You'll also want to become familiar with the decision-making process this particular buyer goes through when selecting a product – in this case, which students to admit. By understanding the buying process, you gain an advantage that might make a difference and influence the buyer in your favor at key decision points.

While each MBA program has its own evaluation process, the decision to offer or deny admission is typically made by a committee of players that includes admissions officers, deans, professors, student representatives and often an alumni interviewer. Since you want to gather as much information as you can about your buyer, your first stop is with the director of admissions, as the outlook and perspective of this gatekeeper have a huge influence on the entire team of people.

Find out all you can about this individual. How long has he held this position? What educational and professional background does she have? Pore over his or her blog posts and video messages on the school website to get a sense of his or her personality and clues as to what the program is looking for.

[Learn how to submit a unique business school application.]

It's also helpful for applicants to have a thorough understanding of the many steps involved in the evaluation process. According to an admissions officer from one top-10 MBA program, here is what happens to your application after you hit the submit button.

The first person to read your application is an admissions fellow. This second-year MBA student, hired by the committee, gets a printed copy of your electronic application. The fellow is the first to recommend whether to ask the candidate to interview.

The file then lands on the desk of an admissions officer, who also reviews it. This officer also recommends whether or not to interview the candidate – and if the fellow and the officer disagree, the application then goes to the dean of admissions, who reads it and weighs in.

At this point, the applicant is either sent a rejection letter or invited to interview, either on campus or with an alumnus in his or her home city. It doesn't matter which you choose; the interviews are standardized and equally weighted.

[Learn how to cope with business school rejections.]

Once the admissions committee has the interview results, the applicant's file is read by a director of admissions. This director, who had not previously reviewed the file, then has three choices. The director can recommend to admit the prospective student, and if this matches the rest of the recommendations, the candidate is sent an offer of admission. The director can also recommend to deny the application or send it to the committee.

There, committee members debate the applicant's merits and send a recommendation to admit, wait-list or deny the candidate to the dean of admissions.

At least four different "buyers" must be convinced that your qualities and capabilities are an excellent fit for their institution.

Not only do you need to "bring it" with your impressive professional achievements and leadership examples, you'll also want to show them your winning personality and convince them of your team-player attitude – two qualities that your future classmates will appreciate. That means factoring in the preferences and personalities of each decision-maker into your application design.

The research you do in the planning phase about what your buyer values will be crucial in the next phase of the admissions process: formulating your brand messages. That's a topic to explore in a future discussion.