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If you’re applying for an MBA program, chances are you’re looking for a new career trajectory, have good to great grades, attended a rigorous undergraduate program and have spent the years since graduation active in your career and perhaps even volunteer positions.
Congratulations… so has everyone else applying to your program.
In college, you started the modern British literature club — which was just an excuse to sit around and talk about the Harry Potter books. That might look impressive on your resume, but when your peers are equally accomplished, what are you doing to set yourself apart from your competition? How are you going to differentiate yourself?
The secret to a successful application
A quick search of “how to get into an MBA program” will yield a series of post on “secrets of success” — quick tricks to add to your application that will surely allow you easy admission to the top schools. It seems if those secrets in fact worked, not only would they not be secrets, but many more people would have earned MBAs.
The real secret that’s difficult to crack? Be impressive, be inspiring and be a visionary. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs (he probably wouldn’t have been accepted, anyway), but you do need to illustrate your leadership skills, unique spark and how you help get people excited and energized about ideas and opportunities.
Tell your unique story
Not every applicant has private equity or big consulting firm experience, but instead of parlaying what unique experience you have into a version of that, showcase your experience for what it is — a diverse and unique addition to a student body that’s known for its strict adherence to finance, strategy and consulting experience.
“Be impressive” and “show your unique and diverse attributes” is great advice, but it’s usually easier said than done. Your resume, general application and test scores can only tell so much of your story. Your grades matter, your experience is either relevant or not, your test scores meet the base requirements… The only real areas of your application you can control at this point are your essays and your recommendations.
Be selective with your recommendations
The recommendations you request say as much about you as the words you use to craft your essay. Choose recommendations based on how well the person knows you (obviously), but more importantly, on how relevant your experience with them is to the unique, dynamic story you’re trying to tell the admissions committee.
An important question to ask yourself before starting the application process is: What story are you trying to tell? Are you a goodie-two-shoes who’s followed every rule and lived a fairly vanilla life full of good grades, good schools and pastels? Or have you passionately pursued your interests, juggling challenging coursework and bettering your community (all while eating organic, free-range meat)?
Which story is more compelling? Which story will add to your fellow classmates’ worldview (and maybe their health)?
Leverage your essays
Your story likely falls somewhere in the middle of these two extreme narratives — but that doesn’t mean you can’t leverage your unique course choices, international experience, volunteer interests or self-employment struggles into the dynamic story admissions committees seek when recommending students for admittance.
Curate your story, highlight life-changing experiences and identify what should be included and what can be left out. Use anecdotes to illustrate your past while painting a picture of your future capabilities. (Click to Tweet this advice.)
Of course, your previous experience is important, but admissions committees are also interested in where you will be in five, 10 or 20 years. Maybe you’re interested in becoming a vocal social advocate or would prefer to climb the ladder at a big finance firm — either way, you need to show the admissions team how your experience, their program and your capabilities will get you to that place. Share your story and weave that thread throughout your entire application.
Paige Hewlett is a brand developer and business coach for small businesses and hopeful entrepreneurs and blogs about the pursuit of life’s good things at Come + Take It. Follow Paige on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.