MBA admissions officers used to look more favorably upon applicants with financial services experience. The strong work ethic associated with investment bankers and money managers and the prestige that comes with working for a big brand are attributes that business schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Stanford covet, as they demonstrate readiness for the rigors of the MBA classroom.
These days, finance candidates have to take a more critical approach to MBA application strategy, as they represent the largest pool of incoming students at top business schools. And while MBA admissions committees do accept applications from oversubscribed populations, they are now focusing more on diversity of profession, gender and nationality, because it enriches peer-to-peer learning and contributes to their success in the rankings. With finance an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession, men in particular have a higher bar to reach in the current MBA admissions climate.
So, how do you rise to the top of a competitive pool when you’re a common commodity? Every element of the MBA application should be optimized if you are to set yourself apart from the financial herd. Here’s how to do it:
Recognize that your resume doesn’t make you special
The default among financiers is to assume that their strong work ethic, employer brand and high stats will get them into a top school, but that is not the case today. About 50% of our finance inquiries do not realize that the bar is higher for their cohort, and that their application must be more compelling to differentiate themselves from the competition. Accepting that truth is the first step to securing a place on a top MBA program.
Top business schools expect holistic interests and achievements.
Highlighting personal qualities and triumphs is essential to your MBA application strategy. At SBC, we charted the application journeys of 21 MBA candidates from private equity firms applying to Harvard (HBS), Stanford (GSB) and Wharton.
Our study concluded that past academic background nor GMAT (admissions test) scores could reliably predict whether candidates were admitted or rejected. Success — defined by either an admit or interview invite – was rather predicted by how interesting the candidate was to admissions officers, our study found.
Being “interesting” was conveyed through activities that candidates engaged with outside the classroom during their undergraduate degree or in recent years, to the extent work/life balance allowed. For example, debate leadership, athletic activity and a remarkable thesis were undergraduate experiences that correlated with admits to GSB and HBS. Emphasizing earlier life interests that show character and values can differentiate finance candidates vying for top MBA programs.
Display responsible leadership credentials
Admissions committees want you to demonstrate more than financial success. “Show how you have made a positive impact on the communities in which you have operated, as this demonstrates leadership and predicts success at HBS,” shared a former HBS Admissions Officer on the SBC consulting team who asked to remain anonymous as they still work in the industry. It’s important to list your leadership roles and titles held, but also how you interacted with others and worked well in teams.
Many business schools also want to educate people who will lead society, not just business, and consider how their career impacts the environment around them. Schools are thinking about employability when reviewing applications – a critical factor in MBA rankings – and whether candidates will use the MBA to achieve their career goals.
“Clarity of goals is extremely important to Wharton, especially as they’ve combined MBA admissions, career management, and student life under the same deputy vice dean,” according to Meghan Ellis, a former Wharton Admissions Officer on the SBC team. “The Wharton admissions committee will look at applications to see: is this person already on the fast track, are their goals logical and reasonable, do they have a plan for how they will use their time during the program and how they will meet their goals?”
In addition, illustrate how you will contribute to your new community at business school. Convey that you will be active and engaged on campus — how you will take on a leadership role within a club that you are passionate about, for example.
Use recommendations to show how you are at the top of your class
A career at a prestigious firm such as Goldman Sachs may not be enough to get you into business school, but it sure can help. A recommendation from a senior manager at a leading bank or fund can add some stardust to your MBA application.
Use your recommendation letters to convey what made you stand apart from your peers at the firm — including project or people management, and evidence of high performance, such as receiving promotions more quickly than others, which are all valued by MBA admissions teams. It’s not generally permitted to write the letters yourself, of course, but you can guide your recommender by explaining what business schools want to know about you, relative to the strengths and vulnerabilities of your profile.
Being a banker can still be an advantage to gaining an admit to an elite MBA program, if you know how to sell it.
Stacy Blackman is the president and founder of Stacy Blackman Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting advisory launched in 2001. Stacy earned her BS in Economics from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.
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