Application Stories That Don’t Get Talked About

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For every Roger Federer, there are tens of thousands of tennis players whose games and faces go unrecognized. They don’t get talked about.

For MBA admissions too, tales of glories receive the most eyeballs on GMAT Club and BEAT the GMAT forums, relegating stories of outright disappointment (all dings) and underperformance (admission to not-so-stellar schools) to quick obscurity.

These stories of disappointment get some exposure, but what escapes our attention is that many of these applicants had the potential to avoid an all-ding scenario or get into a better school.

Unlike the tennis world, however, they could have punched at their weight, at least.

Let me cite few examples of punching well below weight. (Some of them contacted me and some are from different forums.)

(Note: Admission policies of schools and guidelines for standardized tests can change. Refer to their website for the most updated information.)

Applicant 1

Undergrad: One of the best in Asia (dropped IIT to join this)

GMAT score: 740

Employer: Goldman Sachs

Result: Applied to most top-10 U.S. schools. No acceptance.

He had one of the best pedigrees and yet… I was surprised at the mass-dings, but when I looked at his essays, I wasn’t. His career goals were light years away from being thoughtful: solving India’s health problem through an App, with barely any details. Not that details would have mattered. A problem as complex and intractable as India’s healthcare is very, very hard to solve just through an an App, howsoever sophisticated it is. It looks unauthentic. Poor articulation – which means not just logic but details as well, and that’s where devil is – of career goals can sink an application hundred times faster than Titanic. He was a strong candidate for top-10 schools, but he didn’t make it to any.

Well, this error in articulating career goal may seem outlandish, but many subtle oversights too kill applications softly without applicants even knowing what actually hit them. (Ding letters don’t go into reasons for non-acceptance. They only say that although you were one of many outstanding applicants, they can’t take you because there are only so few seats. :))

Here are few examples of career goals that could go (or may have gone) wrong:

Applicant 2

Undergrad: IIT

GMAT score: 750+

Employer: Marquee Private Equity funds

Result: Applied to HSW twice. No acceptance both the times

For the uninitiated, HSW would seem a stretch for this applicant. But not really.

They crave (you heard it right!) for applicants who have worked in private equity, and if the name is big… I need not say. (Leaving aside few exceptions, a pre-MBA experience in PE will come second only to a successful entrepreneurial experience, excluding family business. And because 99 percent of successful entrepreneurs won’t do an MBA, an applicant with experience in PE sits right at the top of desirable profiles even at HSW.)

I haven’t seen his applications, so I can’t comment on the exact reason for non-admission. But with his professional experience, the ding, that too twice, rings of punching well below the weight.

Applicant 3

Undergrad: IIT (few top-notch academic and leadership distinctions)

GMAT score: 750+

Other noteworthy things: First, published and presented papers (some on business matters) at international conferences. Second, represented the country at dozen-odd debate competitions at prominent international forums, with few awards to boot. Third, an inspiring comeback story in life where he fought extreme odds in childhood to achieve all that he did.

Employer: One of the big-4 accounting/ consulting firms

Result: Applied to number of top-20 schools. No acceptances.

He made few critical mistakes.

He had two long-term goals (this in itself is not easy to pull off) with little connect to his short-term goal. Moreover, details and sound reasoning were acutely missing. One essay (of a particular school) touched upon few topics without a common message, and came across as disparate messages strung together. Last, he mentioned couple of courses and the teaching methodology that resonated with him, but mere name-dropping can backfire in absence of a deeper connect with one’s experiences and goals.

Applicants from over-represented backgrounds

Then there are countless applicants from over-represented applicant pools such as information technology, finance, and big-4 accounting/ consulting firms. Many applicants fail to differentiate from others in their applicant pool. If you look from school’s perspective, why would they take you if you don’t bring anything different to the table? GMAT score is rarely a differentiator at good schools. There are just too many applicants with 730+ scores.

Everyone’s experience is unique and if you dig deep you’ll be able to unearth few points where you’re different from others. (Here is an example of how someone differentiated in an otherwise ‘boring’ finance industry.) And if you can differentiate and not make mistakes, you can punch above your weight.

What’s the loss when you make a lousy attempt?

1. Underachievement

You don’t get into the schools where you could have easily broken into. (See examples above.) It’s pity because people do an international MBA only once in life, and one should ideally attend a program their experiences and achievements warrant. (That’s why result predicted by profile evaluation on MBA forums can be so different from the actual result. It’s all about execution, the details.)

And if one or more of those schools were your strong favorites, it’s a bad news because reapplication can get tricky. In re-application, most schools want to see the progress you’ve made since the last application, and it’s really hard to come up with tangible progress to show in a short period of 8-10 months.

2. Lost years

You would end up wasting one or more years, not even knowing what’s torpedoing your application. Getting a head-start in career can mean a lot in later years, when real benefits flow.

What’s in it for you?

Put your best foot forward. If you don’t have exceptional work experience (only few do), make sure you get everything right.

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