One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser is explaining to clients that good is nice, great is nicer, but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only good + special will get you in.
Everyone knows that there are fewer places at top business schools than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard good profile application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do an instinctive analysis on applications. Often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not and I'm left saying there was no juice. What I mean is that the applicant has provided enough reasons for Adcom (Admissions committee) not to reject them by covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.
Sure, this is easier said than done. What if there is no 'specialness' or distinctiveness there? I haven't done anything that special, candidates will say. I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic or pulled anyone from a burning car. I won't kid you - it's great if you've done something memorable like this, but there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved and specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.
Here are examples of the second type:
1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding: Unfortunately (but fortunately for you) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That's why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds, and so highly correlated with real leadership ability, that if you can do it right you'll be special just for this. Note: doing it right also means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.
2. 'Specialness' of communication: Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out.
3. 'Specialness' of direction and goals. Of course, you can't change your past. However, you should present it in the best light, but for better or worse. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything - you can make any claim, within reason of course. It is a free hit in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.
A.V. Gordon is author of MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing as well as available for expert MBA admissions consultations through The MBA Admissions Studio (www.mbastudio.net).