Many prospective MBA applicants have something in their applications that they worry doesn't reflect their true abilities. Is the worry justified? Actually, yes. If you think the admissions committee will question something, we probably will. You can try gloss over the shortcomings, or you can make excuses. Either way, you won't win any points with B-schools admissions offices.
While some applicants might think that drawing extra attention to a problem could be a bad approach, addressing problems head-on is a much better strategy than trying to hide behind them. Don't leave a gap in your application that would leave us wondering. Address it, and then move on.
But how you address the problem can make all the difference. In fact, MBA candidates sometimes go overboard trying to compensate for the weaknesses in their applications. Here's what they say are some of the most common tactics that backfire.
1. Making Excuses Instead of Offering Explanations
In explaining inconsistencies in your application, use the old writing teacher's cliche, "Show, don't tell," as your guide. Try to take a "journalistic approach": sticking to the facts, rather than editorializing. If you say you're a "not a good test taker" demonstrate how you've taken steps to deal with it in the past. Low GPA? Make a case for how it will be different. No quantitative courses? Talk about the statistics class you're taking now to catch up.
And remember, there are only so many elements of your application you can explain away. "I'm too busy" is one excuse that often sends eyes rolling, especially when it's used as a catch-all to explain low test scores, lack of extracurricular involvement, and lackluster essays. If you're too busy, maybe it's better to wait until the next round to apply.
2. Writing What You Think They Want To Hear
A lot of people assume that's admission officers looking for a love letter. Every year applicants still try to second-guess the admissions committee by writing what they think is the "correct" answer, losing their own voice in the process. The tip-off are essays that sound "almost too crafted," and interviews that sound "almost scripted."
3. Getting Too Personal
A good general rule is that if it's inappropriate for dinner-party conversation, it probably doesn't belong in your B-school essay. Candidates should also use caution when they list their personal Web sites or blogs on their application, because admissions officers will visit them. If what they find are pictures of you doing keg stands with your buddies, that might reflect poorly on your judgment.
Lack of judgment is also a factor in the admissions interview. While prospectives might feel pressured to ask questions of the interview like in a normal conversation, an interview really is all about the applicant.
4. Obvious Resume Padding
Overinflating titles, responsibilities, or hours put into work or extracurricular activities can get applicants in trouble. Admissions officers read so many resumes that they've got a pretty good handle on what a first-year analyst does, and what their career trajectory looks like. If someone is a relatively recent college grad, and they're suddenly saying they're at a managerial level, that's a red flag.
Applicants who say they work 80 hours a week and spend 30 to 50 hours on extracurriculars make admissions officers wonder, "Is that actually possible?" Admissions officers also suspicious of extracurricular activities that all have a start date of 2007 for a 2007 application, or of a long list of organization memberships without any leadership roles.
Most schools strongly suggest that you get a recommendation letter from your current supervisor. And all B-schools prefer that recommendations come from someone who knows you well in a business--not a personal--context. What's even worse are recommendations from people who barely know you at all.
Wharton actively discourages that kind of title-shopping, and adds that a recommendation from a CEO or a congressman who can't speak in detail about your work won't impress the admissions committee. Choose your recommender based on how well they know you, not their prestige factor.
6. Playing Alpha-Dog
It's a tricky thing, striking the right balance between being confident and a good self-promoter without being arrogant and over the top. But being too intense is no way to win points with the admissions committee.
They don't look favorably on alpha personalities that intimidate and exclude other people. For example, using "I" in situations where "we" would be more appropriate is one potential sign that a person overemphasizes personal rather team wins. The converse is equally problematic. Overusing 'we' can raise questions like, 'Well what did you do? Are you taking credit for your team's success?'
So before you sign and seal that application, check to see if you've committed any of the above transgressions. Remember, B-schools admit offices have seen lots more applications than you have, and admissions officers have a finely-tuned ear for inauthenticity. The bottom line is that they want to see the real you -- not the person your application says you would like to be.