Make Your B-School Application Stand Out

Admissions consultant Linda Abraham recently offered tips to prospective MBAs on ways to improve their applications. Here's a transcript

Getting into a top B-school is more competitive than ever. That's why a growing number of applicants are turning to admissions consultants (BusinessWeek, 10/3/06). The jury is still out on whether applicants should be permitted a helping hand (BusinessWeek, 6/27/06) in the lengthy and difficult process designed to weed out the best candidates. But many applicants think consultants give them an edge over their equally talented and smart peers.

Recently, admissions consultant Linda Abraham (ConsultantLinda) fielded questions about this and more from reporter Francesca Di Meglio (FrancescaBW) and an audience of applicants. Abraham, the founder and president of the consultancy Accepted, also offered lots of advice on how to navigate the application process. Here is an edited transcript of the event:

FrancescaBW: Linda, I thought we'd start out with having you tell us the type of service you offer clients.

ConsultantLinda: We offer our clients admissions advising. By that I mean advice on school choice and application strategy and tactics. We also provide essay and résumé editing, interview coaching, and wait-list letter editing.

justinpwood: What would you say are the most important components of a good application essay?

ConsultantLinda: Authenticity. Specifics. Enthusiasm. Insight.

raup999: How can you overemphasize the fit factor in your application?

ConsultantLinda: I don't think you can overemphasize fit. The key is to do so thoroughly and well. Spitting back marketing jargon from the school's Web site is doing it poorly. Demonstrating that you share the school's values and that the school distinctly supports your goals and learning style effectively communicates fit.

justinpwood: Can you expound on authenticity?

ConsultantLinda: Authenticity means genuinely reflecting your interests, goals, and past experiences. Yes, you want to put your best foot forward, but it has to be YOUR foot. Don't say what you think the schools want to hear. They hear it constantly, and you won't distinguish yourself from the masses doing the same thing. Tell them your story as well as you can, emphasizing those parts of your story that reveal why you want to attend, your qualifications, and fit.

abhishekg: Do you think talking about a failure and your learning experience (similar to Wharton No. 2) is a good idea for Kellogg's 4B [essay question]?

ConsultantLinda: It could work. It depends on the rest of your application.

Anzhansen: Why would anyone apply to a school in any other round but R1?

ConsultantLinda: If his or her application will be qualitatively better in Round 2 or even Round 3, he or she should wait. Remember Linda's Rule: Apply in the first round possible PROVIDED you don't compromise the quality of your application.

abhishekg: I am sure adcom is sick of hearing about courses, faculty, and clubs as an answer to Why SchoolX? Are there other factors that you can point us to that would be good to differentiate and show good fit?

ConsultantLinda: I'm not sure I agree with your assumption. If you show how specific and unique aspects of the program support your specific goals, then you are showing fit. On the other hand, if you talk about first-year basic courses and the clubs that exist at all B-schools, you are probably right. Write about aspects of the program, including profs, classes, clubs, and programs not found at all schools.

sriswetha: Top schools seem to stress voluntary activities or extracurricular activities. Is that true?

ConsultantLinda: Yes. They want well-rounded students who have diverse interests and have shown a willingness to act on those interests. They want participants and leaders, not couch potatoes.

Anzhansen: Would it ever be a good idea to ask subordinates for letters of recommendation?

ConsultantLinda: "Ever" is a very strong word, but I would sure try my hardest to avoid asking a subordinate for a rec.

Anzhansen: What schools in the top 25 are most likely to admit someone below age 28?

ConsultantLinda: All the schools in the top 25 are likely to admit applicants under 28. It depends how much under 28 and more specifically and importantly, what have they done since completing college.

stephane88: What is the percentage of applicants who use an admissions consultant each year?

ConsultantLinda: There are not accurate statistics that I am aware of. In a discussion among AIGAC [Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants] members recently we estimated roughly 20% in the U.S. and probably much higher abroad. But those numbers are a hunch. There is no question that use of consultants is growing steadily.

abhishekg: For the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business essay No. 1, I am not sure what falls in the realm of "personal" goals. Can you give some insight on ideas that would not be considered clichéd?

ConsultantLinda: Personal goals would be nonprofessional goals. It could include something like taking a major role in a service, arts, political, or religious organization. It could include some kind of sports goal (climbing the seven highest peaks in the world, learning a musical instrument). The list is endless, but it should reflect your values and be connected to what you have done in the past. Don't say you want to save the whales if you have never been to the beach or previously demonstrated interest in their existence.

riyya: I wanted to get in touch with an overall counselor or admissions consultant who could help me in increasing my chances at getting into the best graduate schools. Please advise.

ConsultantLinda: I can recommend If you want a greater choice of consultants, look at the membership directory at These are graduate admissions consultants committed to adhering to a code of best practices that includes professional development.

stephane88: In this day and age, do you think that it is imperative to employ the service of an admissions consultant to have a better chance to get admitted?

ConsultantLinda: Sure I do. But the roughly 80% of admitted applicants who didn't use a consultant might disagree. Consultants bring enormous experience to bear in working with you. In addition, good writing requires editing. That's why professionals always have editors. They bring an objective and seasoned eye to good work. Amateurs can benefit, too.

Finally, the introspective writing required in application essays is different from academic writing or business writing. You frequently haven't been trained in this genre.

Cassidy: I've done my homework on a school and I am preparing for an interview. Any suggestion as to a good question I might be able to ask?

ConsultantLinda: I have a blog post on that. Take a look at after the chat for specifics. In the meantime, your questions should reflect your research into the school and how it fits your needs. After you go through the Web site and the publicly available info, you should have some doubts and questions. Those are the ones you should ask.

sriswetha: Do voluntary activities [you mention in the application] have to be recent or do applicants normally talk about their experience from when they were doing their undergrad?

ConsultantLinda: Recent is better, but if you don't have recent, then write about what you did as an undergrad.

riyya: Most universities are categorized under four major areas of business studies: accounting, marketing, management, and finance. Please advise on the best MBA university that specializes in strategy.

ConsultantLinda: There are a number of top programs known for general management and strategy. Check out, in no particular order: Harvard Business School, Stanford, Tuck, Darden, Haas, Michigan, and Kellogg.

stephane88: Do B-schools set a quota for each background (nationality, work experience, industry, etc.)?

ConsultantLinda: They say they value diversity but do not have quotas.

sriswetha: How important is the GMAT score compared to work experience or voluntary activities, considering that not all applicants have had the chance to save orphans in Cambodia?

ConsultantLinda: The GMAT score is critical if it is low. It can keep you out. At the top schools, it can't get you in. At those schools with plenty of applicants with high GMAT scores, work experience, leadership, teamwork, and international exposure will play decisive roles for applicants with competitive GMATs, especially if the applicant comes from common subgroups in the applicant pool.

justinpwood: I have tried to use a sort of academic style when writing essays (using a thesis statement, topic sentences, intro, and conclusion, etc.), but have found that it is difficult to make it work with the introspective writing required in MBA applications. Should I bag the formality? What insights can you offer on writing structure and style?

ConsultantLinda: I am, in general, in favor of theses, paragraphs, and topic sentences. I like good, well-structured writing. I don't see a conflict between introspection and those tools of clarity. I think I would have to see the essays. Certainly, if your style is stiff and verbose, then you need to loosen up, but don't throw everything you ever learned about good writing out the window. It still has value.

riyya: There are university degrees, innovative online degrees from very few schools, and certified education for highly accomplished professionals. Which do you recommend? I want to make sure that I get the best education.

ConsultantLinda: That depends on your goals. What do you want to accomplish? Which programs will help you do so? Keep in mind that at this point in time, the online programs tend not to have the same credibility as traditional programs, but they are much less expensive and with a lower opportunity cost.

stephane88: From your experience, are there many PhDs, MDs, or JDs who apply for a business school? Do these individuals have an edge over someone who only has a BS degree?

ConsultantLinda: We always have a few PhDs, MDs, and JDs as clients every year, but not a lot. They usually have a greater challenge in explaining why they now want an MBA. Some also struggle to show the leadership and management skills B-schools like to see. Those other professional degrees are double-edged swords.

FrancescaBW: How far along in the application process should I be before turning to a consultant?

ConsultantLinda: I think the earlier the applicant comes to us the better. Having a GPA and GMAT score are good, but even without that we can advise applicants on steps they can take in the year before they apply to strengthen their profile.

FrancescaBW: What kind of reaction do you usually get from B-school administrators? How do they usually feel about consultants?

ConsultantLinda: At this point in time, we have a professional relationship with almost all B-school administrators. Accepted also hosts chats and the overwhelming majority of our 150-plus chats have been with admissions directors. They all condemn services that write essays, but services like Accepted, or the AIGAC members that advise and edit, are increasingly viewed as professionals on the admissions scene, if not partners in the process.

FrancescaBW: What's your No. 1 piece of advice to applicants?

ConsultantLinda: I have two No. 1 pieces of advice. The No. 1 piece of advice for school choice is to focus first on your goals and qualifications to determine where you want to apply. Rankings are data points and should not be determinative. Obviously, my advice requires you to know what your post-MBA goals are.

My No. 1 piece of advice for essays relates to my first answer on the chat. You want to put your best foot forward in answering the questions. That means [demonstrating] what is distinctive about you and important to you.

FrancescaBW: What's the best way to get a higher math score [on the GMAT]?

ConsultantLinda: You're definitely moving away from my area of expertise in asking about the GMAT quant score, but I would recommend taking a prep course and being relentless about doing practice problems again and again and again.

FrancescaBW: What's the biggest mistake that applicants make when completing their application?

ConsultantLinda: There are a few: Failing to proofread so that they leave the name of another school in the essays. Writing what they think the schools want to read instead of thinking about what the school should know. Applying before clarifying their post-MBA goal.

FrancescaBW: How did you get started in the MBA admissions consulting business?

ConsultantLinda: That's a bit of a long story. I'll condense it. In the early 1990s, I had started an editing service aimed at college and grad students. I kept being asked to edit personal statements. I realized that if students applied journalistic techniques to their essays, the essays would be more interesting and engaging. I read all I could about admissions and decided to make grad school admissions my niche.

stephane88: How many schools should one apply for? Do admission consultants set a realistic strategy for the clients?

ConsultantLinda: I recommend four to six. Since this is going to be a tough year, I would raise the top number to eight. Admissions consultants work with applicants to develop a realistic strategy based on their goals and qualifications.

FrancescaBW: In the application, do you advise applicants to have a clear post-MBA goal even if they are unsure of what they'll actually end up doing?

ConsultantLinda: I advise applicants to clarify their goals before they apply. No one can be sure of what he or she will do in three years, but an individual's choice of schools should be guided by that goal. In addition, applicants won't have time to research a goal once they arrive at B-school. They will immediately start with internship recruiting. They really need to have a clear direction when they arrive and, as I mentioned, when they apply. Schools want to see that applicants can develop intelligent goals for themselves based on self-assessment.

justinpwood: What kinds of journalistic techniques do you recommend that we use?

ConsultantLinda: I recommend an anecdotal and illustrative opening to many essays, followed by a theme. This approach won't work for all essays, but it works very effectively for many. Also journalists are big believers in the active voice—another great means of making your writing more direct, succinct, and active. Finally, journalists also use active, vivid verbs that frequently involve the senses—again very effective in relating a story.

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