How To Stand Out from the Herd

Does your paper profile look like everybody else's? Stop thinking about yourself in terms of stereotypes and start emphasizing your unique traits

After Akshay Mansukhani scored a 710 on his GMAT, he knew he could retake it and get a 750 and climb to the 99th percentile. But in order to score a spot at Wharton (which last year had a median GMAT score of 710), the native of India took the advice of a professor he had while a student at Wharton's undergrad program and instead chose to spend his time perfecting the essay portion of his application. "The way the Indian education system is set up, grades mean everything," says Mansukhani who graduated in 2004 and now works as an investment banker at UBS (UBS) in New York. "But applying to business school is like building a house. Your scores are only one pillar—if it doesn't have the other pillars it doesn't stand up properly."

For international students like Mansukhani, being from a country where large numbers of students are also seeking a U.S. b-school education can make it more difficult for your application to stand out from the pile in the admissions office, even with top-notch test scores. And it's not just where you're from, it's also what you've done that can put you into the one-of-a-crowd category. There are plenty of applicants with backgrounds in consulting and banking, In other words, it's not that you're not right for business school. For business schools seeking diversity in their classes, you're too right.

So—when you can't change who you are—how do you make your application something more than just one of many?

Stop Stereotyping Yourself

First of all, say the experts, stop stereotyping yourself. Obviously, with background and experience a large part of the application process, it's important to realize that others have had similar experiences, says Thomas Caleel, Wharton's director of admissions. But that's just a starting point for building your own application personality. "Identifying with a [pool] is different from being in a pool," Caleel adds. "As soon as people start thinking about themselves in a pool that's where the process starts to break down."

Taking time to reflect on what you'll say in the application essay can show that you're not just following the pack, Caleel adds. "Once you really start to drill down on an individual, there are 20 pools that we can put you in," he said, such as "where they're from or what industry they're working in or what company they're working for." In order to dig deeper, Caleel recommends examining the purposely vague essay questions and using them as a vehicle to cover various facets of your life including hobbies, personal experiences, leadership roles, and favorite activities.

Coming across as genuine in essays is vital. And officials agree that the main reason applicants get rejected is because the application is based on what they perceive admissions people want to hear instead of being truly authentic. "A lot of people think we're most concerned about the prettiness of the essays, nothing could be further from the truth—it's not an essay writing contest," says Caleel.

Mixing Up the Essay

Those inside admissions offices at top business schools acknowledge that while potential students are all held to the highest standards, applications are looked at on an individual basis. "If we get an entrepreneur from Kenya, his application is going to be less polished then a McKinsey consultant from New York," says Caleel, adding that this way of considering applications gives each school an opportunity to assemble a diverse entering class. Further expanding on his example, Caleel explains that someone who's immersed in the business community and appears so on paper is also assessed as such in his application, and often given less wiggle room.

Admissions consultant Jeremy Shinewald, the founder of MBA Mission, is straightforward with some of his clients, warning them that they're in a "high-risk group that faces strong competition—either because of ethnicity, country of origin, or work history. To demonstrate individuality, Shinewald recommends writing the essay out of chronological order by skipping the traditional introduction and getting right into a unique story which veers away from an all-too-familiar background. "A lot of people can write, 'When I started as an analyst at Morgan Stanley,'" says Shinewald. "If you were to say Arriving in Minneapolis, I rushed to meet the CFO of Best Buy,' it's a much more gripping way of introducing yourself."

But having a career similar to other b-school applicants can also have its upside. If you're applying from an area of business that's heavily represented in b-schools, chances are your higher-ups will often have an MBA. Matt Milanovich, a first year at Northwestern's Kellogg and a former consultant, took advantage of these available resources before applying.

Connect With People, Not Web Sites

After starting on his application, Milanovich asked co-workers who already had MBAs to answer his questions and help walk him through the process. He also managed to get recommendations from managers who had an understanding of the business school experience—something that's not always possible for non-traditional applicants. "As a consultant you want to make the most of the contacts that you have," says Milanovich who had four years of work experience before applying.

If your previous career doesn't provide such resources, giving your interview and application an insider slant by learning about the school could help. Tina Mabley, the director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, recommends checking in with student volunteers, meeting alumni, or visiting the school.

It will automatically give you a better understanding of the school and prevent you from using the "three marketing slogans available on the Web site," she adds. But Mabley warns that using information about the school is different from sounding too rehearsed and simply repeating information. "The worst thing is when you're in an interview and [a potential student is] telling you something they read on a chat board or heard from a friend," she adds.

More Than Grades and Scores

University of Arizona Eller School of Management student Greg Goodman knew he needed to somehow stand out as something more than just another white male applying to the school. He focused on his experience as an officer in the military and how he would bring armed forces leadership skills to the b-school environment.

He also chose to write the optional scholarship essay to show the admissions team that he was a serious applicant—and got a 50% reduction in tuition for his efforts. "I realized that there were other white males applying and I focused on [different aspects]," says Goodman. "It was just drawing on personal experience and taking a step back [in order to see] the big picture."

While high GMAT scores tend to speak for themselves, the rest of an application should convey who you are and what you'll be like as a student. Deena Maerowitz, a senior admissions consultant with ClearAdmit, a private admissions consulting firm, agrees that especially for students who fall into a very crowded pool of similar candidates, numbers alone don't cut it. "It's not all about grades and scores," she says. "It's important to show what you'll bring to the community."

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