How to Sink an MBA Application

As many business schools approach the first-round deadline for MBA applications, the admissions committees are anticipating their annual stop in Crazy Town. Population? The one MBA applicant who steps over the line by doing something so inane, silly, or downright wrong that he or she ruins any chance of getting in.

These are not candidates who send out generic essays and forget to change the school's name, or nervously click their pens throughout the interview, although admissions teams say they see both of those errors often. These are the stories of MBA applicants who make major blunders—from proposing marriage to the admissions interviewer to including a picture of oneself aiming a bazooka—true stories that happened at IMD (IMD Full-Time MBA Profile) and ESADE (ESADE Full-Time MBA Profile), respectively, according to the admissions teams at both schools. For admissions officers, such application blunders are at worst annoying, and at best a comedic highlight to an otherwise boring day. But for applicants they can serve as cautionary tales: admission strategies that do not bear repeating.

There is no shortage of great stories about candidates who went too far in their quest for MBA admission, said Graham Richmond, chief executive officer and co-founder of the admissions consultancy Clear Admit, which is based in Philadelphia. Richmond, who previously worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile), said he has seen everything from candidates whose parents take the campus tour without their adult child to someone who wrote in a business school application (and sent relevant photos to boot) that her biggest failure was not being the maid of honor at her friend's wedding.

"For better or worse, these kinds of faux pas are the kind you don't recover from," said Richmond. "It's hard to do damage control once you're in the crazy zone."

Desperately Seeking Face Time

One of the biggest mistakes an applicant can make, Richmond said, is to constantly call, hound, or demand face time with members of the admissions committee. Linda Abraham, president and chief executive officer of the admissions consultancy in Los Angeles, has had at least one client whose behavior poisoned his relationship with the admissions team of a top business school.

He got into an argument with a clerk at an admissions office, and felt compelled to make a formal complaint with the admissions director, describing the incompetency of his workers, said Abraham, who added that the admissions director let the applicant know he wasn't impressed. The applicant got rejected at that program, and although Abraham and the applicant don't know the specific reason, they can assume that this negative interaction played a part in his rejection, Abraham added.

Sometimes, once applicants get allotted face time during the admissions interview, they make a bad impression, said Julie Barefoot, associate dean of MBA admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School (Goizueta Full-Time MBA Profile) in Atlanta.

"On more than one occasion, the person fell apart," she said. "A few years ago, someone stopped the interview and said, 'This isn't going well,' and then sobbed."

The funny thing is Barefoot thought the interview had been going smoothly until then, she said. Another time a candidate on the wait list sent bagels and wrote a note saying to think of him while eating breakfast, said Barefoot. Gifts of any kind are inappropriate, she added. Someone interviewing for IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, offered to pay $100,000 for a spot in the class, wrote Lisa Piguet, associate director of MBA admissions and marketing at the school, in an e-mail.

"It was a shock that someone would try to bribe me," she wrote.

Unbecoming Behavior

Every once in a while, a candidate comes along whose behavior is unbecoming an aspiring MBA, said Cheryl Millington, director of recruitment and admissions at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management (Rotman Full-Time MBA Profile). One applicant who met with Millington before completing the application told her that the people at the school were "unattractive and out of shape," she said. After that, he told her how he wanted to start a group on campus to help people look like him, and he pointed to parts of his physique "like he was Vanna White pointing to letters," said Millington, referring to the hostess of TV's Wheel of Fortune. Next, he told Millington that she should try eating smaller portions to get in shape herself, she added.

This same candidate, said Millington, went too far in his essays, as well, by discussing his HIV test, which came back negative. Another candidate to Rotman explained his low grades in college by describing his previous cocaine addiction, said Millington. Both of these instances, she said, were cases of too much personal information that had no bearing on the candidate's business acumen or leadership skills.

"You want to tell your story, but you have to realize these are real people reading your application," said Millington. "If you told someone at a party about a cocaine addiction as soon as you met him, how do you think he would react?"

Letters of recommendation are also sometimes ripe for blunders. A father referred his son to INSEAD (INSEAD Full-Time MBA Profile), rated him average, and wrote that he was passive and lacked the qualities of a true leader , said Caroline Diarte Edwards, director of admissions, marketing, and financial aid for the MBA program at INSEAD, which has campuses in France and Singapore. It's always better to avoid having a relative or friend write a recommendation letter, she said.

From the candidate who did a handstand and walked across the floor for Piguet to the one who turned in an application essay to Abraham with the statement "He taught me how to structure a massage effectively and how to take control of the presentation to deliver that massage most effectively," MBA application bloopers are good for a laugh and not much else, said Edwards.

"They stop us from getting bored," she said. "But they don't help the candidate's case."

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