2. Develop the Right Application Strategy in Your Essays

Once you've gotten your GMAT score into the proper range, the most important thing you can do is write good essays, not try to push your score up a few more points by retaking the exam. An extra 30 points will not be worth nearly as much as a well thought out set of essays that convince admissions officers that you have something valuable to contribute to their schools.

Your work background will determine who you compete against for admission spots. But what you say about your background and how well you say it will determine whether you beat those competitors. That's why the essays are so important.

The Admissions Process

To understand the admissions process, you have to look at it from an admissions officer's point of view. Each year the staff tries to assemble a well-rounded class consisting of people from a broad range of work backgrounds. It's important that they assemble a diverse group because many assignments in B-school are collaborative and interdisciplinary. Consequently, projects will be more successful and students will learn more if their teammates can contribute their own unique perspectives.

The admissions staff faces a tough challenge, though, in assembling a diverse class because the vast majority of applicants to top programs come from only two broad work categories: finance and consulting. Many of these people have worked at the most prestigious firms. They got good grades as undergraduates (or they wouldn't have been hired by top firms), and almost all of them take GMAT prep courses because that's part of the culture at their firms. In other words, they have a lot going for themselves.

I've coached a lot of applicants with this type of background. They've come from large asset management companies, top investment banks, and well known consulting firms. They are very competitive and tend to do well on the GMAT. (I've had whole classes of them that averaged over 700.) And they make the competition in their categories pretty tough.

If admissions officers were to select candidates strictly on the basis of GMAT scores and undergraduate GPAs, their student bodies would be comprised almost entirely of people from finance and consulting backgrounds, which would make for bad class dynamics.

The admissions people know about this disparity, of course, and they compensate for it by starting with an ideal profile of the class they hope to assemble.

A Typical Class Profile

Given the differences among top schools, I'm always surprised by the consistency they show when selecting their classes. At most programs, approximately 60 to 65 percent of admitted students will come from finance and consulting backgrounds. That's why some believe incorrectly that those are the best backgrounds from which to apply (they offer the most spots). But as I've already mentioned, a disproportionate number of people apply from those backgrounds, making them very competitive categories.

The consistency in composition should tell you something about how admissions officers choose their classes. Namely, if you come from a finance background, you will, for the most part, compete only with other finance people for the limited number of finance spots available. If you are a consultant, you will compete with other consultants. It's more a practice dictated by circumstances than an explicit policy acknowledged by admissions officers (though some acknowledge it).

Although there are no strict quotas for each category, the final numbers are amazingly consistent from year to year regardless of the number of finance or consulting people who actually apply. The overwhelming number of applicants from a few categories, coupled with the need to assemble a diverse group, in effect, forces admissions people to pit consultant against consultant and investment banker against investment banker, even without an explicit policy to do so.

And it makes sense to compare apples to apples. After all, what evaluation criteria would you use if you had to choose between an asset manager and a software engineer?

Which Categories are the Most Competitive?

Investment banking and management consulting are probably the most competitive categories. Virtually everyone who works in those fields needs to go to B-school in order to move up in the industry.

To my knowledge, no school has ever released the median GMAT scores of its students grouped by occupation, so I have to rely on my personal experience. But it's clear to me that, ON AVERAGE, accepted candidates from the very competitive finance and consulting backgrounds have higher GMAT scores than do accepted candidates from less competitive categories. I've coached too many students through the test not to see the pattern.

Don't be discouraged if you fall into one of these categories. Later we'll talk about how to differentiate yourself in the application essays so you won't look like all the other consultants or investment bankers in the pile.

What are the Less Competitive Categories?

I'm sure you're wondering about this one. After, "What do you score on the GMAT?" it's the question I'm asked most frequently: "What's the easiest work background from which to apply?"

Think about it from the admissions officer's point of view. Say you have 300 seats to fill. About 100 will go to applicants from finance backgrounds, and another 100 will go to people from consulting backgrounds. You will use the final 100 spots to broaden your class and add some depth of experience to the group.

You'll need some marketing people and some people from technical backgrounds. And every class has a few disenchanted lawyers and doctors along with some real outliers — people with tremendously unique experience that will be valuable to their classmates. But none of these is the easiest category.

In my experience, the easiest background from which to apply is nonprofit, in part because very few people from nonprofit firms apply to top business schools. B-school has a reputation for being a very competitive place, and competition isn't part of the culture of the average nonprofit corporation. So I regularly see people with very modest GMAT scores get accepted by top-tier business schools because those schools are trying to broaden the perspective of their classes and, at the same time, promote an increasingly important business sector. A number of schools have even developed substantial curricula to address the needs of nonprofit leaders.

So, for what it's worth, that's what I've seen with nonprofit applicants. But I've also seen a fair number of people from government and military backgrounds who get into top programs even though their GMAT scores are pretty modest (below their schools' median 80 percent range). Again, I think these people add depth to a class, and admitting them allows business schools to reach into important public-sector organizations to influence the ways in which they are run.

Your Essay Strategy

All of this plays into your strategy. In writing the application essays, your strategy should be to highlight the unique experiences you've had — both on the job and in your personal life — that you believe will be valuable to your classmates. If you were assigned to an economic development project in Vietnam, for instance, that's unique. So is working in a refugee camp in Poland. Very few people can bring that kind of experience to the table, and schools are looking for applicants who can share that background in the classroom. They will gladly discount GPA and GMAT scores to get those people into their programs.

But you don't need experience in a Third World country to have something unique and valuable to offer. A lot of my GMAT students are consultants with big firms such as Bain, BCG, and Deloitte. In large part, they all have the same generic work experience, and most of them make the mistake of discussing that experience in their essays.

Think about how that looks to an admissions officer. She's got a pile of applications on her desk from consultants in every Bain and Deloitte office around the world, and every applicant is talking about the same thing. How does she decide who to choose?

Be Unique

When I work with applicants who are consultants, I ask them not to write about the mundane tasks that everyone does at the pre-MBA level but instead to focus on one or two of their assignments that were unique and interesting. I ask them to go into detail about that work. Tell me exactly what you did and why you think it was important. Convince me, as an admissions officer, that your experience will be valuable to your classmates, and I'll let you in.

That's the key to getting into top business schools. Convince me in your essays that you have something valuable to share with your potential classmates, and I'll ignore your not-so-hot GMAT score and undergraduate GPA. I see it all the time. People with modest GMAT scores but valuable experiences are regularly admitted to top programs.

The problem, of course, is writing about yourself. That's tremendously hard to do. You may think that a certain experience is pretty mundane, but others may find it interesting. I'm amazed by the experience that some people will leave out of their essays. I remember one applicant who, after we had already worked through a couple schools, told me she had been a world class figure skater as a teenager and was still active in skating. When I asked her why she hadn't told me that at the beginning she said she didn't think it was important.

Essay Tutorial

Most people I meet have experience that is good enough to get them into top programs, but they don't know what admissions officers are looking for so they stumble through some mind-numbing babble in their essays and end up being rejected.

Our consulting work with applicants involves talking through their work experiences, determining what in their background is unique and valuable, and then making sure they get that valuable experience down on paper in a clear and concise manner. We want a reader who knows nothing about the applicant to be able to understand his story and to find something in that applicant's background that is unique and valuable to his potential classmates. Remember, the evaluation process is mostly about what you can do for the school, not what the school can do for you.

Be sure to read our brief tutorial that addresses some do's and don'ts of application essay writing. Our work with applicants is much more detailed, but the general comments found in the tutorial should get you started.