Overperforming on Your MBA Applications

Lawrence Linker
PUBLISHED ON
August 14, 2019

Overperforming on Your MBA Applications

I worked in private wealth management before I did my MBA, completed the Capital Markets and Asset Management Immersion at Johnson and worked in private equity briefly before dedicating myself to MBA admissions consulting. While I don’t run the kind of business people typically think of as an asset management business, I have long been fascinated by the subject and in many ways I believe my thinking is very much guided by my experience and education in asset management.

I don’t come from a banking or a wealthy family. My parents were both very passionate teachers, so for me getting to work in education is very much a homecoming in a sense. But the first time I remembered being really interested in the idea of asset management was when I was around 13 years old and read The Millionaire Next Door.

If you haven’t read it (which you should), The Millionaire Next Door is a classic business book where the authors examine the lives, lifestyles and choices of your average American millionaire. What they found really shocked them. Most millionaires were not very high earning people. Most millionaires did not live lavish lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. Most millionaires ran businesses, had a keen eye for value, and tended to live simple lives. To the contrary, many of the people we think of as being very wealthy – doctors, traders and the like – tended to actually accumulate much less wealth over the long run because of the opulent lifestyles they lived and a number of other poor habits.

After looking at many such examples, the book groups people into two categories: Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth (PAWs), those that manage to accrue considerable fortunes oftentimes in spite of having rather average incomes; and Under Accumulators of Wealth (UAWs), people who even with tremendous income can’t seem to get out of debt or hold much in terms of assets.

I was thinking about this example recently because I see MBA applicants in very much the same way. In the MBA admissions world, you have candidates who overperform on their applications, and candidates that underperform. You have the candidates with that dream resume, unreal GPA from ultra-prestige undergrads and sky high GMATs who just can’t seem to close the deal. You also have the applicants with serious flaws in their application, whether that’s a GMAT on the very bottom of a school’s 80th percentile range (or below), a GPA that barely qualified for graduation or lackluster work experience; that somehow end up with admissions and scholarship offers that the applicants in the first category couldn’t achieve.

Like PAWs and UAWs, MBA Application Overperformers (MAOs) and MBA Application Underperformers (MAUs) have some recognizable behavior patterns which I have seen over and over in my 7 years in this business. I’ll discuss 8 of them below.

1. MAOs are driven by their mission

At the heart of every MAO is a rock solid foundation on WHY they need to gain admission to business school, and the particular programs they’re applying to. Many MAOs feel they have a special purpose to fulfill and they see B school as a stepping stone into fulfilling that purpose. Interestingly, and perhaps connected to this, MAOs are usually not particularly fussed about what their chances are, whether the MBA is “worth it” or oftentimes even what school they go to. MAOs JUST DO IT. MAOs feel their mission is too important to make contingent on admission to a particular program. They apply for schools they feel is right for them and they are more than ready to fail, regroup and move along if it doesn’t work out. For the MAO, admissions to an MBA program is not the success they seek, but rather a signpost along the path to the ultimate fulfillment of their mission.

In some way, MAOs are just a little bit like honey badgers.

2. MAUs are driven by their ego

MAUs are convinced that they deserve admission to a top school. They feel that they’ve earned it. It’s understandable, considering the incredible record of success achieved by many MAUs up to this point. They’ve looked at the stats, they know people who’ve gone to these schools and their simple assessment is that they are better. They’re not interested in doing the hard work of digging deep into what their purpose may be. They compensate for their feelings of insecurity by denigrating the very schools they’re applying to, often without even realizing it. MAUs tend to see the MBA application process from a very Machiavellian standpoint and are more interested in what to say or do to get admitted, than actually taking any meaningful steps to fulfilling their purpose (because they usually don’t know what it is anyway).

MAUs HAVE to get admitted to a top school and they fear failure more than anything.

3. MAOs want to succeed in school

MAOs are applying to schools that they believe will be the best breeding ground for their future success. They tend to think very carefully about the characteristics of the school that will support them on their journey. Every detail has meaning. Along these lines, MAOs are the most likely to choose a lower ranked school over a higher ranked school once they are admitted. They do the work for really understanding which school will be the best fit for them and they trust their gut over a published ranking.

4. MAUs just want to get admitted

MAUs will typically attend the highest ranked school they get admitted to. What happens from there is yet to be determined. Most MAUs figure they will cross that bridge when they come to it. And worst case scenario, even if it turns out to be not quite the right school, they are better off at a more highly ranked program.

As someone who interviews a lot of M7 alumni who are looking to make some money on the side, I can tell you that this calculus often does not work out.

5. MAOs know what they’re bringing to the table

MAOs don’t always have the best GPA or GMAT score, but they have a keen sense of what skills and talents they possess that are going to create success for them. They can point to how they’ve used these strengths in the past and have a plan for how to leverage these abilities to be successful in business school and their future career. MAOs have a nuanced understanding of what role they play in a team and the introspective maturity to recognize that no one is good at everything. Rather, they know what they’re good at, what areas are not natural strengths for them, and how to navigate the difference.

6. MAUs know what will impress you

MAUs read the “what we’re looking for” section of the schools they’re interested in and what they find on GMAT Club and have a laundry list of accomplishments ready to spout off at a moment’s notice. When probed, they usually aren’t able to put these achievements into any meaningful context and assume this question isn’t relevant or wouldn’t come up. Their accomplishments should stand for themselves, they feel, and the context, when probed upon, is often shockingly unrelatable.

There are no point guards among the MAUs, they are all Michael Jordans.

7. MAOs talk about their experiences

There are two reasons to highlight your experiences in MBA applications. The most obvious one is that your direct experience provides evidence for every claim you make about insights you have developed, your motivation and your fit for a particular school. The other reason is that schools are keenly aware that in a quality MBA program, you’re going to learn as much from your classmates as you will from your professors. Being able to demonstrate that you have something to contribute to that marketplace of ideas is critical to the admissions committee seeing you as someone who can add value to the class.

By talking about their experiences, and understanding which ones will be most relevant in the MBA context, MAOs create desire and certainty in the minds of the AdCom. The best MAOs understand that a mixture of personal and professional experiences creates the most well rounded picture of the applicant.

8. MAUs talk about their ideas

I can’t tell you how often I read an MBA application essay that is four paragraphs on everything the applicant will do in the future, with little grounding on what they’ve done in the past. Ambition and vision are valuable traits, but when you’re applying to business schools you’re better off keeping your feet on the ground. You’ll have plenty of time to enact your ten year Master Plan once you’ve graduated from B school and gotten a few years of serious post-MBA experience under your belt. Using excessive application real estate to pontificate on their grand vision before they’ve even planted their feet at the starting line will make the AdComs feel very nervous about admitting an applicant regardless of their profile.

If I was to summarize my intention behind this post in a sentence, it would be this: if you’re getting ready to apply to business school, no matter what you’ve done in the past or what your capabilities may be on a standardized test, every one of you CAN achieve MBA admissions success. Contrary to popular belief, there are enough seats at enough great schools available for everyone. MBA programs get a lot of qualified applicants, but they are DESPERATE for HIGH QUALITY applications.

Be humble, be sincere and be courageous. Because to the brave will go the spoils.
Good luck.

Lawrence

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BA, Philosophy, Harvard University
Swazi, based in Dubai
After graduating from Harvard University with a B.A. in Philosophy, Melusi began his career as an educator at the MATCH Middle School, a charter school devoted to educating disadvantaged youth in Boston. During his year-long fellowship at MATCH, Melusi honed his teaching and mentorship skills, which would serve him well in the years to come as an undergraduate admissions consultant and test prep trainer.

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How Melusi’s Experience Benefits You:

Melusi’s background and experience speaks to his dedication to education. He’s in this for the long haul.
He’s freaky smart, even in a company like ours which is made up of academic stars. Use his brain to enhance yours!
His training and experience adds to his natural talent for patience and breaking down difficult concepts so they are easy to understand.
Melusi
BA, Philosophy, Harvard University
Swazi, based in Dubai
After graduating from Harvard University with a B.A. in Philosophy, Melusi began his career as an educator at the MATCH Middle School, a charter school devoted to educating disadvantaged youth in Boston. During his year-long fellowship at MATCH, Melusi honed his teaching and mentorship skills, which would serve him well in the years to come as an undergraduate admissions consultant and test prep trainer.

Melusi has over four years of experience in the test prep industry, preparing students for success in standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, and GMAT, and in high school examination boards such as the International Baccalaureate and A-levels.

Drawing on his wealth of experience in the world of standardized testing, Melusi also develops content and curricula for test prep programs, which incorporate the best practices he has learned over the years. His passion for education lies in not only guiding his students in their quest for success but also encouraging them to believe in themselves and their capabilities.

How Melusi’s Experience Benefits You:

Melusi’s background and experience speaks to his dedication to education. He’s in this for the long haul.
He’s freaky smart, even in a company like ours which is made up of academic stars. Use his brain to enhance yours!
His training and experience adds to his natural talent for patience and breaking down difficult concepts so they are easy to understand.
Katelyn
BA, Boston College
M.Ed, University if Notre Dame
American, based in Taipei, Taiwan
Katelyn has worked in admissions for nearly two decades, and most recently served as the Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C. In that role, she managed the Admissions and Scholarship Committees for both the Full-time and Part-time MBA programs, so she knows what top-tier MBA programs are looking for throughout the application review process. Throughout the years, Katelyn has recruited, evaluated and interviewed thousands of candidates, so she brings a broad base of experience, perspective and valuable insight to her MBA Link clients. (She also has a lot of funny stories to tell!) In her free time, she loves exploring her new home in Taipei with her husband and two young kids.

How Katelyn’s Experience Can Benefit You:

If you're looking for someone with direct experience, making admissions and scholarships decisions and advising eager MBA candidates, Katelyn is your person! She will help you create the strongest application possible and avoid the mistakes that many applicants make during the admissions process.
Katelyn is a pro when it comes to messaging and creating a compelling narrative for applicants. She will help you position yourself so that you're optimized for success throughout the MBA application process.
Staying on track and "beating deadlines, not just meeting them" is a key ingredient to success in the admissions process. Katelyn's organized and structured approach to client coaching will help you have an enjoyable experience and mitigate stress as much as possible. She will also help you keep your eye on the prize and be ready to celebrate when the offers of admission roll in!
Ann
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30 year career of evaluating MBA candidates provide insight into the important elements of your profile.
Personal experience connecting non-traditional experience into career related skills that help set you apart as an MBA candidate.
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Indian, based in Singapore
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Having started his journey in a small university in an Indian city, he managed to get himself exposure to work and travel around the world. He developed a passion for helping candidates inch closer to their dream business schools when he managed to get into top schools with a relatively low GMAT score, which is particularly difficult for an Indian male applicant, and is a strong advocate of how compelling personal stories can make an immense impact on applications and interviews.

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Vaibhav has an insanely high rate of conversion based on his interviews. Be it for business schools in the past or in the corporate world now, he has been successful in clearing interviews with ease. He will be very helpful to anyone who wants to be ready for interviews, not just getting into business schools but also in the future once you are trying to land relevant internships and jobs.
Russell
BA, Trinity College
American, based in the US
Russell was the Associate Director of Admissions at Duke University Fuqua School of Business for 11 years. While some may not be as familiar with Fuqua, this program is consistently highly ranked, rating as high as #1 globally by Bloomberg in 2014.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Gates Foundation cofounder Melinda Gates are some of Fuqua’s many distinguished alumni.

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Russell has been traveling to Asia for 10+ years and maintains high-level connections in the major cities throughout Asia.

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The sheer volume of experience he’s had in making decisions on thousand of MBA applicants over the years means you’ll have the best odds of making the cut in a competitive school.
If you are an Asian student, Russell understands better than anyone what US and international programs are looking for in Asian candidates since consulted on many of their Asian recruiting strategies.
Russell’s infectious personality outs him immediately as a people person. His warmth, encouragement, and heartfelt connection with our clients always earn him rave reviews during the often stressful application process.
Lawrence
Founder, CEO of MBA Link
BsBa, Georgetown University
MBA, Cornell University
American based in Singapore
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Lawrence is a serial entrepreneur who is passionate about developing people and making breakthroughs in their professional lives. Anyone who’s spoken to Lawrence knows he has a way of pulling out their best.
Lawrence has lived on 3 separate continents for 5 years or longer, so he knows what it takes to integrate and succeed in a new country.
His father is a celebrated authority on creative problem solving in mathematics, and considering Lawrence’s success in finance and investing, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
Bryna
BA, Barnard College
MBA, Yale University
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Melissa
BA, Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business (dual-degree program from The Wharton School and College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania)
MBA, Wharton School of Business
MA, Arts Administration, Columbia University
Malaysian, based in Singapore
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If you don’t know how to position yourself, rely on Melissa’s artsy and perceptive way of thinking combined with her exceptional academic experience to craft a compelling story about yourself.
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Shawn
BA, Economics, University of Pennsylvania
MBA, Harvard Business School
American, based in the US
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Shawn is the kind of person who can take a big picture goal and implement it through minute detail.
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BA, Journalism, New York University
MBA, London Business School
Chinese, based in Canada
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A graduate of London Business School, Venus now serves as an alumni interviewer for the organization.

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If you're a shy or naturally reserved candidate, Venus can share some time-tested tips for overcoming nerves and owning the spotlight!