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I am a traditional finance guy. How can I best differentiate myself from everyone else who looks and sounds like me in an application?
As top-tier business schools seek to diversify themselves and avoid becoming simply a two-year vacation for hard charging Management Consultants and Investment Bankers, it means that applying with a “traditional” background can be more challenging than it was 5 or 10 years ago. Every year, candidates from bulge bracket banks with Ivy League educations are denied admission to top schools. I say it over and over in my blog, but the admissions committee’s task is not merely to evaluate applicants and offer admission to the qualified ones, it is to select who they think will best contribute to a diverse class from among the sea of qualified applicants. Ankur Kumar, Director of MBA Admissions at Wharton, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of Wharton applicants are qualified to attend. Based on admission rates, this means that Wharton denies more than two-thirds of qualified applicants.
The HBS Admissions website states, “To create a dynamic environment that mirrors the breadth and depth of our world economy, we seek diversity. Our promise to our faculty and to every student here is to create a class of 900 students who come from as many different backgrounds and perspectives as possible.” This sounds fantastic, unless of course you’re from a background that’s overrepresented! “Diversity” can be seen as a distinct disadvantage to those who don’t believe they offer it.
Don’t worry, there’s good news in admissions numbers for you as well: 27% of HBS’ admitted class of 2014 came from the finance sector, the highest of any industry. Consulting was the second highest at 20%. So nearly half the class is comprised of consultants and bankers. At some schools, the percentage is even higher. But as you rightly assert, you will need to stand out from the crowd of similar candidates.
Please don’t do this by trying to be someone else in your applications. Don’t dream up ridiculous career goals to try to “differentiate” yourself, when you really just want to ascend the ladder in investment banking or make a transition into Private Equity. The schools want to see that you have realistic career goals given your previous experience, so be honest!
Your credentials are going to need to be strong. Good undergraduate performance, strong GMAT score, solid professional performance. Those are givens. But your grades and your job are not the only things that define you. B-schools are looking for candidates who are introspective and interesting. They look for what we call the Four Dimensions of a Perfect Candidate: Leadership, Innovation, Teamwork and Maturity.
What are some ways that you’ve shown leadership—in or outside of work? Do peers tend to see you as a leader, whether or not you have a fancy title? Other than huge quarterly bonuses, what intrigues you about the finance industry? How can you show an intellectual curiosity and innovative problem-solving mindset? Candidates from the financial sector may be stereotyped as only looking out for themselves—the global economy be damned. What experiences from your life show that you’re a true team player and that you care about things beyond yourself and your paycheck? How have you contributed to the community around you, whether at work, in community organizations or at school?
Many finance candidates spend a couple of years as an Analyst and then apply to B-school to ascend the ladder, and this is perfectly fine. However, there may be few opportunities to showcase your Personal and Professional Maturity, such as making difficult decisions, navigating ethical dilemmas, dealing with complex issues, managing challenging employees, advocating your position while understanding and incorporating opposing viewpoints, etc. Most analysts simply do their jobs and do them well. Think of specific experiences that you’ve had in your professional life, in undergrad, and in other organizations that can show that you are a mature candidate who will bring a unique set of experiences and perspectives to your MBA class.
When MBA programs say they are looking for a “diverse” class, this can certainly include traditional measures of diversity such as gender, race, ethnicity and so forth, but perhaps more importantly it means diversity of thought. (Of course, the traditional dimensions of diversity are valuable to organizations precisely because people of different backgrounds and experiences provide diversity of thought and perspective!) Imagine an HBS classroom where every student had exactly the same perspective and opinion about the case that you had. Would that provide any value to you whatsoever? Of course not. Think about your background and experiences compared to your peers in the financial industry. What experiences do you have that have affected the way you view the world? What has provided you a different perspective than some of your peers?
What are you passionate about (or what were you passionate about before you started working 100-hour weeks)? What really makes you tick? All of these introspective questions will enable you to differentiate yourself far more than so-called “international experience” that consisted of a 2-week trip to Europe and a vacation to Shanghai. It will also be far more genuine than a “newfound passion” for microfinance and a short-term career goal of working for Grameen Bank, if none of your past endeavors would lead the admissions committee to see a pattern of interest in such pursuits.
Successful MBA applicants with traditional backgrounds tend to be very introspective about their experiences and tell them in admissions essays with a very personal touch. At Veritas Prep, every GMAT student and Admissions Consulting client can receive our Personalized MBA Game Plan™ Powered by the Myers-Briggs Assessment. It helps you see your unique strengths based on the Four Dimensions of a Perfect Applicant and write stories in your essays with a more personal perspective. Instead of simply writing about a $500 million deal that you worked on, you’ll be able to analyze how your unique strengths enabled the team to succeed and how your innovative mindset helped solve a seemingly insurmountable problem. This kind of perspective will differentiate you from the hundreds of other applicants who are simply hoping to get in based on the size of the transactions they worked on and the prestige of their bulge bracket bank.
I hope this answers some of your questions, spawns ideas from your own life and will help you differentiate yourself from all those other finance candidates!
If you’re thinking about applying to business school, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!
Travis Morgan is the Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep and earned his MBA with distinction from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He served in the Kellogg Student Admissions Office, Alumni Admissions Organization and Diversity & Inclusion Council, among several other posts. Travis joined Veritas Prep as an admissions consultant and GMAT instructor, and he was named Worldwide Instructor of the Year in 2011.