Admissions 101: The Less You Need Them, the More They Want You

When perusing the data and seeing the average starting salaries at the top-ranked MBA programs and law schools, it’s easy to get the impression that getting into a top graduate school can turn you from an 80-pound weakling into a money-making, world-beating dynamo. But don’t be fooled. Yes, these schools can significantly improve your earnings power, but to get in you have to demonstrate that you’re already a rockstar.

“Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “If I’m already a rockstar, then why do I need the school?” That’s a good question, but in your question already lies the answer.

Think about what nearly every business school asks in its application: Some form of the “Why do you want an MBA from this school?” question. If you can’t answer this… Well, that’s the first filter to keep out the applicants who aren’t serious. But, beyond that first-cut filter, they hope to see something like this:

I am already progressing quickly in my career, and know that a degree from your school will help me go even further.

And, they don’t only want to hear you say that, but they also want to hear it from your recommenders, and see it on your resume, and smell it on you… Wait, what? SMELL it on you? Well, that’s not far from the truth. People can smell winners and losers, and admissions officers at top business schools and law schools are especially trained in this skill. They’re not interested in finding the 28-year-old who’s stalled in his career and needs a glorious name on his resume to get things going again.

Think about what they would think if they saw this answer to the “Why an MBA from this school?” question:

My boss doesn’t get me. I haven’t yet had a chance to lead anyone. I’m just waiting for someone to discover how great I am. When they do… Watch out, world.

In this case, the applicant is saying, “I know I don’t smell like a winner, but I promise there’s a winner in here somewhere!” Why would admissions officers take a chance on that when they don’t need to? They don’t need to because they’re already inundated with applications from real rockstars, people who are already doing really well in their careers. Wouldn’t they rather admit one of them, and know that they’ll go on to great things?

So, it’s imperative that you show in your application that you’re already on the way up, and that the school can help add that extra 10% that will make you really successful. How? You need to point to evidence of what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve gone outside of your comfort zone and beyond your job description, and how you made a positive mark on the organization and community around you. That’s what a winner smells like, and that’s who an admissions officer wants to admit.

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