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The 3rd Dimension of an MBA Applicant’s Profile – Extracurricular Activities

Something commonly seen at B-schools is that most applicants are fairly accomplished at work as well as academics. They would have received multiple promotions, commendations, etc., would have been in the top 5%-10% of their undergraduate class, and would have good scores on standardized tests. So how do B-schools choose one applicant over another when they all seem equally competent? They select those students who contribute to the diversity of the student body and also show a high level of maturity. A reliable indicator of these two is a student’s interest and participation in extracurricular activities.

An extracurricular activity is something that goes above and beyond one’s daily tasks, whether it is going to office or attending classes at school. The activity could be sports, music, theater, arts, photography, learning a new language, organizing events, volunteering for a cause, teaching, building expertise on a specific topic of interest, traveling, something unique or quirky, or hundreds more. Done over a sustained period of time in earnest, these activities help develop a well-rounded, mature personality. They often help build leadership, teamwork and organization skills and open up a whole new world of perspectives for the individual. Which B-school wouldn’t appreciate that in an applicant?

While writing your essays, it is important to understand which activities are truly application-worthy and which deserve only a passing mention. Activities to which very little time and effort have been dedicated are not impressive. “Learned guitar for 3 months” does not show dedication. Similarly, highlighting your participation in stray company events or volunteering with an NGO just to put it on your CV will not help your case. The duration of your involvement with an activity shows your dedication to it and gives a sense of stability. These are personality traits of importance to B-schools.

Another important facet of extracurricular activities is accomplishments. If you have excelled at these activities and have formal recognition to show for it, apart from doing well in your main responsibilities at work or school, it speaks volumes about your abilities as an individual. It also shows that you have tremendous passion for anything that you take up, a passion that you will also bring to the MBA program that you plan to take up at this particular school. So make sure you flaunt your awards and certificates in your essays. This doesn’t mean you should be cocky and arrogant about it, but a B-school application is not the place to be humble either.

To summarize, if you have a unique interest, hobby or activity outside of work and school, if you have put a substantial amount of time and effort into it, and if you are very good at it, write essays that leverage it well and bring out the 3rd dimension of your personality. This will substantially boost your chances of getting (and converting) an interview ca

10 Common mistakes in MBA application and essay writing that must be avoided

Writing the MBA application essays is an art which may not be that easy to learn and implement. However, knowing what not to do during MBA application process is definitely a science. Here is an attempt to translate this into 10 simple tips on what one must avoid while selecting the b-schools and writing the essays, which form a critical parameter for selection.

1) Not researching the schools well –

MBA is big decision and perhaps a life changing event. One must do a good amount of introspection regarding short term and long term goals, interests, individual personality before identifying the schools to apply to. MBA schools are very particular about fit and one must do research on culture, specializations, activities and student profiles of various b-schools while short-listing.

Also, do not forget parameters such as location, duration and your budget while taking the call.

2) Not being yourself –

A very common mistake applicants make is faking either what they have done or what they are as a person. This does not help at all. Even if a candidate manages to get an interview call, adcoms are smart enough to identify what you have made up.

Self reflection should tell you what the strengths you actually possess are and what are your weaknesses. Writing what you are in essays will give you confidence to face interviews well.

3) Being flamboyant or demeaning others –

This is a complete NO. Do not ever try to boast too much about yourself. You do need to sell your profile to the adcom but never give a feeling of being arrogant.

While you are free to appreciate your qualities, you are not supposed to demean others. For example – you can’t say, “I often took initiative in my team while other team members never did so”.

4) Usage of heavy English –

The MBA selection board wants to know you and this may not necessarily need heavy English. A good usage of vocabulary is advised. However, one should not expect the adcom to read the essays with a dictionary in hand.

Write the way you are comfortable. Do not insert heavy words just for the sake of it.

5) Using the abused words and buzzwords

Sometimes applicants feel that usage of hot words such as globalization, e-commerce, synergy, diversity etc will put some more weight to their application. On the contrary, it reduces the quality of your essays. An occasional or relevant usage is fine but please do not overuse these.

Also try to highlight your traits indirectly rather than using the abused words like ‘Leadership’, ‘Team player” etc which have become cliché. Instead you could use traits that reflect leadership. Eg – “Standing for the team in hour of need” or “creating examples for others to follow”

6) Inconsistency –

If you have written taking initiative as strength at one place, you can not indicate the same as an improvement area somewhere else in your application.

Contradictions of any kind should be eliminated during the essay reviews.

7) Not being specific –

Details do matter. You have to support your points with examples. Demonstrated qualities add more value to your profile than just saying, I have been excellent at a particular skill.

8) Problem of plenty –

An essay should not contain too many points. In order to leave a mark on the admissions committee when it reads your essay, it is imperative that story is built around a few points and a coherent theme emerges.

This also applies to overall application. Hence you cannot bring out 10 strength areas in different essays. Just focus on say 3-4 traits and highlight them in different ways throughout the application.

9) Excess of ornamentation –

Creativity is good but one should note that you are not writing a poem. Refrain from excessive mentions of quotations or using too much of rhyme or artistic language

10) Only explaining ‘What’, not explaining ‘How’ and ‘Why’ –

It does not suffice to write that you got business worth USD 20 million for your organization, you must briefly mention how (i.e. what specific steps you took to get this).

Similarly if you say you like social service, do mention why do you do this (what motivates you)

Low GMAT score? Make up for it with your essays.

Very often, B-school aspirants get de-motivated or discouraged by a GMAT score that is below their expectations. They let their application efforts get sidetracked, do a half-hearted job or decide not to apply at all. Well, this may come as a surprise to some, but the GMAT score is not the most important criterion in the evaluation of B-school applications!

The GMAT Official Score Report states that you will “most likely earn a Total score within about 30 points of a score reflecting your true ability”. So one could argue that a person who got 570, 30 points less than his “true” score, is just as good as another person who got 630, 30 points more than his “true” score, “true” scores for both being 600. Similarly, someone who gets 690 may be just as good as someone who gets 750. Extreme cases, no doubt, but they demonstrate an underlying inaccuracy in the standardized test scores. B-schools recognize this inaccuracy. That is why they use the GMAT score as one of several approximate indicators of an individual’s academic ability and not as an exact measurement of his or her potential for success in life.

What schools say they care about (and this is what they actually do care about!) is the overall strength of the candidate. Schools evaluate candidates, through essays and interviews, on 4 key factors (or a variation of these):

  1. Purpose and value proposition – Articulation of short term and long term goals, need for business education, role of the school in the achievement of the goals, strengths the applicant brings to the table, diversity, a mutually beneficial relationship, etc.
  2. Work experience – quality, quantity, leadership skills, teamwork, international and cross-cultural exposure, in-depth domain knowledge, contacts and networks in the industry, etc.
  3. Personality – Well-rounded and multi-dimensional personality, good communication skills, extra-curricular activities outside of work and school, travel and variety of experiences, fit with the school, diversity w.r.t. the rest of the applicant pool, contributions to society, ethical values, etc.
  4. Academic ability – Performance in undergraduate classes, results of standardized tests (this includes GMAT), certifications, courses, workshops, etc.

As can be seen, the decision to make an offer of admission depends on one’s ability to showcase various strengths and facets of your personality – mainly through essays and interviews. The GMAT score, in that sense, plays a rather diminished role in the decision-making process.

So if you are an MBA aspirant with a not-so-great GMAT score, don’t worry. Instead, put in the effort to craft an application that can’t be ignored! Clearly state your goals and value proposition, showcase your personality, and write powerful, compelling essays to make a strong case for why you should be admitted. Then wait for your interview call.

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A geometric view to B school admissions

‘What will get me into my B school of choice?’ is as profound a question in B school admission circles as ‘What is the meaning of life?’ outside of it. While the latter would require reams of paper and me to be an incarnation of the Buddha, the former is a little less intimidating.

The four quadrant approach to explain admission into a business school is something that I particularly have a fancy for. If Michael Porter takes a fancy for geometric shapes to explain strategy, should we be far behind?

The bottom line is: most institutes are in search for smart individuals who would fit into the fabric of the institute. And a manifestation of that search is the four quadrants of the graphic below.

The first quadrant is the application profile quadrant. The academic pedigree of the student, the work experience, the extra curricular activities and the diversity that he/she will bring into the classroom are intrinsic to this quadrant. For an applicant, this is the ‘facts and figures of my life’ quadrant.

The second quadrant is the GMAT quadrant. Despite not being an adamant believer of the doctrine that life is a number line, it is a fact of the living world that numbers like GMAT scores do matter. The score serves as a benchmark for institutes to evaluate the analytical and verbal abilities of the applicant. Whether this is justified or not is for a debate for other times.

The third quadrant is the application essays quadrant. Thankfully, the essay as against popular belief is not a check of your creative abilities. If it were, only Lord Byron and Shakespeare would have made it to the Ivy League. Perhaps posthumously. The aim of the essays is to discover the personality that is the applicant. They are very often instruments that the applicant should make use of to warrant a personal meeting.

The fourth and the final quadrant is the Interview quadrant. It is a privileged quadrant; one that is opened up to those who have made the cut in the other three. Institutes take interviews seriously because they fully well know that the ones they are talking to are the ones who will carry the name of the institute in the outside world tomorrow.

Good luck.

How most B schools evaluate applications

Most B schools evaluate the applications holistically. The various parameters on which applicants are evaluated are undergraduate Academic performance, GMAT score, Work experience (both duration and quality of it), extra curriculars and any other special achievements which can help the candidate earn brownie points.

On an average B schools assign the following weightage:

Undergraduate Academic performance : 10 %

GMAT score : 20 %

Work experience (both duration and quality of it as seen through letters of recommendation): 20 %

Application & essays : 20 %

Extra curriculars : 10 %

Interview : 20 %

Role of GMAT, work ex., essays in MBA admissions

Role of GMAT, work ex., essays in MBA admissions

As indicated, 40% weightage is on tangibles which can’t be changed in a short time or can’t be changed at all. Rest 60 % can be done better ( GMAT score, essays and interview ) and can increase your chances drastically.

When B schools evaluate applications they give marks on all the parameters and calculate the weighted score.e.g. if an applicant gets 80 on undergraduate Academic performance, 90 on GMAT score, 60 on Work experience, 50 on Application & essays & 30 on extra curriculars ( all out of 100), the weighted score is 80X0.10 + 90X0.20 + 60X0.20 + 50X0.20 + 30X0.10 = 60 ( out of 80 , interview score not added).

Now top N students are given interview calls based on these scores. After interviews, the interview scores are added to the above score to calculate the total weighted score and again top M ( # of seats) students are given admission offers.

Disclaimer: This above analysis is based on talks and inputs from adcoms and students of different schools and profile on inputs class for various years and not on data released by any school.


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