Application Boo-Boos

By Christopher Zoukis

More than likely you’ve read about the obvious boo-boos you want to steer clear of in your business school application.  Since you’re already aware of those, let’s talk about the dangerous but not very obvious missteps that lurk like quicksand in the application process.  This article is for applicants who already know the rudiments of the process and want to move on to the more cryptic elements.  They’re cryptic because they’re hard to see and hard to explain.  Admissions committees don’t want to admit they exist, but they do.  So if you’re gunning for one of the top three schools, learning how to dodge around these veiled pitfalls can be the difference between acceptance and rejection.  Image courtesy schools.penncrest.org

Mistake 1:  Don’t Get Grandiose

In a perfect world, everyone wants to be Mother Theresa and save the world.  A lot of applicants, just like Miss America contestants, believe that’s what will get their foot in the door at the school of their choice.  If you demonstrate how unselfish and compassionate and caring you are, everyone will melt and think this is the kind of person we want at our school, right?  You can peddle the saccharine all day long, but if your philanthropic pitch doesn’t align with your personal history, it won’t sell.  For example, you tell the committee that your heart’s desire is to work on developing microfinance programs in West Africa, yet nothing in your background indicates any such prior interest.  The only way such an assertion would be true would be if you actually came from Ghana and have already worked with Kiva.org, a microfinance non-profit organization, for the last few years.  Your skill set matches your aspirations.

Many applicants believe expressing an attraction to the non-profit field is the key to winning the hearts and minds of admissions officers.  That approach did not work well in the Viet Nam War and will fail just as miserably with admissions officers, who, through experience, know when someone is blowing smoke in their face.

Mistake 2:  Don’t Be Afraid to Dream The Impossible Dream

America is a land of dreams and ambition, and people who don’t have enough of either are viewed as unmotivated.  Elite business schools are not looking for students whose lifelong ambition is to work in middle-management, retire after forty years, and collect a gold watch at their retirement party.  Elite business schools are seeking the next Steve Jobs, Meg Whitman, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Ellison.  And while there was only one Steve Jobs – so far – the top schools want to believe they are providing a matrix to produce excellence.  In other words, your dreams and ambitions can be as vast as the Universe they just need to be reflected in your personal and professional history, so you can articulate your dream in a credible fashion.

Mistake 3:  Avoid Inconsistency

Let’s say you pick two leadership qualities to emphasize:  listening skills and courage.  Everything you write in your essays and all your personal recommendations should sustain those two qualities.  If one of your personal recommendations states that your listening skills were less than adequate and need improvement, a red flag will go up.  The admissions committee will conclude either you’re unaware of your own strengths and weaknesses, or that the person who wrote the recommendation didn’t know you.  Either way, your credibility is problematic.

Or in another example, you state your dream is to build a yoga franchise.  Yet one of your references mentions he was impressed by your goal of transforming the insurance industry.  The only consistency is inconsistency.  Your integrity and your application have been compromised.

Mistake 4:  Sounding Arrogant

A superior application emphasizes your accomplishments while simultaneously demonstrating humility.  Great leaders exude confidence tempered by humility.  The tempering quality of humility is the ingredient that keeping confidence from becoming arrogance.  Confidence radiates to others – captivating, motivating, encouraging, and inspiring.  Arrogance merely alienates people.  Humility is the difference.  Let your references blow your horn for you.  Just as in marketing, word of mouth advertising is still the best.

If you’re not sure and you want to be on the safe side, to avoid the arrogance trap, have a few friends read your application.  Ask them to place themselves in the committees’ shoes.  Tell them to be brutally honest, answering this question:  do you sound confident or arrogant?

Mistake 5:  Accomplishments vs. Process

In the financial industry, people like to toss big numbers around.  A Hollywood producer likes to tell people he was involved the movie Avatar, which grossed in excess of $1 billion dollars.  As impressive as this is, to the admissions committee these numbers are irrelevant.  What the committee is interested in is the process:  how did the whole movie come together?  What was the process, from the seminal idea, to the script, to the sets, the costumes, the special effects, the director, and finally the final editing?

By the same token, the fifteen year high school student down the street makes a three minute video on a one-hundred dollar digital camcorder.  He puts it on YouTube and it goes viral.  Within three weeks the video receives millions of view.  What was the process?  Where did the student come up with the idea and how did he progress from step to step.  What unexpected problems cropped up and how were they circumvented?  That’s what the committee wants to know.   

Turning the Perils of Pauline into Opportunities

Savvy applicants will take these perils and use them to their advantage.  In other words, when someone gives you a bag of lemons make lemonade, as the old adage goes.  Instead of viewing the ‘mistakes’ as something to avoid view them as something to do.  Make sure all parts of your application support a single career vision and that your essay, references, and resume harmonize with your vision.  That can and does include a career goal that is unlimited in scope presented without the slightest dubiety or self-consciousness.  Just be sure that it’s credible, reflecting your personal history, your educational experiences, and your proclivities. 

By following the above suggestions, your application will bypass luck and become a reality.