Even After Obtaining an MBA, Women and Minorities Continue to See Pay Gap Compared to Men and Non-Minorities

Earlier this year, the Forte Foundation released survey results reporting that a pay gap continues to exist, even after an MBA, between non-minorities and minorities and men and women. The survey, which included 900 men and women who graduated from MBA programs between 2005 and 2017, collected respondents’ pre-MBA salaries as well as their salaries from their first post-MBA position and currently.

Between non-minority and minority graduates, the pay gap improves somewhat over time, decreasing from 24 percent to 16 percent between pre- and post-MBA salaries, and then continuing to decrease to 12 percent on average for the reported current salary. Minority students, identifying as black, Hispanic, or Native-American, did see the largest return on investment from the MBA with an average pay increase of 76 percent. Minority men reported an 84 percent increase between their pre-MBA salary and their first job after graduation and minority women gained a 70 percent increase on average.

Conversely, the pay gap between men and women appears to increase over time. Pre-MBA, women were paid 3 percent less than men, this gap increases to 10 percent for the post-MBA salary, and widens to 28 percent among the current salaries. The pay differential between white men and minority women is the largest with a difference of 52 percent.  Both genders reported a positive return on investment from the MBA with women gaining a 63 percent salary bump after graduation and men seeing a larger increase of 76 percent.

The gender differential may be explained, partly, by a tendency for men and women to gravitate towards different job functions. Women enter marketing and human resources at higher rates than men, while men are more likely to pursue finance, general management, consulting and IT careers. The study shows that finance and operations are the job functions which contribute most to the gender pay gap, with men earning 60 percent and 48 percent more than women, respectively. Marketing is the only job function where women reported earning more than men (2 percent).

Forte Foundation CEO, Elissa Sangster, warned against attributing the entire gap to job functions. “While some salary disparity can be explained by the job functions women choose, there is likely unconscious bias and other factors at play,” Sangster added. "When we asked women MBAs how they intend to address the gender pay gap they’ve experienced, it’s more common for them to leave the company rather than speak about it with their manager, human resources, or company leadership. This is a wake-up call -- companies need to take proactive steps to lessen the pay gap, or risk losing highly skilled women employees."

While there is a tendency to assume that the differences in men and women’s salaries are related to women’s presumed unwillingness to negotiate, research is now showing that this is not the case. Berkeley Haas Professor, Laura Kray says, “We know that people who negotiate get more than those who don’t, but that’s not a ‘women’s issue’—two-thirds of men don’t negotiate. Women are asking, but they’re not always getting what they ask for, and they’re more likely to be told things that aren’t true.”

Kray recently published research with Margaret Lee, a postdoctoral research fellow, sponsored by the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership, showing that the differentials in total compensation are even more exaggerated than those spotlighted using salary data. The two reviewed surveys from Berkeley Haas alumni who graduated between 1994 and 2014 and work full-time. The data showed that “while men’s base salaries were on average about 8 percent higher than women’s, it’s in the bonuses, share values, and options—which tend to not be tracked as publicly as salaries—where the men’s salaries outpaced women’s. Overall compensation for Haas women MBAs averaged about $290,000, or about 66 percent of men’s $439,000 average. Kray and Lee also linked part of the pay gap to the fact that men manage larger teams than equally qualified women.”

 The Forte Foundation study also included career advancement statistics and found that men on average have garnered more promotions (2.3 vs. 1.8), have more direct reports (3.3 vs 1.8), and have achieved higher organizational rankings (Director level vs. Senior Manager) when compared with women. There were no statistically significant differences in career advancement for minorities versus non-minorities. Just as Sangster suggested, it appears that bias is at play, whether consciously or unconsciously, which contributes to men receiving management and leadership opportunities, earlier than women, with greater associated pay.

What are Corporate Recruiters Really Looking for in the 2018 MBA Graduate?

The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) recently released its 2018 Corporate Recruiters Survey results, providing insight into current employer hiring demand for MBA graduates.

In 2018, nearly three-fourths of corporate recruiters globally project to hire MBA graduates to fill business development roles. Functions also in high demand world-wide are data analytics (71 percent), marketing (70 percent), and finance (69 percent). The chart below shows the job function recruitment projections for recent MBA hires, globally and in the U.S.

job functions.jpg

As one would expect, the job functions MBA hires are placed into vary by both region and industry. Below, are a few key industries with the job functions companies plan to fill with MBA hires in 2018.

-          Consulting: consulting, business development, data analytics

-          Finance: finance, investment banking, accounting

-          Health Care: marketing, business development, finance

-          Technology: marketing, business development, data analytics

-          Products: marketing, business development, finance

Globally, recruiters are more likely to hire MBAs into specialist, rather than generalist roles (52 percent and 48 percent, respectively) and into strategic over operational positions (also 52 percent and 48 percent, respectively). In the U.S., recruiters are equally likely to hire MBA students to fill specialist and generalist jobs and just slightly more likely to place an MBA into a strategic role over an operational one (51 percent and 49 percent, respectively).

Delving more deeply into the specific skill-sets recruiters are looking for when hiring MBAs, a Financial Times survey published in late 2017 asked 48 leading employers what skills they want in MBA graduates, and what skills they have a hard time finding.

The most important skills named by these employers included both soft-skills and strategy. Three of the most important skills, however, were also listed among the least difficult to recruit for: networking, solving complex problems, and working with a wide variety of people. The least important skills were function-specific. And the most difficult to recruit for skills were not listed among the most important, but included a cross-section of disciplines.

FT mostleast.png

Key Take-Aways

Both the GMAC and Financial Times surveys provide telling information on how recruiters classify and evaluate MBA candidates. Begin to think like a recruiter. It will be immensely helpful to you as you embark on your management studies.

1.       When considering your career prospects, you should first define your desired role in terms of:

a.       Specialist or Generalist;

b.       Strategic or Operational; and

c.       Job function

Having clear insight into your desired role will help you to find companies and jobs that offer the best fit for your goals. Additionally, knowing precisely what you want in your post-MBA role will help you to develop your elevator pitch and articulate your career vision clearly as you network and interview.  

2.       Staying abreast of recruiting trends by function, as well as highly coveted and/or difficult to recruit for skills can provide insight on areas where additional experience can help you to differentiate yourself. For example, data analytics is not only a function where hiring is very active for MBA recruiters, but also a skill that has been named as difficult to recruit for. Gaining some experience in this area may help to set you apart in interviews, even if this is not the primary function for which you want to be hired.

3.       Consider how you are highlighting not only the most important skills, but also those that are named as difficult to recruit for in your resume, elevator pitch, and interview responses. While your resume should list your specialized skills, this data suggests that highlighting soft and strategic thinking skills may better serve you in those precious networking and interview minutes with potential employers.

4.       Finally, think through your differentiating factors and experiences. Recognize that some skills are easier to recruit for than others, and make sure that you’re aware of and highlighting experiences, coursework, and skills that make you unique among the general MBA population.

MBAs Looking Away from Financial Services and Towards Companies that Offer Better Work-Life Balance

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article examining the “battle for MBA talent,” which looked at current trends in MBA graduate employer preferences. Authors, Laurence Fletcher and Pat Minczeski found that Wall Street is no longer as appealing to MBAs as consulting and technology firms, despite banks’ increasing starting salaries. “The share of full-time M.B.A. graduates from the top 10 business schools accepting jobs at financial-services firms dropped between 2012 and 2017 from 36 percent to 26 percent, based on a weighted average calculated by the Journal. The share accepting jobs in technology rose from 13 percent to 20 percent in the same period. Consulting edged out financial services as the top draw in 2017, as the choice of 29 percent of grads, up from 27 percent in 2012.”

The same article quotes Jean Ann Schulte, director of employer relations and recruiting services at MIT Sloan, who said “Over the last ten years we’ve had an almost complete flip between finance and technology.” In pointing to the working hours typical in the banking industry, she went on to say, “You can have a lucrative career without those lifestyle costs.”

An analysis published in Forbes by John Byrne earlier this year, which examined the average working hours for MBA graduates in various industries, supported the theory that MBAs are increasingly drawn to companies that offer better work-life balance. He found that, while overall, the median work week for MBA graduates is 54 hours per week, financial firms made up six of the top ten companies with the longest working hours. MBA graduates working at Goldman Sachs averaged 86 hours per week, followed by Barclays (73 hours), J.P. Morgan (72), Morgan Stanley (70), Credit Suisse (70), and Fidelity Investments (68).  Consulting firms round out the top ten, with average hours worked ranging from number three, McKinsey & Co. with an average of 72, to A.T. Kearney and Boston Consulting Group with averages of 63[1]. Bryne goes on to highlight that the MBA jobs with the lowest average working hours are at technology firms and large corporations. “MBAs who work for Microsoft average just 44 hours a week, while those who toil for Apple put in 52-hour weeks, a couple of hours below the median. Facebook MBAs average just an hour a week more at 53 hours, while Amazon MBAs hit the 54-hour a week median working for the e-commerce giant.” Those working for IBM, PepsiCo, and 3M company worked just under 45 hours per week.

Byrne then calculated hourly wages for various sub-industries and his analysis revealed that hedge fund and mutual fund employees earn the highest hourly rate at $129.46/hour. The average MBA makes about $75/hour. As an industry, high-tech placed third and fifth for e-commerce and software respectively, validating the supposition that technology companies may appeal to MBA graduates who value work-life balance, in addition to high pay and interesting work.

Some corporations need to do a better job addressing quality of life concerns if they want to recruit top MBA talent. And current MBAs considering various industries, corporations, or even offers should compare compensation alongside workload expectations in order to achieve both their career and lifestyle goals.  

[1] See full list here:

MBA Employment Trends and Projections

Demand is high for recent MBA graduates. In 2017 in the U.S. and Canada, technology firms increased year-over-year MBA hiring by 22 percent and consulting and financial services firms increased hiring by 7 percent and 4 percent respectively. The same report (QS Top MBA Jobs & Salary Trends Report 2018)  projects that overall MBA recruiting in the U.S. and Canada will continue to demonstrate robust growth in 2018 (7 percent) and marginal growth in 2019 (2 percent).   

Technology: The growth in technology firms’ MBA hiring corresponds with reports that Amazon is hiring about 1,000 MBA graduates per year, almost double that of the next largest MBA employer, consulting firm McKinsey[i]. And the growth isn’t expected to slow in 2018. The QS Top MBA Salary Trends Report projects that recruiting in the U.S. and Canada by technology firms will continue growing in 2018 (15 percent) with more marginal growth predicted for 2019 (two percent).

In addition to Amazon, Microsoft and Google also recruit consistently within MBA programs, but with lower overall hiring. It is worthy of note that, among the Top 10 programs (US News and World Report), the largest percentage of 2017 graduates who accepted positions in the technology industry came from Berkeley Haas. 


Consulting: Consulting firms recruit a large percentage of MBA graduates (approximately a quarter to a third of each class at Top 10 MBA Programs) and this is expected to continue. The QS Top MBA Salary Trends Report projects that recruiting in the U.S. and Canada by consulting firms will increase by 15 percent in 2018 with a slight dip to 7 percent in 2019.

McKinsey, the second largest employer of MBAs, is the top employer of MBA graduates at Northwestern Kellogg, Chicago Booth, and Columbia Business School. Following McKinsey in MBA recruiting are Bain and Company, The Boston Consulting Group, and Deloitte.

At Stanford, the percentage of graduates securing roles in consulting is lower but trending upwards.


Finance: Developments in technology, political uncertainty, and greater competition from technology and other firms, has negatively impacted MBA recruiting by financial services firms. Wharton, as well as Chicago Booth, and Columbia Business School have experienced recent employment dips in the sector. According to a 2017 MBA Employment Survey by Training the Street, students reported lower interest in working for Wall Street and expressed wanting to explore options with companies, such as boutique banks, that may offer a higher quality of life.[ii]

The Salary Trends Report projects another year of modest growth for the industry in 2018 (4 percent) with a slight decline predicted for 2019 (-1 percent). 




The Wharton Interview: Excel in the Team Based Discussion

An invitation to Wharton’s Team Based Discussion can be as nerve-wracking as it is exciting. But with preparation and the proper mind-set, it can be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your ability to think on your feet and respond under pressure. To ace the interview, consider the following tips:

1. Prepare thoroughly. After you receive the scenario, create a proposal and know it inside and out. Practice your presentation, out loud. Present in front of a mirror, or a live-audience of friends. Be sure that you feel confident about your ability to present your idea in a relaxed way, showcasing how you thought through the exercise. While, you don’t want to memorize your presentation word-for-word or sound overly rehearsed, you do want to be able to describe your idea in an articulate and conversational way. Your interview day may include other activities, such as attending a lecture and/or interacting with current and prospective students. You will want to be confident prior to arriving on campus with no need for last minute prepping.

2. Be prepared to explain and answer questions on your proposed idea. You can do this by considering what questions may arise from your proposal and writing out your responses to them. The more people you can share your idea with and collect questions from, the better. After working with an idea for a long period, it becomes harder and harder to poke holes in it. Let your friends, co-workers, or parents help you with this process.

  • To help you start, make sure that you are comfortable responding to the following.
  1. What are the beneficial outcomes of your proposal for students? For Wharton?
  2. What are the risks of your proposal?
  3. What assumptions are you making?
  4. What are the drawbacks or limitations of your idea? Why are these acceptable?
  • Be able to articulate the “why?” behind all the components of your proposal, as well as the “why not?” for other potential possibilities. This is important because (most likely) your proposal will not be selected. However, if you can find other students who have a similar “why?” as the foundation of their ideas, it will help you to collaborate with them and contribute to the discussion.

3. Prepare yourself to provide meaningful input to the discussion by continuing to be well informed of international business news. The Economist is a good, wide-reaching source for this. While there is no expectation that you will be an expert on everything, you should be conversant in current events and be able to make high-level social, political and economic observations about others’ proposals.

4. Be a team player. This cannot be stressed enough. While there is an aspect of competition to the interview, the team-based discussion is an opportunity to show your collaborative nature. Don’t try to “win” by pressuring the group to select your proposal. Instead, demonstrate how you will fit into the MBA community by being inclusive and showing leadership, humility, and adaptability. Articulate your thought process clearly, be positive about others’ ideas, continue to move the group forward by summarizing ideas, and question respectfully. Remember that the point of the exercise is to drive towards a strong team outcome; the better the team interacts together, the better all of you look individually.

5. Day-of tips:

  • Wear a business suit.
  • Feel free to bring notes, but do not read them directly or rely on them for more than a memory trigger.
  • Introduce yourself to other prospective students and work to build a friendly rapport prior to the interview.
  • Prepare three to five questions for the evaluators during the wrap-up portion of the interview.
  • As much as possible, relax and try to enjoy the experience. This could be representative of the dynamic you’ll live in for the next two years. Ensure it feels right to you.

Using Recommendations to Strategically Enhance Your MBA Application

While MBA recommendation letters typically will not make or break your admissions decision, they can reinforce the personal brand you’ve presented throughout your application. We encourage you to use recommendations strategically so that they validate and expand upon key themes already introduced.

Selecting Your Recommenders

We advise selecting recommenders who can comment on your post-graduate, professional experiences and accomplishments. Recommenders should know you well and be able to provide detailed insight into working with you, which includes assessing your professional skills and personality traits. This intimate knowledge of your abilities is significantly more important than the job title of your recommender.  The one exception is if you have a senior colleague with significant influence at the school to which you are applying who would be willing to serve as a recommender.

Select recommenders that will provide a well-rounded view of working with you, though you should elect to have each provide a slightly more nuanced focus on a character trait that you exhibit and have spoken about in your application (i.e., leadership and teamwork).

Taking a Strategic Viewpoint

As mentioned, it is critical for recommendations to validate and enhance the existing application content. As such, read through your essays and make note of traits that you are highlighting for the admissions committee, then determine which recommender would best be able to write anecdotes about you exhibiting those traits. Additionally, if you see gaps in your application, you may choose to close those gaps using the recommendation letters.

Setting Your Recommenders Up for Success

Most importantly, provide each recommender with enough time to meet your request. We suggest that you allot two months between making the request and the submission date.

Provide a portfolio of information to each recommender that includes the following information:

  • School names, recommendation questions, and submission date(s)
  • Method for recommendation submission (e.g., online via link)
  • Background information and your future career goals
  • Sample recommendation letter (customized)
  • Illustrative anecdotes from your work together (customized)

The sample recommendation letter and illustrative stories that you provide should be unique for each recommender and should highlight the qualities you are wanting the recommender to expand upon. These inputs will allow you to subtly influence the recommenders’ output and will ensure that the recommendations include concrete and varied examples that reinforce your existing application content.

The timely provision of this portfolio of information will reinforce to your recommenders that you appreciate their time and are serious about your applications. It will also provide much needed direction that will allow them to allocate their time wisely in support of your efforts.  

After the recommender has submitted the recommendations, be sure to thank him/her for spending time in support of your application.

Frequently Asked Questions

I have a great relationship with my college advisor, would it be appropriate to use her as a recommender?

For entry into business school, it is best to use professional references who can speak to your work experience and skills acquired.

What if I don’t feel comfortable telling my direct supervisor that I am submitting applications to business school?

While it is preferable to have a recommendation from a direct supervisor, it may not always be an option and schools are understanding of this fact. Do attempt to have a former boss, professional colleague who is superior to you on an org chart, or someone who knows you in a more professional context write a recommendation. In some cases, this could include someone from a volunteer activity where you demonstrate teamwork and leadership skills.

How many recommendations is it appropriate to ask a recommender to write?

While this depends on how strong your relationship is with the recommender, our general rule of thumb is to ask a recommender for no more than three recommendations per round. This prevents the recommender from having to meet a burdensome number of back-to-back deadlines.

Is it necessary to get specific recommendations written for each school?

While ideally you will get your recommenders to address each recommendation topic directly, it may be necessary for him/her to write a single recommendation that addresses all the questions from your prospective schools together. Many schools have similar or shared questions for recommenders making this feasible. 

The GMAT V. The GRE: Which Test is Best for You?

For the past two years, respondents to the AIGAC MBA Applicant Survey have reported that the standardized test is the most challenging component of the MBA application. While there is no way to completely defray the stress associated with the GMAT or GRE (the top 50 business schools accept both), it is helpful to think critically about which one will provide you the best opportunity for success.

At Apply Point, we generally make the following recommendations:

You might prefer the GMAT if:

  • Your strengths are quantitative, analytical
  • You are adept at interpreting data presented in charts, tables, and text to solve problems
  • You know that you want to attend an MBA, or business-related program, such as a MS Finance.

You might prefer the GRE if:

  • Your strengths are verbal, writing
  • You want to keep your graduate school options open. The GRE is accepted at most graduate programs, including a couple of law schools.

In Kaplan’s 2016 Survey of Business School Admissions Officers, 26 percent of admissions officers reported that those submitting a GMAT score have an admissions advantage over those who submit a GRE score. However, 73 percent said that neither exam has an advantage. In 2014, Harvard Business School’s Admission Director shared that the school looks carefully at the score components in combination with the student’s transcript and resume. As such, prospective students should use the test strategically to fill in any “gaps” or answer open questions that may stem from their transcript and/or work experience. For example, an applicant with an undergraduate degree and work experience in finance may need to bolster their application with strong verbal scores, while a communications major will want to demonstrate his/her ability to handle the rigors of the quantitative coursework in the MBA by providing a strong quantitative score on the GMAT/GRE.

Above all, an applicant should take the test they feel most comfortable with and are most likely to succeed on. Taking a diagnostic exam of each is a good place to start.

MBA Application Submission: Is There an Optimal Deadline?

When considering the most beneficial timing for your MBA application submission, keep in mind your school preferences, financial need, and the amount of time you can devote to crafting the most compelling application. We’ve examined the pros and cons of the various admission rounds and provided the U.S. News and World Report’s Top 15 ranked schools and their application deadlines below.

Rolling Admissions: Only a few top-tier MBA programs offer rolling admissions, including Columbia University and UCLA. This means they provide admittance decisions to students as the admission committee reviews the application, rather than sending out a batch of decisions on a pre-determined date.

Apply Point Recommendation: Prospective students interested in a school with rolling admissions should submit their application as early as possible. Seats in the incoming class are continuously being filled.  However, it is critical to ensure that you have taken the necessary time to develop the most compelling content possible. Rushing it could result in a lower quality application.

Early Action / Decision: While some programs offer non-binding Early Action application rounds, such as Dartmouth, other schools such as Columbia and Duke offer a binding early application round. The binding programs will ask a prospective student, upon acceptance, to withdraw any outstanding applications, and submit a commitment letter to the school.

If a prospective student is fully committed to attending a particular MBA program, regardless of outside opportunities, financial or otherwise, it can be extremely beneficial to apply in the early decision round.  This is because admissions likelihood is significantly higher. Schools look favorably on commitments to their program, which also help to increase a school’s yield.

It is important to remember that both binding and non-binding early applications are due at the beginning of the admissions cycle. Thus, prospective students will need to plan accordingly to finalize their applications for submission. Additionally, for binding early decision programs, merit-based scholarships are less likely.

Apply Point Recommendation: We generally recommend our prospective students keep their options open by applying in a first or second round rather than taking advantage of the binding early decision programs. But, if the prospective student is 100 percent committed to attending a particular program for personal or professional reasons, and they are comfortable forgoing any scholarship money, the binding early decision may be a good match.  

First Round / Second Round: These two rounds, in general, are created equal. Submission by a prospective student within either of these rounds will allow an applicant to be considered for merit-based financial assistance. Additionally, a good proportion of the incoming class seats are still available.

Apply Point Recommendation: If a prospective student is ready to submit the best version of his/her application prior to the first-round deadline, we would recommend submitting in the first round. If this isn’t the case, we will always counsel applicants to take additional time to submit a stronger application.

Third Round: This is usually the last round prior to the close of the admissions period. It is generally the most competitive round as there are fewer seats available. Depending upon the school, this round may also leave students unavailable for consideration for merit-based financial awards.

Apply Point Recommendation: There are very few cases where we would recommend applying at this point in the admissions cycle. It puts the applicant at a disadvantage. However, if the prospective student is unable to submit in rounds one or two, they have a very compelling application, and they have no need for financial support, they may still be successful.

Every prospective student has a unique situation that should be considered when determining what round to put forth his/her application to an MBA program. Thus, advance planning and an awareness of all the deadline options is crucial when crafting a winning application strategy.

Innovation is Key. Is Graduate Business Admissions the Exception? Part II: Assessing Professional Competence

In 1943, when the first Executive MBA Program yielded a class of 52 students, business school admissions processes largely mirrored those practiced in the Ivy League.  Applicants completed a personal facts section and clearly outlined their extracurricular and professional activities.  Recommendation letters, written by persons who knew the applicant well and could speak to their character, were sent to the institution.  The applicant completed personal essays so the admissions committee could gauge the applicant’s aptitude for leadership.  And, finally, the interview would look at the more subtle indicators of future success.  Academic achievement was just one of the 4 pieces.  Was the admissions committee downplaying the value of intellectual accomplishment?

The answer is yes, because it was decided that pure intellectual prowess does not, alone, predict future success.  Factors, unrelated to intellect, like motivation and social skills were also considered crucial. Today, not much has changed.   The admissions process is nearly identical to the one used by the first student’s at Chicago’s EMBA.  This is because MBA programs have never been looking for just good students.  They are looking for leaders who will continue their positive trajectory of success after the program is complete.  Like the officials of the Ivy League, the MBA admissions process is not simply a matter of academic brilliance.  Admissions committees want a student body with a diverse variety of talents, qualities, attitudes and backgrounds. 

The question, then, is not whether the goals of the admissions process are out of line.  The question is whether or not the admissions tactics employed by MBA programs are effective in evaluating top management potential.  Let’s examine each piece of the puzzle.     

 Assessing Professional Competence: Recommendation Letters and Resume

The quality and quantity of an applicant’s work experience is key when determining top management potential, so a polished resume is an absolute must.  But, what about recommendation letters?  Do they really help to set an applicant apart from the pack?  In nearly every circumstance, an applicant will choose a recommender who will gloat about their strengths and minimize or barely mention any perceived weaknesses.  In the competitive world of admissions, choosing a recommender, who will paint the picture of an all-star, seems to be the smart thing to do, but is this really a productive process for admissions committees?  Isn’t there a better way to gauge top management talent?

Evan Bouffides, Associate Dean and Director of MBA Admissions at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, says that while recommendation letters may serve as a point of differentiation for executive business programs, full time MBA admissions is a different story.  “We no longer require recommendation letters in our full-time MBA application because we found the letters didn’t provide us with a point of differentiation.  More often than not, he says, I thought a letter’s content did not provide honest insight about a candidate.  I could also never be completely sure that the name signed at the bottom was the writer of the recommendation.”

Rather than doing different, when we innovate, we do the same better.  The ultimate goals of MBA admissions committees will remain the same, but as future students and alumni of MBA programs, if we can encourage constant innovation in the selection processes of our classmates, our academic experiences will be richer and the programs, from which we graduate, stronger.

The Admissions Essay Part II: Equal Parts Memoir and Strategic Communication

For many applicants, the essays are the most daunting part of the admissions process.  The task of writing is arduous enough, but then there is the reality that application essays must be part memoir – pieces that express your individuality and unique experiences, and part strategic communication – pieces that also impart your knowledge and fit with the institution, along with your leadership and innovation potential.   In Part II, I am going to address the importance of research, the jargon you must do away with, and the conclusion.

Remember, the first thing to remember is simple.  You are the writer and the admissions director is the reader.  What keeps you reading through newspapers, magazines and books?  Important to consider, the qualities that maintain your interest will be some of the same ones that engage your admissions director and help you make that memorable connection you are striving for.


Conduct extensive research about the institution to which you are applying, so you are able to make the connections admissions directors are looking for.  Think about why the school in question is a strong choice, given where you are coming from and where you want to go.  You must get specific, but don’t over explain what the reader already knows or can figure out.  Admissions directors know a lot about their institution, so they don’t need a long list of classes or clubs you’ve regurgitated from their website.  They want to know why you are interested in specific activities and how you will be proactive in their community.  Talk to the school’s professors and career services professionals.  Visit the school and have lunch with current students.  In order to sound authentic, you must gain first-hand experiences investigating the program you claim to be so passionate about.

Get Rid of Jargon:

You want to sound like a confident leader, so don’t write like you’re not.  Good writing is concise and clear so it is best to avoid sentences cluttered with pompous jargon words like incentivize, alignment and criticality.  Readers identify with people, rather than concepts, especially if they are esoteric principles common only in the lives of chemical engineers or air force pilots.  Admissions directors don’t want to read about the measures being facilitated at the ground control station if there no human element or universal message that will move your candidacy forward.  If you are trying to explain a complex process, relate it to something we can all understand and remember, as Zinsser says, “A simple style does not reflect a simple mind.” 

The Strategic Communication:

As you begin to create your narrative, you will face the reality that an admissions essay is, indeed, a strategic communication, a piece that must communicate your leadership and innovation potential in a carefully crafted way.  The best place to start is a blank document with empty bullet points.  Think about your most meaningful experiences working in and managing teams, investigating and presenting innovative ideas that improved department efficiency or challenging the group consensus.  There are no word limits in brainstorming, so let your thoughts go.  Over time, you will be able to narrow your list to specific examples that demonstrate the high quality of your professional experience, poignant anecdotes that will serve your narrative well.  

The Conclusion:

Just as the lead’s objective is to push the reader into the paragraphs that follow, your conclusion should bring the reader back to a memorable moment in your opening sentences and, simultaneously, take them somewhere else.  A thought-provoking close will be remembered long after your file is off their desk.  As a former admissions director, I would read hundreds and hundreds of essays in any given year and, still to this day, I will never forget the gripping honesty in a conclusion written by a former officer in the military, regarding his account of a tragedy that took the lives of nearly half the men in his platoon.  Unafraid to admit his lack of heroism, his closing remarks about the harsh reality of war, left me stunned.  I realized then I could relate to and remember those applicants who were compelling and human, rather than those who tried to construct a perfect façade.

I’ve often heard my clients refer to the business school admissions process as ‘grueling’ or ‘maddening’.  The mere thought of essay writing brings them back to the college composition class they dreaded or their article in the school newspaper mocked by their peers.  In a system where test scores and transcripts can only take you so far, some of the most powerful tools you possess are words.  Use them well.

The Admissions Essay Part I: Equal Parts Memoir and Strategic Communication

AppEach word of the essay question seems to add significant weight to the paper it’s printed on.  As you stare at the question, you feel sluggish and frustrated. How can you possibly tell a story that will appeal to highly selective MBA admissions committees?  Where will you start?  How will you weave in the qualities deemed acceptable for future students?

For many applicants, the essays are the most daunting part of the admissions process.  The task of writing is arduous enough, but then there is the reality that application essays must be part memoir – pieces that express your individuality and unique experiences, and part strategic communication – pieces that also impart your knowledge and fit with the institution, along with your leadership and innovation potential.  

You’ve heard admissions advice, attended information sessions and combed through Internet searches about admissions essays. So, I’m not going to waste your time with repetition or complexities.  The first thing to remember is simple.  You are the writer and the admissions director is the reader.  What keeps you reading through newspapers, magazines and books?  Important to consider, the qualities that maintain your interest will be some of the same ones that engage your admissions director and help you make that memorable connection you are striving for.

The Lead:

You must capture the reader and force them to keep reading.  You can do this with an unusual idea, an interesting fact, a question or anything else that will appropriately reel them in and push them into the subsequent paragraphs.   Some don’ts worth considering: Don’t repeat part of the essay question in the first sentence of your essay – ‘I am interested in Columbia Business School because’…  Don’t lead with the buzzing of your alarm clock to transition into an essay examining a significant personal experience.  This stale, yet common introduction only signals the work of an inexperienced writer.  Don’t lead with a specific anecdote from childhood.  There are a few exceptions, but keep in mind that admissions committees want you to focus on your experiences post-baccalaureate, so any mention of childhood could be deemed inappropriate.     

The Narrative:

Admissions essays should take a narrative approach, a style conducive to applicants thinking and writing about themselves.  You want to tell a story and construct a meaningful memoir laden with specific details that show instead of just tell the reader about your experiences.  It is best to think narrow.  Don’t summarize your life since college.  Think about one or two impactful projects or events that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about your innovation and leadership potential.  One of my recent clients responded to Wharton’s first essay question, regarding career objective, by focusing on a recent management experience that inspired her goals post MBA.  Through her minute-by-minute recount of the situation, the reader could see her potential and understand her fit, not only with the future role she is targeting, but also with the student work groups at Wharton.   Just as William Zissner describes memoirs in his book, On Writing Well, essays are meant to be a window into life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.  

The Message:

Too often, applicants surrender the qualities that make them unique to focus solely on the strategic communication aspect of the essay.  They end up writing what they think an admissions committee member will want to hear, which empties the essay of the very element that makes it memorable, the humanity behind the words.  A laundry list of the results you’ve achieved or the leadership accolades you take pride in won’t provide enough depth.  Leave those for the resume.  For the essay, use the space to show the why and the how of your journey.  Zinsser says, “What holds me is the enthusiasm of the writer for his field.  How was he drawn to it?  How did it change his life?  It is not necessary to want to spend a year alone at Walden Pond to become involved with a writer who did.”  The essays are the reader’s first opportunity to get to know you, so be yourself when you write and don’t forget that part of what makes you compelling are your weaknesses.  The struggle and lessons learned can be some of the most interesting parts of a story, so you don’t have to leave them out. 

I’ve often heard my clients refer to the business school admissions process as ‘grueling’ or ‘maddening’.  The mere thought of essay writing brings them back to the college composition class they dreaded or their article in the school newspaper mocked by their peers.  In a system where test scores and transcripts can only take you so far, some of the most powerful tools you possess are words.  Use them well.