So far, we’ve discussed how you can get a jump on strengthening your academic profile, optimizing your work experience, and building leadership skills in the years before you apply to business school. At this point, you may be wondering: what more is there to an MBA application? The simple answer is: you! Business school admissions committees are truly interested in getting to know the person behind the application and, specifically, learning about what sets you apart from the many other qualified applicants they’re considering. In this installment, we’ll talk about ways to cultivate these important differentiating factors.
MBA programs strive for diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and interests in their student body, and typically want to admit well-rounded students who have active lives outside of the office. In other words, someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes financial analysis may be very successful at work, but probably won’t make for a very interesting classmate. For the sake of both your sanity and your MBA applications, make time to pursue interests and hobbies unrelated to your career.
As always, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you determine how to spend your time. The first is to pursue your hobbies in a social context, if possible. Because networking and interpersonal skills are so essential to success in business, admissions committees generally feel more comfortable admitting students who tend to go out into the world and engage others rather than sitting alone at home. Even basically solitary activities can be made social with a little creativity. For example, if you like to read, think about forming a book club with people who are interested in the same subjects as you are. If you’re in the habit of running by yourself every day, consider training with a group once a week. Like to spend time in the kitchen? Think about taking a cooking class. The more the admissions committee hears about how you share your interests with others, the more easily they will be able to envision you as an active member of the student community.
Balancing personal interests with community impact is another worthwhile objective as you budget your free time. Just as is the case in the workplace, business school admissions committees appreciate applicants who devote some of their time and talent to doing good beyond themselves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to start volunteering at the nearest animal shelter even though you’re afraid of dogs and allergic to cats. To find a truly rewarding experience that you’ll stick with over time, it’s important to identify a mutually beneficial opportunity. One way to do this is to reflect on your values and the causes you care about, and to identify local non-profits and other organizations whose missions are aligned with your own. You might also think about skills or services that you would be happy to offer on a pro bono basis, and seek out a group that could benefit. Because admissions committees count on students giving of their time to staff student clubs and mentor incoming students, engaging in this kind of service now will make your applications more appealing later on.
Shifting gears, another way to differentiate yourself before applying to business school is, simply, to be open to taking risks. Young professionals have a fair amount of leeway early in their careers, both in terms of their ability to bounce back from a career move that didn’t work out as planned, as well as in employers’ (and admissions committees’) willingness to forgive projects or ventures gone awry. Further, deviations from the conventional and expected in a candidate’s work history tend to make for memorable MBA applications. Give serious consideration to opportunities that interest or excite you, even if they represent a divergence from your current path or plan. This might mean accepting an assignment or placement in another country, assuming responsibility for a new and unproven product, leading a movement to change an unpopular corporate policy, or joining a friend’s unfunded startup. These kinds of gambles can really pay off. You could gain valuable cross-cultural insights; your product could become wildly successful; you might improve work conditions for hundreds of employees, or be there for the start of the next Google or Twitter. And, if things don’t work out, you’ll at least have an interesting story and valuable lessons learned.