50 Shades Of MBA Admissions

The answers aren’t always clear-cut, but as former MBA Admissions Directors, we have advice to share if you’re unsure about a facet of your personal history or how it might be perceived by your target school(s). Here are three common concerns we hear from MBA applicants. 

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Have you ever faced with the dilemma of what to write in your MBA application versus what to omit? With such fierce competition to secure a place in a top MBA program, some candidates are tempted to sweeten their applications with marginally true information or hyperbole. At Fortuna, we’ve often seen candidates with some element of their profile of which they’re not proud, and their impulse may be to obscure it from their application. Then there’s personal stories many of us prefer to keep to ourselves or discuss only with people we trust. When is this information actually material to a business school application?

What would you do, for example, if you and a friend launched a new business that quickly flopped? Or perhaps you were written up for trespassing or underage drinking in undergrad and were convicted of a minor offense? Is it dishonest for a white person born in South Africa to self-identify as “African American”? (Answer: Yes.)

The answers aren’t always clear-cut, but as former MBA Admissions Directors, we have advice to share if you’re unsure about a facet of your personal history or how it might be perceived by your target school(s).

Here are three common concerns we hear from MBA applicants:

1. Gap in professional career or poor undergrad grades. Do address any issues that may have contributed to a gap in your career or negatively affected your undergraduate GPA. It’s best to be upfront about anything an admissions officer might question. A direct explanation will help admissions understand any extenuating circumstances. For example, we’ve seen candidates who overcame a drug or drinking problem, or suffered a period of severe depression that affected their career or studies or career for some period. The first instinct is often to sweep it under the carpet and sidestep addressing the issue. The problem is that this can trigger speculation: Why did she have six months of unemployment? Why were his grades so poor that year? In the absence of answers and explanations, assumptions will work against you.

Caroline Diarte Edwards, former Director of Admissions at INSEAD, advises, “It’s much better for candidates to be straightforward, especially if they can demonstrate that they’ve learned from the experience and emerged a wiser, more mature person. Programs are much more likely to be forgiving if candidates are honest and humble about past mistakes. Admissions officers are human, too.”

2. Startup failures or professional dismissals. You might question what to do if you were laid off, or left a professional role for a startup that failed. Were you simply unlucky to be made redundant due to cutbacks? Or perhaps fired for performance issues? Again, the absence of clarity might instigate speculation within the admissions committee, and is better addressed upfront. Offer explanations, not excuses, as well as what you’ve learned from the experience. It’s far more advantageous than trying to hide it.

This goes for an attempt at a failed entrepreneurial venture. Lisa Bevill, IE Business School former Director of Admissions, affirms “It’s absolutely okay to fail. Extraordinary personal growth and learning often come from failure. As an aside, it’s never a good idea to put the blame on your former business partner, boss or colleagues. Take responsibility yourself.”

3. Demonstrating poor ethics. Admissions committees have a low tolerance for issues suggesting poor ethics in the workplace or academia. So you’re unlikely to be admitted if you’ve been dismissed for cheating or have any kind of criminal record.

Issues that are more personal in nature—a short probation for drinking in a dorm room, for example—would be unlikely to deny you admission. There’s no reason to draw attention to this kind of circumstance, especially if it’s not on your official record or weren’t suspended from school. You can check with your undergraduate institution to verify if an incident is on your official record, just to be sure.

From her former role as Head of Admissions at Wharton, Judith Silverman Hodara says, “I generally advise students to address any issues that they think the admissions committees will want to know about—because if they somehow find out and you’ve NOT told them, the ‘sin’ of omission is much greater than the initial digression. As a candidate, if you’re on the fence about sharing something, then it’s probably an indicator that you should.”

Mark Twain is famous for saying, ‘if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything’. Of course, walking the line can be tricky. However, overcoming challenges often build integrity and character—two important attributes of leadership. Business schools understand that your track record may not be perfect, but by explaining your story with humility, you can present a more authentic, and often more compelling, application. It might even be the differentiator that increases your chances of admission.

Author: Caroline Diarte Edwards. Caroline is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD.

Fortuna Admissions is a team of former business school professionals from top-tier institutions, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, London Business School, Chicago Booth, Columbia, NYU Stern, Duke Fuqua, IE, UCLA Anderson and UC Berkeley Haas. They have reviewed tens of thousands of applications from candidates all over the world, shaped admissions policy, devised the application processes, and had the final say on who got in.