Do business schools have “types”—meaning, are shared characteristics common among all students? The short answer is yes, but it is more nuanced than that. What you think is a school’s type may not be its type at all.
So, how does this play itself out? The most mundane way is that most people who gain acceptance to a top school get into only one top school. Ostensibly, they are accepted by the school that is most their type—or, maybe more accurately, they are that school’s type. In fact, if we at Stratus think of all our clients who got into top schools over the years (hundreds, if not thousands!), it is still fairly unusual to be accepted by more than two of the M7 in one season.
I have had some great candidates who I thought would run the table, and they just didn’t. One of them even gave me the opportunity to test my prognostication powers. He had applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and MIT; he was accepted by one, waitlisted by two, and rejected by one. Once the decisions were all in, he asked who I thought accepted him, waitlisted him, or rejected him.
You have to understand that I knew this candidate very well. He was an Ivy League engineer who worked in private equity and had a 770 GMAT score. We worked together for almost two years, during which time he put together some great applications. If ever I had a candidate who could get all admits, it was this one—only it wasn’t.
I was confident with my guesses: accepted by Harvard, rejected by Stanford, and waitlisted by MIT and Wharton. I was half right. He was actually accepted by Stanford and rejected by Harvard. (If we had gone to the tie breaker, I am sure he eventually would have gotten into MIT and been rejected by Wharton, but it never went that far.)
To me, this candidate seemed a much better fit for Harvard than Stanford, but here’s the rub—it was only in my mind. In his applications, the opposite was true. He made an incredibly compelling case for why he was right for Stanford and why it was right for him. He spoke about courses he wanted to take (beyond the courses everyone always talks about), professors he wanted to have (including junior members of the faculty), and institutes and conferences he wanted to participate in. He was also painfully forthcoming about his weaknesses, one of which was one-on-one conversations in a business setting. He gets nervous, and he admitted he needed help with this.
The candidate called me to say he thought he blew his interview and that it was over for him at Stanford, but was he wrong! Why? Because the admissions committee knew Stanford could help him like no other school could, as the program has more of a focus on interpersonal skills with classes such as the popular “Touchy Feely,” which Harvard does not.
No matter how hard this candidate tried, he just couldn’t make the case that Harvard was what he needed. Maybe it came through in his interview or was between the lines of essays, but he couldn’t hide the fact that Harvard was not the best place for him. He already had the hard skills, knew all about the case method of teaching, and could navigate an East Coast Ivy League campus; what he didn’t have was all that “uncomfortable” stuff that an engineer often needs to learn, such as soft skills like influencing people and effectively collaborating with different personality types.
While we were commiserating about him “only” getting into Stanford, we both agreed that the reason for him to go was because out of all the programs he applied to, Stanford was going to make him the least comfortable—and that would be a good thing. After all, one purpose of business school is to make you uncomfortable but in a good way.
So, what does all this mean for you? Well, three things:
- First, you have to figure out who you are and what you need from an MBA. This can be a painful process, but it’s an important one—and, in fact, one that will be important throughout your life. Embrace your weaknesses and be prepared to articulate them for the purposes of your application. Everyone has weaknesses, so be up front about yours.
- Next, you have to know what “type” each business school is looking for and what “type” you are. This means doing some research—in fact, a lot of research—about each school’s DNA. You need to go beyond the website and actually talk to people to understand how they see themselves.
- Finally, and most importantly, help each business school understand how it can help you address your weaknesses. In the end, that’s what business schools do: they help students overcome their weaknesses so they can be successful leaders. Show each MBA program that it can help you do just that; show them that you really are each school’s “type.”