Do business schools have “types?” Meaning, are there shared characteristics that are common among all students? The short answer is yes. But it is more nuanced than that. What you think is their type may not be their type at all.
So how does this play itself out? The most mundane way is that most people who get into a top school get into only ONE top school. Ostensibly, they are admitted to the school that is most their type, or maybe more accurately they are the admitting school’s type. In fact, as we at Stratus think of all our clients who got into top schools over the years (hundreds, if not thousands), we can count on our fingers (and maybe our toes) those who got into more than two of the M-7 in one season.
I have had some great candidates, who I thought would run the table and they just didn’t. In fact, one of them gave me the opportunity to test my prognostication powers; he had applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and MIT; he got accepted by one, waitlisted by two and rejected by one. Once the decisions were all in he tested me to see who I thought accepted him, waitlisted him, or rejected him.
You have to understand, I knew this candidate very well. He was an Ivy League engineer, worked in Private Equity and had a 770 GMAT. We worked together for almost two years and he put together some great applications. If ever I had a candidate that could get all admits, it was this candidate.
Only it wasn’t. I was confident with my guesses when we spoke: admit to HBS, reject from the GSB, waitlisted at MIT and Wharton. I was half right. He was actually accepted to the GSB and rejected from HBS. (If we went to the tie-breaker, I am sure he would have eventually gotten into MIT and rejected by Wharton, but it never went that far.)
In my mind, he seemed a much better fit for Harvard, rather 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 as to why he was right for Stanford and Stanford was right for him. He spoke about courses he wanted to take (beyond the courses everyone always talks about); professors he wanted to take (including junior members of the faculty); 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, he admitted he needed help with this.
Just to show his authenticity, he blew his interview. He called me saying that it was over for him and the GSB. Boy was he wrong. Why? Because Stanford knew they could help him, like no other school could.
One of the “no other schools” was HBS. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t make the case that HBS is 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 HBS 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 Eastern Ivy League campus. What he didn’t have was all that “uncomfortable” stuff that an engineer often needs to learn.
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 of the purposes of business school is to make you uncomfortable but in a good way.
So, what does this mean for you? Well, two things. First, you have to figure out who you are, and what you need from an MBA. This can be a painful process but an important one. 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 upfront with 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 what each school’s DNA really is. You need to go beyond the website, and actually talk to people, understand how they see themselves.
Finally, and most importantly, help each business school understand how they 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 they can help you do just that. In this way, show them that you really are their “type.”