I worked in private wealth management before I did my MBA, completed the Capital Markets and Asset Management Immersion at Johnson and worked in private equity briefly before dedicating myself to MBA admissions consulting. While I don’t run the kind of business people typically think of as an asset management business, I have long been fascinated by the subject and in many ways I believe my thinking is very much guided by my experience and education in asset management.
I don’t come from a banking or a wealthy family. My parents were both very passionate teachers, so for me getting to work in education is very much a homecoming in a sense. But the first time I remembered being really interested in the idea of asset management was when I was around 13 years old and read The Millionaire Next Door.
If you haven’t read it (which you should), The Millionaire Next Door is a classic business book where the authors examine the lives, lifestyles and choices of your average American millionaire. What they found really shocked them. Most millionaires were not very high earning people. Most millionaires did not live lavish lifestyles of conspicuous consumption. Most millionaires ran businesses, had a keen eye for value, and tended to live simple lives. To the contrary, many of the people we think of as being very wealthy – doctors, traders and the like – tended to actually accumulate much less wealth over the long run because of the opulent lifestyles they lived and a number of other poor habits.
After looking at many such examples, the book groups people into two categories: Prodigious Accumulators of Wealth (PAWs), those that manage to accrue considerable fortunes oftentimes in spite of having rather average incomes; and Under Accumulators of Wealth (UAWs), people who even with tremendous income can’t seem to get out of debt or hold much in terms of assets.
I was thinking about this example recently because I see MBA applicants in very much the same way. In the MBA admissions world, you have candidates who overperform on their applications, and candidates that underperform. You have the candidates with that dream resume, unreal GPA from ultra-prestige undergrads and sky high GMATs who just can’t seem to close the deal. You also have the applicants with serious flaws in their application, whether that’s a GMAT on the very bottom of a school’s 80th percentile range (or below), a GPA that barely qualified for graduation or lackluster work experience; that somehow end up with admissions and scholarship offers that the applicants in the first category couldn’t achieve.
Like PAWs and UAWs, MBA Application Overperformers (MAOs) and MBA Application Underperformers (MAUs) have some recognizable behavior patterns which I have seen over and over in my 7 years in this business. I’ll discuss 8 of them below.
1. MAOs are driven by their mission
At the heart of every MAO is a rock solid foundation on WHY they need to gain admission to business school, and the particular programs they’re applying to. Many MAOs feel they have a special purpose to fulfill and they see B school as a stepping stone into fulfilling that purpose. Interestingly, and perhaps connected to this, MAOs are usually not particularly fussed about what their chances are, whether the MBA is “worth it” or oftentimes even what school they go to. MAOs JUST DO IT. MAOs feel their mission is too important to make contingent on admission to a particular program. They apply for schools they feel is right for them and they are more than ready to fail, regroup and move along if it doesn’t work out. For the MAO, admissions to an MBA program is not the success they seek, but rather a signpost along the path to the ultimate fulfillment of their mission.
In some way, MAOs are just a little bit like honey badgers.
2. MAUs are driven by their ego
MAUs are convinced that they deserve admission to a top school. They feel that they’ve earned it. It’s understandable, considering the incredible record of success achieved by many MAUs up to this point. They’ve looked at the stats, they know people who’ve gone to these schools and their simple assessment is that they are better. They’re not interested in doing the hard work of digging deep into what their purpose may be. They compensate for their feelings of insecurity by denigrating the very schools they’re applying to, often without even realizing it. MAUs tend to see the MBA application process from a very Machiavellian standpoint and are more interested in what to say or do to get admitted, than actually taking any meaningful steps to fulfilling their purpose (because they usually don’t know what it is anyway).
MAUs HAVE to get admitted to a top school and they fear failure more than anything.
3. MAOs want to succeed in school
MAOs are applying to schools that they believe will be the best breeding ground for their future success. They tend to think very carefully about the characteristics of the school that will support them on their journey. Every detail has meaning. Along these lines, MAOs are the most likely to choose a lower ranked school over a higher ranked school once they are admitted. They do the work for really understanding which school will be the best fit for them and they trust their gut over a published ranking.
4. MAUs just want to get admitted
MAUs will typically attend the highest ranked school they get admitted to. What happens from there is yet to be determined. Most MAUs figure they will cross that bridge when they come to it. And worst case scenario, even if it turns out to be not quite the right school, they are better off at a more highly ranked program.
As someone who interviews a lot of M7 alumni who are looking to make some money on the side, I can tell you that this calculus often does not work out.
5. MAOs know what they’re bringing to the table
MAOs don’t always have the best GPA or GMAT score, but they have a keen sense of what skills and talents they possess that are going to create success for them. They can point to how they’ve used these strengths in the past and have a plan for how to leverage these abilities to be successful in business school and their future career. MAOs have a nuanced understanding of what role they play in a team and the introspective maturity to recognize that no one is good at everything. Rather, they know what they’re good at, what areas are not natural strengths for them, and how to navigate the difference.
6. MAUs know what will impress you
MAUs read the “what we’re looking for” section of the schools they’re interested in and what they find on GMAT Club and have a laundry list of accomplishments ready to spout off at a moment’s notice. When probed, they usually aren’t able to put these achievements into any meaningful context and assume this question isn’t relevant or wouldn’t come up. Their accomplishments should stand for themselves, they feel, and the context, when probed upon, is often shockingly unrelatable.
There are no point guards among the MAUs, they are all Michael Jordans.
7. MAOs talk about their experiences
There are two reasons to highlight your experiences in MBA applications. The most obvious one is that your direct experience provides evidence for every claim you make about insights you have developed, your motivation and your fit for a particular school. The other reason is that schools are keenly aware that in a quality MBA program, you’re going to learn as much from your classmates as you will from your professors. Being able to demonstrate that you have something to contribute to that marketplace of ideas is critical to the admissions committee seeing you as someone who can add value to the class.
By talking about their experiences, and understanding which ones will be most relevant in the MBA context, MAOs create desire and certainty in the minds of the AdCom. The best MAOs understand that a mixture of personal and professional experiences creates the most well rounded picture of the applicant.
8. MAUs talk about their ideas
I can’t tell you how often I read an MBA application essay that is four paragraphs on everything the applicant will do in the future, with little grounding on what they’ve done in the past. Ambition and vision are valuable traits, but when you’re applying to business schools you’re better off keeping your feet on the ground. You’ll have plenty of time to enact your ten year Master Plan once you’ve graduated from B school and gotten a few years of serious post-MBA experience under your belt. Using excessive application real estate to pontificate on their grand vision before they’ve even planted their feet at the starting line will make the AdComs feel very nervous about admitting an applicant regardless of their profile.
If I was to summarize my intention behind this post in a sentence, it would be this: if you’re getting ready to apply to business school, no matter what you’ve done in the past or what your capabilities may be on a standardized test, every one of you CAN achieve MBA admissions success. Contrary to popular belief, there are enough seats at enough great schools available for everyone. MBA programs get a lot of qualified applicants, but they are DESPERATE for HIGH QUALITY applications.
Be humble, be sincere and be courageous. Because to the brave will go the spoils.