Originally published on May 26th, 2020 on mba.com
Telling an authentic story is an essential part of the application process. As you craft your narrative, you want to tell a story that is true to who you are, resonates with the admissions committee, and highlights the traits you possess that will help you to become a future business leader. Characteristics like humility, empathy, vision, relatability, and flexibility are just some of the key traits that business schools look for in their applicants. While this may seem obvious to some, determining how to incorporate your unique background as an underrepresented minority (URM) into your application while also effectively meeting the objectives outlined above can be tricky.
Here are a few guiding principles you can use to optimally do both.
Your background is not THE story
Your race, ethnicity and upbringing are certainly part of who you are, but they’re not your defining characteristics as a business leader. I’ve had a number URM applicants approach me over the years with essays that don’t address the application topics because the applicants are more interested in talking about topics related to race, gender and ethnicity. Don’t make your demographic your story, make your story your story. Certainly race, gender, ethnicity and upbringing can have a profound impact on who you are. The key here is effectively, weaving these elements into your story to articulate how your business lens may be a little different from the next person’s. Speak to how your demographic and upbringing may have shaped your leadership and engagement style and, ultimately, make you a high potential business leader. For example, if you’re the first in your family to go to college, don’t make that the headline! Talk about how being a first-generation college student has driven your focus and helped you get to where you are today. Perhaps you will talk about how this perspective as a first-gen student has informed your own decision to be more inclusive in your outreach to others who might be feeling isolated because of their differences. However you decide to incorporate your background, make it part of the story, just don’t make it THE story.
Provide clarity in your story
Having clarity regarding where you are in your career, where you want to go in your career, and how business school is going to help you get there is a critical part of a strong MBA story. Lance Bennett, Director of Diversity of Admissions at the Kellogg School of Management, talks about the importance of clarity in your story: “We often see applicants overfocus on academic and professional achievements in their essays and interview instead of share stories that reveal who they are. In addition, applicants should also reflect on the impact they will make to the business school community.” Bennett goes on to highlight the importance of reaching out to your target school to self-identify as a URM to connect you with clubs and other campus resources. Finally, he recommends outreach to current students to gain additional perspective on programmatic offerings and career resources.
Build a brand starting with your character traits
To build a great story, you need to build your MBA brand. What is a brand? The key character traits built from your personal, professional, and community stories and experiences that provide a unique and authentic story differentiating you from other applicants. I suggest brainstorming key character traits that make you who you are.
Some character trait examples include:
Perseverance, Patience, Entrepreneurial, Adaptable, Strategic, Empathetic, Vision
Quantitative, Assertive, Influential, Great communicator, Analytical
As you consider character traits that may be applicable, think about things that make you unique and have the ability to be expressed through specific experiences in your career. As a URM, perhaps you’ve had to be patient to get where you are, or perhaps you’ve needed to be extraordinarily assertive to facilitate your advancement. Perseverance and resilience tend to be common traits with URM MBA applicants, so the key to differentiating yourself is to speak to your personal, career and community life experiences that underscore these traits rather than speaking about them generically. We recently had an Admit Advantage client join us with an incredible story of perseverance and resilience. This client was first in her family of 12 siblings to go to college, went to an Ivy League school, was forced to leave because she couldn’t afford the program, and eventually graduated top of her class from a much smaller school. She ended up taking a circuitous career path as a teacher and then as a business analyst at a startup, often working a second job to help her family financially, and she is now preparing to apply for business school. Compelling story, but as she completes her application, she will need to leverage her unique background by highlighting her key character traits while also crystallizing a clear vision for why an MBA is a great fit for her career at this moment.
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
Over my 13+ years of working with candidates, I’ve observed many URMs uncomfortable with being vulnerable in their MBA stories. Sometimes the best stories are those of failures that display humility, self-reflection and iteration – all signs of great leaders. Don’t be afraid to talk about things that didn’t work in your career. Clearly the committee wants you to point out your incredible accomplishments since undergrad, but they also want to know when you’ve hit bumps in the road and how you’ve dealt with adversity. Lance Bennett reiterates that point: “At Kellogg, we view the whole person outside of just academic and professional achievements. We want applicants to help us understand the value they will bring to their peers and elaborate on how their unique background has influenced their success.” Don’t be afraid to really dig deep into your personal and professional journey in order to support your case for seeking an MBA.
In my MBA essay to Wharton, I spoke about my experience as an entrepreneur. Even though we were able to sell our company, we didn’t realize the value we originally anticipated when we started on our entrepreneurial journey. While the company didn’t meet my personal expectations and I considered it a failure, I focused on my takeaways from the experience and honed in on what I was expecting to get out of the MBA to make the next company a success (which I certainly believe has happened at both Admit Advantage and Admit.me).
It’s cool to be vulnerable… and it works!
Things to keep in mind
It’s not enough to be a URM. What do I mean by that? There are some applicants who come into the MBA application process having read articles about the value of domestic URMs and how schools are looking to attract more URMs to their programs. While that is true, schools are not looking to adjust their admissions standards to accept URMs. Schools are looking for the best of the best, so don’t assume that you are in high demand simply because you are a URM. Instead, work hard to tell a compelling story and leverage your unique background as a highly qualified candidate offering a diverse perspective to the MBA class.
Being a minority doesn’t define you. Don’t feel obligated to talk about your minority status. Schools know that you are a URM and thus see inherent value in your unique perspective. Your story doesn’t have to take on a specific diversity angle. I spoke about surviving cancer and entrepreneurship because those two experiences defined who I was and spoke to my brand character traits. If your brand foundation specifically relates to your culture or upbringing, feel free to include those references, but don’t feel obligated to do so.
There is no “typical” URM story. You don’t have to be interested in social impact just because you are a URM. Just because you’re from Central America doesn’t mean your dream has to be to go back Central America and build a non-profit. Make your dream, your dream, not what you think other people envision for you.
Eric Allen is the President and Founder of Admit Advantage, one of the leading admissions consulting companies and Admit.me, a free online graduate management education admissions resource. He earned an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and worked on the admissions staff at the University of Pennsylvania. Eric is a member of AIGAC and IECA and has personally worked with thousands of clients over his 13 years working in the admissions advising space.