Is there juice?

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser is explaining to clients that ‘good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA programme. Only ‘good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are fewer places at top business schools than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this: the standard ‘good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed.

I do an instinctive analysis on applications. Often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not and I’m left saying: ‘There was no juice.”

What I mean is that the applicant has provided enough reasons, covered enough bases and said enough right things for an admissions committee not to reject them, but has not given the committee a compelling reason to say yes.

Sure, this is easier said than done. What if there is no ‘specialness” or distinctiveness there?

‘I haven’t done anything that special,” candidates will say. ‘I have not won Olympic medals, never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic or pulled anyone from a burning car.”

I won’t kid you: it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness—the specialness of what you have achieved and the specialness of who you are.

Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Only ‘good and special’ will do

  • Insight, self-reflection and self-understanding: Unfortunately (but fortunately for you) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what an admissions committee wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among twentysomethings, and so highly correlated with real leadership ability, that if you can do it right you’ll be special just for this. Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to the point and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as though your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

  • Communication: Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with the admissions committee. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your admissions reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear and organised way will make you stand out.

  • Direction and goals. Of course, you can’t change your past, but you should present it in the best light—for better or for worse. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything—you can make any claim, within reason of course. It is a ‘free hit” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd by the extent of your ambition and the relevance, interest and worthiness of your career path.—

AV Gordon is author of MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing. For expert MBA admissions consultations with Gordon through the MBA Admissions Studio, go to

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