While sitting down to craft your MBA applications this season, you’ve undoubtedly been left scratching your head, wondering how to best market yourself to the most competitive business schools out there. Whether it’s the elusive top ten, top five, or top three, most admissions officers would surely tell you not to even try marketing yourself.
“Just be yourself,” they’d say.
What does that even mean? “Just be yourself?” Easier said than done, right?
It means: do an exceptional job of marketing yourself to these very same MBA gatekeepers.
And what’s the key to exceptional marketing? Exceptional storytelling. Whether marketing products, or in this case, people. When done well, it’s invisible, seamless, and elicits an emotional reaction from your audience on an almost subconscious level.
The connection between neuroscience and storytelling is already well documented. Great narratives turn on and engage parts of our brain that would otherwise be left untouched.
The assistant dean of MBA admissions at Stanford, the most selective business school in the world, asks aspiring applicants to share their “story” no fewer than six times in his blog entry on effective essays. That’s no accident.
Telling your story and making it resonant and impactful is not just limited to your essays either. Yes, you can only really personalize yourself through personal statements and recommendations. However, your story should align with every aspect of your application, up until and including your interview.
In the following series, MBA Application Story Hacks, we'll show you how to present your own unique story in the most powerful, engaging, and memorable way possible.
How to get Adcom super curious about you?
Use Surprise and Suspense
In a perfect world, your applications and personal statements would get as much time, care and attention from adcom readers as you’ve spent crafting them. However, this is rarely the case.
Top MBA programs are flooded with thousands of applicants each admissions cycle and if you’ve committed the cardinal sin of boring, confusing or alienating a reader, your application runs the risk of getting tossed aside. That’s why you immediately want to pull the reader in upon a first review.
You can do this by utilizing the techniques of surprise and suspense.
Surprise can take the form of throwing the reader a curveball right at the start – something totally unpredictable about you that gets them curious and holds their attention.
Yet, the surprise should not just take the form of shock value or be a single isolated episode that has no connection to your overall essay. The surprise should help illustrate a larger theme, or be used as a springboard to explore the rest of your story.
For example, you played on your high school or college football team, and in preparation for each game, you’d arrive early and sit alone in the locker room knitting. Yes, knitting. Scarves, sweaters, and mittens.
You can see how these two clashing elements of football and knitting are completely surprising and instantly lure the reader in. Who is this person? You immediately want to know.
However, these two seemingly clashing elements also illustrate the applicant’s appreciation for a strong competitive work ethic combined with a focus on detail, nuance and artistry.
Everyone has clashing and contrasting elements like these in their background. And by pairing them in a surprising way, you pop off the page, appear more human, and most importantly, become an interesting applicant that adcom really wants to meet.
So the trick is to use the technique of surprise to first pull the reader in, and then use it to explore your passions, experiences, personal ethos, or professional goals.
Suspense is sharing a story that creates a sense of mystery, and as the words suggests, leaves the reader suspended with anticipation and curiosity.
The effective use of suspense hinges on two things: the amount of information you share and the timing of when you stop and suspend the story. Ideally, you leave the reader hanging, yearning for more information or a resolution.
For example, you’ve been obsessed with becoming a ballerina since childhood. From studying endless amounts of footage of the most famous prima ballerinas, to practicing hours everyday without fail, to gradually working your way up to an audition with one of the top ballet companies in the country. You’re a shoo-in. You know it. The reader knows it.
You’ve hit every last move of your audition and when you finish with your final multiple fouetté on pointe, your ankle twists and you crash to the floor. Everyone in the room gasps.
STOP. What happens next?? Don’t tell us about the immediate aftermath. At least, not yet. Yes, it’s a rather dramatic example, but it perfectly illustrates the build-up of active evidence-based contextual information, paints a vivid picture of the decisive event, and then STOPS.
Flip 180 degrees and take us somewhere else. College, your family, your consulting job, or the inner-city ballet academy you taught at years after the event. Give it some time and then pick up where you left the reader suspended. Finish the story and use it as a springboard to discuss how this moment played a decisive role in influencing your perspective and experiences onward.
Using such a suspenseful and inciting moment will allow you to explore the corresponding lesson or theme through a number of other progressive stories and experiences. And most importantly, creating that suspense at the very beginning hooks the reader in and makes them truly curious about you.