If we were to ask a hundred MBA aspirants about what felt the most critical portion of their application was, we would expect some of them to talk about the essays, some about the letters of recommendation, some about the one page resume, and some about the overall package. Very few would identify the huge role played by work experience, because it does not seem like much – after all, many think that it is something that is in the past, something that has to be chronicled baldly in an application. Many feel that it cannot make a difference.
They could not be more wrong: professional experience is the most important part of any application, and it is also the most neglected – in the resume and the compulsory questions, some candidates choose to write down quick descriptions of their work to save time for the more ‘important’ sections; in the essays, many choose to spend most of the time on the ‘Why MBA?’ essays rather than work equally hard on the ‘professional achievement’ essays that form the bedrock of their description of work experience.
Many candidates that we talk to accept that professional experience is a key part of any Business School application, and that they should spend at least as much time on it as on anything else. However, they often struggle with the details: how do they describe all their work in the best possible way, how do they differentiate themselves from other candidates with similar functional / geographic background, and how do they create a solid foundation for the rest of their application.
Here are a few ways in which you, too, can make your work experience really stand out among the thousands vying for a top MBA seat, and differentiate yourself on basics alone:
In case most of your work experience has been in a single place, try to show at least two promotions
Behind any successful MBA application, there is a constant search for that one thing which can make the app stand out. Many interpret this as variety in work experience, and try to list a large number of places at which they have worked. However, there is no hard evidence that this helps, at all: those with a single company on their professional experience CV are able to get admit letters every day; but they are the ones who play their cards right.
The most obvious, measurable proof of impact at a workplace is promotion – just like a picture is worth a thousand words, a promotion is worth a thousand minutes of exposition on what a great professional someone is. However, given that there are very few who apply for a big league MBA abroad within two years of completing graduation, a single promotion is often par for the course.
However, in most industries, two levels of promotion are often difficult to achieve within a 3 year time frame, and can sometimes even be elusive after 4 years. Hence, if you are able to show that you were promoted in just three years, it is definitely a big plus when it comes to your experience. Of course, this is easier said than done: to be even further ahead of the curve than the very best, you need to he aware of how to make it from Day 1, and ensure that you grow in your company without ruffling any feathers the wrong way: earnest rather than aggressive.
Remember, you need proven impact in each of your professional experience spikes; variety may be the spice of life, but one good spice is more than enough for your application.
Ensure that you mention long term impact and sustainability measures in any work you have done with a non profit
It is definitely true that work done in the social impact space lends a lot of credibility to an MBA application. However, Admissions Boards get to see multiple applications every year from people who have woken up to this fact too late, and ended up doing something for the sake of it.
They are very good at spotting cases like these, and most of their checks relate to planning, impact and sustainability. The principle is simple: anyone applying to a top Business School is likely to be a skilled planner and strategist: in case he / she has put insufficient time into working on the strategy for social impact, then it must mean that he / she is not sufficiently motivated.
Therefore, it is very important to ensure that your non profit / NGO work comes across as the high impact activity it undoubtedly was, and that you make clear exactly how it transformed the lives of those it sought to help. The best way to do this is in your one page resume: if you are able to dwell only on long term and big picture impact, that is itself a statement of intent to those reading the CV that you did not just do the work so that you could include it in your application. In addition, if you are covering the work in any of your essays, you should talk about it like you would about a project at work, and bring the same metrics of impact to bear.
These signs will tell any audience that you meant business when you worked in social impact, and that you were able to bring your expertise from your leadership and work experience elsewhere to bear on a problem where there was no conventional reward involved at all.
If every line of the professional experience section in your resume does not have a number attached to it, remove the lines without numbers
When someone from an Admissions Board speed reads your resume, he / she does so at great speed. The only things that are retained in such a reading are impactful facts, and the greatest impact comes through facts which are quantified by numbers.
The temptation to avoid numbers is greatest when talking about work experience: we have seen many resumes where the first line of each section of professional experience is purely words, and tries to explain the role of the person in that career segment. It is always best to combine such a point with achievement in the point; even if you got results in the top 20% of those achieved in previous years, it is best to let your readers know, rather than get lost in a mass of irrelevant detail.
The key skill here is not to scrap everything that you have written on your experience and start afresh: it is to be able to attach an impact estimate number to everything you have done. Therefore, if you are writing about your work as an analyst in your present place of work, talk about hiring numbers and percentiles, and how it was an achievement even to make it there, when you are explaining the role. When you are talking about the fact that you were given a pre-placement offer in a key internship, also provide details of the impact numbers that led to the offer being made, and use data to prove that very few people are given such an offer.
Create a testing focus group of young people (juniors from college, for example) and have them tell you when a particular point is boring
In the final analysis, the people who read your essays and resume are very different from you; you have seen each word a thousand times, and will definitely not see it like they do. Because of this, it is very important that you evaluate the impact it can have on someone reading your essay, and you need to know whether it is clear, impressive and interesting. In addition, you need honest feedback: there is nothing worse than doing a focus group test in which you get perspectives that you cannot use.
Therefore, it makes sense to evaluate clarity and ability to retain interest on a group of people who are easily distracted, and who do not have any particular motivation to read the essay. Such a focus group will tell you in case they find their attention slipping during a long essay, or when they read a point within a resume that has been shortened beyond the ideal length to retain clarity. This will ensure that your professional experience is always readable.
To this, you can easily add the additional layer of impressiveness by following the other points in this article. The essential quality is readability; once you are able to attract and retain the attention of an audience, you can worry about making them feel that your achievements are outstanding.
Show your writing on your professional achievements to senior mentors at your workplace
Some of these might even be your recommenders; when you get feedback on professional achievement coverage in your main application from someone who has written a recommendation letter, you are doubly fortunate. Of course, you are able to get advice from a senior professional who has observed your work closely; that is always good. In addition, you will also get uniformity; their inputs will, consciously or unconsciously, bring your application and their recommendation closer together, and this will serve as an additional layer of confirmation (for the Admissions Board) that your whole application hangs together, and that it is credible and legitimate.
It is also important to show your professional achievement coverage to senior mentors in the right way; given that they are likely to be very busy, it is best to vet the highlights with them, rather than take them through every detail. It is usually best to prepare a few pointed questions for them, and show them relevant exhibits from the application, so that you use them in the best possible way – in small doses, and for maximum impact. This way, you have the additional validation of experience on your side, and this provides a lot of mental security.
Showcase awards well, by explaining why they are special
One of the most common mistakes when it comes to talking about recognition within a professional achievement section is to write down the name of an award, and stop before explaining it. This is a mistake that is easy to understand – after all, for the person who got the award, it is extremely special, and the very name comes with all the positive emotional baggage. However, to the person at the other end, the mere name of the award means nothing, and is usually enough to discount the entire line or section in which it appears.
What is needed to position an award well is much more: first, the percentile of people who achieve that honour is an absolute must, because it places the achievement in perspective. Next, a short description of the distinctive achievement which merited the award is also necessary; in dwelling on the achievement for a few words, you will be able to invest the award with more importance and significance, in the eyes of the reader. Finally, you need to talk about the impact to the organization at large from your excellent work, that which led to the award of the honour. If you do this, an award will have most significance in the context of your overall professional experience, and it will serve as the badge of honour it undoubtedly is.
Showcase diversity in professional experience without giving the impression that you have tried too many things because of indecision
Of course, you would like to showcase all your diverse experience – all the full time jobs you have held, all the entrepreneurial activities that you have led, all the social impact work you have done and all the extra-curricular work that makes you a more rounded character. However, it is not always best to spend equal amounts of application space on each of these components; you definitely want to come across as someone who has done many things, but not necessarily as someone who has spent all your energy in every new thing that comes by, someone who may not be completely sure what he / she wants to do.
A good way to balance both urgencies, and have the best of both worlds, is usually to pick one highlight of your professional experience – usually the company / place at which you are currently working. This should be given the most space, and should ideally have the most impressive credentials. You can then choose two other big parts of professional experience – depending on your profile, these could be previous jobs, internships, freelance work, non profit work, and so on. When you describe these, be careful to include as many references to other professional assets that you possess; they should paint a picture of you as a skilled professional, with talents in many different areas.
This is often much more productive than spending a couple of lines each on ten different professional achievements, and coming out at the end of it without making too much impact at all.
Always ask yourself, at the end of any section of professional experience, if something that you did was in the top 1%
To be distinctive, it is always best to aim for the stars. After anything that you write about your work experience, review it after you are done writing it – but apply the filter of distinctiveness. If a certain part of what you did was exceptional; if only 1% of people could have / would have done it, highlight that. Once you do this for all points within your resume / essays, you can be sure that the people who are reading the essays will also see the spikes clearly, and see the ways in which you are distinctive.
You should also have other people apply this filter; the ideal way to improve the professional experience section of an application is through a debate with someone else, where they challenge your notions of what level of achievement qualifies for the top 1%. Once you have your experience toughened by a series of checks, you can be confident that you are, indeed, special – and that, most importantly, your Business School application reflects that as well!
We hope that this special Jamboree in depth feature has been useful to shed light on an often ignored aspect of Business School applications: how do you take the great work you have done and make sure that every facet of its greatness is apparent to the audiences which matter? If you follow the tips above, you will definitely be able to transform the way in which you present your work experience, and stand out in the midst of the most motivated young professionals in the world today.
In case you want to know more about how to unlock further value from sections of your application that you thought were bullet proof, maybe you need the Jamboree advantage. For sessions with our expert coaches, who can take your admit chances to the next level, we invite you to book a session with us at a time and center of your advantage. In this way, we assure you that we can demonstrate that careful preparation and counselling can take your already good application profile and turn it into a great one. All the best!