A critical phase of my MBA application, concurrent to researching your target schools, is “researching myself” and building my profile. What are my unique traits? Where do I want to be in five years? And in twenty years? How would my personality, experiences, passions add value to the class? This introspection exercise might come naturally to some people, including myself, whilst for others it might appear to be daunting at first. Either way, and regardless of the outcome of the application, it was a useful moment of self-reflection. [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]
My “Greatest Hits”
I started writing/recording songs when I was 14, and this hobby has continued till today. I never intended to be a professional songwriter or artist, because a career in the music industry requires a tremendous amount of talent (which I don’t have!) and/or luck (whereas I am a moderate risk taker). However, this passion truly helped me live through the ups and downs of growing up.
Why is this all relevant? Because writing songs allowed me to know myself better, pinning down my key values, cultivating my biggest dreams, facing my deepest fears, crystallizing my most vivid memories. Therefore, I couldn’t actually wait to answer the question “What matters most to you, and why?“. I already knew, instinctively, what I would write about. After speaking to some friends which pursued other top MBA programs, I realized instead that this peculiar Stanford essay might actually sound intimidating, as it focuses on your deepest self and not necessarily on your career.
However, even if I was used to-self reflection, it was still paramount for me to put some order among all the scattered thoughts I had on my personal/professional path. So in early 2014 I started noting down in a random fashion all important events (setbacks, achievements, challenges, learnings, etc.) of my first 28 years. I accumulated several pages of recollections, ranging from what my parents taught me to the biggest career achievements, from the significance of some albums/movies in my growth to what I learnt in my community service. I included anything which might be a good subject for an essay.
After a few weeks, I filtered down these memories into one page named “My Greatest Hits” (it reminded me of a great Lost episode, if you watched the TV series!), with about a dozen stories which help explain who I have become today.
Hint: each school makes clear who they are looking for!
The book I used during my preparation, “Your MBA Game Plan”, suggests to subsequently organize your “greatest hits” according to 4 key attributes: innovation, leadership, maturity, teamwork. Each individual story might tick one or two boxes (or all, if it’s a phenomenal story!). Therefore, I carefully selected stories in order to have a balanced profile across the “attribute” axis.
Additionally, I tried to have a compelling set of stories on the “domain” axis, i.e. the different areas of my life that the stories stem from. I aimed at a delicate balance between my professional experience, hobbies/extracurricular activities, community service, international exposure, etc.
I think this approach is great to start organizing the different data points. However, whilst browsing on the school’s website, I found out that each school is actually transparent about what the Admission Committee is looking for in successful candidates.
- Columbia: intellectually driven people, record of achievement, demonstrated strong leadership, ability to work in teams.
- Harvard: habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, engaged community citizenship.
- Stanford: intellectual vitality, demonstrated leadership potential, personal qualities and contributions.
At first sight, these attributes might look very similar to one another, and almost matching the breakdown suggested by the book. However, I paid attention to the different vocabulary, and even the different order. For instance, Stanford’s number one attribute is intellectual vitality, whereas Harvard first considers a habit of leadership. And with regard to leadership, Stanford is looking for demonstrated potential (the focus is mostly on the future), whereas Harvard seeks a habit (the focus is on the present). And so forth, you get the picture.
I therefore built on the initial approach, and created a specific profile for each target school. Some of the stories were perfect for Stanford, others for Harvard or Columbia, some stories were instead so pivotal that they were great material for all. By doing so, I prepared myself to face the essay questions and brief my recommenders with a clear picture of what I wanted to communicate through each application.
Last but not least: my goals
There was one last key part in the exercise of building my profile: setting my post-MBA goals and long-term vision. As a candidate wishing to be successful, I had to highlight my attributes and present my story in the most enticing way, but that’s who I am today. It is important, but in a way independent from the culture of the school and the features of its program. It’s a one-way fit. Your goals are instead where I thought I could truly bring this fit to life. I tried to picture who I want to be, and how an MBA from my target school could help me get there.
More specifically, I made sure that my goals met three requirements:
- be compelling and with a long-term impact (this is where “big dreams” came into play for my application to Stanford);
- be coherent with what I had accomplished so far (I think that it’s perfectly fine if a candidate wants to switch career, as in my case, but I made sure that my plan sounded grounded in reality);
- be ambitious but likely achievable with an MBA from my target school (thanks to the uniqueness of the school’s faculty, program, student community, network, etc.).
Obviously, AdCom members do not have a crystal ball, and every candidate is entitled to change his/her mind during the two years. At the same time, I believe it is always fundamental to have a desired trajectory to follow, and to adjust based on new experiences and learnings. So this is a super useful exercise for me in any case.
Personally, I realized that I wanted to join the dots between two separate times of my professional development. On the one side, my academic background in Finance, and my first work experience in Investment Banking. On the other side, my business development role at Universal Music, in particular negotiating deals with visionary entrepreneurs and managing mutually beneficial partnerships with start-ups.
This is why I decided to look at venture capital as my post-MBA goal, and at VC in Italy as my long-term vision (I might talk about this in a future post). It is an industry that I am passionate about, and which impacts society through the financing of technological developments; it is an ambitious goal, but it makes sense in the context of my story; and, lastly, Stanford is best placed to help me get there. I don’t know whether VC is what I will do from 2017, but the building blocks of why I chose this goal, and how Stanford will contribute to my development, will not change. The direction is set, the destination still unknown.
Time for a break after writing this long post, since the next one will about writing the essays!