MBA Applicants: Offer Explanations, Not Excuses

Explanations, Not Excuses

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” — John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962, Rice University

Stirring words from the boy from Brookline, Mass., 50 years ago, and his words apply equally for those considering business schools. If it were so easy to secure a place in the MBA programs down the road in Boston and Cambridge, we surely wouldn’t place the same value on the achievement. And though a handful of applicants to top MBA programs seem to have all the elements to write their own ticket—magna cum laude from a prestigious university, fast-track career progression at a Fortune 500 company, or co-founder of an innovative tech firm, and perhaps an Olympic medal and impressive charitable work thrown in for good measure—the rest of us all have something in our background we think we need to compensate for, or explain away.

What is important is to provide an explanation, not an excuse.

As former directors of admissions at Wharton, INSEAD, and other top business schools, my colleagues at Fortuna Admissions have heard pretty much all the excuses:

• “I don’t have any extracurricular activities because I work too hard.”
• “My GMAT doesn’t reflect my true academic ability.”
• “I didn’t ask my boss for a recommendation because he doesn’t like me.”

If all you can manage is a hackneyed excuse, it is better not to say anything at all.

Indeed, devising excuses is often an attempt to avoid responsibility for your actions. An explanation, on the other hand, assumes you have a past, and the explanation can be followed up with what you have done to compensate, or put it right. In our consultations with MBA applicants, we discuss such issues as the less-than-stellar GPA, an awkward gap in your career, or a delicate relationship with your boss, and offer the following advice:

• Treat your audience with respect. Don’t be arrogant in thinking you can pull the wool over their eyes, but at the same time don’t be intimidated, which leads to being needlessly defensive. Straightforward and genuine works best.

• If it is a small thing, don’t make a big song and dance about it. Use the optional essay for anything you think the admissions committee needs to know, but don’t waste precious real estate in your essays stating why binge drinking in college was a bad idea. The optional essay is a good place to explain, but keep it to significant issues and try to show your learning.

• Don’t try to sweep issues under the carpet. If there is a gap in your résumé, the school will be aware of it. If you don’t explain yourself, any gaps will be interpreted in the worst possible way. So be up front and point out how you used that time to good effect.

• If you were ill when you took the GMAT, do not go into details. Work out how you are going to improve your score between now and the admissions deadline.

• One B minus or C in your college career will not keep you from going to business school, so there is no need to write an optional essay. If your overall GPA is below par, compensate with a strong GMAT or GRE score or take a class to demonstrate your quantitative ability. And if there was a good reason why your grades suffered—a family issue, a demanding part-time job that helped pay your school expenses—provide a short, no-nonsense explanation, preferably demonstrating your academic potential when you were able to focus on your studies.

• If you feel that asking your direct supervisor for a recommendation will jeopardize your job situation, you may want to include a sentence about this in your optional essay. Admissions officers understand such situations but would rather know why you made the decision rather than having to figure it out for themselves.

And finally, don’t freak out about the one aspect of the application that falls short—we’ve all faced setbacks along the way. Remember that MBA admissions committees are looking at the whole picture and will place one weak point in the context of your other accomplishments and demonstrated potential.

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