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Applying to business school: What’s the right approach for women?

Little details might make the difference in getting accepted or declined at a top business school. MBA Channel has spoken to two leading admission consultants about their best tips for female applicants to business schools as well as those little red flags that women should avoid.


Picture: Stacey Blackman

Stacy Blackman, President of Stacy Blackman Consulting

There are certain stereotypes that go along with most demographics and women are no exception. In MBA programmes, which are generally male-dominated, some women can feel intimidated or disrespected. Even if you are a woman who is not likely to feel this way, the admissions committee may be looking for red flags.  I have had several clients with recommenders who have told them that they received calls from the admissions committee to probe on certain points.  In particular: "is the applicant confident, will she speak up in class discussions, is she timid, etc..."  Almost all of these anecdotes have occurred with female clients.  

While b-schools in general want to boost the percentage of women, and many schools are taking concrete steps to make women feel comfortable, the reality is that programmes are not quite there yet... and women need to feel very comfortable going into a classroom or group project setting where they will be a minority.  In the application process it is critical to make sure that they exude that comfort and confidence.  Essays, interviews and recommendations need to indicate a comfort level with speaking out, defending points of view, collaborating with all types of people.

Some post MBA career paths (ie finance) are more hungry for women as well.  So a woman targeting finance may have an advantage over one pursuing a role in brand management.  This is true in the MBA admissions process as well as in the job search.  

100 per cent professionalism is important.  This goes from the way applicants dress on interviews, to demeanour to email etiquette. I had a client whose manager directed her to not use so many exclamation points in email.  He explained that using periods was stronger and more authoritative.  He pointed out that only the women feel the need to end sentences like this!!!  True or not, the point is that these little details add up. An interview coach I worked with also had direction for women: don't play with your hair, don't fiddle with jewellery, don't adjust your clothing - just focus on looking your interviewer straight in the eye and answering questions with complete focus and confidence.

Picture: Caroline Diarte EdwardsCaroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Director at Fortuna Admissions and former Director of MBA Admissions at INSEAD.

Offering tips that are specific to women MBA candidates may be controversial; some can be offended by the suggestion that young women professionals are any different from their male counterparts. However, having been Director of Admissions at Insead for 7 years, and now with my MBA admissions coaching work at Fortuna Admissions, I can certainly say that there are commonalities in how some women approach the admissions process and the mistakes they can make. 

Women are in high demand at business schools. All schools are conscious that they need to drive up the percentage of women on the MBA programme (the percentage of women at top schools is typically around 35-40 per cent; this is already a big step up from where it was at the beginning of the 90s - in the 25-30 per cent range). So young women professionals should be confident that their applications will be very welcome at business school. Here are some tips to keep in mind as they approach the admissions process:

  • Don’t underplay your accomplishments. I have often observed that young women can be more modest about what they have achieved than their male counterparts. However an MBA application is not the place for modesty. I would not encourage arrogance, but many women have a tendency to be reticent about the level and impact of their accomplishments, and unless the file reader is particularly attentive to reading between the lines, this can backfire.
  • Get some 360 degree feedback. Ask a handful of people who know you well – whether in a personal or professional context – to give you some feedback on what they see as your key strengths and talents. You may gain some interesting insights that you can highlight in your application. 
  • Prepare your recommenders. Don’t just assume that your recommenders will say all the right things. Once you’ve picked your recommenders and got them on board (ideally at least 2 months before your application deadline), you should ask them for a meeting so that you can spend some time discussing the recommendation and the points they will cover. You may need to refresh their memories about your accomplishments. It can be hard for a previous boss, for example, who has likely managed many staff, to remember every project you did and the results you generated. 
  • Proactively address weaknesses. Spend some time researching the school’s criteria for evaluating candidates, for example through reviewing information available online, and speaking to members of the school community like alumni, current students and staff. If possible, it’s a great idea to visit the schools to which you may apply. Then do an honest assessment of how you stack up on the various criteria. For example, if your quant background is not strong, and you struggle with the quantitative section on the GMAT, it may be worth doing some extra quant courses (such as those offered by Berkeley online) to demonstrate to the school that you are committed to pursuing an MBA and are building a good foundation for the MBA curriculum. 
  • Showcase an unusual background. Sometimes women feel that they haven’t got the right profile for business school if they don’t fit into the typical pre-MBA career categories of consultants or engineers. However schools are actually seeking to build a classroom of diverse profiles, and having an unusual background can be a distinct advantage, especially if you can effectively convey the value of the perspective that you can bring to the classroom. 
  • Get others on board. A common challenge for women who would like to pursue an MBA is their personal situation. It is still much more common for male MBA students to have female partners who follow them to business school than vice versa, however the number of male partners on campuses is increasing. Most schools make great efforts to involve students’ partners in the school community, and also often offer facilities for families with children. If you are in a relationship, discuss your plans with your partner as early as possible and brainstorm together how you can make it work whilst maintaining your relationship. 
  • Be willing to take a financial leap of faith. I have seen that women candidates are sometimes more hesitant than male candidates to take the financial risk that is often involved in pursuing an MBA – most students have to take out loans. Research the return on investment of different MBA programs: schools publish data on program costs and salaries of graduating students; top schools may cost more, but also often have a higher ROI. 

More articles about the topic:

Female leaders: Twice the patience, twice the chutzpa, twice the stamina

The diversity benchmark: gender equality

Business schools change their way for female MBA students

How to get rid of the glass ceiling

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