Monday, July 7, 2014

Balancing Work and Non-Work Contents in your MBA Applications

Most MBA programs ask a series of essay questions (or one essay question as application evolve) that allow you chance to bring out many sides of yourself: what you do for a career, what you do outside of work, and even your academic background. But how should you approach all of the topics in your MBA application if all you do, during the week and even a lot of the weekend, is work?  There is nothing wrong with showing dedication to your organization. However, if you are ready to make a change in your life, such as applying to business school, you need to realize that the one thing about your current life that will not go with you is that job.  The skills you have gained will - and you can show the benefits of those by describing in your essays and interview how they'll help you to make specific contributions to your classmates. But to help the admissions committee of a particular school get a good sense of your potential level of involvement outside of class, it is useful to present both your work and non-work sides in your application. There are several benefits to doing so.

1) Knowing what you choose to do outside of work helps people understand you better.

In the workplace there may be restrictions on what you can and cannot do with your time, based on your job description or level of responsibility. But in your free time, you have a lot more leverage and ability to choose what you get involved in and how you spend your time.  And understanding these decisions about what you choose to do with your free time will help your application reader better understand who you are and what you value. 

Sharing personal interests helps your reader feel that they know you better as a person and makes them feel a bit closer to you. A cold and impersonal description of a mega-merger in which you had only a minor role is not nearly as effective as a story about your determination to complete a marathon - especially when the reader if deciding whether you are an interesting person worthy of attending their school.

2) Balance in your application can make the admissions officer reassured that you will be able to make the transition to their school.  

If all you have is your job - then what will be left once you stop working?  Show that you will not sink at b-school but instead you'll swim - by describing your personal interests and what you want to get involved in while at the program. A lot of MBA graduates would likely say that they benefitted greatly from the education outside the classroom - events, trips, and other such activities with their peers. In some cases these experiences are academic in nature, such as a case competition.  But in others they are more peer-bonding exercises, where you get to know your classmates (and future global network) better. Don't underestimate the importance of a soccer club or baseball team in forming bonds with your classmates during the MBA.

3) Your work accomplishments may already be covered in your reference letters.

If one (or more) of your referees is a supervisor from your job, he/she will likely use a considerable portion of his/her letter describing the contribution you have made to projects, teams, or the organization itself. This doesn't mean you should ignore discussing your work in your essays - but it does show that certain work-related accomplishments will already be covered.

For all of these reasons, it is useful to ensure that your work takes it proper position in your application as a key part of who you are, not the entire definition. Take care to separate yourself as an individual from the work that you do.  When brainstorming potential topics, note the following two things:

1) Characteristics like leadership extend beyond the job.

Some schools (Harvard in particular) look for evidence of leadership in your application.  And it is worth noting that a true leader will exhibit this characteristic across many facets of their life. Do you know anyone who is bright, successful, trustworthy, approachable, fearless and dedicated while at work, but turns into a completely different person, devoid of all of these traits, once they leave the office?  When you are struggling with how to demonstrate your leadership, don't limit yourself to only work-related stories. Instead, show that the leadership you demonstrate at work is truly useful in understanding who you are, by showing how you exhibit that leadership outside of work too.

2) Many characteristics can be demonstrated equally well through work and non-work stories.

When asked for an example of how you have demonstrated the ability to work well in a team, often either a work-related story (your contribution to a team that made a big accomplishment) or a non-work related story (your role as the starting point guard on a community basketball team that won a big match) can work equally well.  Fo this reason, when brainstorming teamwork accomplishments, don't limit yourself to just the work experiences.  Consider what you do outside of work, and how those experiences may also be relevant. 

For those that truly dedicate the vast majority of their time to their organization, there is still one last idea to consider: informal volunteer work in your company. This may or may not be effective, depending on the individual situation.  However, there are options available to you even within the context of your organization that may help you to show balance, such as:

- attendance in a cross-functional or cross-departmental task force you chose to join to accomplish something
- weekend volunteer work done through your organization
- informal and/or extra-curricular training of subordinates
- organizing or participating in company activities such as community events, family events or other such activities

By using a variety of topics that span your work, life outside of work, and academic background, you can paint a picture of yourself that is well-rounded and will show effectively your potential to contribute to an MBA program.

John Couke