And the winner is…

MBA applicants from India are four to five times more likely to be turned down for admission to US B-Schools than applicants from other countries. The current state of the US economy makes placing international students especially difficult and most Indian applicants have similar profiles (IT or Engineering) making it tough to differentiate!

In this bleak admissions climate – it is critical to stand out from the crowd. Of course, there are some parts of the application, which are set in stone (work experience, profile, academics). But based on my experiences working at the world’s most respected B-Schools – I can tell you that it’s the intangibles that make all the difference.

PERSONALITY & SHARP ELBOWS

You should apply to schools that fit your personality and intellectual interests.

In the early years of ISB, I learned the craft of admissions from the Director of Admissions at Kellogg. It was fascinating. One day, we were reading through a particularly impressive application when one of the application readers abruptly tossed it in the reject pile. Seeing the look of confusion on my face, Dipak Jain (former Dean of Kellogg and current Dean of INSEAD) remarked, “Nope! That guy has sharp elbows!” – implying that the applicant was a competitive go-getter who pushes his way through the crowd.

While that applicant wasn’t the best fit for team-work-oriented Kellogg, a school known for Marketing, he probably would’ve been a better fit at Wharton or Booth, schools known for Finance and being number-driven.

ESSAYS & “I”

B-school essays are difficult to write. The reasons being, most schools want applications from those who are genuinely interested and are prepared to make that effort. But sometimes applicants get a little carried away.

Once at ISB, an applicant wrote about how he enjoyed cleaning dishes. In truly beautiful language he described the soap, scrubbing, and solitude. However, I had no idea what this had to do with joining the ISB programme and hence — reject.

But there was another problem with his essay – it used “I” way too much. Applicants should highlight collaborative experiences and share credit with others – and do so in a crisp, clean, and passionate way.

Also, don’t overdo the social work bit. Don’t sound like Mother Theresa, the admissions readers can intuitively spot embellishment!

In recent years, some schools have an optional additional essay. This is a trap! Use it only if what you are saying is completely new and cannot be said logically in the other essays. NEVER say you are submitting the additional essay because you ran out of words in the regular essay.

CARELESS RECOMMENDATIONS CAN KILL YOUR APPLICATION

Choose your recommenders carefully and ensure that they will write positively about you. At ISB, I received a recommendation which stated “the applicant works entirely to his own satisfaction!” Generally, alumni recommendations are given weightage – but only if the person is relevant. Just because your brother’s wife’s friend’s acquaintance is an alumni doesn’t mean he’ll be a good recommender.

One recommendation should be from your immediate supervisor. I’ve noticed that Indian applicants feel that a recommendation from the CEO of their company or a celebrity is a winner. Unless that person regularly supervises you and evaluates your work – it won’t help at all.

The second recommendation could be from a person who knows you well, and can assess you both personally and professionally.

INTERVIEWS ARE ALL ABOUT “YOU”

Most people think that the purpose of the interview is to discuss achievements, intellectual interests and take the admission decision. Wrong.

The real purpose of the interview is to evaluate social skills. Sometimes the interviewer will have read your application beforehand (ISB) and sometimes it could be blind (Fuqua) – but in either case, the main objective is to see whether you have the social competence to succeed in the business world. Use the opportunity to emphasize your interest in the school as your first choice.

Keep in mind that once the admissions process starts, constant enquiries are not appreciated – no school wants stalkers!

Finally, in these difficult times, it is wise to also apply to business schools in Asia and India. India is a good option to consider, as it is emerging, costs less, and the quality is high.

The author Vinoo Urs was formerly at ISB, Fuqua (Duke), and IIM-Bangalore. He is currently the Director of Admissions at the MYRA School of Business.