When the schools say they do a “holistic review” then that means you need to look at your own application strategic, from a whole-person perspective. Every single asset in your application — the core stats (GMAT/GRE, GPA, TOEFL), the essays, especially the resume, and also importantly the letters of recommendation and even the oft-overlooked app dataset — all of them combine to construct a persona for your admissions reader.
So if they’re doing this “holistic review” and are looking at everything, does that mean they want to know everything about you?
You’ve also heard that they care about diversity, and that diversity comes in many forms. Does that mean they are going to be more interested in someone who’s involved in a gazillion different things?
When you boil it all down, is the breadth of interests — the sheer quantity of things that you’ve done and hobbies or extracurriculars you’ve had — more important than focused specialization or deep experience in a select few areas or subjects?
Do you want to be the Kitchen Sink Kid?
Not long ago we came across some article about maximizing your experience of life and living to the fullest, where the author was claiming that “Breadth > Depth” — meaning, it’s more valuable to have a variety of experiences than to go deep. The article exhibited some fuzzy thinking and we’re not gonna link it because it’s not germane to this post, but it did serve a purpose in prompting this examination of MBA strategy that we’re offering you today.
Having a laundry list of experiences to cram in at the bottom of your resume is not really doing much for your chances of getting into bschool. That’s especially true when those items are either only vaguely referenced and/or they’re very common. Having a bullet on the resume that says something like, “Interests: Mentoring, travel, cooking, reading, CrossFit” is fine but it does not get you much for the adcom. There’s about 2,834 other applicants with that nearly-verbatim bullet on their resume too.
Instead, it would be way more helpful if:
1. “Mentoring” was captured through actual references to the organization(s) you’ve worked with and the dates (month/year) of involvement, and ideally we’ll see this as a continuous interest that you did possibly in college straight through till today in a formal capacity; if not, then it’s hardly an “interest” worth noting, it’s just a thing you did because everyone else was doing it.
2. “Travel” should be blown out to at least one meaningful detail – “traveled to 13 countries” is way better than simply “travel” and even better would be “traveled to 13 countries since 2017 including Zimbabwe, Singapore and Costa Rica”
3. For “cooking” maybe you can say “cooking traditional Indian meals” or “creating recipes for new kinds of BBQ sauce” or even something as simple as “vegetarian cooking” — anything that gives (ahem) some flavor.
4. Same with reading. Do you read romance novels? Horror? True crime? The Economist? At least some type of descriptor will make this add more.
5. The CrossFit can stay — but even there, you can insert a detail. CrossFit for three years? CrossFit Level 4? CrossFit Level 1 and proud?
Use details and that simple list becomes instantly more communicative. Yes you’ll have trouble fitting it all in, and you don’t want to go overboard; the Personal Interests bullet at the bottom of a resume should not be more than two lines. But giving the reader texture and color on these items is way better than simply adding more and more to the list.
The other risk with trying to include too many various things in your essays especially is what we call the drive-by. An essay is an argument: You’re giving an answer to the essay prompt, and then you’re providing reasons or details that back up your position. In order to be valuable in support of that argument, the keyword then is again “details.” Sometimes BSers will make some offhand remark or reference to something in their life and then continue on in the next sentence without explaining. This frequently happens because we forget that the reader of our essay does not live inside our heads and does not have access to the full life experience that we have. So we’ll mention something that is totally clear and obvious for us but which means next to nothing to a complete stranger. It’s important to watch for this (and is one of the many great values that come from getting your essays reviewed by a qualified professional!).
You may want to make a list of all the important things in you life, both personal and professional, that you care about, that you spend time on, that comprise the busyness of your days. Look back over your organizer or your Outlook from six months ago, from two years ago (when you weren’t spending every spare moment worried about applications). One way the adcoms understand who you are as a person is by getting glimpses of what you care about and where you put your time. Spend every night playing video games? That fact alone is unlikely to get you into bschool but it may be worth mentioning somewhere in the apps. It’s better than saying nothing where you end up being too much of a blank.
In the essays, identifying a handful of ripe stories to present, and then going into them with great detail and focusing on what happened, how you reacted, what actions you took and where things ended up…. This is almost always significantly more interesting and revealing than pummeling the reader with only high-level references and vague summary or wrap-around statements that don’t give anything of substance.
Almost always, being focused in essays is where the payoff occurs. That’s true for lasering in on your career goals and pitching the adcom on how you intend to pursue them, again, with details. And it’s seriously helpful in illuminating character and revealing values and sharing more of who you are with the adcom, which is the #1 goal of your applications to any of your schools. Not just Stanford with its “matters most” essay or UCLA with its “most passionate” but any school. Being someone who’s broadly interested in many many things or who dabbles and explores and skips his way through life can certainly be interesting to the adcoms, too. But having more stuff to mention in an essay or app is not automatically a key to success. Sometimes, paring back and bringing the lens in to a more narrow focus can do wonders in showcasing the facets of the person. It does depend on the individual and the facts that make up who you are. The main point is to be deliberate in what you are choosing to present, and how.
For most BSers, Depth > Breadth, almost always, in MBA essays (we think in life, too, but that’s a different post for a different blahg).
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