This question comes up from Brave Supplicants in a variety of industries. Many candidates transitioning from the military have been on assignments that cannot be disclosed publicly due to the nature of the operation, the geographies involved, and/or the technologies being deployed. Consultants working on projects for big clients have access to proprietary details and corporate secrets and are subject to non-disclosure agreements. How do you share what you do with the adcom if you can’t talk about the projects you’re on?
This may even seem like a showstopper issue. We cajole the Brave Supplicants that we work with to present their biggest accomplishments and achievements (hint: our Accomplishments & Achievements App Accelerator is designed especially for this!!) and when your very best work has been on such a top-secret or NDA-gag-ordered project, what do you do? This can create such a helpless feeling when you’re just trying to come up with the best way to present to the adcom.
So here’s some advice if you find yourself in this situation when you’re looking at your material for essays in Round 2:
1. Remember what matters. What you did is ALWAYS more important than the project or where it occurred. Projects are not accomplishments. Being on a plum assignment or working for a big-name client is not what the adcoms care about. What you contributed — what you did in this situation — is far and away what counts in any situation.
(By the way, this is why it doesn’t matter if you don’t have brand-name companies on your resume or if you didn’t go to an elite institution for college. The adcoms care about what you have done with the opportunities you’ve been given — not that you are already in the club and have rubbed elbows with important muck-a-mucks in the past.)
When approached thoughtfully, we typically see BSers we work with come up with ways to capture the value that they brought to a project or assignment without the need to reveal identifying details.
However, this leads to a second bit of advice:
2. The adcoms can be trusted. In many cases, applicants do in fact choose to reveal certain information in their applications that they would never dream of revealing publicly, such as on social media. But that’s because this is a confidential process and the admissions reviewers understand that what people write in their apps is personal. While we’ve never seen any explicit language in the instructions for an MBA app that said that everything will be held in confidence, the nature of the process is such that admissions personnel know that things are sensitive. When an applicant talks about the experience of sexual assault that they lived through, or their family’s struggles with drug addiction, or other highly personal topics, they do so because they know that this information is not going to go outside of the admissions team. The same is true for revealing facts of your job. Obviously if something is really sensitive to a government or corporation, then you shouldn’t reveal it — but given #1 above, you also shouldn’t need to.
And finally, we’ll end with one additional point:
3. If you’re too cagey or coy it can interfere with communication. A really powerful essay is an intimate experience — intimate for you in writing it, and intimate for the reader in experiencing what you have written. If you get all cutesie in how you’re trying not to reveal the name of a company, for example — and yet that company is quite obvious based on what you’re saying about it — then that’s only going to interfere with the reading experience that the adcom has when they go through what you’ve written. As an example, if you worked on a presidential campaign in 2016, but for some reason you think you shouldn’t mention whose it was because you don’t want to alienate a reader who’s in the opposite party, and yet the outcome of that election is key to the story…. Then it would sound strange for you not to mention that you worked for Hilary Clinton. If you’re trying too hard to not name the name, then it just seems silly, and it calls way too much attention to the whole gimmick of not naming it. When the reader can totally figure out what you’re talking about — like in a story about a military operation where you were tasked with infiltrating the compound of a key enemy leader in 2011, but you don’t actually state who this leader was… This just ends up calling way more attention to it than necessary. Either the name of the company or the nature of the mission isn’t the most important part of the story, or it is in fact a key part, and the reader will already know the story or the company just because it was a big story that everyone knows, so you may as well be upfront and name it because otherwise it’ll look odd and the reader will wonder.
And the first rule of essays is you don’t want the reader to wonder.
The adcoms take privacy and confidentiality seriously and we’ve never heard of any type of breach of trust. That being said, if you choose to not name the client, it would be fairly easy – just pare back the details (“a leading consumer products company facing an unprecedented crisis” or whatever). The main issue with that is your reader would be left guessing at just how severe the situation was, so you wouldn’t have quite the “oomph” in being able to show the environment you had to work in or how important it was for your team to do something extreme to help them.
But either can work, and there’s no risk to naming, it’s not violating some expectation that the reader would have for you to keep things un-named, and it’s also totally fine if you feel it’s important to not be specific. Just make the story clear and keep the focus on what value you provided, and we’re sure you’ll get your key points across.