Each business school is distinctive and has a different culture or feel to it. As such, it is critical to understand the brand of each program in order to select the ones that best fit your personal brand. MBA candidates are not the only ones who use marketing to differentiate themselves. Even the MBA Boards are not impervious to marketing. They too do their fair share of marketing to ensure that their programs’ brands are adequately communicated to their target applicants. It is no surprise that each year, dozens of members of MBA Admissions Boards embark on a grueling recruitment schedule across the nation and the world to “market” their unique MBA program and convince diverse and talented prospective candidates to apply. Whether the Admissions Boards are marketing their program through their annual fall open house events or through other means, including dynamic websites, glossy brochures, and on-campus events, their pressing goal is to attract the most talented, diverse, and accomplished individuals who are a fit with their program’s brand.
Some MBA programs have done a brilliant job defining and marketing their brands. By contrast, there are those whose brands are quite ambiguous to the customer, making it difficult for people to articulate what the program stands for. MBA programs that attempt to be all things to all people without having a key component that they master face the possibility of owning zero percent of the customer’s mindshare. (Similarly, MBA candidates who do not have a clearly articulated and compelling brand capture zero market share in the mind of the MBA Board.) It is therefore quite usual to see MBA programs and universities as a whole invest a lot of money to conduct a brand study to refine and revamp their brand. This exercise often involves extensive communication with alumni, current students, recruiters, and other stakeholders who are familiar with the program.
Make no mistake about it, business schools are not trying to simply admit a prototype applicant. That is, although Columbia has a fantastic brand as a finance program, it isn’t looking to admit all its students from finance backgrounds. Neither is Kellogg trying to admit an entire class of marketing people. That would be extremely limiting and would defeat the overall purpose of a top business school: students from diverse backgrounds (both professionally and personally) interacting with
each other and learning from the different perspectives covered
in the classroom. The brand of an MBA program goes beyond
the career area it specializes in, although this is important in
shaping the brand of the school. Kellogg, for instance, has a
strong reputation as a marketing program but is also known for
its extremely collaborative culture and emphasis on teamwork.
Does that mean you can’t find teamwork at Columbia? Of
course teamwork is a part of Columbia’s culture (and of most
top business schools). But Kellogg’s emphasis and devotion to
the collaborative community will always make it one of the
premier team-oriented business schools in America. Tuck is
another program that has a similar brand focus on teamwork
and collaborative community.
Understanding and deciphering the brand of MBA programs isn’t a simple, cut-and-dried process. It requires in-depth research. Applicants need to:
• Speak with products of the business school, in particular, alumni, current students, MBA Boards, and faculty.
• Visit the schools to get a firsthand experience of the program, its culture, and teaching style, not to mention
the people who might someday become classmates.
• Talk to people in the industry to understand how the
program is perceived to better understand the program’s
Top MBA programs have a lot in common. They all have high-caliber faculty, smart students, adept Admissions Boards, dedicated career services, and active alumni. They are similar in their value of diversity. Diversity is defined not simply by gender and ethnicity alone but includes socioeconomic backgrounds, geographic upbringing, career experiences, and unique perspectives. Despite these similarities, however, many top business schools have unique and differentiated brands. Here are a few examples.
Stanford Graduate School of Business
Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) enjoys a strong
reputation of honing and developing entrepreneurship. Partly a
result of Stanford’s proximity to Silicon Valley, the world’s entrepreneurial capital, or perhaps the long history of innovation from
Stanford alumni and faculty alike, Stanford’s brand as the preeminent entrepreneur MBA program is long established. That said,
Stanford GSB is more than an entrepreneurial MBA program. It
has many diverse offerings, including the Center for Global Busi-
ness and the Economy, as well as a strong culture of social enter-
prise, as seen in its dedicated Center for Social Innovation,
Certificate in Public Management, and sizeable alumni base
engaged in socially responsible businesses.
The reality is that if you are looking for an MBA program that
would stretch you intellectually as well as creatively to explore
new ventures and start your own business, Stanford GSB may be
the ideal program for you. A large number of entrepreneurs (or
aspiring entrepreneurs) are likely to be attracted to Stanford
GSB. However, given Stanford GSB’s commitment to diversity,
you will find students who have not started a business and sold it
for millions. However, what these admitted students have in
common is an entrepreneurial mind-set, affinity for innovation,
out-of-the-box thinking, and disparate experiences where they
took a risk to try something new within an old guard company.
It is for these reasons that Stanford students are often described
as eclectic and “free spirits.”
With that said, if you are looking to enter a career in general
management, you will find Stanford to be a great environment
where you can develop general management skills across
different business areas.
Columbia Graduate School of Business
Columbia Business School is another great example of an MBA program with a powerful brand. It is known as one of the leading finance business schools in the country. Its location in New York City, the financial capital of the world; the sizeable number of alumni who pursue finance-related careers; and the phenomenal faculty with excellent track records in finance and accounting all contribute to Columbia Business School’s finance brand. I would be remiss if I stopped here, particularly given Dean Glenn Hubbard’s innovative changes that are pushing entrepreneurship at Columbia.
Although Columbia Business School can likely succeed in attracting more entrepreneurs into its program and creating an overall stronger perception in the marketplace of being a place of entrepreneurship and innovation, it is unlikely that Columbia will fundamentally shift to become an entrepreneur-only program at the expense of its brand as one of the leading finance MBA programs in the nation.
Another example of a school with a strong brand is Kellogg.
Kellogg’s brand is significantly tied to marketing and team-
based learning. It is rare that you hear someone talk about a
marketing MBA program in the United States without Kellogg
being at the center of the conversation. Even the name,
Kellogg, is tied to the multibillion-dollar consumer products
company. Although Kellogg has a dominant brand as a
marketing MBA program, it offers much more than marketing
to its “customers.” In fact, Kellogg offers an extremely flexible
curriculum that allows students to specialize in a variety of func-
tional business areas, with finance and strategy as the first and
second most popular areas of study, respectively.
Despite this reality, the foremost thought on the minds of
most prospective students when thinking of Kellogg is marketing. Even as Kellogg endeavors to educate applicants
about its other areas of expertise, the program will likely face
the challenge of how far to deviate from its core brand.
Expanding its marketing brand to include other areas of
strength, such as strategy, will continue to present a tough chal-
lenge to Kellogg.
Ross Business School (Michigan)
Putting one’s arms around the Ross brand is somewhat chal-
lenging because it is an MBA program that isn’t necessarily known
for one particular area. It is accurate to describe Ross as a “well-
rounded” MBA program. However, I think the better way to cate-
gorize the Ross brand beyond being “well-rounded” is that it is
truly action-oriented and has a culture of constant improvement.
I think these two elements have enabled Ross to get top rankings
in recent years. Even its motto of “Leading in Thought and
Action” speaks to the brand of the program: it offers extensive
opportunities to infuse the business education with real-life expe-
rience. The Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP), a required
first-year course offered the second half of the second semester,
gives Ross students an opportunity to “test” many of the business
ideas and theories they learned their first semester in a real-life
environment. The students work on a consulting engagement to
resolve a business challenge a real company faces. So candidates
looking for a well-rounded program and hands-on experience for
their MBA will be attracted to Ross Business School.
Harvard Business School
One can’t talk about an MBA program that builds its brand
fundamentally on leadership without thinking of Harvard Busi-
ness School (HBS). Does that mean that HBS is the only place
where leaders can be found? Of course not! One can find a ton
of leaders across the nation’s top MBA programs. In fact, all of
the top schools highlight leadership as a core aspect of their
programs. However, Harvard’s mission of “developing leaders who care about the well-being of society” strikes at the heart
of what the program stands for.
Leadership permeates the HBS experience and is not only
about formal roles (student leadership in organizations or
career titles) but includes situational leadership where candi-
dates seize opportunities to make a difference regardless of their
role. The structure of the curriculum, the teaching method-
ology (case-based learning), and the projects outside of the
classroom are all designed to challenge students to refine,
rethink, confirm, and establish their perception of leadership
and transform their own unique way of leading.
The previous examples are a snapshot of some of the MBA
programs that proactively manage their brands. Of course there
are other solid MBA programs not covered and I encourage each
applicant to use the research steps described earlier in this chapter
to further investigate the programs they are interested in.
Now, let’s focus on the MBA Board to get a better under-
standing of who they are and how they operate in the convo-
luted application process.
THE MBA ADMISSIONS BOARD
The MBA Board’s role can be likened to that of a portfolio
manager. Their job is to pick the right stock that will yield the
greatest level of return to the program. Just as portfolio managers
assemble diverse stocks, MBA Boards admit applicants with back-
grounds and experiences that are unique and that will enrich the
overall community. Applicants who have strong brands that are a
fit with the MBA program will have a higher chance of being
selected. Ultimately, the expectation is that these admitted
students will graduate to become brand extensions of their
program and will continue to strengthen their alma mater’s brand.
Understanding the MBA Board should at the very least
make them more approachable and increase your comfort level when interacting with them. Also, understanding where
they are coming from and precisely what their role is will give
you a clearer perspective of how to present your application as
First and foremost, the MBA Board members are human and compassionate. They are single and married, mothers and
fathers, young and old. They are passionate about their job.
They are not in it for the money and often consider their role
a true labor of love. Some of them are alumni of the MBA
program; many of them have an MBA or a graduate degree
(although not everyone). The preceding description captures
many Admissions Boards, but some programs also include
students as members of the Admissions Board. Chicago GSB,
the Johnson School at Cornell University, and Wharton are a
few examples of MBA programs where second-year students
serve on the Admissions Board. Typically, these students would
do the first read and assess the candidate; then the application
is evaluated a second time by an assistant or associate director
of admissions before a final outcome is determined. (Admis-
sions policy variations may exist from school to school.)
Each year, these talented and dedicated board members
embark on a grueling recruiting schedule (from August to
November) after receiving marching orders to identify smart,
talented candidates with excellent leadership potential and
track records. They’re forced to admit only a limited number
of applicants, which is further complicated by an application
pool that is full of talented individuals who have achieved
significant levels of success in different arenas. Because there
is no formula to weed out weak applicants, the MBA Board
invests in carefully evaluating each candidate. Admitting a
diverse class made up of different perspectives (for example,
industry, country of origin, talents, gender, ethnicity, and
personal and professional experiences) while maintaining a
balance presents a significant challenge.
Typically, each application is evaluated by at least two board
members. If both board members’ votes are in agreement, then
the application often will move forward in the process. Of
course, sometimes the two board members are in disagreement.
In such situations, the application may be evaluated by a third
board member. Another option may be to bring the application
to the Admissions Committee, where the merits of the candi-
date will be discussed and a decision rendered. These meetings
can be quite spirited as board members argue passionately about
the candidate in question. Ultimately, the MBA Admissions
Director has the final say in the fate of a candidate if there is
dissension among the board members. If you want your appli-
cation to stand out, you must make sure that your essays are
engaging and differentiated, allowing the Admissions Board to
quickly see the value your application brings to the overall class.
The admission season is long and strenuous. The MBA
Board works extremely long hours during the busy season,
which lasts from the end of August to the end of May. Each
week, board members pick up bins filled with applications that
need to be evaluated and returned within a small time window.
Many board members work very late into the night, and it is
easy for many essays to begin to blur into the next when they
lack originality. MBA Board members love to read applications
where they can really see who the candidate is and the rationale
driving the choices that person made both personally and
professionally. (This is why applicants should pay attention to
the PGII Factor—passion, guts, impact, and insight—which I
will further discuss in the chapter on essay fundamentals.)
Board members are not spared during holidays either.
November is the heart of the application season for round one,
and applications often are reviewed even during holidays like
Thanksgiving. Most people take vacation to spend time with
their family during the holidays. Given a compressed admission
season where decisions have to be made by a certain deadline,
board members do not necessarily take time off during special
holidays. So board members have to carve out time during their
holiday to review applications. You want to write interesting and
captivating essays that are worth reading, especially if someone
is giving up family time to evaluate your candidacy.
Successful applications are usually the ones that have a clear
and strong brand message. After reading a well-branded appli-
cation, the typical response from the MBA Board should be
something like, “This is the visionary engineer who solves busi-
ness problems creatively” or “I just read the application of a
smart, unconventional banker who consistently focuses on
developing junior talent.” They can’t come to these conclusions
if the stories you have recounted in your applications are
generic and lack focus.
I’ve often heard applicants say, “I’m not good at marketing
and promoting myself.” And my answer is, “Start practicing!”
If you are not comfortable selling yourself to the MBA Board,
you will likely leave out compelling aspects of your story in your
application. Yes, you may find the idea of marketing yourself
artificial and contrived, but it is a necessary process to ensure
that your application is vibrant and distinctive.
Although I am a big promoter of self-marketing and
branding, I don’t endorse false marketing. Not only is it uneth-
ical, it will likely come back to haunt you. This book does not
promote falsifying your story or presenting a brand that does
not authentically reflect your personal and professional life.
The reason I am so bullish about developing your personal
brand is so that you have a realistic and up-to-date awareness
of who you are and what you have done in your life. Your
grades and GMAT score are not going to be enough to
communicate why you should be admitted to a particular MBA
program. Writing essays that convey your brand’s distinction
will help your application stand out to the MBA Board. It will
also enable the board member who evaluates your application to become an advocate on your behalf. The clearer and more
impressive your brand is, the more likely he or she will be able
to argue for your application when your candidacy is discussed
in an admission meeting.
Ultimately, your goal is to turn the Admissions Board
member reading your file into a brand champion. The board
member has to “buy” your story in order to “sell” it to
colleagues or the Admissions Committee. And just as with
traditional marketing, where only products with powerful and
compelling brands stand out, MBA applicants must have
distinctive brands that capture the mindshare of the MBA
Board. Self-aware candidates who can clearly articulate who
they are (their brand) and their rationale for their choices and
action will more likely capture the attention of the MBA Board.
At the end of the day, the candidate’s job is to get the MBA
Board to say, “Wow! I’d love to meet this person.”
Finally, applicants have to be careful in deciding how much
face time they need to have with the Admissions Board. The
MBA programs vary drastically on their preference for face
time with candidates. Tuck, for example, has one of the most
liberal policies on this and encourages candidates to visit
Hanover and interact with the Admissions Board. Other
programs may find it to be a nuisance if a candidate requests to
meet with board members during a (noninterview) visit. Also,
sending lengthy emails and making multiple phone calls to the
Admissions Board can annoy the board members. It is impor-
tant to follow instructions regarding sending additional mate-
rials to the MBA Board after the deadline. Some MBA
programs (for example, Wharton and HBS) explicitly request
that applicants not send additional materials even if they are
wait-listed. On the other hand, a program like Chicago has
been open to receiving additional information if it reflects a
new update that isn’t covered in the existing application. Typically, most programs are open to a short and polite thank you card after an interview. However, a two-page letter to the MBA
Board where you wax eloquent about your achievements is
unlikely to have the desired results. I have been approached
multiple times by desperate candidates who have not heard back
from the MBA programs and in their panic plan to have an
alumnus of the program contact the school to find out what is
holding up the interview invitation. I always advise the
distraught candidate to resist having an alumnus call and
“harass” the MBA Board. Calling the MBA Board will likely
backfire and hurt the candidate’s chance of admission. Exer-
cising patience is the best strategy in this case. At the very least,
candidates should find out what each program’s policy is and
adhere to it. Remember that the MBA Board is short on time
and is already burdened with a very challenging workload.
Annoying them ensures that they will not become advocates for
As long as the business school admission process remains competitive, applicants will continue to face significant pressure to communicate why they are unique and worthy of a coveted admission spot. Candidates who recognize the differentiating power of branding will maintain an edge over their competitors.