Why All Business School Applicants Must Showcase their Diversity

Why All Business School Applicants Must Showcase their Diversity main image

Business school applicants with traditional professional backgrounds — management consultants and financiers — are the bread and butter of most MBA programs. The largest portion of Harvard Business School, the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Wharton Schools' most recent MBA cohort have backgrounds in consulting or financial fields. At Stanford, for instance, 21 percent come from investment management, private equity and venture capital.

Esther Magna of Stacy Blackman Consulting, an admissions firm in the US says, admissions teams often see desirable qualities in such applicants, who usually show strong work ethic, analytical rigor and intellectual horsepower, which are important for gaining admission to top MBA programs.

However, this subset of the MBA population – particularly Caucasian males – is heavily oversubscribed for some business schools, including Harvard and Wharton, she adds.

What they’re looking for

According to Leila Murat who leads the commercial development of MBA courses at France’s NEOMA Business School, these elite programs are keen to recruit more students with diverse backgrounds. Not limited to ensuring international and gender diversity, schools want people with unique professional backgrounds, as well as diverse personalities, interests, talents and life experiences.

She says, “We seek diversity in all its aspects because it enriches class questioning and learning and enhances the pedagogical experience as a whole. 

“Diversity in the classroom contributes to widening perspectives and cross-fertilizing ideas. It develops cultural intelligence, better understanding of one’s self and of others, and a collaborative mindset — all essential to leadership development.”

But do students from traditional backgrounds now find it more difficult to get into top MBA courses?

Magna says, “The traditional profile itself won’t necessarily create additional hurdles on its own for successful admittance.

“But, it’s an over-represented applicant type. As such, for the top MBA programs, the key is how the traditional industry profile is complemented by other more differentiated variables, such as demographic, global exposure, remarkable growth, overcoming personal setbacks, personality and interests.”

It’s about the whole package

A former Wharton admissions officer now working at Stacy Blackman Consulting says, “More important than being from a particular industry is that you’re a ‘super star’ at work, especially for traditional profiles applying to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton.

“Being high performing — for example if you’re ranked above peers or obtained quick promotions — is valued, as is project, people management or operating company experience.”

According to US-based admissions consultant Karen Marks, those with more traditional professional profiles can stand out by highlighting diversity in other elements of their life.

She says, “Schools want to learn more about you: are you first generation college? From a socioeconomically underprivileged household? Multilingual? Do you have a cross-cultural viewpoint, a military background, strong artistic skills? Weave it into your essays and interview responses — schools really do want to know and will value what you bring.”

Different schools want different things

Each business school has its own unique focus on what it considers to be a priority of diversity, so it may be necessary for MBA applicants to tailor their application to individual schools.

For instance, a previous Harvard admissions team member says, “At HBS, the trend in recent years is to prioritize heavily underrepresented sectors, such as mining, construction, technology firms (Google, Facebook), start-ups and family businesses.” So even if you’re from a traditional background but have worked indirectly with companies like this, that could aid your MBA application.

However, some business schools still place a premium on candidates from more traditional backgrounds. “Finance isn’t over-subscribed at Kellogg, as they’re constantly competing with Booth and Wharton, which have reputations as ‘finance schools’. Kellogg is eager for more finance applicants, as it has a strong curriculum and diverse class,” says a former Kellogg admissions officer.

Possible challenges

While traditional profiles may need to be sold a little harder these days, those with completely different backgrounds can find it difficult to make them relevant to a business school.  

At NEOMA, Murat says, “a candidate with a non-traditional background must demonstrate high motivation and engagement, as well as an understanding of the challenges business school represents.

“The objective is to avoid a set-to-fail situation, which is highly detrimental to the person but also the class as a whole. In that respect, a candidate with a non-traditional background needs to be even more convincing throughout the admissions process than others.”

Citing examples of diversity, she says NEOMA has admitted Navy officers, a book publisher, an Olympic medallist, a yoga coach, and the founder of a Haute Couture fashion house for disabled people.

She goes on to say that, often, people neglect to stress in interviews what makes them unique because they think it’s not relevant. Murat says, “For example, a gap year is too often considered as an impediment, not to be mentioned in the application, whereas it can be a time of discoveries and personal enrichment, which is definitely relevant in an application.”

Candidates from all backgrounds should stress their diversity throughout every element of the application process, including essays, recommendation letters and interview. NEOMA once accepted a candidate from an emerging country who gave an impromptu Blues singing performance during his admissions team interview, Murat says.



Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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