Using Emotion vs. Only Logic in Your MBA Applications

by Alex Leventhal

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In the MBA essays and interviews, many qualified candidates fail to win admission because they rely mostly on a logical, empirical approach and do not succeed in connecting with their evaluators on an emotional level.

They list promotions, raises, stock grants, top analyst honors and other impressive accolades. While these are incredibly important and have their place on your resume and in your essays, they should not be your only messaging. They are empirical facts, but readers and listeners are looking for the energy, passion and motivations beneath the surface of your actions and accomplishments.

Recall times when you’ve been in judgment mode. Whether you were on a date, interviewing somebody for a position, or even deciding how you are starting to feel about an emerging personal friendship, we all are looking for intuitive signs as to how we feel about a person’s energy and qualities. We are hardwired to do this. Judging, for better or worse, is how we make sense of people and their actions, and how we forecast how they will be as friends, and yes, classmates.

Now imagine you are an MBA Admissions officer faced with a stack of applications and multiple interviews. Your attention span will be limited when you start to feel bored, uninspired, or confused by an applicant’s motivations. If you don’t start liking the person relatively soon, then you will start to mentally detach. This is similar to watching the first 20 minutes of a movie or reading the first 50 pages of a book. You will engage your evaluator to the extent that you can pique his or her emotional interest.

Let me review three major ways I help my clients to tap into this emotional component.

Are you interested in causes larger than yourself and $?

Many applicants deal with prompts around their career plans with generalities. Saying you worked in investment banking but plan to transition to private equity to get more intimately involved with companies is mildly interesting. But consider the same candidate expressing his plans in a more detailed manner. This candidate purposely chose the media practice of an investment bank because he had held an impactful internship in college at a major media company. At the bank, this candidate worked on some well-known media deals, and even rubbed elbows with a notable media entrepreneur. This candidate loves media and wants to work not just for any private equity house, but for a respected firm that focuses on consumer media plays. This candidate breakfasts every day with Tech Crunch, and loves to talk about media with his father, a Professor of Communications and Media at the undergraduate level. Having learned all of these specific details about this candidate, the evaluator will certainly feel his passion and commitment to the industry. This candidate does not seem to be working for just money. Media is a life interest, and details have been energetically shared to prove it.

You can connect emotionally with readers by showing that your future plans are tied to real interests, developed over time. Bring the reader into your specific world, and he or she will feel an emotional interest in your path.

Who and what have impacted your development?

We are not simply robots working away in jobs with equal skills and rote perspectives. How you have come to be who you are is inherently interesting to your evaluators. Some schools will force this out of you by asking you directly, while others will leave this part of the equation up to you.

Let me give you an example. I worked with a client who was talking about his management consulting experiences in the empirical and logical manner I outlined above. I was getting bored reading his essays, and given there are so many consulting applicants, it’s not easy to stand out as it is. When we talked more about why he really liked giving advice to others, it came out that his father was the Fire Chief of a city. He had grown up watching his father direct and manage others, and regularly deal with mayors and other VIP figures. We decided to include details about his father’s influence on him, because, let’s be honest, his Dad had a cool job, and hearing stories about his father’s bravery and influencing others was engaging. My client also explained his willingness to always volunteer for stretch assignments at work given his father’s fearless nature. Again, emotional mission accomplished if you can use the people and experiences that have shaped you in a way that feels organic and believable!

What are you weak at and what mistakes have you made?

MBA programs don’t expect you to be perfect, and showing a healthy degree of awareness of your developmental areas is another critical way that you can bond emotionally with your evaluators. After all, business school is an education, and the assumption is that all students can get stronger in certain departments. Harvard, for example, clearly believes in getting to know this side of an applicant, as they perennially ask about mistakes and setbacks in a major essay question.

Talking about weaknesses or setbacks is always the most difficult issue for clients. Some clients choose a setback that is not really material, like forgetting to check your email and therefore missing a critical communication from your boss. We can all miss an email, and this is not the kind of setback that is particularly telling. Of course, writing about missing emails all the time would perhaps be more information than you would want to share. Being consistently irresponsible is a weakness that an MBA program would not want to take on.

Once you have found the right weaknesses or setbacks to talk about, it can be very refreshing for the reader to see how you hope to evolve as a leader. Business school is a great place, for example, to get better at formal public speaking, so perhaps you have exhibited some nervousness before presentations that prevented you from doing your best. And perhaps your boss will be addressing this in his formal recommendation. Whatever you choose, your evaluator will be listening to see if you are in touch with weaknesses that are material and addressable. The worst examples of setbacks are thinly veiled accomplishments. You start by detailing a time you did not do something particularly well, and pretty soon you are going on and on about how well you fixed that issue, and that now you are a Jedi master at this type of task. Stay away from the need to sound perfect. Your reader will emotionally detach if he or she feels that you are claiming to be infallible.

Perhaps one of my favorite setback stories comes from a client who got into Wharton. He was a super hard worker who liked to excel at everything. At times he worked too hard and failed to have a balanced lifestyle. One year his company had a firm wide “fun run” in the park. At the starting line, while others were hoping to just finish, he was going to do whatever it took to win. It was an absurdly hot afternoon, and my client got so dehydrated that he wound up in the hospital for three days. Learning his lesson, my client did next year’s fun run really for fun, and the CEO subsequently awarded him with a “spirit award” for facing the race again, and for generally caring so much about his work. As a reader, I am engaged by a person who tries his absolute hardest, yet has the ability to self-deprecate by sharing this hilarious story of losing balance.

There are other ways you can emotionally connect with your MBA evaluators. I would argue that this is a critical component of getting accepted.

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