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You’re Highly Qualified. So What?

Everyone who applies to top b-schools has an impressive list of accomplishments to boast of. But somehow, not everyone with a perfect GMAT score or high GPA makes it in to such schools. Here’s Esther Choy’s take on why some great applicants are accepted and while others are rejected.

Back in 2005, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business decided to do something unusual. As part of an attempt to improve its reputation with MBA applicants, the School decided to offer deny feedback. Admission officers would offer 15-minute feedback over the phone with applicants who were denied admissions in the previous application year. I was one of the six Booth admission officers at the time.

As a top-tier business school, we didn’t need to offer deny feedback. But we were eager to improve our aloof and hardline image in the marketplace so each of us rolled our eyes, pinched our noses, and plunged forward with this unpleasant assignment. What I learned from this experience taught me an invaluable lesson that later on set the course of my entire career.

Even though we weren’t speaking to these applicants face to face, the conversation was still uncomfortable and awkward. But the most difficult moment arrived when we came across a particular kind of application. These applicants typically had 720 GMAT scores, 3.5 G.P.A.’s in electrical engineering at a prestigious university, strong career track at a well known technology firm, recommenders who sang their high praises, and of course, they said all the right thing in their essays and interviews. We reviewed these files, paused, and panicked. Why did we deny these applicants in the first place?

Our deny feedback call was about to take place. What would we say?

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What didn’t seem obvious at the time was that when we reviewed these denied files, we had to read only eight applications per week. It was summer, and our work pace was much slower. During peak admissions season in fall and winter, however, we typically evaluated over 100 applications per week. Like many other top tier schools with competitive admissions, Chicago Booth had no shortage of well-qualified applicants. In fact, there are always far more well-qualified applicants than there are available seats in each class. 720 GMAT? A dime in a dozen. 3.5 G.P.A. from a prestigious undergraduate university? Got too many of those. Applicants’ with recommenders who think highly of them…who wouldn’t?

But the problem was most of these applicants assumed that if only they reiterated their resumes, regurgitated facts and data from their lives in a chronological or reversed chronological way, then they will be somehow be selected. After all, doesn’t fact speak for itself?

No, not really. In a competitive environment, everyone has strong qualifications. Everyone has facts in his favor. But for over a quarter of a century now, we’ve known that fact is twenty times more likely to be remembered if it is shared in the context of a narrative. The average person nowadays is inundated with facts and data. The same is especially true for the ones who have to read over 100 applications per week and make tough decisions.

In the end, the applicants who stood out from the crowd of smart and accomplished professionals and clenched their acceptance to booth were the ones who could tell stories. They told stories that connected their values, accomplishments, and career plans with the institution that they wanted to be a part of.

So, next time you are in a competitive situation—say, applying to business school—should you data-dump to your audience? Or should you tell a brief and brilliant story? I hope you will choose the latter.

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strylabAbout the Author:

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Esther Choy has been on all sides of the MBA experience. She was an admissions officer for Chicago Booth before attending Kellogg School of Management’s full-time MBA program. Since 2010, Esther has helped many aspirating applicants admitted to top MBA programs and many with significant scholarships. As the President & Chief Story Facilitator of Leadership Story Lab, Esther conduct storytelling training for Fortune 100 companies and personally coached even more pre C-suite executive to tell brief and brilliant stories.


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