How to create your successful MBA brand

​​Every year, thousands of candidates submit their applications to the world’s top business schools. Depending on the selectivity of the school, between 7% and 30% of them get admitted to a top MBA program. At least one in three rejections are not easy odds to digest.  

What makes the MBA application process even harder is that great statistics (high GMAT, GPA, and strong work experience) often don’t translate into an admissions offer. The simple explanation of this is that MBA admissions is about selection, not evaluation. This means that every year, business schools reject many perfectly qualified candidates who are eligible for admission. The ones who get admitted are not simply evaluated; they are selected, based on a complex set of criteria, many of them hard or impossible to quantify objectively. One of them is “the candidate story.” 

Try not to be disheartened. Consider this: You can’t change your GPA or your previous work experience and you may not be able to achieve the test score you want. But you can tell your story and make it compelling in a way that makes your candidacy become even bigger than the sum of its parts.

How should MBA candidates think of their personal branding?

When MBA candidates first encounter the notion of MBA candidate branding, sometimes they are taken aback or confused. As Brandon puts it, “We find that candidates struggle a little bit, especially if they don’t come from a background that involves branding. Often when we think about branding, it’s more about a product.” (01:11)

And yet, thinking of your personal brand as an MBA candidate provides you with a powerful way to think of each part of your application as a communication tool that introduces your “buyers” – the admissions committee – to your unique skills, accomplishments, and aspirations, aka your “features.” 

As Brandon advises, “I think that when candidates are thinking of personal branding, they need to think of the entire customer journey. It’s not just about the impression you leave with the admissions representatives you come in contact with but also about your peers and colleagues in the classroom and the faculty who are around you.” (00:36)

According to Brandon, “From the moment you consider an MBA, all the day down to when you graduate and enter the job market, your personal brand is really, really critical.” (01:00)

In this context, Brandon suggests, “It’s important to put your best foot forward. Whether you are doing research on schools, answering questions during the application process, all the way down to the little interactions – think about how you dress, what mannerisms you have, how you appear on camera.” (01:27)

What makes an MBA candidate memorable?

It’s important to remember that the goal of branding is to differentiate yourself from the competition. This is especially true during the MBA application process where several candidates – in the case of the Stanford MBA, for example, it’s as many as 20 – apply for each available seat in the top MBA programs.

To make an impression on the admissions committee, Brandon suggests, “Tell us a story.” (01:57)

Stories are indeed at the heart of the power of MBA branding. As an MBA candidate, your qualities and unique professional and personal contributions are best illustrated with examples instead of statements. 

“I think that’s really critical for candidates, especially in the interview process and even earlier – when you are meeting an admissions person at events, to give them something to remember you by,” Brandon advises. (01:12)

Whatever component of your candidacy you are working on, Brandon says, “Try to make a connection. Because this is what it’s all about – the MBA but also business in general is about making connections.” (02:53)

Dos and don’ts of MBA candidate branding

“Do think about the words that you use to describe yourself,” Brandon says. “Once you have done that, you need to be able to model that behavior, especially in the interview and live interactions.” (03:26)

He adds, “Another great way to do that is to ask your peers and colleagues to describe you in a few words.” (03:58)

The bottom line is that you need to be deliberate about the qualities you want to project as a candidate. 

According to Brandon, the most important “don’t” candidates need to be aware of is “trying to be someone you are not.” (04:30) Trying to portray a personality you think the school is looking for that does not align with who you are is dangerous. “If you are cutting against who you are, it means you are putting on an act and eventually, it won’t work for you,” Brandon warns. (04:50)

Understanding who you are but also who you aren’t is what MBA branding is all about. “From there, you can do an extension into your CV or resume, your essays, and any other parts of your application,” Brandon concludes. (05:10)

Petia Whitmore is the residence admissions consultant at MBAGRADSCHOOLS and founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm My MBA Path. In this article, she writes about MBA candidate branding with input from Brandon Kirby, Senior Director of Marketing, Sales, and Admissions at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, and a UNC Kennan-Flagler MBA graduate.