If you haven’t already done so, take a moment to ask yourself why you’re getting an MBA. Maybe you want a career change, maybe you aspire to make it to the C-Suite, or maybe you just want a bigger paycheck. Those reasons might be fine for you, but they don’t tell a story. Your ability to communicate an interesting account of your life is not just a requirement for your MBA application—it is essential for your future career. Regardless of what industry or role you move into after your MBA, you will be telling stories and analyzing the stories others tell. If you become a banker, you’ll be telling stories to make deals. If you become a general manager or a marketer, you’ll be narrating the story of your product and its value. If you become an entrepreneur, you’ll continually be telling the story of you, your business, and your product. And for consultants, presenting a convincing story to your clients will be at the heart of what you do. Simply put, being able to tell a compelling story is essential to succeed in business.
On the face of it, this seems so simple, so straightforward—after all, it’s just communicating, right? Certainly, but it’s communicating in a very specific way. If you tell me a story, you’re not just stating a fact or yelling across Twitter in ALL CAPS. You are holding my hand and guiding me from Point A to Point B. So, if your story wavers along the way and you let go of my hand, I’m liable to get lost. A listener shouldn’t have to struggle to follow along. Like the brushstrokes of an artist, an effective story should feel effortless.
When crafting your MBA application, you need to demonstrate to admissions committees that you have the ability to tell a meaningful story – in your essays, in your interview, and even in your resume. The awards you’ve won, the promotions you’ve received, the projects you’ve led—these are certainly important. But an audience hasn’t lived your life and won’t necessarily understand how significant these accomplishments actually are. Your story is the glue which will hold your application together.
Top MBA programs attract motivated and high-achieving individuals—that’s why you’re applying. But, while you’ve done great things, you should expect that other applicants have as well. What can separate you from the rest of the applicant pool, though, is your unique narrative and how you tell it. Here are a few tips that may help you deliver it effectively:
Outline! Outline! Outline! – There is very limited space within your MBA application to communicate, so everything you say needs to be deliberate. I even outlined this post before writing because 1) I wanted to stay on point, and 2) I have a limited amount of space to communicate before you lose interest. When you outline, be sure to have a point or valuable takeaway for everything you share.
Be Selective – Storytelling isn’t about throwing the kitchen sink at your audience. It’s a journey, an activity. Of course, you may think everything you’ve done is important, and this could be true. But you have a number of constraints you’re operating within, including your audience’s attention. So prioritize your information. This DOES NOT mean listing your most public accomplishments in descending order. A good story has variations, ebbs and flows—suspense in some moments and lightheartedness in others.
Don’t Get Caught in the Weeds – Details are wonderful when they serve your overall objective. But your excitement for the details may come at the price of effectively communicating your message. Keep your focus on the big picture and weave details in throughout.
Just Say No to Jargon – You don’t know your audience’s background. So don’t assume they can understand your industry jargon either. You need to make your language accessible so that the point of your story is widely understood. Remember: big words do not equal big thoughts.
Talk it Through with Others – Use a real audience. While your narrative may be clear and concise to you, it may be opaque and long-winded to others. Get a fresh set of eyes to ensure it actually makes sense. The same can be applied to your interviews—have somebody else give you a mock interview. You’ll have to interview out loud with somebody else eventually, so it’s a good idea to practice that way too.
If you’re overlooking the element of your application’s story, then you’re missing the point. Storytelling will undoubtedly be a significant part of your post-MBA career, so keep admissions committees interested and show them that you’re ready.