Building and Selling Your Personal Brand for MBA Admissions

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A PERSONAL BRAND IS IMPORTANT to helping you live a life that is passion-driven and grounded in your values. By having a clear sense of your personal brand you can actively engage in the things that matter to you, deliver results that you can be proud of, add value to those around you (both personally and professionally), and live a life that has meaning and impact. Building your brand will help you chart a clear path to achieve your goals and live your passion. Beyond these benefits, however, having a powerful and clear personal brand before you embark on the application process can be extremely effective in bringing about the admission outcome you seek. Applicants who have a clear sense of their personal brand often emerge the most successful from the application process. Let’s look at how to build your brand.

One of the first things necessary to develop your personal brand is to identify your passion.

WHAT IS YOUR PASSION?
Are you living your passion both personally and professionally?

Is what you do bringing you fulfillment? Is there a major disconnect between how you see yourself and how others see you? Will getting an MBA enable you to achieve your vision for your life? It is important to take the time to address these
questions; the answers will help you gauge whether you are
living a life driven by passion.
The word “passion” is thrown around and used in various
contexts in our everyday communication. But phrases like “I’m
passionate about baseball” or “My passion is doing the rumba”
do not quite capture the essence of what I mean by passion.
Passion is not a hobby or simply what you like to do for fun. I
have a slightly different perception of passion as it relates to
business school application. I define passion as what gives
meaning to our life.
A recent conversation I had at my favorite neighborhood
coffee shop best illustrates the elements of a passion-filled life.
I had posed this simple question, “What is your passion?” to
Kim, a fellow latte-indulging customer. Her face immediately
lit up, and she quipped, “Teaching and affecting the lives of my
students.” Kim has been teaching for several years in New York
City elementary schools, and she is successful at what she does.
She chose a teaching profession because it fit with her values
to help kids succeed. As she described her work with her kids,
it was impossible to miss the pure joy and fulfillment in her
voice. The excitement that accompanied her description of
what she does cannot be faked. When you are living your
passion, your life will reflect the energy and joy that accompa-
nies a passion-filled life.
So is what you are doing currently reflective of your passion?
Stop for a minute to reflect on your passion. The important thing
is to proactively assess whether what you do brings meaning to
you, whether it reflects your values, skills, and interests. If that’s
not the case, then it may be time for self-exploration to deter-
mine what matters to you and time to begin to integrate that into
your professional and personal life. A simple way to assess
whether you are living a passion-filled life is to ask yourself
whether you would do your job if you were not paid for it.

Building and Selling Your Brand 41
I encourage you to take a few minutes to complete the
passion survey to see how aligned your passion is to what you
do currently.
EXPARTUS Passion Survey
(For each question, rate your response from 1–3: 1 = not really,
2 = somewhat, 3 = absolutely. After completing each question,
tally your scores.)
Are you aware of what your greatest passion is?
Is your passion connected to your personal brand?
Are you living your passion outside of your job?
Are you living your passion in your job?
Do you enjoy your job?
Do you have the right skills to live your passion?
Would you keep working in your industry if you weren’t
paid for your job?
Are you still being challenged by the work you do?
Does what you do have an impact on the lives of others?
Are you proud of your accomplishments?
Scores that range from 22–30 indicate that your job is in sync
with your passion. Scores that range from 12–21 suggest that
some changes are in order; this may not require a career
change, but more active investment in aligning your passion
with your career. Scores of less than 12 call for a major over-
haul. Consider a thorough brand audit to assess what matters
most to you and begin incorporating it in your life. Be open to
a career change.
After completing the passion survey and determining
whether your life is aligned with your passion, you can go a step
further to assess and develop your personal brand. This process
requires that you undergo a personal brand audit to identify
your key brand themes and ultimately to distill your story into a personal brand statement.

Let’s get started first with an auditof your personal brand.

HOW TO BUILD A COMPELLING PERSONAL BRAND

Personal Brand Audit
The first step in building a powerful brand is undergoing a personal brand audit (PBA). The PBA is a candid assessment of who you are. It includes your values, goals, skills, and passion.

Included in this assessment is a review of your strengths and
weaknesses, your past achievements and failures, your track
record, your perception of yourself, and how other people
perceive you. After completing this audit, the next step is to
distill it down to the core of what matters to you. You could
start by picking three key values, goals, interests, and achieve-
ments. If you can, try to further focus on the critical value, goal,
interest, and significant track record from your life. This can
be challenging to drill down at this level because as human
beings we are complicated and have varied backgrounds, inter-
ests, values, and so forth. However, this exercise, as frustrating
as it may be in the beginning, forces you to objectively look at
what you are dealing with (the good, the bad, and the ugly).
Then you have to apply honesty balanced with judgment in
piecing together the most compelling aspects of who you are.
It doesn’t get any more self-aware than that.

Building and Selling Your Brand 43
A Mini Personal Brand Audit (PBA)
In completing the PBA, be as candid and introspective as you
can. It is also extremely important to cite examples when
answering each question. The more vivid and specific your
examples are, the more effective they will be in enabling you to
pull out stories from your background that reflect your brand.
Passion
I am most passionate about:
My work inspires me in the following way:
If I could live my passion, I would:
Values
What do I value the most about myself?
What do people value the most about me? (Ask colleagues,
friends, family.)
What three things do I cherish the most in life?
My values are a fit with my career in the following way:
My values are misaligned with my career in the following
way:
Skills
My three strongest strengths are:
My three greatest areas of development are (describe what you
are doing to improve them):
The most significant impact I have had on a person is:
The most significant impact I have had on a team is:
The most significant impact I have had on an organization is:
Goals
My short-term goal is:
My reason for seeking an MBA now is:
My long-term goal is:
Without the MBA, it will be nearly impossible to achieve my
long-term goal because:

44 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
Brand Themes
In the course of completing your PBA, you will notice some
recurrent brand themes. These themes have to be evaluated
to determine whether they reinforce your brand and whether
they qualify as major themes (a must-have for your story) or
minor themes (elements you could add to your story if there
is room).
Brand themes are not just your job descriptions or obvious
variables of your story. They are consistent and recurrent
elements that reflect who you are at the most meaningful level.
Brand themes are not typically what you write in your resume.
They are subtler than your job title and job description. Brand
themes reflect how you do what you do, the characteristics and
values that drive your actions and choices, the distinctive and
memorable traits that people around you see in you.
One can argue that brand themes can be fuzzy and “touchy-
feely.” A tech guy I know happens to be exceptionally charis-
matic and very outgoing. He absolutely does not embody the
stereotype of a reserved, nerdy tech guy. When applying to busi-
ness school, had he focused simply on his job role or title, he
would have been ineffective in conveying his charismatic brand.
By tapping into instances that demonstrate how he operates in
a team environment and by sharing personal stories, he was able
to convey an accurate brand picture of himself: one that is
dynamic and engaging instead of limited by his work role.
Your job titles or roles do not constitute your brand themes.
It isn’t the title or label but the intrinsic and motivating
elements behind what you do and your own identity (values,
passions) that make up your brand theme. So here are a few
examples of what a brand theme is not:
• Smart investment banker
• Ivy-educated engineer
• Top-ranked consultant
• Hardworking private equity analyst

Building and Selling Your Brand 45
You will notice that these examples are generic and not
differentiating. In other words, if you want to build your appli-
cation around being a smart banker, you pigeonhole yourself
with the other thousand smart bankers in the applicant pool.
The same goes for each of the other examples. To stand apart,
you need brand themes that are differentiating. So although
you are a smart banker, one of your key brand themes could be
a bridge connector. A bridge connector is someone who thrives
on bringing disparate people and teams together to solve prob-
lems. They enjoy people, are well connected, and make good
use of their social network to create positive impact wherever
they are. Bridge connectors do not hoard information or sit on
the sidelines when a problem needs to be resolved. They love
to jump in and partner with people to bring about results. More
than that, they are gifted at working with different types of
people and can bring out the best in them. Being a bridge
connector is what differentiates you from the pack. Nowhere in
your application do you explicitly state “I’m a bridge-
connecting banker!” Rather, the stories you choose to recount
when addressing the essay questions can convey and reinforce
this bridge-connector brand, which then leads the Admissions
Board to draw the conclusion based on the evidence.
The challenge in sharing your brand with the MBA Board is
that you need concrete examples from your personal and profes-
sional life to substantiate any themes you select. One of the laws
of personal branding is focus. So with selecting your brand
themes, it is important to pick three to four that are most reflec-
tive of who you are and what matters to you. You may be
wondering, why three or four? Because the application has a
limited space, it is important to focus on the most salient themes
in your story. Furthermore, you don’t want to come off as scat-
tered by throwing in too many attributes and themes. By selecting
a few focused themes, you can then use the application essays to
reinforce a consistent message that supports your personal brand.

46 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
Your recommenders also would need to be aware of the key brand
themes you are presenting so that the examples they use to illus-
trate your story remain consistent with your branding strategy.
At the end of the day, it is less about having the “right”
themes and more about tapping into meaningful attributes and
elements from your life experiences. Here are just a few exam-
ples of brand themes of successful applicants to business school:
SAMPLE BRAND THEMES
“Empowerer” of women
Articulate communicator
Global citizen
Engendering trust
Risk taker
Multicultural
Charismatic leader
The connector
Contagious optimist
Unrelenting
“Bootstrapper”
Bridge builder
Investor in junior talent
Entrepreneur
Diplomatic rebel
Innovator
Turnaround expert
Motivational manager
Dancer of life
Idea guy
Astute negotiator
Trailblazer
These themes are by no means exhaustive of potential
themes. Brand themes are endless and are reflective of the
candidates’ experiences. The examples offered here are only
snapshots of potential brand themes from successful applicants.
These applicants were able to successfully brand their way into
top business schools not because they had perfect stories but
because they committed to the introspection necessary to iden-
tify their personal brand. Articulating what mattered to them
and why they had made the different choices that they made
(connecting the dots of their lives) allowed the MBA Board to
differentiate them from their competition.

Building and Selling Your Brand 47
Personal Brand Themes
List the four brand themes/attributes that best describe you.
Make sure you cite examples to back them up.
1.
2.
3.
4.
Now that you have identified your brand themes, go over
them to see if they accurately represent you. What words come
to mind as you have read through your responses? Do you
notice any surprises? With branding, it is equally important that
those around us reach the same conclusions about our brand.
Ask two people who know you well (they can be colleagues,
family members, or friends) whether the themes you selected
are reflective of who you are or if other themes are more rele-
vant to your brand. If there are inconsistencies, then be willing
to go deeper to determine whether you need to take steps to
better communicate your personal brand.
A major mistake applicants make is that they don’t invest in
enough introspection to identify their brand themes before
embarking on their essays. As a result, many of the business
school essays are disjointed, boring, and superficial. Let’s
explore how a candidate can use a brand theme, global citizen,
to sell her personal brand. The candidate doesn’t even have to
mention the brand theme in the actual essay. Rather, she can
select stories that depict her as a global citizen. Let’s say she has

five essays for her application; she can use two to three different
stories to convey her comfort level in international settings.
The first could be of a key project she worked on managing an
international team spanning two continents; this project shows
how her sensitivity to the nuanced cultural differences enabled
her to lead effectively. She may then wish to share a personal
story about the study abroad program she did in a remote
region of the world and her personal “aha” cultural moment.
Finally, she may wish to write about her involvement with a
nonprofit group that helps immigrants from different regions of
the world adjust to their new lives in America. These examples
plus the fact that she has lived in many countries around the
world, speaks multiple languages, and has recommendations
that reinforce her global citizen brand can etch a strong
message about who she is in the MBA Board’s mind. When you
have a clear sense of your brand, you become more memorable
and it is easier for whoever reviews your application to summa-
rize your story in a succinct, easily identifiable way.
Once you have identified the themes to your story, it is
important to distill them into a summary, the personal brand
statement, which speaks to the heart of who you are. Clearly
as human beings we are a lot more complicated than a one-
sentence statement. I’ll be the first to acknowledge this.
However, given that you have thirty seconds to make a lasting
impression and the fact that the application comes down to a
few minutes of review before a decision is rendered, I
encourage applicants to go through the exercise of summarizing their salient attributes into one sentence: their personal brand statement and try to impress the committee.

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