SO WHAT EXACTLY DOES personal branding have to do with the admissions process? The answer: Everything!
Applicants with strong and compelling brands distinguish themselves from the pack and capture the attention of the Admissions Boards. But applicants are not the only ones who have to think of themselves as brands. MBA programs are also brands and the MBA Board is charged with identifying the best candidates who are a fit with the brand of each of their programs.
We have come to recognize that there is a special chemistry that admitted candidates bring to the table:
a strong and clear sense of who they are, what matters most to
them, and where they are heading in the future. What comes to
mind when a board member thinks about the candidate he or she
just read about? What unique characteristics emerge that sets
that candidate apart from all the other individuals within the
same category? It is the salient attributes and unique perspective
and experience that the candidate has that sets him or her apart
in the application pool. Making sure that your unique brand
stands out is critical to achieving admissions success.
A brand is what differentiates a product (or person in the
case of MBA applicants) from the pack. Let’s look at a few strong brand examples. Who do you think of when you hear
the phrase “Motivational Talk Show Maven”? If you guessed
Oprah, you’re dead on. How about “International Rock Star
Activist”? Bono should immediately come to mind. OK, you
might be thinking, “Bono and Oprah have one thing in
common; they are famous people with tons of money.” The
point is taken. However, not all famous people have brands or
a strong characterization that accompanies their names.
Make no mistake about it—business school application is an
exercise in marketing; it requires you to be able to sell the value
you will offer to an MBA program. Successfully marketing your
story to an Admissions Board requires a clear understanding of
your personal brand.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A BRAND?
A brand can be a product, a company, or even a person. The
personal branding guru, Peter Montoya, puts it this way:
“Strong brands instantly communicate simple, clear feeling or
ideas to us about a product, company, or person” (The Personal
Branding Phenomenon, 2002, p. 5).
What attributes come to mind when you think about a
product, person, or company? Do you have a positive or nega-
tive reaction? Or worse, are you indifferent, which can suggest
the absence of a brand?
What type of feeling or idea does your brand communicate
to the MBA Admissions Board? What image does the Admis-
sions Board have of you after reading your application? Does it
match with the message that you set out to convey? Under-
standing the elements of successful brands will help you begin
to think of yourself as a brand as you present your story to the
I will discuss four fundamental brand rules that help MBA
applicants differentiate themselves. I will also use case exam-
ples of individuals and companies that apply these branding principles to illustrate how you can do the same to make your application stand out.
THE FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF PERSONAL BRANDING
Rule #1: Be focused.
Rule #2: Be an expert.
Rule #3: Be a leader.
Rule #4: Excel and deliver results.
Rule #1: Be Focused (Companies as Brands)
Let’s look at the case of two companies and the effect the rule of focus has had on them.
Branded companies know a secret: branding requires focus.
Take the Volvo Group. Although it is a company that specializes in commercial transportation, it has successfully positioned
its car in the marketplace. Today, one can’t think of a Volvo
without thinking of security and safety. You won’t associate “the
ultimate driving machine” with a Volvo. Someone who is
looking for speed or the flashiness of a sports car will opt for the
BMW over a Volvo any day. But Volvo has done a great job of
developing a car that consumers expect will not only last but
will protect their greatest possession, their family. It is no
surprise that Volvo’s 2005 annual report shows a 37 percent
increase in earnings per share.
Now let’s look at General Motors (GM). If I asked you to
tell me what type of car GM specializes in, you may be hard
pressed to come up with a quick phrase that captures its essence.
If you said “sporty, all-terrain, average all-American car” you
would be right—this statement describes the Corvette,
Hummer (H2 SUT), and Saturn, all GM cars. But one of GM’s
biggest problems is that it doesn’t own a message in the consumer’s mind. By diversifying so much and offering prod-
ucts that appeal to the widest customer base, the brand of the
company has been diluted in the process. It is no wonder GM
reported a third quarter earnings loss in 2006 of $115 million.
Companies that try to be all things to all people are very quick
to lose the attention of the consumer.
The rule of focus applies to applicants to business school in
a similar way. You should identify one or two things that you are
brilliant at and focus on using them to create value at your firm.
By focusing on these core elements, you will be able to build a
reputation and develop a track record that establishes your
brand. Avoid spreading yourself too thin because it only creates
confusion about what you stand for. Applicants who try to be
different things at the same time (innovator, change manager,
operations guru, accounting whiz, and human capital cham-
pion) run the risk of creating confusion about their brand and
ultimately raise red flags for the Admissions Board. Pick the few
themes that are core to your value, skill, and goals and build
your brand on them. As an MBA applicant, you will increase
your chances of success if you can identify key attributes or
brand elements that differentiate you from your competition. I
go into more detail on brand attributes in the chapter on
building and selling your personal brand.
Rule #2: Be an Expert (Companies as Brands)
Microsoft is a company that has leveraged its expertise—
software—to become a multibillion-dollar company. With few
exceptions, one can’t turn on any personal computer worldwide
without having to rely on a Microsoft Office product to perform
basic functions. Microsoft’s expertise developing “easier, faster,
smarter” software has enabled it to capture significant market
share, which translates to billions of dollars in revenue.
More recently, YouTube, a company started by three young,
former PayPal employees has revolutionized the way information
is transmitted around the world. Their tagline, “Broadcast Your-
self,” is at the heart of their brand, providing a vehicle for anyone
to get their message out to a global audience. In the space of a few
years they have transformed the way video files are shared. The
recent purchase of YouTube by Google for more than $1 billion
is evidence of the power a brand can have when it focuses on its
expertise and uses it to meet a need in the marketplace.
Applicants to business school must identify an area that they
are brilliant at and use it to create value for their firm, team, or
clients. What is a need that is not being met at your firm? Is
there a new product that can improve the revenue stream at
your company? Do you have knowledge that can help facilitate
that? Are you an athlete who has special understanding of the
sports product business? For instance, you may be a marketing
associate at Nike and can draw from your experiences as an
athlete to shape the development of the latest sneakers design
that is being introduced in the market. As a minority, you may
be able to offer unique insights into how your company should
position itself when marketing to minority communities. A
Chinese national with experience working on the mainland can
help her company navigate its expansion into China given her
geo-political awareness of the region.
Even personal experiences can influence the development of
a candidate’s expertise. For example, you may develop an interest
in pharmaceutical products because of health issues. Your own
self-study and research can position you as a resident expert in the
area of health care and pharmaceutical topics at your firm. Your
knowledge could become valuable to help your firm expand its
knowledge base in health care/drug industry deals.
International experience can also be an option. European
applicants have an edge in language ability compared with their
U.S. counterparts. Leveraging strong language ability, many
candidates opt for international deals where they are able to use
their linguistic expertise when working with clients. This is the case for a Turkish woman who works in M&A in London and because she speaks fluent German is able to work on many prominent German deals at her firm. The insights she gleaned
working in the United Kingdom and Germany, combined with
her awareness of her home country, Turkey, bring meaningful
understanding of what is required to work in international
settings. Regardless of your specific experience, as an applicant,
it is important to figure out where you have unique, value-
added expertise, which you should begin to use immediately to
differentiate yourself from your peers.
Rule #3: Be a Leader (People as Brands)
Branding requires a commitment to step up and stand for what
you believe. Taking action and leading is another key to
branding. The power of branding goes beyond companies and
products and applies to people as well. Two great examples of
individuals who demonstrate the rule of leadership in culti-
vating their brands are Bono and Wangari Maathai.
Bono of the rock group U2 has been a leader in addressing
humanitarian problems and alleviating poverty, disease, and
hunger in the poorest areas of the world. His steadfast commit-
ment to social justice has led to his brand as an activist rocker.
By raising funds, investing his own resources and money, and
bringing to the attention of the world many of the issues
plaguing Africa, his brand as an activist was born. Bono clearly
represents an example of someone with an authentic brand who
is living his passion and creating change and impact in the lives
of millions. Today, Bono is viewed as the preeminent leader in
advocating for the poor.
Wangari Maathai is another great example of an individual
with a powerful brand built upon the rule of leadership. Known
as the “Tree Lady,” Wangari Maathai has had a distinct brand
as a fearless conservationist who has refused to be cowed by
Kenya’s former dictatorial government despite death threats
and imprisonments. To the majority of the world, she is known as
Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She founded a
grassroots environmental organization called The Green Belt
Movement, which introduced a vision of empowerment for
women and conservation through the planting of trees. Maathai
is clearly living her passion of improving the environment.
Pursuing this vision has led to an environmental revolution the
likes of which had never been seen in Africa. In 2004, she received
a Nobel Prize, but before this honor was bestowed on her, she
had already established an enduring brand as an eco-activist.
I’m not suggesting that all applicants to business school
should become activists tomorrow. Leadership does not always
require activism. Rather, it requires commitment and a will-
ingness to take a risk to pursue your passion.
You may be passionate about education and may want to
consider taking on leadership roles in a nonprofit educational
organization. Denise is an applicant who had the guts to pursue
her passion by changing her career before business school. An
analyst in a Wall Street firm who was doing very well, Denise
chose to turn down her third-year analyst offer to join a rela-
tively young educational organization. Her two years at this
organization enabled her to build credibility as an education
advocate and future leader and gave her ample opportunity to
tackle significant leadership challenges. Shortly after, she was
admitted to a top business school, where she plans to establish
a strong network and broaden her skill set before running
Many of you may not be interested in changing your career
as Denise did. You can still demonstrate leadership in a prac-
tical and tangible way within your firm. For instance,
parlaying your analytics expertise to overhaul and lead the new
training program at your firm may be the exact leadership role
that works for your brand. Some of you may be like Fred, a
pharmaceutical engineer from an emerging market country
24 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
whose leadership impact is shown through working within the
established system in his firm. Fred’s impact was to seize the
opportunity to partner with his firm to distribute pharmaceu-
tical drugs that his firm did not want to use in hospitals and
clinics in his home country. Or you may be like John, who
started a small tutoring program in New York to empower
inner-city kids whose grades suffered as a result of the dismal
education they were exposed to in their public schools. What
is important is that whatever leadership role you choose to
cultivate, pick one that reinforces your brand and make sure
you deliver impact with it. Authenticity is critical to the
branding process, so focus only on the things that you are
truly committed to.
Rule #4: Excel and Deliver Results (People/Company as
Like her or not, Martha Stewart has established a brand as the
great dame of home improvement. She is known for scruti-
nizing every item or product associated with her brand before
putting her seal of approval on it. Some may see this as overkill;
the reality, however, is that because she has been this closely
involved with her products and has maintained a judicious vigi-
lance in the quality associated with her brand, she has been able
to build a multimillion-dollar business.
Although the majority of the applicants to business school
have not started multimillion-dollar companies, adopting a
Martha Stewart-like scrutiny to the product or service you
deliver can pay dividends in the application process. Delivering
excellence in everything you do—including the services you
provide to clients, the products you develop, or the teams you
manage—will ensure that you have a track record that will stand
out when you apply to business school.
Although Martha Stewart has been successful in building a
strong firm, she also represents a cautionary story of what happens when your personal actions are negative. Because
Martha Stewart, the person, is intimately connected to her
eponymous company, her conviction of perjury during her
insider trading trial had an enormous impact on her company,
with stock prices plummeting. Martha Stewart’s example shows
how one negative action can unravel years of establishing an
excellent reputation. Applicants to business school must be
careful not to make a mistake that can derail the reputation they
have earned at their jobs. Consistently delivering quality results
will enable you to firmly own a positive reputation/brand
among your colleagues, superiors, and clients. After all, it is
precisely this track record of excellence that your brand cham-
pions will rely on to support your application.
Applicants who show commitment to excellence and high-
caliber work have an edge over their competition. Let’s look at
John was a second-year analyst and was extremely committed to
producing quality work. His work ethics of being the first in and the
last to leave the office enabled him to manage his work effectively. His
sharp intellect and the high quality of work that he became known to
produce made him very popular among managing directors at his
firm, many of whom would specifically request for him to be staffed on
their deals. This reputation soon allowed John to work on many of the
high-profile deals at his firm and gave him unusual access to senior
leadership beyond what his peers were exposed to. Before long, John
became known as a leader among his peers, as many analysts would
also seek him out to get his perspective since he had worked on more
complicated deals and could provide information on analytics and how
to “manage up.” You can imagine the type of recommendation an
applicant like John would receive.
26 THE BEST BUSINESS SCHOOLS’ ADMISSIONS SECRETS
If your work isn’t at the level of individuals like John, it is
never too late to begin to establish a reputation of excellence.
Make the commitment today to begin operating beyond your
job responsibility by looking for ways to fill an existing void
at your firm as well as raising the bar in the quality of work
Individuals who understand the power of personal branding
recognize the importance of consistent commitment to excel-
lence and results. Producing a track record of excellence on a
regular basis is one clear way to differentiate yourself from your
peers who just do a “good job.” Doing your job well is not
enough. Going beyond what is expected of you and delivering
excellent results regularly is one sure way to stand apart from
Even the physical application needs to demonstrate this brand
of excellence. The mistake that some applicants make is to under-
estimate the importance of each aspect of the application. An
unpolished and mistake-ridden resume can tip the scale to a rejec-
tion. That means that every aspect of the application, from
GMAT score to essays, recommendations to transcript, and
everything in between, should be of high quality. Never cut
corners. It is the fastest way to earn a negative brand reputation.
But applicants to business school are not the only ones for
whom branding matters. MBA programs are also seen as
brands and applicants often apply to them based on how they
view their brand.