by Brian DeChesare Comments (7)

The 6 Qualities That Top MBA Programs Are Seeking, and How to Tailor Your Applications to Maximize Your Chances

MBA Top Qualities

This is a guest post from Edward Fu (HBS, 2010) and Melinda Hwang (MIT Sloan, 2010). Edward and Melinda are authors of “The HBS Blueprint: A Proprietary Step-by-Step Action Plan,” which teaches you how to get into HBS and or any other top business school. They have successfully advised hundreds of clients on developing a strategy to get into the top MBA programs.

How many MBA programs should you apply to?

As many as possible?

Or do you pick a more limited set and tailor your applications for only a few schools?

Opinions differ on that one, but one factor that limits your options is that different schools are looking for different qualities.

So while you may be tempted to re-use your essays for HBS, MIT, and the GSB, you’re better off making significant changes or even writing new ones for each school.

Here’s why you have to tailor your applications more than you might expect, and how you should pick different angles for different schools:

The Top 6 Qualities Explained

Most of the top MBA programs are looking for some combination of these six qualities:

  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Analytical Ability
  • Ethical Values
  • Cultural Diversity
  • General Management Perspective

Yes, yes… those sound quite generic, and you’ve probably seen them in interview guides, admissions guides, and online forums.

But business schools define those qualities differently from the average person, and each school cares the most about different qualities.

For example, leadership is by far the most important one for Harvard Business School (HBS).

At MIT Sloan, analytical ability and teamwork are the most critical; at Stanford (GSB), they’re looking for a combination of leadership, teamwork, and ethical values / social consciousness.

Here are a few examples of qualities and skill sets that other top schools are seeking:

  • Wharton: Innovation, analytical skills, and leadership.
  • Booth:  Intellectual curiosity, analytical skills, and willingness to take risks.
  • Kellogg: Teamwork, collaboration, and leadership.
  • Columbia: Proactivity, entrepreneurial skills, and a general management perspective.

If you’re applying to another school, speak with alumni and current students to figure out which qualities matter most there.

Once you understand what the schools are looking for, make sure every part of your application highlights those traits: not just your essay, but also your resume, your interviews, and your recommendations.

If you don’t do this, your entire application will be brought into question because you’ll seem inconsistent.

I’ll define below how business schools see each of these qualities, and then give you a few examples of how you might convey them in your essays, resume, interviews, and recommendations:


While “management” is about the mechanics of seeing a project through to completion – to-do lists, following up with people, etc. – leadership is about anticipating and capturing opportunities by building, inspiring, and mobilizing a team and making them an enduring asset to the organization.

The ten elements of leadership, as MBA programs see them, are as follows:

1) Anticipate opportunities before others see them;

2) Articulate a compelling vision;

3) Build a team around your vision;

4) Set stretch goals and earn buy-in;

5) Allocate resources based on projected yield;

6) Integrate individual efforts to maximize synergies and productivity;

7) Make mid-course corrections as necessitated by external factors;

8) Celebrate victory as a team success;

9) Provide critical feedback during and after the mission; and

10) Constantly develop new leaders.

A good manager would cite his/her past projects and how he/she finished everything on time to the highest possible standard.

But a good leader would talk about seeing an opportunity to expand into a new geography, pitching it to management and winning approval, and then assembling a team to make it happen.


More than just “getting along with others,” teamwork means exchanging strengths between you and peers to neutralize individual weaknesses and leverage strengths.

Portraying this quality means going beyond your assigned “job” to add value to the individuals in a team, and to the group as a whole.

For example, perhaps you worked in a team where some members had no exposure to finance but were great at sales and marketing, and others had finance knowledge but no sales/marketing exposure, and you had to release a product for financial services clients.

To explain your teamwork skills, you might explain how everyone on the team used their strengths in different parts of the project to get it out the door.


While most people define analytical ability as making calculations and thinking through problems logically, business schools also want to see that you can do that with limited information and under time pressure.

So you might be better off citing a simpler analysis you had to complete in less than day – with limited information – than you would be by citing a thesis that took year to research and complete.


This attribute means serving as the voice of integrity, quality, and fairness in the face of opportunities and temptation to take shortcuts.

You don’t need to pick dramatic dilemmas that could belong in a movie or TV show; it’s more important to use examples where your behavior motivated others to act in the same way.

The classic example is standing up to warn a client against doing something that might be in your firm’s interest but harmful to the client, but you could also use examples from activities here.


This one relates to working effectively with individuals from other backgrounds, whether those backgrounds were cultural, geographic, ethnic, or anything else.

Ideally, you’ll cite examples where there was recognition or appreciation of your ability to work in this environment.

For example, did you successfully launch a project with co-workers from 6 different countries and get recognized by a VP or C-level executive?


This quality sounds vague, but it refers to “seeing the big picture” and adding value by spanning and collecting the vertical “silos” that plague most companies.

For example, did you see a business process that the accountants in one department were using that might speed up work elsewhere, and then introduce it to other groups?

You don’t need to have worked as a General Manager, but you must have thought and behaved like one.

Take Me to the Examples, Please

Here are a few examples of how you might apply these qualities to make changes in your essays, your resume, your interviews, and your recommendations:

Example #1: The MIT Sloan Essay… for Harvard?

Let’s say you’ve written an essay for MIT Sloan where you’ve described how, during your time in private equity, you led a team that dug into a company’s financial statements and customer data and discovered “irregularities.”

These issues pointed to the company overstating revenue by a significant amount, which made the deal’s math untenable and raised questions about the management team’s integrity.

Furthermore, you had to collaborate with auditors, lawyers, and senior and junior employees at your firm; everyone had a range of different skill sets.

You presented your findings to the Partners, and your firm decided against investing in the company as a result.

That’s fine for an MIT essay, but it would not work as well for HBS.

Even if you use the same story, you should emphasize different points:

  • Write more about how you saw this problem even when everyone else doubted you, and how you had to go against the grain to secure resources.
  • And then describe how you assembled the team and convinced everyone to spend time and resources on this effort… instead of focusing on the analytical procedures.
  • And then explain how your work impacted not only this deal deal, but also how you convinced the Partners to change the due diligence process to prevent similar problems in the future.

Example #2: Resumes: Booth vs. HBS

Let’s say you’re applying to both Booth and HBS, and you’ve had previous experience working at an advertising agency or in online marketing.

Part of your job consisted of analyzing the sales impact of marketing spend in different channels.

You could list this experience on your resume for both schools, but you would emphasize different points for each one.

Since Booth is more “analytical,” you might describe this experience in the following way:

  • Developed framework to analyze sales increase from marketing spend in various media channels; model was industry’s first of its kind, and mechanics and conclusions were published in [Well-Known Trade Magazine Name]
  • Analysis helped company better implement clients’ marketing campaigns and reduced budget requirements by 20%, resulting in higher ROI for clients

But if you’re writing about the same experience for HBS, it’s better to emphasize the leadership and interpersonal skills you developed:

  • Created and led 7-person task force to develop model for analyzing sales increase resulting from marketing spend in various media channels
  • Worked with senior marketers and advertising executives at client companies to present findings and implement recommendations; also won approval from senior management to implement improvements across all client teams at firm

Example #3: Tell Me About a Difficult Time…

Now let’s say you’re in a business school admissions interview, and you get the following question:

“How have you led an organization through difficult times?”

If you were interviewing at a collaboration-focused school, such as Kellogg, you might say something like the following:

“With the merger of Our Company and Company XYZ, the culture changed dramatically. XYZ was much more established and corporate, whereas we were a start-up and maintained an informal and scrappier culture.

Our team didn’t like the idea of being hindered by processes and regulations everywhere, and there was a clear divide between people from the two companies.

That divide impacted communications and the ability to work efficiently; seeing how it was a problem, I created a task force made up of staff members from both companies to collaborate and improve the culture.

We made a list of all the specific problems, came up with a plan to address them and compromise where necessary, and then organized a company offsite to implement these points and improve communications.

As part of the offsite, we formed mini-teams consisting of people from both companies, and then afterward we followed up with weekly meetings to check in with everyone and see how the culture had changed. These sessions removed many of the problems that had resulted from the merger.”

On the other hand, if you were interviewing at a school like Wharton that values innovation more highly, you might frame the story like this instead:

“After Our Company and larger Company XYZ merged, the new management team rolled out processes that XYZ had used for its own projects before.

Our side resisted the changes at first since we had more of a ‘start-up’ attitude, but I sensed the negative impact on the morale and culture immediately, and I decided to approach the management team with a different proposal.

I presented a plan to create a task force with team members from both companies where we could take a holistic look at how both companies worked, and then I created recommendations for combining the ‘innovative’ parts of Our Company with the established processes of Company XYZ.

We tested it by rolling out these new rules in a single department to see how they would work, and then we incorporated feedback from that department before introducing it to other departments.

This plan resulted in more positive feelings and higher morale since we included everyone’s feedback along the way and built on comments and ideas in each department.”

Example #4: Could You Write Me a Recommendation, Please?

It’s tough to ‘tell’ your recommender(s) exactly what to write about, but you could provide them with examples that align with the school’s values.

No recommender will know everything about you, so it’s up to you to provide that extra background information he/she needs.

So if you go to a former boss and ask for a recommendation, and you’re applying to a school like Stanford that values social consciousness and ethical values, you might point out that you developed a speaker series of high-profile, successful female asset managers to speak with underprivileged single mothers.

The goal was for the asset managers to provide financial education and give the single mothers the tools they needed to help manage their finances and raise their children on their own, and afterward you saw several parents change their behaviors and lifestyles for the better.

If you wanted to use that same example in an HBS recommendation, you might emphasize the leadership aspect instead, and write about the efforts you made to get all the female asset managers together and make them enthusiastic enough to do the speakers series.

Does Any of This Matter?

If you implement these strategies correctly, you will spend more time on your applications, and you won’t be able to apply to as many schools.

However, setting yourself apart is often more important than the pure numbers game when it comes to admissions.

Everyone applying has high grades, good GMAT scores, and excellent work experience, so how do you distinguish yourself?

You set yourself apart with fit.

And the best way to demonstrate that fit is to tailor each part of your application to the school’s values as much as possible – even if it means you apply to one or two fewer programs.

This is a guest post from Edward Fu (HBS, 2010) and Melinda Hwang (MIT Sloan, 2010). Edward and Melinda are authors of “The HBS Blueprint: A Proprietary Step-by-Step Action Plan,” which teaches you how to get into HBS and or any other top business school. They have successfully advised hundreds of clients on developing a strategy to get into the top MBA programs.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. E&Y has decided NOT to consider universities degrees when hiring employees, so do you think it could become the norm in some career fields leading to either, a shutdown of some degree programs or would it force universities to change the way they teach?

    1. No, I don’t think so, because degrees are still such a useful credentialing mechanism for firms. VCs have reached similar conclusions when researching the online education market:

      1. Interesting read specially when one goes through each reference, according to the excellent link you gave, it turns out be an issue of having a better alternative to a college degree (there is none as of yet) for employers to use as a quick filter. In-spite of a college degree not being a good predictor for success later on or more specifically according to E&Y’s Maggie Stilwell:-

        “Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door,” she said.

        “Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.

        “It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.”

        So to be more correct (I was wrong earlier) E&Y is not using the degree as a quick filter.

  2. Hello Brian,
    I am currently a Master in Econ student at NYU. I was wondering what are some common methods for masters student to break into IBD? Like OCRs(which I don’t see a lot from our school’s career website)?

    1. You can get in the same way – networking, on-campus recruiting, and so on, but sometimes it’s harder to get noticed by recruiters because you have to explain how long you’ll be in school, when you’ll graduate, and so on. If you don’t see a lot of openings on the website, maybe reach out to alumni and see how they broke in, or speak with fellow students and see what they’re doing, and start doing some networking on your own.

  3. Hi Brian, do you have any insight into UBS and whether or not you thought they would be a good option to consider for an IBD SA position? I know they’ve struggled in the past, but it seems like their future is looking bright relative to their competitors.

    1. I think it really depends on what your other options are – do you have an offer at GS, MS, JPM, or one of the elite boutiques? If so, that offer is better. But if you have an offer at a European bank or a middle-market/regional boutique bank, UBS is probably better. It has been hiring more senior bankers this year than other banks, but they are still heavily focused on wealth management… and if there’s another downturn, they’ll likely downsize once again. If UBS is your only offer, you should take it.

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