How to Stand Out as an Over-Represented MBA Applicant

Prospective students from traditional industry backgrounds need to do things that set them apart from the herd

Diversity has been an increasing priority for business schools for many years, and a cornerstone of their flagship MBA programs. Schools want to welcome students from a multitude of different nationalities, industry backgrounds and cultures, with the mixture of experiences enriching the learning experience for everyone in the classroom – and preparing them for a global career.

But what does that mean for MBA applicants who come from over-represented demographic pools, or traditional industries such as finance and consulting?

Admissions consultant Stacy Blackman says these applicants “have a higher bar to reach for admit success”. “It takes a lot to rise to the top of the oversubscribed populations,” she says. “To rise is to do things that set you apart from that herd.”

More important than being from a particular industry is that you are a high-performer at work. “For example, if an applicant is ranked above peers, has quick promotions, and shown project or people management experience, they can stand out from the traditional industry pool of consulting or finance,” says Blackman.

Taking a less-travelled path

Also, she recommends finding life experiences and hobbies that show a less-travelled path or are possible anomalies or differentiators. “Break out from the crowd through a unique involvement or pursuit,” Blackman advocates.  

Like most business schools, ESMT Berlin works hard to build classes that bring together students from different backgrounds. “Learning is a social process and students learn as much from each other as the faculty that are teaching in the program,” says Rebecca Loades, director of career accelerator programs. 

That’s why it’s important to craft a diverse class – to ensure that students gain as broad a world view as possible. 

Furthermore, she says exposure to the perspectives and values of different cultures prepares students for an international career: “During the MBA, students work in multi-cultural teams and quickly recognize that being part of a diverse group increases creativity, reduces biases, and improves decision- making.”

Schools tend to receive large numbers of applications from specific groups, which often include Indian men with engineering degrees or IT careers, as well as white men working in traditional fields where an MBA is sometimes needed to move forward, like investment banking. While schools do want candidates from these overrepresented pools, they also take creating a balanced class very seriously.

If you are an applicant sharing these characteristics, Loades says you will need to distinguish yourself in the admissions process, adding: “Take extra care when preparing your application and help us understand more about what makes you unique, and what you will bring to the MBA program, both in and out of class.”

At HEC Paris, 93 percent of the MBA class is from outside France, representing on average 60 countries and preparing students to work with people from many different backgrounds and cultures, whether they come from finance or consulting, or they were professional athletes, lawyers, medical doctors, or musicians.

“Diversity and inclusion have become the critical components of what tomorrow’s professionals and leaders are looking for in the workplace,” says Benoit Banchereau, executive director of MBA admissions.

He insists that the French business school will assess candidates’ fit with the program objectively, whether they are from a traditional industry background or demographic group -- or not. 

But he adds that “we also look for demonstration of open mindedness, such as having lived, worked or studied abroad, or having worked with different cultures. We want our students to learn from their peers, both on a professional and personal level”.

Getting granular on your demographic

Damon Chua is a senior consultant at the admissions firm Admissionado. He says that applicants from popular pools should “get granular” on their demographic and find qualities that can be highlighted to temper any perception of privilege. 

“The reality is, everyone faces adversities. The key is conveying that in a self- aware manner, without going overboard to falsely demonstrate equivalence with other and different forms of hardship.”

It’s also important to parse out your work experience to highlight the unusual and the noteworthy, he continues. “The key here is to show, even if you are working in an over-represented field, that you are not the cookie-cutter employee.”

The consultant adds that prospective MBA students could obtain a recommendation from someone with a different “voice”. So “rather than asking one of your bosses or someone you have worked with, what about approaching someone like your music teacher? Acting coach? Your underprivileged mentee? A co-worker on a diversity-focused project?”

He adds: “The key here is to move away from a letter filled with general statements on your work to one that contains a deep-dive on who you really are as a person.”

At INSEAD, not one single nationality is the majority -- everyone is a minority. “There are a lot of misconceptions and often applicants think they are different or are coming from an overrepresented group, but it might not be the case,” says Virginie Fougea, global director of admissions, financial aid and scholarships at the business school.

“We consider that everyone is different and will bring interesting and valuable perspectives regardless of how many applicants we have from a perceived similar background or demographic,” she adds.

With that said, Fougea offers these candidates some advice on how to stand apart from the pack: “Those that have led initiatives in their community efforts, taken up new roles and initiatives during their career or come with stellar sporting achievements usually stand out from the rest if they are from an overrepresented group.” 

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