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The Importance of Knowing and Being Yourself

This week I watched a funny video about interviews, leading afterwards to an interesting talk with my wife about the importance of standing out from the other candidates that are applying for a job, and most important of all, how to achieve this. You can extrapolate this question to the process of applying to business schools. Every year there are thousands of people applying to the same business schools, and out of all those people, only a few are accepted to study an MBA in each school (e.g., Fuqua’s class size is around 430 students). So the question is very simple: what to do to stand out from the crowd and catch the admissions committee’s attention?

The video is about a employee search at Heineken and starts by saying how every interview is the same, how all the questions and answers are very prepared and similar to each other, and therefore asks how can an employer (or business school) pick the best employee (student) from the candidate pool. You can see how several people think that being stubborn is one of their weaknesses, or how they define their leadership style is “passionate”. Therefore, Heineken prepared an interview for which there is no way that a candidate could be prepared for. I recommend watching the video!

Exaggerated as it could be, the video made a point: how different is a candidate compared to others?

I still remember my first job interviews. While studying at the University I applied to Oracle for a part-time job in the pre-sales department, and had to overcome three interviews. I remembered being asked what was my biggest weakness, me saying “stubborn” – sounds familiar? – and talking about how passionate I am about everything I do. I really meant what I said, and I was being completely honest. I just did not stop to think how was I differentiating myself from other applicants. I got the job and stayed at Oracle for more than a year.

The following year, before even finishing University, I applied to two consulting firms, and in both cases I was invited to interview. I did not prepare any of them, as I knew that I was good dealing with people – what is an interview but a formal talk with another person – and I did not have much time and was concentrated studying for the last classes I had to pass in order to graduate. I performed extremely well in the interviews  and was offered a job at both companies after only two weeks of applying. I found Bip’s offer really interesting and accepted it.

But the question remains: did I do a good interview? Why, in both occasions, was I offered the job I was applying to? Looking back, I remember giving the same weakness answer, saying how flexible I was at work, how I adapted to any working situation, how passionate I was when working with people… Do you imagine any candidate giving an opposite answer than these? I doubt the would get the job. So, why did they pick me?

In 2011-2012 I applied to several business schools and I was interviewed at Fuqua, Kellogg and Anderson. I was waitlisted in all three of them. You could say that I scored half a goal, after all, I was not dinged! But, why didn’t it work this time? This time I even prepared for the interviews, so what happened?

Last year I applied for a new job, and had three interviews before landing the job. I felt much more prepared, probably for the experience of applying to business school. In September 2012, 4 months after being dinged, I applied for the second time to Fuqua, was interviewed and this time I got in! What did I do differently?

After being accepted to Fuqua, I started helping other Spaniards with their application processes, answering questions about Fuqua, the city and the school’s culture, based on the information I learned over the last year while applying to Duke. During our chats, I was impressed to hear how similar their stories and reasons for studying an MBA at Fuqua were to mine.

It does make sense! After all, we all are alike, that’s why we like Fuqua above other business schools, we have many things in common that are appreciated and welcome at a school such as Fuqua. Is like if you go to a soccer stadium, lets say Santiago Bernabéu (Hala Madrid!). Chances are that most people there like sports, are soccer fans, like to talk about soccer, hang out to watch some matches on the TV, and do not like Barcelona (sorry for this week´s defeat 🙂 )… see my point?

So at the end, when writing our essays and when doing our Fuqua interview, there are many chances that we all will end up telling similar stories about teamwork, why we will like a city of the size as Durham, why our partners will be great there, our reasons for joining an specific club, and so on. Therefore, how do we stand out? How do we get to be one of those 430 admitted students?

I would say that one of the most important things when applying to business school, and for a job, is knowing and being yourself. The people in charge of admissions want to get to know the candidate behind an application and determine if they fit in the school (or the company). Sure, you must have a good academic record, an excellent professional background, and so on. But at the end, in the application process and at the interview you must show that you know yourself, that you know how you will contribute to an specific business school (or job), why you will do well in the program (or at work), and you have to do all this by showing your true self and proving your people skills.

When do you find unique answers to all such questions? Only when you are really aware of who you are, what you care for, what inspires you, when you identify all the small pieces that make YOU up. But achieving this is no piece of cake, and one must do a lot of self-reflection and own-constructive criticism. Just consider one of Stanford’s essays: what do you want to do—REALLY—and why Stanford? That “really” is there for a reason.

After an intense year of business schools applications, I started talking to as much people as I could in order to understand why I failed and why my old tricks failed this time. As I met more people, as I reviewed my applications, I started bringing to the surface things that I didn’t care about before, and suddenly I thought as very important. I reoriented my candidate profile, I highlighted things that made me unique, even going beyond in all those things that I share with other candidates. I was able to tell things about myself that I was unaware the year before! My soft skills did the rest during my second Fuqua interview. When I finished it, I knew I was finally ready to be an MBA candidate. But I’m still not done growing and learning, as I am just getting started!

Business schools and companies look for mature candidates, that have a clear understanding of themselves, that know how they are going to contribute and have an idea about their desired future. The sooner you achieve this point, the more rewarding your MBA and job experience will be.

Good luck to all of you applying to business school and that are looking for a job. I hope this was of some help.

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