Building a profile for business school (there’s a Forrest Gump in all of us)

One of the most common questions I loathe to give advice about is how to build a profile that will improve one’s chances for getting into a top b-school. Especially when it’s coming from folks who are more than a year away (and sometimes years away… I’ve had *high school* students ask me!).

The reason why is this. Getting advice on what you should do with your career and life choices is limiting yourself to the advice being given. It has a tendency to limit your imagination for what is truly possible for you. Especially when getting advice from a complete stranger like me, no matter how much of a novel you want to write to me about your entire life story.

Simply put, no one knows you as well as YOU.

I hate life coaching, because I really don’t think I’m better or wiser than anyone else. I have my hands full with in my own life, let alone trying to give a paint-by-numbers recipe to others for what they should do with theirs.

So this is the only “life coaching” thing I will say based on my own limited experience and what I believe. I guess it could be considered some broad advice that is meaningless on its own, but hopefully meaningful if you are able to find a way to incorporate it into your own specific circumstances.

The reason why I hate giving “what can I do to improve my profile” advice is because some of the most accomplished and amazing applicants I’ve ever worked with were people whose history and career choices I could not have ever imagined or envisioned in the order or manner in which it had evolved. And I can safely say so for many if not all of them, I doubt they could have envisioned it turning out the way it did.

Facing the unexpected and surprises is where life and careers are made. It’s when you’re faced with situations where the script you had written becomes irrelevant, and you have to react in the heat of the moment. That’s where a lot of the most interesting career progressions and lives are built.

In short, for some (or even many?) of you MBA types or those who are attracted to do an MBA – you tend to over think and over plan. You don’t take enough risks because you psych yourself out by over thinking it. You don’t trust or you’re unwilling to trust your own instincts, so you want to follow other people or “templates”. Basically, you’re almost too willing to follow some cookie cutter recipe you think exists as long as it gets you the result you want – because you (falsely) believe that when it comes to building a career and a life, the results are all that matters (and where hopefully you’ll learn over time that while results aren’t irrelevant, the journey or the process is just as important if not more important, depending on who you talk to – because the only true result for all of us is death; everything else is a journey or process and the struggle to understand it).

Focus on working your ass off on whatever you feel is most meaningful to you at this time, *assuming* you’re not going to b-school at all. It’s about being your most overachieving self – adcoms really don’t care what it is. They really don’t. What they care about is whether you are a dynamic and compelling individual who is accomplished in his/her chosen profession. It’s not about being perfect, but about being intriguing. And there are endless permutations on what that can be and what that means. Make life/career choices that you want to do, regardless of what others think. And of course that is “riskier” if you aren’t sure what you want, and there are plenty of “template lives” out there for you to follow. But the journey itself in taking that leap of faith is worth it for the self-knowledge you’ll gain, and if opens up even more doors than had you taken the “template”, that’s a bonus.

Don’t just start volunteering at the local charity for the sake of resume building or make job/career choices for the sake of resume building, because you’re not fooling anyone. Do it because you f*cking believe in it. Otherwise the only person you’re trying to fool is yourself into believing that “if I do X, Y and Z, then I will get A, B and C and everything will work out.” Even if you don’t believe in the “follow your dreams” mantra, there’s still a huge difference between “I chose this career path because it’s a realistic compromise” and “I chose this career path because others are doing it, or I am afraid of being different, or my parents forced me to.” The former is based on a negotiation you have with the world around you, whereas the latter is simply giving up the right to your own life. Now, that may sting some of you whose parental pressures are oppressive, but that only makes the struggle to overcome and defy them that much more meaningful – because it will teach you more about who you are than anything else (because no matter how much you love your parents, you are still your own person if you give yourself that right).

Nothing ever really works out – not just in your personal life, but also in your professional career (or careers). Welcome to reality. And it’s how you cope and react to the unexpected (setbacks or triumphs) that help define who you are, and give you a much more profound understanding of what you’re made of. Whether you succeed in overcoming setbacks is not as important as your willingness to take on those obstacles in the first place. Because that willingness is what success is ultimately built on even if it doesn’t happen right away or how you had envisioned it.

There are those whose goal is to minimize the unexpected. And there are those who live. Who you are is not defined by fantasies of who you hope to be, but by how you cope with the realities of today.

More applicants screw up their b-school applications because of their attitude more than their actual profile. Adcoms smell the “please like me, I did this all for you” faster than you can even build it. It’s a profile based on premeditation, and not one built on living. Desperation and an eager to please attitude may be endearing in children, but is a death knell for adults. That’s the real struggle more than anything else for those of you early in your careers.

So do what makes you feel confident, not what you think pleases others. There are folks who get in with no extracurricular achievements to speak of and nothing special other than a solid work resume. And there are others with a crapload of everything and don’t get in anywhere. More often than not, what separates those who tend to succeed and those who don’t (whether in admissions or anything else) are those who don’t need the permission to succeed – those who say “f*ck it, this is who I am, take me or leave me.” They may lose some of the time and maybe even a lot of the time, but they will win more than those whose attitude and vibe comes across as trying a bit too hard to please others.

Some of you have gotten it ingrained in you that getting into b-school is important enough for you to have big life/career decisions dictated by gaining admission. The deeper problem however is believing that you need some external permission to succeed – that without getting X, Y or Z, you’re not going to get what you want. It’s this lack of self-belief that is the problem. As some of you may have heard me say this before – a lot of the folks who are at these top b-schools really don’t need the “credential” or “brand” of the b-school to succeed. In the end, they would’ve gotten to a similar place or level without the degree. The only difference is that they had a good time in those 2 years, and they may have had an easier time moving up the ranks, but the difference isn’t night and day to the point where it’s worth ignoring your instincts and values for it.

And while it’s harder to live by that principle of “trust your own instincts” when you’re younger and being pulled in a gazillion directions by your peers, your family, your colleagues, and yes even those “b-school adcoms” that you have put on a pedestal — sometimes it’s just a matter of faking that confidence and self-belief even when you don’t have it.

Ignorance can be bliss. There’s a Forrest Gump in all of us. Sometimes what you don’t know can give you the dumb guts to accomplish bigger things than you would have at an older age where you realized how f*cking lucky you were to have achieved it in the first place. That delusional self-belief, that foolishness, is harder and harder to hold onto as one gets older, so don’t be so willing to throw it away so soon. It may be the greatest asset you have right now.

In short, rather than asking others what you should be doing, let ignorance be your fuel and ask YOURSELF what you feel you should be doing… you may surprise yourself when you’re older that you managed to pull it off.

Now, I’m not saying any of this is easy to live by, but it’s worth it to at least try.

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