10 Red Flags to Avoid on Your MBA Application

By Megan Lerchenmuller

mba resume essays letters of recommendation

First, take a deep breath.  If you’re reading this article, you’re likely well into the depths of the business school application process.  As you weigh your application strengths and weaknesses, we want to highlight some of the subtler red flags admissions committees see. We’ll give you some tips to avoid and mitigate these potential red flags so that you can submit an application that makes you shine.

MBA Resume

1. A resume for a different audience.  

Remember that the adcom should be able to easily understand your background and career trajectory without intimate knowledge of your pre-MBA industry or function.  Poorly constructed resumes are often overly jargony, don’t highlight quantifiable results, or show career progression.

2. Lack of extracurricular activities  

Trust us, we get it.  You were busy trying to get good grades in college and then you were working too hard to commit significant time to volunteer.  Dig deep to think about activities that highlight your leadership and teamworking skills.  And remember, it’s never too late to pursue your career goals.  Even if you find compelling activities in the months before you apply, join them now.  If there are pre-MBA activities you plan on pursuing, include them in your application as part of your career strategy. 

3. Gaps in employment experience.  

Resume gaps on your resume can feel major, but it’s important to remember two things if you’ve taken time off between roles. First, the optional essay is the ideal place to proactively address any gaps so that you’re not leaving the adcom guessing. Second, if you’re currently in between jobs, use the time to pursue something substantial in line with your future career goals (a class, volunteer activity, etc). 

MBA Letters of Recommendation

4. Poor or insincere recommendations.  

We cannot stress this point enough.  Make sure your recommender knows you well, can vouch for your performance on the job, and will be a championing voice for your candidacy. 

MBA Application Essays

5. Saying what you think the adcom wants to hear.  

Of course, you want to clearly portray that you’re the perfect candidate for a specific school (whether it’s HBS, Wharton, or GSB), but make sure to avoid the cliché mistake of trying to fit your application into the school’s ideal background.  The adcom wants to get to know what makes YOU unique.  Explain the why, along with your longer-term vision, when outlining your career goals, especially if you’re pursuing a more traditional post-MBA path, like consulting or marketing.

6. Not answering the prompt.  

Don’t get caught up in utilizing essays to make sure you’re getting all your selling points across.  This one seems obvious, but you’d never guess how many applicants get this one wrong.  Answer the question that the adcom is asking. Simple as that. 

7. Lack of humility in your essays.  

There is a reason that a lot of business school essays ask about failures.  The adcom wants to understand a candidate’s emotional intelligence and maturity, as well as a candidate’s ability to make mistakes and pivot or learn from them.  Superficial responses are plentiful so spend some time putting together honest and humble responses to these types of questions.

8. Tone-deaf essays.  

Essays provide you the opportunity to highlight what makes you unique and to show that you’re clear about your post-MBA goals.  As you write your essays, make sure to have colleagues, friends, and family read them and ensure that they come across as genuine.  If you want to save the world, make sure you’ve done your homework to show that you’ve thought about the path to do so and that you don’t sound too preachy.  If you know exactly what you want to do after school, fantastic – say it with humility. 

9. Not tailoring your applications.  

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your remarkable background and compelling story will distract the adcom from identifying a copy-and-paste job.  Doing diligence on researching business school programs, especially their unique offerings and cultures, is critical in determining fit and genuine interest in the school’s program (hint, this is super important to the adcom).

Putting it all together…

10. A “typical” business school background.  

OK, rock star, you crushed the IBD to PE pipeline. Or maybe you’re working at Bain and looking to work for a tech startup before you commit to the consulting partner track.  Congratulations on an impressive background, just remember that there’s still work to be done.  Stand apart from other impressive candidates by highlighting what makes you unique vs. others throughout your application.  Nailing your story in your essays, highlighting extracurriculars or volunteer work that dovetails with your long-term career goals, and finding recommenders who can clearly connect the dots between your pre-MBA experience and your post-MBA goals is critical.

Given the amount of soul-searching and hard work you’ll be putting into your business school applications, you want to make sure that you’re putting your best self forward.  As you put together your applications, remember to be strategic, sincere, and most of all, humble.