Some b-school applicants
have the mistaken idea that, if they have the right social and business connections,
they're all set.
They think they can get a letter of recommendation that will
automatically put their application at the top of the "accepted"
stack on the admission officer's desk.
No one will deny that networks are an
important means of getting your foot in the door in the
business world. But if
networks really were THE key to success, then
already have connections wouldn't have to bother
much with admissions applications, would they? For that matter, why
would they have to bother with the MBA at all?
The reality is
that people who are well-connected through family or other networks may face
unique obstacles in the b-school
admissions process. This is especially true of candidates who come from
countries where status and family connections are the primary way that doors are
for a candidate whose work experience
is primarily with a family-run business
he or she is destined to
inherit in the future, these unique admissions issues
can get especially tricky.
When your dad is both your boss and the CEO of the
company you work for, you face two big problems: Who do
you get to write a letter of recommendation? And how will you present your
profile and accomplishments in such a way as to dispel
any notion that everything
came to you
through your family?
One of my clients was in precisely
this situation. (For the sake of simplicity, I'll call him John.) He was aiming for top US and European business schools
after having worked for an
important family business in a country where connections to influential people
had been handed to him
In our first consultation,
I put the cards on the table
and explained what his obstacles
admissions might be.
John's first problem was his letters of recommendation (LORs).
He was especially worried about LORs because he had a low GMAT
Logically, he could not ask his father to write his
recommendation letter. He went through a list of other
influential people who might write one for him.
He had trouble disentangling himself from a natural tendency
to look for someone with a lot of status whose LOR could offset the
weak GMAT score by speaking on his behalf.
In doing so, John was
making the same mistake many other applicants do. Many applicants – not just those with John's background – think that
a recommender's status is more important than the content of their letter.
They assume that the higher-up their recommender is in the company
hierarchy, or the more name recognition
he or she has in the wider world, the more weight their recommendation
It is difficult to dispel this myth. Most MBA
admissions offices go out of their way to explain that
your letters ought to come
from your direct supervisor
or someone else who has truly seen your work and can
genuinely speak to your potential as a future manager and leader.
That means that if
CEO is not your direct boss,
will add no new insight to your application.
I explained to John that, in his case, the strongest LORs might come from
the clients and suppliers he had dealt with rather than from his supervisors. His clients would have more credibility than
his supervisors – who all had some connection to his family – would
have, and could also give detailed examples of his strong qualities as a businessman. He would just have to explain his choice of recommenders in the optional essay, which, in his particular situation, would be easily understood.
Now came the problem of demonstrating that John's achievements
were the result of his own efforts and not something his family had helped him
accomplish. This was especially important
because his GMAT score was below the average for his targeted schools.
We talked. I found out that John actually had a lot of good material to work with. He had a strong undergraduate transcript that would help mitigate his GMAT score. He
could also point to plenty of accomplishments that clearly resulted from his own initiative.
John's father had really made him work
his way up from the trenches. During his eight years with the
family company, John had implemented important changes and improvements in every position
he held, gradually taking on more and more responsibility
along the way. Most importantly,
showed the drive, passion and vision needed to
lead the family business in the future, which promised
an uphill battle against intense competition from large
this excellent grasp of the needs of his business and
a vision for its future, John had a very convincing argument for pursuing an MBA.
John wound up submitting applications that were very different from what he had started off with. It would have been a shame if he had turned in an application with more conventional choices for LOR writers and for essay topics, since they would not have brought to light his successes or truly represented his potential. Given his GMAT and profile, I doubt he would have done very well with them. But the application I helped him put together worked beautifully. He got multiple acceptances, including one from a top European school.
Senior Consultant Cristina Freeman. Cristina holds a master's degree from New York University. She made thousands
of accept/reject/waitlist decisions as an admissions
officer for IESE.