MBA admissions: It’s not about how great you are

Business school is a roller coaster for your self-esteem… if you choose to make it so.

From the lows of panicking over the dismal results of your first GMAT practice test, to the elation and relief when you finally get the score you were hoping for.  Then again back to the pits of not managing to recall a single accomplishment worth writing about, to the excitement of your first interview invitation.

And that’s just during the application season, culminating of course with the emotional tempest that accompanies the long-awaited yay-or-nay responses.

But don’t think for a moment that the thrill ride is over with your acceptance letters.  Just wait until you step foot on campus.

As an MBA student from Oxford so eloquently described it in a recent piece for the Financial Times (aptly titled “Comparison is the Death of Happiness”):

The stress induced by comparison is the only way to explain how 235 competent, self-confident people from different industries and backgrounds can all come together and start to experience paralysing self-doubt.

Indeed the grim reality is that, no matter what our accomplishments and what school we got into, the minute that classes, grades, and recruiting all start to kick in, our collective level of self-esteem drops.  Everyone seems more qualified, more likely to get a job, hell even more physically attractive.  We start to question our abilities, and to wonder by what administrative fluke we were even admitted.  And yes, happiness starts to die.

Honestly, I’m there right now.  It’s finals week at Chicago Booth and my sense of self-worth is at junior high levels of low.  You would think I had acne and braces — except I had braces senior year in high school.  Indeed I am no stranger to low self-esteem, and what we’re going through now is bad.

But here’s the thing — not only are there ways out of the spiral, there’s also a way to avoid it (or at least minimize it) entirely.  And that starts during admissions.

Try this: “It’s not about how smart or fabulous I am. It’s about fit.”

Sounds basic, but it’s true.  Many of us, when we go through the admissions process, start treating our GMAT scores, how many interviews we get, and what schools accept us, as measures of our intelligence, abilities and deservingness (it’s a word, I looked it up) of future success.  The reality is that those things are hardly even correlated, and this is echoed in the way adcoms select applicants.

MBA programs aren’t looking for the brightest most successful applicant, who doesn’t even need a business school education.  They are looking for applicants who are the right fit, who have a lot to learn from their specific MBA program, and who will most benefit from it after graduation.

Once we get rid of this notion that by admitting us schools are giving us some kind of Gold Star of Awesomeness, much of the stress dissipates.  Rejection letters feel less like personal criticisms, and the challenges that later come with being in school worry us less because we’ve already accepted that we’re in business school not as a testament to our awesomeness, but because there are many things we need to learn for our future success.  It might even make us less prone to comparing ourselves to our peers, knowing that they’re likely feeling the same as we are.

So whether you’re in business school and stressing about recruiting and finals, finishing off your applications, or anxiously awaiting responses, try to relax and remind yourself that this doesn’t have anything to do with your intelligence or abilities or value as a person.

Oh, and also read the Financial Times article.  It’s much better written than this one.  Because yes, advice aside, insecurities and the need for comparison are all alive and well.

Cheer up folks!

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