With round one MBA deadlines just around the corner, thousands of applicants again face crunch time with one of the favorite admissions essay topics, “Introduce Yourself.” Some of the top schools, like Harvard Business School, ask the question quite explicitly while some, such as Northwestern’s Kellogg School, ask the applicant to think about business school as a catalyst for professional and personal growth, reflecting on past growth and future potential for development. MIT Sloan has introduced a video question, which gives you one minute to introduce yourself, and one shot at the recording. This echoes approaches used previously by Kellogg and McCombs and is joined by NYU Stern asking for six images with captions to describe yourself to your future classmates.
As the former head of admissions at Wharton, I always wanted my team to really get to know the applicant, well beyond his or her GPA and test scores. Such a question achieves this, though not surprisingly, the seeming benign topic is usually the hardest to address. Many candidates shy away from tackling this in favor of more pragmatic questions such as “Why do you want to go to school x, and what do you want to achieve with your MBA?” They are more straightforward and don’t necessarily require the same level of introspection.
In our coaching work at Fortuna Admissions, we often begin with these questions to lay the groundwork for the next level of reflection. But as we move forward with clients we help them to see just how rewarding and enjoyable it is to step back and really think deeply about who they are, and how their values and decisions have shaped their experience.
IT’S DIFFERENT THAN INTRODUCING YOURSELF AT A PARTY
Introducing yourself to someone new at a party or professional meeting certainly requires a different approach from introducing yourself to an MBA admissions committee that has already read your resume, and has supporting documentation of letters of recommendation and your online application. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School puts it on very friendly terms, for example, asking you to imagine being in an airport with an admissions officer and using this opportunity to make a memorable impression.
Think of these questions as the opportunity to provide color and context to the application, bringing to life the lines on your resume or adding depth to comments made from your recommenders. You can take these essays as a valuable opportunity to make a deeper connection with an admissions committee member who most likely will be reading anywhere from 25-30 such files each day during the busy application season.
Before you start writing, we firmly believe in the importance of self-reflection and understanding your own motivation for applying to business school. What strengths are you bringing with you? What are the weaknesses that you want to develop? What are the things that get you out of bed in the morning, or the things that you would do for free because you care about them so much? We recommend white boarding all of the topics and messages that you think may fit into this category so that you can see them all in one place. That way, you can then begin to see which ideas belong with which examples, and the themes that are the most important to your story will begin to emerge.
USE EXAMPLES TO BRING YOUR STORY TO LIFE
After you have been able to shake out the important thematic threads, you will want to use examples to really bring your story to life; you want to imagine that the reader is in your back pocket, so that you are sharing with them how it felt at a decisive moment in your development, or the impact of a certain individual… and give them a sense of the color and importance of these events and people. Your goal throughout this work is to pique the file reader’s interest so that they are intrigued and want to learn more about you – i.e. invite you to interview!
Be aware that a key question in the file reader’s mind as they read your application is “what will you bring to the school community?” You should be planning to address what the school gets if they admit you; by highlighting your abilities and your engagement, the goal is to demonstrate that you will give to the school as much as you get. Will it be in your classroom discussions? Your sense of humor? How you rally your teammates? How you can engage across cultures? What is it, essentially- that makes you “you” and how does that make the school a better place?
It is easy to fall into the trap of repeating the facts and figures that appear on your resume. You should seek to avoid this repetition and instead really focus on additional information that is not readily obvious to the reader. Your professional experiences are certainly important, but they are not the whole story. Caroline Diarte Edwards, my colleague and former Director of INSEAD’s MBA Admissions and Financial Aid says of the school’s long-standing ‘candid description’ essay: ”I advise candidates to focus more on their personal backstory rather than professional accomplishments; this is in the question title (it asks for “personal characteristics”) but candidates sometimes miss this and use the essay to retell their professional story. But what the school wants here is to understand who they are beyond the resume, what makes them tick, and what made them become the person they are today.”
BE THOUGHTFUL ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU PLAN TO SHARE
As previously mentioned, admissions officers are reading somewhere between 25-30 applications a day, and are seeking authenticity in their file reading. Repeating themes that you think that the school will want to read means that you are not being authentic to your true self and your own story. This is the reason that schools even have essay questions to begin with; if they wanted to admit based on GMAT, GPA and resume alone, they could certainly do that but the classes would suffer from lack of individualism and true character.
While it is also tempting to hold nothing back, you will want to be thoughtful about how much you are sharing within the context of the essay. Sometimes too many themes mean that you are covering each point at only a superficial level without any depth and reflection. Instead you need to hone in on a few topics that you feel that you can comfortably cover in the word count allotted (or in the case of HBS, no more than two pages) and go into greater depth. You will want to stand out in the admissions officer’s mind as someone who presented with depth and passion, rather than an applicant who spread him or herself too thin and tried to exhaustively (and exhaustingly!) cover their history.
So, “introducing yourself” may seem like a tall order, however it presents a strong foundation to ask yourself the important questions about the next steps in your professional growth. The prompt allows room for reflection about how you became the person you are now, and where you see yourself growing with your next exciting challenges.
Judith Silverman Hodara is the former acting admissions director of The Wharton School and a director at Fortuna Admissions, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm
"So, tell me about yourself."
This may just be the most common, and the most intimidating, phrase you'll hear during your job search, from informal chats to formal job interviews. And be prepared, because you're going to hear it all the time in networking situations.
Why is this question so hard? Because "tell me about yourself" sounds like a book-length essay question, but people expect a response that's only a few sentences long. And, in this stage in your life, "So, tell me about yourself" is real-world-speak for, "So, tell me why I might be helping you get a job someday."
By taking the time to learn the key elements of introducing yourself, you'll be able to impress anyone you meet in a professional situation, from a networking event to an internship coordinator to a hiring manager at the company of your dreams. Luckily, you've already read about many ways to narrow down your interests and position yourself as a mature professional, so all you need to do now is put all of those elements together.
For help with this task, I turned to Laura Allen, founder of 15SecondPitchT, a company that trains people how to sell themselves more effectively. According to Laura, the best answers to "So, tell me about yourself" demonstrate confidence and leave the other person wanting to know more about you. And, a successful answer combines preparation and presentation-it's not just about what you say, but how you say it.
According to Laura, "Whatever you do, don't wing it!" There's nothing worse than meeting an important contact or job interviewer and completely blanking when they ask this question, usually the first one they'll pose. Take some time before you start meeting with people to think about the tangible skills you have, the challenges you've overcome, and the specific reasons why you will be a great job candidate and employee. To get started crafting your answer, Laura recommends that you ask yourself the following questions and write down your answers in your career planning notebook:
- Which of your previous jobs, even if they were part-time or volunteer positions, provided you with experience relevant to what you hope to do now? If none, what about internships or academic experiences? What about courses you may have taken that gave you an understanding of the industry you're pursuing?
- What are your strongest skills?
- List specific examples of projects that you worked on where you solved an important problem. You can use those to show that you are a great troubleshooter and can think under pressure.
- What can you say about yourself that will set you apart from other young people or entry-level job candidates? In other words, what makes you memorable and special?
Now let's look at Laura's step-by-step advice on how to craft your own personalized response, using some of the information you determined above:
1. Tell them who you are.
Remember that your primary goal is simply to introduce yourself. What's the most memorable thing you can say about yourself and your accomplishments? What can you say that will immediately make the other person want to know more about you? Begin with that. "I am _________________."
- A magna cum laude graduate of ____________with a B.A. in ___________ .
- A recent grad and recipient of the ________ award in __________ .
- An accomplished musician who managed a band and put myself through college.
- An extreme sports enthusiast who jumps out of airplanes and learned to fly them.
- A strong researcher who made significant contributions to ___________ .
- A championship athlete and captain of my soccer team.
2. Tell them what you're good at.
Leverage the skills you listed earlier, and frame them in a way that is meaningful to an important networking contact who could lead you to, or be, a potential employer. (You don't have a lot of employment experience on your resume, you say? Talk instead about how you rose to the occasion in other situations.) Here are some examples:
- "I'm a great organizer. In my internship as a production assistant I received three promotions in one summer."
- "I excel at project management. In my internship as an editorial assistant I read three scripts a day while juggling administrative tasks for an office of ten people."
- "I'm an exceptional problem solver. In my work-study job at the registrar's office I received a special commendation from the dean for fixing the copy machine to make an important deadline."
- "I'm a quick learner. In my year abroad, I achieved fluency in two languages."
- "I'm great with people. As a volunteer for the Red Cross I consistently won high praise for my ability to put first-time blood donors at ease."
3. Provide a call to action.
The call to action is how you let someone know what you're looking for, and also that you're done talking. The reason it's critical to convey that you are keenly interested in networking with this person or getting a job from them is that people, especially hiring managers, want to recommend or hire someone who is passionate about a particular position or industry, not someone who is wishy-washy or will decide to leave a job after six months. You can put yourself on anyone's short list of young people to recommend or hire by making it clear that you really know what you want and will do a great job.
- "My principal career goal right now is ____________ and I'm excited to learn how your company's leadership position in the industry might open up opportunities for me."
- "I believe very strongly in your company's mission. I'd love to explore with you how my success in this position could make a contribution to that mission."
4. Practice Your Presentation
Lastly, it's time to think about how you'll deliver your answer and practice, practice, practice. Laura recommends that you think of your presentation in terms of the three Cs: be clear, creative, and concise.
Also be sure to tailor your delivery to the interpersonal circumstances of the moment: the goal is to maintain a conversational tone and not sound rehearsed. Think of the above elements-who you are, what you're good at, and your call to action-as "sound bites" that you can assemble into the flow of the conversation. And be sure to maintain eye contact and appropriate body language during the interview. These non-verbal cues say a lot about who you are and how ready you are to take on responsibility.
While most other college students and recent grads are likely to stammer and ramble, you'll be delivering a confident and polished introduction to yourself. You'll be ahead of the pack from the first few minutes you meet anyone.
MAKE THIS WORK FOR YOU
You can study all the tips in the world about preparing an answer to the question, "So, tell me about yourself," but the only way to know if you've got a great answer is to test it out for yourself. Here are three tricks to try:
1. Tape yourself. I cringe every time I hear the sound of my voice on a tape, but this reality check can be incredibly helpful. Speak your introduction into a recorder and ask yourself: Do I sound confident? Am I clear, creative, and concise? Is it apparent what I want? Am I being polite? Do I have any weird speech tics, such as using lots of "ums" or "likes," or speaking too quickly?
2. Test your introduction with a friendly audience. Once you're happy with the way your intro sounds to your own ears, try it with friends, family members, advisors, or career services counselors. Remember that every time you test your introduction and get feedback, you're also getting more and more comfortable talking about yourself.
3. Create a cheat sheet. Write your intro on an index card or on the back of one of your business cards and keep this in your wallet or handbag at all times. (Laura Allen even creates business cards with 15-second pitches on the front for her clients.) Refer to your card before you walk into any situation where you might use your introduction-a networking event, informational interview, job interview, or anyplace else. Take a quick peek for extra confidence and clarity.
About the author: Lindsey Pollak is a bestselling author, speaker, and blogger specializing in career advice for college students and young professionals. She is the author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World and writes the top-rated Lindsey Pollak Career Blog. Lindsey is also the career contributor for ABC News on Campus, has written for Marie Claire magazine and Metro New York newspaper, and frequently speaks at universities and corporations across the country. She is a graduate of Yale University.
This article was excerpted fromCollege to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World. To learn more, visit www.LindseyPollak.com