All You Need Is a Good Story
How you tell what you've done > what you've done
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My B-School Application Story
I spent spring 2019 applying to various MBA programs. While most B Schools previously wanted you to have work experience before applying, Harvard changed this with its “2+2 Program”. The Cambridge-based university began accepting college seniors to its prestigious business school, on the condition that they would work 2+ years after graduation before enrolling.
Suddenly Columbia, Yale, MIT, Chicago, Stanford, and other top MBA programs rolled out their own “deferred enrollment” options for college seniors.
I applied to all of the above plus a few others, and I was fortunate to land interviews with Chicago and Columbia. I was invited to interview in-person at both universities, and I spent a couple of weeks preparing for said interviews.
There was a catch with my applications though. Technically I graduated in May 2019, but I was sticking around for an extra semester in the fall to play my fifth year of football. December grads are supposed to apply the following spring, and I wasn’t sure if the schools would make me reapply next cycle if they knew I was still taking classes in the fall.
In April, I flew to Chicago for my interview at the Booth School of Business. I immediately fell in love with school. Incredible facilities, faculty, and students. After touring the campus, I went to the admissions office for my interview.
It started off great. I nailed the questions about leadership examples, overcoming adversity, etc. Then my interviewer hit me with “What are your plans after graduation?”
I didn’t want to risk having to reapply in 2020, so I didn’t mention football at all. I said that I was interning with GEICO that summer, but the internship would roll into a full-time offer. Now technically this was true, but it also masked that I was taking classes and playing football in the fall.
The whole reason I interned at GEICO was because the company had an office in Macon, and I could stay in town for football workouts.
I thought I handled it well: discuss my internship with a respectable company while avoiding the possibility of having to reapply in the spring.
The problem was that I was competing with the best of the best from around the world. Kids that went to Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford for undergrad. Working at Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co, or some hot tech startup out west. While my GMAT score was solid, I went to an average (sorry Mercer) school in Georgia, I was interning (not working full-time) for an insurance company. I was at a serious disadvantage.
Fast forward two weeks. I had just landed in NYC for my interview at Columbia when I received an email from Chicago:
This was a difficult decision, but we regret to inform you that we have not extended an offer of admission to you this year.
I had an interview at Columbia in 24 hours, and I was crushed. I had to do something, or I was going to get axed by both schools. When I got to my hotel room that night, I decided to scrap my pitch entirely. In the morning, I would lean into the extra semester playing football instead of running around it.
Like at Chicago, my interview at Columbia started off quite smooth. Then Katherine, my interviewer, asked me, “What are your plans after graduation?”
I took a breath and replied, “I’m actually planning to return to Mercer for one more semester. I have another year of football eligibility, and I will be starting for the first time. For someone who joined a college program as a walk-on, this is the culmination of four years of work. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.”
She loved it. There are hundreds of Harvard-Yale-Princeton future investment bankers that apply to Columbia Business School. There aren’t many Division One athletes. I talked up the underdog narrative of joining the team as a walk-on, and the adversity that I had to overcome to earn a scholarship and starting spot.
I discussed my current leadership role on the team, as well as my ability to connect with guys all over the depth chart thanks to my unique journey. By the end of the interview, she understood my story well.
I was a protagonist nearing the pinnacle of my journey, and I needed to see it through.
She had no problem with me taking the extra semester as long as I didn’t intend to matriculate until 2022 or 2023.
Two weeks later, I received my acceptance letter to Columbia. Catch you guys in NYC next year.
What Was the Difference?
I sent both schools the same resumes. The same list of accomplishments. The same GMAT scores, grades, and everything else. The only difference was the story I told. To Chicago, I was a kid with a high GMAT score, decent list of accomplishments, good GPA, and average post-graduate internship.
To Columbia, I was an underdog who had struggled for years to achieve a goal, and it was finally paying off. I wasn’t a good student who happened to play football. I was a passionate athlete who managed to build my football career from the ground up while taking care of business in the classroom. Everyone loves a good underdog story.
Best story wins.
Great Story Beats Great Accomplishment
The most successful individuals are rarely the first or the best. They are the ones who can tell a great story.
Most start up companies generate minimal revenue. Which ones successfully raise millions in funding? Those whose founders spin beautiful narratives. A great story bridges the gap between what you have done and what you can do. Suddenly, an investor can see how this million-dollar business could revolutionize the world. Tesla is worth more than the rest of the auto market combined. Does it produce more vehicles than Ford, General Motors, or Toyota? No.
But it does have Elon Musk. Tesla doesn’t spend a dollar on marketing because it doesn’t have to. True or not, Elon has the world convinced that Tesla changed, and will continue to change the world. The first company to go all-in on the electric vehicle movement. What’s next? Autonomous driving. Longer battery ranges. Cheaper vehicles. Is Tesla a tech company or a car company? 85% of its revenue comes from selling cars, but the public holds it in the same regard as Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.
Best story wins.
Be Your Own Narrator
You want to impress a job recruiter? Make a strong case for a promotion at work? Spend less time working on projects to fill out your resume, and more time refining the narrative that you want to tell. Contrary to what you may think, few decisions are made solely using logic.
Replace what with how. Instead of “this is what I did,” focus on “this is how I did it.” “This is how my work has permeated throughout our company.” “This is how we overcame this difficult roadblock.” “This is how I broke down this complex problem.”
Stories refine difficult problems and make them clear.
Stories also evoke emotions, which is much more much more powerful than logic alone.
You want to make a memorable impression in the corporate world? Figure out how to weave a story from your list of accomplishments. Tell the story that you would like to hear. Chances are the party interviewing you feels the same way. The candidate who can explain a normal accomplishment in a compelling manner will always stand out vs. the overachiever who can’t articulate what they’ve done. Remember, the best story wins.
Let’s get after it this week.
PS, I’m currently writing my own story as I live it in real time: my trip around the world. Interested? Check it out here.