How to get into Oxford (or any top MBA program)

Applying for any business school is a marathon, not a sprint. First you have the GMAT/GRE, then you visit all the schools, fill out the applications, polish your resume, and then you are left with the essays.

While preparing for my application I went to an admissions fair and heard Harvard’s Admissions Director Dee Leopold state that an essay is an unprovable story about a candidate and having 3 essays * 10k applicants takes a long time to get through them all.

Hearing Dee talk about the essays gave me the insight I needed. I put myself in the Admissions Committee position, at the end of a long day reading yet another essay about how “My greatest weakness is my perfectionist mindset.” I realized that in order to get into school, my essay had to excite my reader enough so that they wouldn’t skim my essay.

I read examples of essays that had gotten kids into Harvard in the past and it was freeing knowing that I could be very creative in my writing and I made it my mission to write an essay that would excite my reader.

For Oxford one of the 7 essay prompts was “Sport is pure competition. What does it teach us about companies, individuals, and markets? Maximum 500 words.” After brainstorming for about a week I wrote the next two paragraphs with the intention of exciting my reader.

David Baker post-matchSweat was everywhere. Dripping down my face, sweat made my mask slippery, grip weak, and legs itch. Sweat’s pungent perfume poured off of me as I retreated backwards two steps; I could not retreat anymore. Saltiness on my lips threatening distraction, I flèche past my opponent, catching his blade and hitting his right shoulder. Touché. The bout was finished. By ignoring the sweat and focusing on what mattered, I made it to the Junior Olympics in fencing.

Fencing is 90% mental and 10% physical. A single mental distraction and you are off-guard, likely caught by a savvy opponent. Due to the highly competitive nature of fencing and business, this principle of focus is applicable to both. If you lose focus in either, you risk losing ground to your opponent.

The top piece of advice I share with friends who are applying is to make certain that your essay isn’t “meh,” that at the very least, it stands out from the thousands of other bland essays. You can a reader into the story as I did above, or you can break-up the flow by leading with dialogue  as I did in the essay where I talked about the personal importance of ethics. The prompt was “What should Oxford expect from you? Maximum 500 words

“So … are you seeing anyone?” Lisa asked as I came into the office.

“Yep, they are great,” I replied, careful to hide my boyfriend’s gender by using “they” not “he.”

“What’s her name; how did you meet her?” came the inevitable follow up.

“Alex and I met online,” I replied while silently appreciating ambiguous first names and hoping for the conversation to end.

As a gay Mormon, I lived at the tangential point between two opposing ideas: the LDS side, believing that traditional marriage is critical for eternal happiness, and the LGBT side, believing that embracing my sexuality is critical for happiness in this life. Forging my own space between these ideologies meant I walked an even narrower ethical line for many years of my life.

I know that I received an interview because these essays grabbed my reader’s attention. In fact, during my interview the second essay was mentioned and quoted from for one of my questions.
I can’t stress this enough, the worst thing you can be as you are applying to business school is bland. If you are a white male coming from finance & consulting know that you are one of a thousand others, Indian IT males face even tougher odds. Almost everyone who applies to business school fits a mold in the Admission Committee’s mind.

If you want to get into a top school, break the mold. Highlight why you are different, why you would bring something different to your class. Because if you put yourself in the admission committee’s mindset, that is exactly what they are looking for.