You need to earn an MBA from a top-tier program to continue your desired career trajectory in investment banking (or venture capital or private equity). You know that you are more than capable of excelling in such a program. With a 3.6 GPA from a top university and a 720 GMAT, you certainly are a qualified applicant.

But are you a competitive applicant?

That depends on how well you distinguish yourself from the plethora of investment banking analysts and associates who flock to top MBA programs. Investment bankers are overrepresented in the MBA applicant pool, and thus must distinguish themselves from their accomplished peers to be competitive for top MBA programs.

Investment bankers and some other finance specialists also enjoy a couple of benefits as MBA applicants:

  • Your quantitative skills are indisputable.
  • The admissions committees will likely be familiar with your companies and positions. (Clearly, your resume is your ally.)

You do not have to spend precious space in your essays clarifying these points. Instead, you are free to use your essays fully to differentiate yourself – to create a compelling profile of a unique, engaging individual with a lot to offer the program, future employers, and the industry.

There are two areas in which you can and should distinguish yourself:

  1. Distinguishing yourself through your work

If investment bankers are overrepresented, how can your work distinguish you? There is investment banking in general, and then there is your experience in investment banking. While you may want to emphasize non-work experiences and activities as differentiators to the extent possible, you will have to discuss your work in various essays. The best way is to dig into the details of that experience.

  • What is your motivation? What drives your interest in the field? The "story" of how your interest evolved is unique; it defines and illuminates you as an individual. Take three people who start at the same firm in the same year and have worked three years, two as analysts and one as associates. Person A is captivated by the dynamics of the transactions. Person B is intrigued by the way company managements define and evaluate their markets, conceive of new products and services, and perceive their value in the market. Person C fell in love with the media and entertainment industry during an early project and now aims to specialize in it. If these three people use appropriate anecdotes and examples to illustrate the evolution of their interest, the result will be three completely different and completely engaging commentaries.
  • You have learned much, achieved significant growth and acquired insight on the job. What were the pivotal experiences that drove that development? Which experiences represent achievements and highlight your special talents? And how have those experiences and related development influenced your goals? How have they shaped your professional perspective? Tell the story of the experience, articulate your related insight, and explain its impact.
  • Identify a special quality, talent, or strength and use it as a "slant" to characterize your professional personality. Are you especially creative? A born leader? An astute "reader" of people? An instinctive teacher? A whiz at grasping and communicating the big picture? You may be all these things and more, but if you discuss all of them, your "image" will be a dull blur. Instead, focus on the qualities or talents (one or two) that most set you apart professionally. Then weave those qualities through your different essays so that a coherent, identifiable picture emerges. You can also weave in other qualities to a lesser degree, especially in the non-goals essays, but there should be a dominant "color" to your presentation.
  • Goals are another work-related opportunity to differentiate yourself. Of course, they must be logical, practical, and detailed. They must make sense in terms of your interests, skills, and experience. Many people stop there. The opportunity comes in the step that is often not taken: presenting a vision for your goals. What will you contribute in the future to your company and industry as a result of who you are and what you have experienced? What impact do you want to have through your career, and why? Going beyond what you will get out of your career and clarifying what you will contribute by it requires you to express your individual perspective and values – your vision, which is inherently unique.
  1. Distinguishing yourself through non-work activities and experiences

This part may seem easier than the work part. But just describing your non-work activities and experiences, regardless of how dramatic or exotic they may be, won't suffice. Again, you must note insight and growth gained for the activity or experience to differentiate you. The fact of it alone won't add value to your application; how it shaped and formed you will.

Here are a few tips:

  • Consider the strategic picture. While one hopes the adcoms won't succumb to the investment banker stereotype, or at least apply it to you without solid justification, you can't count on a tired reader fighting off the tendency. If all your non-work essays portray you as driven, ambitious, and focused, you haven't really added depth to the profile. Use an essay or two to show your "other" side. If you have strong interest and involvement in the arts, politics, your religious faith, or an intellectual discipline, for example, portray it in your essays. Describe it through specific experiences and activities. If you're a violist in an amateur string quartet, don't just explain how your leadership enabled the ensemble to thrive, write about your love of music and what it means to you to have that dimension in your life.

Your personal background may be a way to distinguish yourself. If you're from a farming family in Iowa, the adcom would sure love to know how you ended up at Goldman Sachs in Manhattan. Or perhaps your "typical" suburban family has a characteristic that created some intriguing friction in your life – say, one of your siblings (or you) converted to a different religious faith to the dismay of your parents. If you discuss experiences from your personal background, be sure to demonstrate through example and anecdote their formative influence on you. 

  • Find new perspectives in your stories. Let's say you're a triathlete, and aside from intermittent projects with Habitat for Humanity, training for triathlons is your extracurricular activity. Try to find fresh angles to portray the experience. An essay about your training may highlight your drive and focus, which the adcoms already know you have from your goals essay, or it may highlight the evolving relationship among the people with whom you train, or a specific race that prompted you to view your contenders in a new light. In other words, probe the experience for the unexpected story angle. 
  • Discuss your plans for study at the particular program thoughtfully. Admissions officers do not want to be ticket punchers. Clearly delineate your key learning needs – as determined by your goals – and detail how the program in question will meet them. Also demonstrate fit with the program's learning and social environment. A pitfall for investment bankers is to cite "renowned" finance departments and professors as the reason for applying. Why is that finance program the right one, exactly? Why do you want to study with particular professors? Rather than listing everything you like about the program, discuss one or two things in depth (say, the way the curriculum is structured), linking them to your experience, goals, and interests.

Every year, thousands more highly qualified investment banking analysts and associates apply to top MBA programs than the programs can possibly admit. The programs will admit those who distinguish themselves as engaging – and engaged – individuals.

By Cindy Tokumitsu, author of The Finance Professional's Guide to MBA Admissions Success, a must-read for all MBA applicants in finance.

Do you need help differentiating yourself from other finance professionals applying to top MBA programs? Learn how Accepted can help you, and check out our MBA admissions consulting and application services.

Or check out our other informative MBA admissions resources:

MBA 5 Fatal Flaws
7 Steps to a Successful MBA Application webinar
The Finance Professional’s Guide to MBA Admissions Success

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