While it may be tempting to copy/paste from application to application, it’s best to avoid using one essay or storyline for all of your schools. It’s also best to avoid sweeping generalizations; try to keep it specific. For example, these days almost every school sports a collaborative and team-oriented culture. A blanket statement saying that you "value ‘X’ school’s inclusive learning environment" won’t get at what makes that program truly unique. Your statement could be applied Tuck, Kellogg, Kenan-Flagler, Darden, and many others, which makes it somewhat impersonal.

To win admission, you really need to write a love letter. The business school should know that you get its approach, learning methodology, culture and unique offerings.

Steps To Tailoring Your Business School Application

  1. Visit and sit in on classes.

  2. Reference those visits and your experience in the classroom in your essay. You might mention that the faculty member is famous for a particular theory, and what you found interesting about what they taught that day. You might even tie that to something you are doing in your own job. Finally, you could make an observation about the positive interpersonal dynamics you experienced in the class discussion or on campus.

  3. Attend admissions events. Woo the program (without crossing any boundaries). The more you can visit a school and meet key influencers, faculty, and staff, the better. Again, be sure to reference conversations and events you attended in your application. Admissions Committees will appreciate your investment of time and interest.

  4. Ask to connect with current students. Use these conversations to learn the inside track and to tailor your essay and interview responses. This will give the admissions committee that "aha" moment about you. They will see that you love them for who they are!

  5. Learn what the school values. If you spend enough time speaking to current students and faculty, you will learn the school’s value system and the interpersonal skills they look for in students. These might include leadership, creativity, and innovation. Again, tailor away. Shape your essays so that they speak directly to that school.

  6. Research, research, research! We can’t emphasize this enough. If you’re unable to visit a school, use the phone, browse the website, attend webinars, and utilize any other resources available to get a picture of what this school is about.

  7. Contact faculty or Program Directors to learn more about their departments and areas of specialty. Have exploratory discussions about the course of study at the school and your intended career path. Again, the more you can integrate some of these insights — and mention that you had these conversations — the better.

  8. Learn about a school’s specific offerings beyond the classroom. Perhaps you will be attending school with a family or partner in tow. Maybe the robust clubs and activities available at this school particularly appeal to you. Or there is a leadership or mentorship program you would like to get involved in. If so, make sure you tell the school. Many MBA students are old enough to be attending graduate school with a personal life that is well-developed. Business Schools want to admit students who can handle the academic commitment but will also engage with the school community.

  9. Be authentic in your essays and interviews. Admission committees can tell who is faking them out, and who really gets the school and its value system. This is why your previous research is so invaluable; it allows you to ask specific questions that will directly impact you. And in asking these questions, you will absolutely sound more authentic to admissions.

  10. Tell them that you are a match. When you’re in love, you want to shout it from the rooftops! The MBA application version of this is to find some way — far more nuanced, obviously — to make the admissions committee feel as though they are your first-choice school. You don’t need to articulate this exactly, but if you do your homework you should be able to sync up the school’s offerings with your ultimate goals.

  11. Go organic. Find a natural way to reference all the people you have met or spoken with, and try to avoid name dropping. It’s best to organically mention conversations and other forms of engagement, personnel with whom you’ve met, and what you learned, without sounding like you’re listing off credits.

  12. Get recommenders on board. If possible, try to find recommenders that know the school to which you are applying, have connections there, or can convincingly make the argument that you belong. A recommender who can say, "I know Columbia Business School well, and see candidate ‘X’ thriving in this community because…" will go a long, long way to convincing the school that you are a great fit.

In Conclusion

Every school wants to hear that they’re the only one for you. That’s why it makes sense to customize your essays and narrative to each particular school, and to take the extra steps listed above. If you want to impress admissions officers, it’s worth the extra time and effort.

Nedda Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert is a certified social worker and 30 year educational consultant with an interest in helping college-bound and graduate school students manage the process and stress of admissions effectively. She is one of the senior founding managers of the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company, and the author of The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and another book, Business School Essays that Made a Difference (Random House). She is a guest contributor to Forbes Magazine on college and college life. Ms. Gilbert is also certified as a collaborative family law professional in New Jersey. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MS from Columbia University.