How IT applicants can get admitted to a Top MBA program

Are you an applicant applying to business school from a traditional information technology (IT) background? If so, you probably already know that you face special challenges.

First, you represent one of the largest categories of applicant “types,” so the competition to distinguish yourself from the pack will be fierce.

Second, you are often saddled, however unfairly, with the image of cubicle-bound “techie”-a Dilbert-like fellow who lacks the broad experience and leadership exposure to really merit a spot in top management. How can you break past these obstacles and show the elite business schools who you really are? Here are some solutions that may help.

Don’t Apologize for Your Strengths

As an IT applicant you have an advantage that applicants from, say, marketing, arts, or non-traditional business backgrounds may not have: you clearly possess strong analytical and strong quantitative skills. It’s there in your 3.87 GPA in Comp Sci in college; in the bioengineering CAD-CAM program you developed in graduate school, and in your Microsoft, Oracle, and PeopleSoft certifications.

However, while you do want to communicate these achievements to the admissions committee, you don’t need to devote a lot of space to them as technical achievements. Instead, emphasize that your technical skills are indicative of broad, versatile analytical skills and intellectual ability that you have applied successfully in every aspect of your life.

For example, rather than highlighting all the software tools you know, emphasize that you have used them in a wide variety of applications: an insurance firm, the trucking industry, education, etc. In other words, you not only understand sophisticated IT tools; you have had to understand the complexities of several industries in order to apply them.

Likewise, as an IT applicant you almost certainly work in teams. In fact, you’ve worked on dozens of cross-functional and multicultural teams in your career and have become a master at collaborating and meshing seamlessly with others to achieve specific goals. Tell your schools about it.

Combat the Stereotypes

Your strengths can also be your weaknesses, if you aren’t careful. If your essays paint you as Joe Programmer, who writes Java applets 80 hours a week so he can go home and write more, the schools will salute your passion but wonder about your managerial potential or ability to contribute fully to your classmates.

You can fight these Dilbert stereotypes by showing the schools that in your community involvements, hobbies, and personal life you’ve lived a unique, varied, fully engaged life.

Emphasize Leadership

Of course, the top schools want more than analytically sharp students with well-rounded lives. They want leaders. Showing that you have true managerial potential is sometimes hard because as an IT professional you probably work for flat organizations in team-intensive environments, with no direct reports, no budget authority, and no performance-evaluation responsibilities. How can you demonstrate leadership?

One way is to play up the leadership experience that you have been given. You may “only” be a Technical Lead, but that still means you coordinate the efforts of 15 people from 5 departments on a mission-critical project. Have you mentored teammates? Have you pushed hard for your ideas or solutions when everyone resisted you? That’s leadership! Talk about it.

You can also demonstrate that you are manager caliber by talking about your leadership roles outside of work.

State Your Goals Uniquely

Another way to show the admissions committees that you are not the “typical” IT applicant is to ask yourself whether the post-MBA goals you are presenting are described too conventionally or are too limited in scope. For example, instead of saying that you want to make the transition into strategy consulting for Bain or McKinsey (like everyone else!), try to differentiate that goal a bit more:

  • Perhaps you want to work for a top strategy consulting firm for 5 years to broaden your experience but then move into a senior technology management role with a European aerospace firm?
  • Maybe your goal is to start your own middle-market IT consulting group and then join Bain, McKinsey, or Boston Consulting Group later in your career. Similarly, rather than say you need an MBA so you can launch your wireless marketing software venture, ask yourself what your broader goals are
  • Do you want to be a “serial” entrepreneur who moves on to new technology ventures after your first idea meets success?

Finally, you can differentiate your goals by describing very unusual ones-provided, of course, that they have some foundation in your past experience and truly reflect your interests:

  • Maybe you hope to become the president of a major symphony orchestra.
  • Perhaps you want to be the CTO of the first Latin American satellite launch provider.

In other words, giving your goals a creative twist-as long as it’s genuine, reflects greater thought, and isn’t too gimmicky or farfetched-is a good idea.

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About the author: Adrien Brody runs an informational website that provides guides to business school and business education.

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