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Admitted to Kellogg, Insead, Ross, Fuqua, Johnson – Here’s How I Did It

My Application Journey: Li Daming, Northwestern Kellogg ’17

Li Daming, Northwestern Kellogg MBA '17

I graduated from a top 5 UK University and started my career in one of London’s big four accounting firms before moving to the international M&A team of a top real estate company in Beijing. I am fortunate to have received offers from Kellogg, INSEAD, Duke, Cornell, Ross and CEIBS (some with significant scholarships).

Application Highlights:

International experience – I grew up in Singapore, studied and worked in the UK and currently I am performing investments across 8 countries in Beijing.

Career progression – Youngest manager level employee in Company and director of numerous overseas subsidiaries

Leadership – founded the 5th largest society in the 3rd oldest UK University (Business Society at UCL with 3800 members).

Academics – graduated from top 5 UK university, 740 GMAT

General Application Tips

There is a common misconception that non blue-chip feeder companies might be disadvantaged in the application process. This is not necessarily true. Schools are looking for professional diversity, and they will want a broad variety of students from different backgrounds.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of applicants: Traditional feeder companies vs. Non-feeder companies.

By feeder companies, I mean blue chips that regularly send applicants into the top business schools (Mckinsey, Procter and Gamble, Goldman Sachs, etc). Admission teams understand candidates from blue chips such as Goldman or Mckinsey have gone through rigorous selection criteria and world class training. However, applicants from these companies are generally competing against their colleagues, who mostly have high GMAT scores and great commercial awareness. An applicant in this situation needs to highlight what makes him/her different, such as having interesting extra-curricular, greater career progression, and higher GMATs or GPAs, or challenging personal achievements.

Non-feeder companies don’t send MBA candidates to the business schools as frequently, hence they are companies that the admissions teams are less familiar with. For applicants from these companies, showcasing the quality of their work experience then becomes important. Some tips include:

  • Clearly show your company’s revenue/assets/industry rankings
  • Clearly demonstrate career progression in your resume and explain your ranking in your peer group (e.g. 3 years ahead of typical schedule to have attained xxx position).
  • If you have worked on large deals with prestige players, explain them in the resume or interview
  • Make sure your referees explain the above 3 in his/her reference letter
  • Show the admissions that you bring some unique insight not easily found from a typical banker, consultant and or other Fortune 500 company applicants.

Positioning Tips – Fitting In & Standing Out

Generally speaking, there are two positioning strategies: 1) Fitting In (if you’re an atypical applicant) and 2) Standing Out (if you’re a typical applicant). Every school has a ‘typical’ profile: Tuck and Kellogg is known for marketing, general management, and consulting, Wharton and Columbia for finance, Duke for healthcare, etc. So if you are applying from one of these ‘typical’ backgrounds, will you have an easier time? Not really. There will be many finance applicants to Columbia/Wharton, many marketing/consulting applicants to Kellogg, and healthcare to Duke. Competition in these pools is intense, and the school needs a diverse class.

Hence, ‘typical’ applicants need to stand out from the competition by scoring higher on the GMAT, having more interesting stories & extracurricular, etc. However, if you are a real estate guy applying to Duke, your chances might be higher than a ‘typical’ healthcare applicant if you can demonstrate that you fit the Team Fuqua culture. Duke could benefit from the industry diversity you bring. Furthermore, you should brainstorm all aspects of your experience (educational, professional, personal) that few people in your demographic possess and convey those in your essays and interview.

The principles of Fitting in, Standing Out apply to other schools too. Remember: you’re not competing against others, but against those who share a similar background with you.

School Selection Tips – Fit is Key

The importance of school fit is under-appreciated in the application world. Many say that networking is crucial, and you are much more likely to leave business school with a strong network of people if you truly enjoyed your time there. Personally, my first choice was either Kellogg or INSEAD because I prefer a collaborative culture.

For example, Kellogg has a strong ‘student-driven’ culture that really appreciates engaged students who enjoy helping and mentoring others. If you are more academically inclined, and prefer ‘doing’ rather than ‘talking’ then Kellogg might not be the best fit.

Similarly, INSEAD is highly international. There is no dominant culture at INSEAD, and only people who truly appreciate diversity and different cultures will enjoy their experience there. Most importantly, if you can’t demonstrate that you fit the school’s culture through the essays and the interviews, you are not even likely to get an offer to begin with.

The Myth of a Brand Name MBA

Even the top ranked MBAs will not solve all your problems. Business schools are like ‘market-makers’ that match potential candidates with employers. Applying to certain MBA recruiters (e.g. McKinsey) through business schools on campus recruitment will greatly increase your chances of getting an interview, as compared to applying as an experienced hire without an MBA. However, once you get the interview, it is up to you to get the offer, and your school plays almost no part in this process.

Many applicants want to get into the so-called M7 business schools (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, MIT, Kellogg, Columbia, Chicago). These schools are extremely selective, and it is important to understand that you don’t need to get into these schools to achieve your career goal. With the right preparation, you are well positioned to get into a Fortune 500 leadership program from a wide range of schools in the top 30 US MBAs. You will have an easier time at a top 7 school, but your own preparation, networking skills matter a lot more once you begin life as an MBA student.

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