STOP TRYING TO “DIFFERENTIATE” YOURSELF.
Or at least, stop doing it without a professional by your side. Let’s dive into the 4 Rules of Differentiation before someone gets hurt.
Rule #1 – Do not “differentiate yourself” with a panicked career change.
Throwing a Hail Mary at the last second is not a good idea. Trying to scramble to a cooler or sexier or “more noble” company is not going to make you stand out as a candidate – it’s going to make you look directionless or (worse) fake. Now, some people change jobs (even right before applying) and that is fine, as long as there is a logical reason for it – ranging from “I hate my current job and may walk into traffic unless I leave it” to “this is a unique opportunity that I have to take.”
However, don’t change just to change under some faulty logic that they are going to see “Adam Hoff, SpaceX” rather than “Adam Hoff, J.P. Morgan” and start doing backflips. If there is no logical reason to go work at SpaceX, then don’t go work there. They look at your whole resume – and mainly to see what skills you have, not what brands you racked up – so it’s not like changing the “current employer” line is going to change the formula for who you are. This is all risk, no reward. Would you do anything else in your life that is “all risk, no reward”? I am guessing not.
Rule #2 – Listing a hard job to get as your short-term goal is not “differentiating.”
If you only read one rule, read this one. Please! Read it again. Done? Read it again. Okay, you get the point. I have heard many, many times the past two years the idea from candidates that they want to pick post-MBA job X or Y because it will help “differentiate” them. In basically every case, the job in question is somewhere between “insanely hard” and “impossible” to get after graduating from business school. I’m talking hedge funds, VC, luxury retail, etc. I’ve even heard the quote, “What I really want to do is work in management consulting so I can really see what works and what doesn’t and build towards my dream of starting company Z – but I feel like everyone puts management consulting so I want to find something else.”
Well, yeah, everyone puts it because management consulting firms hire lots of MBA grads. And they do that because they need talent and energy to feed an “up or out” machine – and the reason that grads take those jobs is because they can indeed learn what works and what doesn’t as they make some good money and build towards the next step. It’s a win for both parties … so if that is what you want to do and it makes sense, why fight it? Either way, the worst thing to do is list a job you pretty much can’t get, all in some misguided attempt to stand out. You will stand out all right -for your cratering effect on their employment stats. Insta-ding.
Rule #3 – The “quick and easy” place to differentiate is in the WHY of your long-term career goal.
I have probably written more about MBA career goals than any subject on earth, so I won’t belabor the point now, except to say that you can use your long-term goal to share parts of yourself that are deeply held, introspective, and unique. That’s how you differentiate yourself. Not “hey, look at how I left Goldman to go work at an oil company for no reason” and not “all these other guys may want to take the slam dunk of management consulting, but I want a c-suite job at Prada!” – no, it’s “what I want to do for the rest of my life is X, and the reason is [something that is unique and specific and deeply personal to you.] That is how you do it.
If you need a mental shifting device, try this: most admissions officers would much rather read a great novel or watch a great TV show than hear a business pitch or dial up a TED Talk. Don’t try to stand out (“differentiate”) with your ambition, win them with your humanity.
Rule #4 – The real, pure way to differentiate yourself is to do the application right.
Do you know how many people submit truly great apps? No joke, my guess from what I’ve seen is about 1% of the applicant pool. I’m talking about:
1) A strong baseline profile (3.3 and above, 700 and above, solid impact in the workplace).
2) A really good resume (a sales document that advertises that impact in different contexts).
3) Essays that are easy to read.
4) essays that are structured correctly.
5) Essays with thesis statements.
6) Essays that are introspective (see Rule #3).
7) Essays that nail the DNA of the school in question.
If you check all seven boxes, you just differentiated yourself. Rather than searching for some magic bullet, just do a really good job. If you had to read dozens of files each day and only a few were really good, you’d be pumped when you read the handful that were. I know it’s boring and self-serving to lay this out for you, but that doesn’t make the advice any less true, so there you have it.