A strong application package is no longer enough to secure admission to a top programme for MBA applicants in the digital era. Today's prospective MBAs also need to think about whether their digital identity matches their physical presence.

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There is no denying that the world felt much simpler in the days before smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, and push notifications. As if life was less complicated, moving at a slower, more manageable pace. Then came the digital boom and everything changed.

One of the things that changed is the way business professionals apply for MBA programmes. In the olden days, an MBA aspirant could submit their application without worrying about the digital trail they were leaving behind. Today's aspirants, however, must ensure that the impression they make with business schools in their online communications and their public persona on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or elsewhere is aligned with the version they wish to present to the admissions committee. Applicants therefore need to build an adequate and coherent digital presence, one that reflects their true personalities, because any discrepancy will raise a red flag and possibly affect their chances of admission. 

Read: The Main Steps for a Successful MBA Application​

Social media is just one additional factor that applicants should take into account as they try to present a full, coherent picture of themselves. To increase their chances of success, their personal appearance, their digital presence, and their application package should form an interconnected whole. Admissions officers will consider all your interactions – emails, live chat, webinars and social media encounters – as they try to fit together the jigsaw puzzle that is an applicant’s profile.

Wait: admissions officers may check my Facebook profile?

Business schools are well used to using social media to screen applicants, according to Kaplan Test Prep’s 2017 survey of over 150 business schools across the United States. About 35% of admissions officers reported that they have viewed an applicant’s social media profile to learn more about them, compared with 22% in 2011.

The survey found that social media can both hurt and help applicants. Half of those polled who reviewed applicants’ social media activity said they had found something that negatively impacted an applicant’s admissions chances. Among the online discoveries that have hurt students are unacceptable racial attitudes or disturbing pictures on their Facebook accounts.

On the flip side, admissions officers also reported coming across volunteer work, hobbies, and writing samples that positively impacted an applicant’s admissions chances.

Julie Barefoot, associate dean of MBA Admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School (US), told Clear Admit: “The Goizueta MBA Admissions Committee regularly reviews applicants’ social media accounts. This is done for a variety of reasons. Since we engage so frequently with candidates, we may look at an applicant’s Facebook account so that the committee member(s) can refresh our memories about this candidate, by putting a name with a face. Another reason could be that the applicant lists an app, a blog, or some other social media vehicle on their resume and we want to see how professional or serious this endeavour is.

This shows that admissions officers may well visit your social media feed, and the content they see there may benefit or harm your application. It does not necessarily mean that your chances of admission automatically deteriorate as a result. You can view your social media activity as an opportunity to paint a fuller picture of yourself as an applicant rather than as something that may derail your application.   

Do I need a social media makeover?

Hopefully, your current social media identities would impress admissions officers rather than put them off. And maybe you will not need to remove or edit a lot of information. However, it is probably a good idea to get an overall view of your online persona.

As a first step, try running a Google search of your name and check if any of the first few pages contain information that you would not like admissions officers to see. If you do find such content, remove it or edit it whenever possible.

If you have a Facebook account, try scrolling down your feed to see if there is anything that may discredit you. We use Facebook to express our views and upload pictures, among other things. Chances are there is an angry comment or a picture that you do not want the business school to see. Try to assess whether your Facebook identity supports and enhances your profile as an MBA applicant, and take the necessary measures if not. The people sitting on admissions committees expect you to have friends and family, and there is nothing wrong with, say, pictures of you and your girlfriend on the beach. However, if they find anything insulting, vulgar, or prejudicial, your chances of admission will suffer as a result.

Many business schools will skip your Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ accounts and only view your LinkedIn profile. On LinkedIn, the world's largest professional network, you can describe your professional path and achievements in much more detail than in a standard one-page CV/resume. A solid presence on LinkedIn is a must-have for MBA applicants.

Do not forget your CV/resume

Although not part of your digital identity per se, the CV/resume should not be overlooked. The admissions officers looking for consistency across your personal and professional identities will pay it a great deal of attention. What is more, they will most likely ask you questions in connection with it during interviews or one-to-one MBA events, which is why it should not refer to experience which looks impressive on paper, but actually is not. For example, an admissions officer enquiring about your experience in trading would be disappointed to learn that by ”trading” you mean your efforts to sell old books on eBay.

You should be able to defend each item on your CV/resume and elaborate on it. Admissions officers are trained to spot gaps or inconsistencies, so try to avoid them.

Online communication with business schools

Your first contact with a business school typically occurs via online communication and you should try to present yourself in the best way possible. Ensure that you maintain a consistent image across all online communication channels and at all stages of school selection and application. Digital communication etiquette should not be underestimated, even though some of the channels may be perceived as more ‘casual’ – e.g. live chats and Skype.

If you want to be seen as a responsible professional genuinely interested in a particular business school, act accordingly. Be articulate and express yourselves in clear and effective language. Write in proper English (or whichever language you are using in your communication). Be formal and polite. Humour, of course, is welcome, but be careful. Jokes that you think are funny may not be appreciated by all. Also, the best way to show that you are responsible is always to be on time, especially for Skype or in-person meetings.  

Poor attitude is easily noticeable through online communication, and since your first contact with the business school may be via a live chat or a Skype conversation, being late or impolite will translate into a bad first impression. First impressions are powerful and lasting, which is why making a good one is so important.

Face-to-face meetings with business schools

Although a great part of the communication is now online/digital, you will have the chance to meet business school representatives in person during One-to-One pre-application meetings of the kind that Access MBA organises or, hopefully, during admissions interviews. During these meetings you should demonstrate to the admissions officers that the business professional who is sitting opposite to them is as impressive as their CV, communication style, and social media presence. You can elaborate on your work experience, interests, and ambitions and help B-school representatives get a complete picture of you as a candidate. Make sure that the face-to-face meetings reveal the same, or a better, version of the persona from your digital communication.

Read: Make the Best of One-to-One Meetings with B-Schools

The successful MBA application requires a robust personal brand, which should be visible not only in your personal appearance, but also in your CV, communication style, and social media profiles. Admissions officers expect to see a certain degree of logical coherence between your physical and digital identities. If you manage to achieve it, your chances of success will improve significantly.