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There is no longer a cookie-cutter MBA student, especially in the online realm, according to a recent study released by The Learning House, Inc. and Aslanian Market Research.

Fully online students, who make up 14% of all higher education enrollments, differ greatly from traditional on-campus students–roughly 60% of online students are older than 30 years old; about 20% of students are younger than 25, and around 20% are between 25 and 30. Because the majority of online students are fall into the “non-traditional” age range, and are already working, career was the primary motivation to return to school for 92% of students. Students returned to advance their career, to switch industries, to keep up to date in their field, or to meet licensure requirements for their current role. Undergraduate students are most likely to seek a career change; graduate students are most likely seeking career advancement.

Business schools, both traditional and virtual, are looking to diversify their MBA programs. Christine Sneva, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management shares how she looks at applicants and how they can differentiate themselves from the pack.

Sneva understands that for adult or international students, leadership can be a hard thing to quantify in words. “Leadership can be defined in a hierarchical company though promotion, but it also can be found top to bottom, side to side,” she said. “I’m looking for where you’ve taken the initiative. Is there a project, where if you hadn’t been a part of it, the outcome would have been different?”

Achievements Journal

For prospective students struggling to come up with clear leadership examples, Sneva recommends creating an achievements journal.

“In some cultures, and for some personalities, it doesn’t come naturally to be a self-promoter,” said Sneva. “This is a chance to put yourself out there. You can still be humble and respectful, but professionally self-promoted. It will take some practice.”

In the day and age of LinkedIn and Facebook, it is easier to reach out to mentors or business people for advice on appropriate self-promotion.

“The achievements journal can help you remember something, even if it was small or you feel it didn’t make a difference,” said Sneva. “It could have made a big difference to someone else. Look at the broader picture.” Sneva adds that it’s also important to include achievements outside the 9-5 as well.

“They really reflect on the kind of person you are,” said Sneva, adding that it shows business schools you are capable of managing a business as well as contributing to the community. “That time management skill is critical.”

Related: MBA Admissions Q&A: Honesty is Still the Best Policy | Database: Search, Sort, Compare Online MBA Programs | School Reports: Full Details on MBA Programs | Specialties: Research MBA Concentrations

What Makes a MBA Admission Essay Pop?

Sneva offers these points to students as they prepare MBA admissions essays. When addressing the topic of the essay:

  • Clearly emphasize the action, resolve, learning and the lesson from a problem: “Students, especially international ones, try to give a lot of background, and try to provide a context. If you’re struggling to communicate a situation, or example, and it takes more than 2-3 sentences to describe the background, it’s probably not a great example.”
  • Be original: “We understand there’s a lot of essays already out there. It’s our responsibility and challenge to mix it up a little bit, but nowhere else in the application are you really able to express and expand on what you are thinking about doing during and after business school.”
  • Be clear about goals: “In the first paragraph, I should really know what industry or career it is you really want.”
  • Think short term: “Talk about ‘in the next five years.’” She also pointed out that students who have lofty long-term goals can seem more down to earth when they break down how a MBA will get them to that goal in shorter time increments, with specific examples. Instead of saying, “I want to help developing countries,” explain how business classes will help achieve real goals.

“Do not self-select yourself out of a program,” said Sneva. “Students should look at class profiles, but assume you have to be at the average. Sometimes we’re (business schools) held to these numbers and rankings, but I don’t think that captures truly who we are. We want to ensure that you’re academically qualified and (have) evidence of leadership and collaboration.”

–Alanna Stage, @AlannaTweets