How To Avoid Costly MBA Résumé Mistakes

mba resume mistakes

Submitting a résumé is perhaps the most crucial part of every prospective MBA’s application process. A good résumé provides insight into who an applicant is, and what they’ve accomplished. A well-crafted, attention-grabbing résumé that captivates an admissions team can bring an applicant much closer to an acceptance letter.

But aside from a name, contact info, and educational and professional details, what should a slam-dunk MBA resume include?

What Are The Résumé Basics?

Starting with the principle basics, résumés should be short, sweet, and concise. Ideally, they should fit on one page—maybe two. Stephan Kolodiy, an admissions officer at Rutgers University, told U.S. News & World Report that long résumés are a common issue with many MBA applicants.

“Sometime we get a résumé that’s five to six pages long, and that’s way too much information,” he says.

That one-to-two pages of concise information should also be 100 percent accurate—one should never lie on a résumé. Because credibility plays a big role in the application process (MBA or otherwise), it is unwise to fabricate work or school experience. Deceitful, even exaggerated, résumés are always rejected by business schools, and admitted students who submit compromised résumés are at risk for expulsion. This is serious stuff, so don’t lie!

Carrie Marcinkevage, MBA Managing Director at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University, told U.S. News that honesty is always the best policy.

“Authenticity allows you to find the right school and that school to find you,” Marcinkevage says. “Allow them the chance to find the real you.”

Perhaps most importantly, all MBA résumés should provide examples of success. Prospective MBAs should give admissions officers a reason to send an acceptance letter by showing concrete examples of career advancement, or of how an MBA candidate achieved results for a particular client.

“When applying to a top-tier business school, you’ll need to show admissions committee on a clear path of professional growth,”  U.S. News reports.

What Are You Forgetting?

There are also some not-so-basic guidelines that MBAs are encouraged to follow when crafting a solid résumé. Investopedia published a guide reviewing some of the best resumes for MBA applicants that outlines a few tips that many prospective business students may not have previously thought of.

Without sounding like too much of a graphic design nerd, it’s important to take typeface into account with a résumé. Yes, fonts matter. It’s best practice to rely on on two typefaces: A bold sans-serif face for headers, and a standard serif face for body type. For those of you who don’t know, a serif is the tiny extension on the termination point of an individual letter, the little “hat” at the end of a letter if you will.

Serifs exist to make smaller text easier to read, so they are the best friend of admissions offices who may read hundreds of résumés per day. Sans-serif fonts—letters that don’t include serifs—are cleaner and pop easier when bolded out. Résumés should avoid using fonts that are too common, such as Times New Roman, but also avoid ridiculous fonts like Comic Sans. Nobody likes Comic Sans.

Aside from listing relevant work experience, and showing how much growth took place at each job, there are other skills that every résumé should highlight. According to U.S. News, the three skills that can best help sell an MBA applicants résumé to a business school are:

    • Leadership
    • Communication
    • Innovation


First and foremost, business schools want to see strong leadership skills as well as personal growth. All MBA programs focus on developing management skills, but schools wants to know that a solid foundation of leadership is already there. Good résumés provide evidence of an applicant motivating a team behind a common goal, figuring out the best use of other’s talents and skills, instilling a concrete vision, and prioritizing the needs of an organization above personal needs.

As for communication, a résumé is an applicant’s first line of communication to a business school, and should be chock-full of structured writing and thought-out word choice. U.S. News shows the different between a boring resume and beautifully worded one:

“Here’s a real example of a blah bullet point in a client’s first draft: ‘Helped with new software implementation.’

Now, a brilliant bullet point: ”Spearheaded software upgrade in the San Francisco field office by coordinating with software developer, leading training sessions, and facilitating implementation schedule.’ The second example offers a much more comprehensive understanding of the scope of the accomplishment.”

Some applicants may try to hard to impress admissions officers with technical jargon or fancy terminology. Lose it, and show that you can clearly, and simply explain headier topics in writing:

“One client listed this bullet point on his resume: ‘Created VA1 Business Acquisition.’

Once we translated that into something the MBA admissions audience would understand, the résumé said: ‘Devised and launched outbound communications plan for our premier voice activated product. Product was well received and became cash flow positive within 14 months.’

Much better.”

Lastly, a résumé that shows an applicant has helped innovate will go a long way. This piece of advice is especially handy for applicants with traditional pre-MBA jobs. All admissions officers know what a consultant or analyst is tasked with at an entry-level position. A resume is an opportunity to shed light on things that sets an applicant apart from other typical analysts. Things to keep in mind include: training a newly hired analyst, leading college recruiting efforts, or organizing an office volunteering or fundraising initiative.

Avoiding Deceptive Mistakes

Now, here’s where we can get a little dramatic: Résumés are the first impressions a prospective MBA job candidates has with a potential employer. Since no one gets a second chance to make that first impression, don’t mess it up!

Bloomberg issued a list of the “Ten Biggest Resume Blunders” that outlines exactly what not to do with an application résumé, which includes obvious items like avoid writing a bad cover letter and remove foolish typos and inconsistencies.

The list also features some gems, like how to avoid making your résumé a cluttered mess. Again, not to sound like a graphic design professor, but the look of a résumé certainly counts. Avoid using fancy graphics or designs, and provide a crisp, clean document that’s easy to read on a computer screen.

“The résumé should be presentable, not an information dump,” Chris Thomas, Global Recruiting Director of the Experienced Commercial Leadership Program at General Electric, told Bloomberg. “There should be some white space.”

A well-done résumé shouldn’t misfire on any points—bullet points, that is. Some schools offer formats for resumes, specifically on how to list past job experience. Schools like the University of Michigan Ross School of Business advise students to use the “Action Context Result” format, which describes an action they performed, where they performed it, and the results it garnered.

“‘Worked for XYZ Corp., 2008 to 2012’ says close to nothing,” Damian Zikakis, Director of Career Services at Ross, told Bloomberg. “’Led a review of supplier contracts for the technology division resulting in savings of $250,000 opens doors.”

Lastly, a résumé should never disregard an applicant’s worth, nor should it overshare information. As we mentioned earlier in this piece, a good résumé should demonstrate what an applicant has accomplished and what they can bring to a new employer. It should not feature information that, even if positive, is irrelevant to a desired position.

“Think of the résumé as a future-focused document and not an historical one,” Char Bennington, Director of Career Management at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, told Bloomberg. “Focus on what’s important to the people in the career that you want now.”

How Else Can Your Résumé Stand Out?

To help make sure a résumé stands out in the crowd, consider participating in some relevant volunteer work. David D. Schein, the Director of Graduate Programs for the Cameron School of Business at the University of St. Thomas, told MetroMBA that adding volunteer work to a résumé. With that said, not all volunteer work is equal.

For example, if you volunteer at the SPCA and play with puppies all day, that probably won’t your résumé or your application. Instead, find “responsible positions that deliver a lot of bang for the time commitment,” Schein says. Find a position that will allow you to spend time organizing a major fund-raising activity or event. It should be something that has a demonstrative impact on the organization and illustrates your leadership potential.

Including unique and interesting hobbies can also be a fun way to illustrate your skills and stand out. Schein recommends that applicants choose hobbies that “demonstrate drive and ambition. Some examples might include white water rafting or learning a difficult foreign language like Chinese or Farsi.”

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About the Author

Max Pulcini

Max Pulcini is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter. He has an affinity for Philly sports teams, Super Smash Bros. and cured meats and cheeses. Max has written for Philadelphia-based publications such as Spirit News, Philadelphia City Paper, and Billy Penn, as well as national news outlets like The Daily Beast.

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