The Authenticity Trap—Jon Cheng

Jon C., an expert Leland coach and Haas MBA, outlines how he used the MBA application process to discover and polish his "brand," and what to avoid along the way.

By Jon Cheng

August 22, 2022

A famous food writer once famously declared “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”

Everyone has their ticks and their favorites when it comes to food. Spice tolerance? Choice of protein? A cuisine you gravitate towards? Some preferences are more surface-level; others can reveal more deep-seated traits.

That isn’t to say that you should pen your essay around why cilantro is the bane of your existence, but it certainly won’t hurt to show a side of you that your resume doesn’t. Better if you can connect it to why it’s unique, compelling and (bonus points), a value-add to the class.

The Fuqua ’25 Random Facts’ essay is a great vehicle for it. In one of my facts, I wrote: “I organize my shirts in my closet by color gradation. My study groups at Fuqua can be assured I will bring a similarly obsessive mastery of Post-It usage to organize case reviews.”

You, too, can embed these breadcrumbs, whether through supplementary essays, the additional information, or recommendations memos. It can be as trivial as what I wrote, or a little more substantive (i.e. form the thesis of your essay).

As an admissions reader, I encountered my fair share of applicants who either (1) made sweeping declarations of how they wanted to change the world -- without backing it up or (2) painted themselves too much like candidates who they think their target school would like to enroll.

A prevalent theme among these candidates? The authenticity trap. Their essays didn’t have enough substance to back up their claims. Some sounded too cookie-cutter and insincere. It’s almost as if they were too afraid to tell us about the things that they really stood for.

I once fell into the trap myself as an MBA applicant. A good consultant helped get me out of it, and I cherished the time I spent with him to work through my ‘brand.’ He helped guide me towards my true North Star.

Admissions committees want to know it, too, as do I. That’s why I became a consultant.

Interested in working together on your MBA application? Click here for my Leland coaching profile.