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When guiding potential MBA students through their applications, New York University’s Stern School of Business has this year included a rather unusual stipulation: a limit to the size of objects that can be submitted by applicants.

The school encourages potential students to be creative by submitting materials that reveal something of their character and interests. However, Stern’s admissions department has found the arrival of personalised guitars, skis and snowboards a little hard to handle. “We tell people we want them to think outside the box – it just needs to fit inside a box,” says Isser Gallogly, Stern’s executive director of MBA admissions.

In spite of the unwieldy nature of some of the objects, the fact that the school accepts them demonstrates that admissions directors are looking beyond the GMAT – the Graduate Management Admission Test – and work experience when it comes to selecting their student cohorts.

Aside from guitars and skis, submissions to Stern have included stories, poems and paintings. In one instance, a mock cereal box was submitted decorated with photographs of the applicant, with details of their body weight replacing the weight of the contents, and ingredients such as “a charismatic social individual” listed on the side.

As well as creativity, admissions directors also look for integrity. “In the essays, we want people to sell themselves to us, but we also want them to be honest,” says David Simpson, acting associate dean of the MBA programme at London Business School.

“Candidates often talk about extra-curricular work even though we’re not specifically asking about this. That’s great. But if they write it down, we’re going to ask about it, so they should have a good story.”

In addition, candidates that stand out are often those with particular passions, whether for sky diving or wine tasting.

“We see lots of people who are cooks, and food always gets to us,” says Sherry Wallace, director of MBA admissions at Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Schools stress, however, that the interview is not simply another opportunity to list accomplishments. It is where the school finds out who the person really is and interviewers may have strong views on the type of person they believe will fit into the school, particularly for those institutions that focus on team working.

“A collaborative culture doesn’t just happen by mistake,” says Simon Stockley, MBA programme director at Tanaka Business School at London’s Imperial College. “We bring in the right applicants and encourage certain behaviours.”

While Tanaka looks for people who can contribute alternative views to discussions or tasks, the ability to disagree is not universally attractive.
“If someone has been headstrong and combative in their style in the past, that can be a turn-off for me,” says Prof Stockley. “We don’t believe that a pool of piranhas is the best environment in which to learn and innovate.”

Most admissions directors have pet hates. Overkill is one. Whether that is an overly long essay or a plethora of letters of recommendation, submitting too much material is not going to be well received. “We have to remind people that we have thousands of applications to review, so sending in a lot of things won’t necessarily help you,” says Ms Wallace.

Most importantly, stick to the point, say admissions directors. “Answer the question we’re asking,” says Prof Stockley. “It sounds obvious, but some MBA applicants prepare up to a point and then take a steamroller approach and don’t always stop to think about the specific question, whether in a written application or in an interview.”

Several admission directors cite the tendency of applicants to send long or multiple e-mails in the hope that they will get the attention of one of the recipients.

“Long e-mails are very irritating,” says Rod Garcia, director of MBA Admissions at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Moreover, applicants can damage their chances by failing to display courtesy and respect to all the staff members – including administrators and customer service staff – with whom they interact during the applications process. “People don’t necessarily understand that every interaction is an opportunity to show their qualities,” says Mr Gallogly.

But most admissions staff say they enjoy their jobs. “We meet amazing people every day,” says Ms Wallace. “The worst part is that you cannot reward all the people you meet.”

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