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Thursday, March 8, 2012

MBA Admissions Season Review: Advice for Applicants

I closed the books on my 5th year of professional MBA admission consulting. Actually since everything is electronic, there is no actual book to close. Perhaps, I should say that I shut down my hard drive but that sounds like it has a double meaning.

Any readers who have weathered my digressions are probably wondering how successful the admissions season was and I would respond cryptically that my clients got into the schools that they should have gotten into. With the margin of error in the admission process shrinking like the credibility of baseball's steroid policy, that is a successful season. Especially since 80% of the applicants have reasonable shot of successful admissions. Applicants are no longer destroying their chances with essays about their most successful solo project when the question was about leading a group. However, I am an inverted sentence structure and Sesame Street voice over away from sounding like Yoda so I will get specific about how applicants can be successful or unsuccessful with their essays:

1. Your admissions consultant should not have to tell you what your career goals are: Even though schools like Harvard no longer ask about an applicant's career goals, this is still a relevant question. This question is even still relevant despite having only has four answers which are:
  • I want to work in industry X with a first job of finance analyst, product manager, or marketing and advance to the Chief Office of my division
  • I want to work in Investment Banking in order to transition into Private Equity or Venture Capital (Hedge Funds are so 2009)
  • I want to work in Management consulting and then start my own business
  • Some combination of the previous three bullet points
The reason schools stopped asking this question is because the bullet points above were the only answers they were getting. It no longer provided enough information to distinguish candidates since everyone figured out. Since the bar is so low, applicants need to be able to trip over it. However, I have to answer this question for at least half my clients. These are rarely my successful clients. I appreciate it's a hard question since the real answers to the career goals question are typically:
  • I want to work in an industry where I can make more money than I am making now
  • I don't want to work in engineering, computer programming, or yak herding anymore
  • If I knew the answer to this question, why would I need an MBA?
  • Some combination of the previous three bullet points
The gap between the first and second set of bullet points is where applicants can fall. Even if the question isn't being directly asked, the ability to have enough introspection to come up with the reason for an MBA provides focus and a process for answering the other questions.

2. The applicant dictates the story, not the essay questions:
I commonly get asked what are the right answers to the questions or how to answer a question. That's the wrong question. Questions are an easily driven vehicle to share information. The real question is what information do you want to share? The answer is 1) example of your professional skills or your favorite work story, 2) example of your extracurriculars or what are you most interested in outside of work, 3) example of your leadership skills (since business schools still cling to the belief that they train leaders and not managers), 4) any other great story that you use in every interview or essay that you didn't fit in already. My #4 is about starting a running water project as a Peace Corps volunteer and it can answer questions such as: Tell me about a time that you failed? Tell me about a time that a project wasn't clearly defined? Tell me about a time that you encountered resistance? Tell me about an international experience? Tell me about a time that you didn't have access to modern plumbing while working with a cross-functional team?

Essays should draw from the four examples above. It doesn't take much work to make them fit into the question. For example, the following are all the same question:
  • Who are you?
  • What matters to you most and why?
  • What is your most significant achievement?
  • What has shaped your life the most?
  • What would you tell the student body about your candidacy?
  • What would you tell admissions about your candidacy?
  • What would you tell a stoned cashier at Safeway about your candidacy while you are trying to decide if you should buy the raw cookie dough or the Boston Creme donuts?
These are all open ended questions which can be answered any way the applicant decides. Perhaps, the easiest way to describe every question is "What have you done with your life and why should we f#cking care?"

3. Stop being nice and start getting real.
As more and more applicants are able to actually answer the essay with a writing style that doesn't resemble a Microsoft Project document, the opportunity to differentiate is to make a connection. Making a connection with admissions is just like making a connection with a new friend, coworker, or the person who asked to share your table at a crowded airport Quizno's. It's about sharing appropriate amounts of information, including an accomplishment or something that you did, and being genuine.

The most amount of personal information that you share with your table mate at the airport Quizno's is perhaps flight destination and your favorite sandwich sauce. For admissions, it's anything that you have done and why it's important to you. Don't share what happened to your friend, what your boss should have done, or philosophize about what you would like to do. What happened to your friend is their story and philosophizing about innovation or leadership is a classic mistake that applicants make when answering an essay. An essay about leadership shouldn't sound like an essay from Harper's magazine but about what you did with your team.

The threshold for accomplishments that you share is if you can explain how it's important, provided guidance for your future decisions, or shaped who you are. I think that winning a mustache growing contest while at Wharton was an awesome accomplishment but I can't explain why it's important to me without saying that it's awesome and then nodding a few times. Therefore, it doesn't meet the threshold.

Genuineness is the hardest concept for applicants (and the human race) to grasp. It involves not saying that everything turned out well and they had no regrets. We always overanalyze everything that we do and see mistakes. It's not about making catchy puns and alliterations with how your cooking hobby will help you add a little bit of thyme to your learning team. It is about talking about struggles, how they made you feel, what allowed you to overcome struggles, and what you learned from it. It's about the shades of grey in life or as Fletch would say, "Charcoal." Nothing turns out perfectly in our lives and it shouldn't in an applicants' essays.

1 comment:

MBA Data Guru Blog said...

Wow, I didn't realize that applicants had so much of a problem with figuring out what they want to do post MBA. If you are investing $120,000 in tuition and losing 2 years of income, I would have thought they would have figured it out. I plan to go into consulting and answered that in my essay.

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