Interview with an MBA Admissions Expert, redux

This is an old – in the venerable sense! – interview that I did with Karen Schweitzer, which I was reminded of through a link from her 50 Free MBA Application Resources ‘about’ education piece. Footnote: I’m no longer with the World MBA Tour – that was a while ago.

Karen: How soon should potential MBA students start preparing for the admissions process?
Avi: About 9 months to a year prior to submission deadline – giving time to research the process, research schools, line up recommenders, do the GMAT etc.

Earlier start is good, but it’s not a simple case of the earlier the better… the candidate needs to get immersed in the application process. Certainly s/he doesn’t want to dilute the process over years and years. That’s a recipe for a lukewarm application. Generally applicants should be wary of spending too much time on their application research and production – some do – at the risk of having their career stall and missing the key workplace award or promotion that would help them shine in front of Adcom.

Karen: Should prospective MBA students submit applications to several schools or are they better of concentrating their efforts on one or two favorites?

Avi: Both really. Favorites should be carefully targeted, no holds-barred. But the applicant should also be street-smart in recognizing that competition for top schools is intense, and any one favorite school acceptance may not emerge. In my experience the ideal number of applications is 4-5. Less means the randomness of random dings is not taken out the equation.

More starts to dilute the energy of the applicant and recommender, and take too much time (ref answer above).

Karen: In your book, MBA Admissions Strategy, you mention that nearly everyone under 35 with respectable undergraduate transcripts and a good professional record has a realistic chance of getting into the finest business schools. Some prospective students don’t share this optimistic view. I get a large number of emails from individuals who feel that poor GMAT scores or attendance at a less prestigious undergraduate school can hurt their chances during the admissions process. What advice can you offer these students?

Avi: In my experience a less prestigious U/G school is a very minor factor, and is entirely a non-factor if there is some concrete reason (normally funding) why the applicant went to “Buckwheat State” and not Harvard College. What counts more is how the applicant performed academically at whatever institution they were at. But even more than that, business schools heavily weigh what a candidate has done between college graduation and MBA application. A good professional record trumps college level branding. (This is different to Grad & Law & Med schools, where applicants apply younger and with less or zero work experience, so college brand is all adcoms have to go on.)

As to GMAT, yes, it is true a minimum threshold GMAT is necessary. If one is not in the high 600s, an application to a top-10 school will stall. But the GMAT works on a threshold principle – the applicant needs a high enough score to relax Adcom about his or her academic ability. After that they start asking other questions – about leadership, team skills, career arc, etc.

Footnote to this is that, believe it or not, a GMAT score can be “too good” – anything above about 760 is problematic. This is because the applicant starts to look like a genius and questions will be asked about whether that person will make a good manager and leader. B-school is a professional place with the aim of turning out people who will survive and thrive in the cut & thrust of real world business. That’s what recruiters want. So Adcom looks carefully at apparent geniuses and dings them if it appears they may be better suited to PhD program and research career.

Karen: What are four attributes every admissions committee wants to see in an MBA student?

Avi: See my book, Chapter 2 “Attributes that Count” for a list of 22 such attributes. It’s hard to say which 4 count the most. I think a clear success record is definitely up there; along with personal integrity; being a team player that mixes well; and leadership experience and potential. But there’s no privileged four. I strongly believe in all 22.

Karen: How important is it for applicants to show that they possess these attributes?

Avi: The key here is “show”. So many applicants claim they possess attributes. That’s worth nothing. The attributes have to be shown by telling proof stories – that is, anecdotes of the candidate in action, acquiring or living the attribute.

Karen: What are the three most common mistakes that an MBA applicant can make, and how can these mistakes be avoided?

  • Trying to be a typical MBA applicant – leading to a generic and therefore low-value application.
  • Inability to see what is precious and valuable in their past activities, from Adcom’s point of view.
  • Wasting precious essay space with sentences and paragraphs that do not deliver or prove profile value.

Karen: Is there any additional advice that you can offer students who are trying to develop an MBA admissions strategy?

Avi: Candidates should balance their energy between the major blocks of an application, which are: (a) GMAT, (b) File essay questions & long essays (c) Recommendations (d) Interview. I assume their college record is set. In having helped hundreds of applicants get into top schools, the application strategy weakness I see most is candidates who are willing to spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy, not to mention money, trying to get their GMAT score up one notch, while neglecting the rest.

As mentioned, the GMAT operates on a threshold principle – more is better up to a certain point – then more is irrelevant. And the balanced good application beats the unbalanced excellent/patchy application (and remember, they don’t want brainiacs). They are looking for people who appear good on all fronts. Someone who looks like they will continue to be good on all fronts. This is what I call the “CEO-in-Waiting” image.

How to ‘Fail Smart’ in MBA Admissions

MBA applicants are routinely asked the “failure question” either in MBA essays or interviews. It always takes more-or-less the same form: “Tell us about a time you failed and what you learned.”

As I’ve written before here, and in my book, the test is not to see if you have any weaknesses or failures. Everyone does. The test is whether you are mature enough to recognize your failures and so address the implied weaknesses.

Also, failures are more likely to occur in new, challenging tasks, so if you present “no failures” you are inadvertently telling Adcom that you haven’t been adequately challenged!

There’s a classic article on “intelligent failure”: Are You Squandering Your Intelligent Failures? by Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, on the HBR Blog.

Says McGrath: “Despite widespread recognition that challenging times place unpredictable demands on people and businesses, I still run across many managers who would prefer to avoid the logical conclusion that stems from this: failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations.

“Instead of learning from failures, many executives seek to keep them hidden or to pretend that they were all part of a master plan and no big deal.

“To those executives, let me argue that an extraordinarily valuable corporate resource is being wasted if learning from failures is inhibited.

“Naturally, to an executive raised on the concept of ‘management by exception,’ any failure at all seems intolerable. This world view is reinforced by the widespread adoption of various quality techniques, for instance, six sigma, in which the goal is to stamp out variations (by definition, failures) in the pursuit of quality…

“[but] Failures are crucial to the process of organizational learning and sense-making. Failures show you where your assumptions are wrong. Failures demonstrate where future investment would be wasted. And failures can help you identify those among your team with the mettle to persevere and creatively change direction as opposed to pig-headedly charging blindly ahead. Further, failures are about the only way in which an organization can reset its expectations for the future in any meaningful way.”

McGrath’s point is failure is a route (perhaps, the route) to learning and future improvement. That’s the point you score with Adcom: “I failed to do, but I didn’t fail to learn.”

But not all failures have learning attached. One needs to set prior fail-safe mechanisms, and then interrogate a failure afterwards, to make a failure useful as learning. This turns it into an intelligent failure.

If you can show the MBA Adcom that you did this, that you didn’t just fail dumbly, or that you have turned a dumb failure into an intelligent failure, your MBA admissions essay will shine in all the right ways.

What You Should Highlight In Your MBA Essay

This, below, is too good not to syndicate here with a tip of the hat and thanks to author Kathrin Liesenberg, Associate director of admissions for MBA and MSc at ESADE Business & Law School, and QS TopMBA.

MBA essays are your direct communication line to the MBA admissions team and your best tool to stand out. Use your MBA essays to present yourself to admissions and share your talents and accomplishments with us without sounding pompous. The MBA essays are your chance to directly convince us of what you have to offer the program and that you are a good match for the school.

What the MBA admissions teams looks for first
Before we look at the content of your MBA essay, let us quickly mention two important aspects: tone and format. Remember to…
•    Be honest.
•    Write in a natural, clear and precise way that reflects your own voice.
•    Use a positive, conversational tone to make the essays readable and to prevent them from becoming rote autobiographies.
•    Talk about yourself by offering a balanced description backed by analysis in order to catch our attention. Use facts to support your intended message and leadership skills.
•    Don’t look for excuses. Nobody is perfect, and we all have failed at some point. Whining does not reflect maturity and should be avoided.
•    Don’t leave anything up in the air when you end your essay. Wrap it up by highlighting the aspects you would like us to remember.

MBA Essay Content
Now let us talk about the content. The MBA admissions team already has your marks, test scores, letters of recommendation and CV from your MBA application, so there is no need to write about those aspects extensively. The best way to approach the essays is to tell us a consistent story that ties together all of your experience and goals, using plenty of narrative and including specifics.  Write your story, smoothly and naturally linking together all the aspects you consider relevant (your work experience, situations in which you demonstrated leadership skills, extracurricular activities, volunteering and social engagement, etc.).
•    First and foremost: stick to the questions! While this may sound obvious, applicants all too often stray off-topic.
•    Try to begin with something interesting (an anecdote, a quote, etc.) that leads you directly to the core topic you would like to address. How you begin your essay will largely determine whether it is a pleasure or a trial to read.
•    Clearly describe your specific mid and long-term goals, explaining how the business school can help you achieve them.
•    Showcase your high energy level and leadership skills. Being a hard worker able to give your best in all situations can lead to success; it can also offer proof of your commitment to achieving your goals.
•    It is also a plus to note that you have been in touch with current and former MBA students. It shows you have done your homework and bears witness to the seriousness and thoroughness of your approach.
•    If you are given a chance to write an optional essay, use it to share additional information that you believe will truly help to round out your MBA application with MBA admissions. If you believe something important has been missed, this is your chance to tell us about it. Likewise, if you plan to use this question to address an aspect of your MBA application that you believe is a potential disadvantage, do not make excuses. Instead, provide the necessary clarification and take responsibility. It will help to highlight your maturity and show that you can also be self-critical.
•    Allow a third party to read your essays and bring them back down to earth if they do not reflect the real you or if you forgot to mention, or simply took for granted, a true personal asset.

Fill in gaps from your MBA application
Be sure to cover the following three areas in your essays:
•    Your leadership skills and potential: challenges you have overcome and progress you have made in terms of your responsibility level over your career. How will you change the world?
•    The impact of the international environment on you, as well as your international experience. How will you approach the diversity on our campus?
•    Your understanding of the MBA program and the kind of collaborative, teamwork-based learning environment most MBA programs thrive on.

Final words of advice
•    Does length matter? Yes it does! Try not to exceed the word limit, as it could suggest that you are unable to follow simple directions. We receive hundreds of essays at MBA admissions and do not appreciate it when applicants fail to observe the word limits.
•    One last piece of advice: make sure you send the essay to the right institution! We receive essays meant for other institutions more often than you might think. Needless to say, it can have a very negative impact on the applicant’s candidacy, including automatic rejection for carelessness or, even worse, for committing plagiarism.

In conclusion, please don’t write what you think we want to read. Just be yourself and be honest! At ESADE, we cherish diversity and are very open-minded regarding work experience, education and post-MBA goals. However, when we are reviewing your MBA application, especially if you advance to the interview round, we will be looking for consistency and sincerity in your answers.

email@mbastudio.net

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