Nov 06 2014

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The Little Story of the Business School and the Avocado

In my book MBA Admissions Strategy I offer the following advice: “Proofread to show your hunger” (that is, hunger for MBA admission, a real desire to be selected.)

Typographic or other careless errors in your text immediately clues Adcom in as to how (un)careful you were with your text, and this tells them not only how organized and detail-oriented you are but also how much you actually really care about your application to their particular school.

It also tells them whether you are a closer and finisher who nails things exactly, or a “glancing-blow” kind of guy.

In this sense MBA admissions works just like a resume you send out for a job. If there’s one error in it, eyebrows will be raised. Two errors and you’ve written yourself out of a job.

The longstanding ‘pet peeve’ across all Adcom readers is that the wrong school name often appears in the text. That is, Stanford GSB Adcom gets essays that say: “I would contribute to the peer learning environment at Wharton by …” Ouch.

The spellchecker will help you a bit, but is not foolproof. It will happily let you say your first mentor was your high school principle. It will not replace Booth with Tuck. Nor does it know that Haas is a business school while Hass is an avocado.

The tricky thing is that you, the essay-writing applicant, will battle to proofread your own work. Obvious errors will slip by undetected because your eyes will be focused (rightly) on content and message value delivery.

The MBA Admissions Studio does not offer a proofing service either, for the same reason. Proofreading should be done by someone who is seeing the essays for the first time, and who is tasked specifically with looking for errors, not reading for content or value.

 

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Oct 13 2014

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Learning about MBA admissions from Dee Leopold, HBS

This is an oldie from the files, but as true now as it ever was, showing how it’s important to pay close attention when Adcoms give tips because they do tell applicants everything they need to know.

Below are extracts from an interview with Dee Leopold  Executive Director of MBA Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Business School, published at the time in the Boston Globe. It’s low on the usual blah, and high on real guideposts for meeting Adcom’s expectations and beating out other applicants — and everything here is true of other elite b-schools.

The key points:

1. Guiding selection principle is: leaders who will make a difference in the world. Now this could be a platitude, but it’s not. They really mean it. It can be any difference, but it must be some difference. If you’re just going to be another banker or another consultant or another PE portfolio manager, or even just another venture capitalist or entrepreneur, that’s not making a difference in the world. You can be any of these things, or something else, but how will you leave a different world behind you?

2. Qualities sought are: curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, an ability to engage in a community, a moral compass, ‘givers’ rather than ‘takers,’ not bystanders but active participants. This is not a full list, but it’s a great starting point for an application platform.

3. Transformational experience of the (HBS) MBA, and who appears receptive to it. As Leopold says: ‘Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?’ (This is why the HBS goals essay is optional, because they want to significantly expand your horizons!) If you are not ready for transformation they don’t want you.

4. The case method, and knowing what it actually, specifically offers. As Leopold explains: ‘Leaders operate in gray areas… (the case method is) developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time.’

5. Endorsement for MBA admissions consulting, recognizing that (a) executives and all of us use consultants widely in and throughout our lives and careers — it’s part of being fully actualized and competitive in our society; and (b) many candidates are unfamiliar with b-school culture, therefore disadvantaged when applying, and they can legitimately overcome this. (And she says: ‘there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications,’ which of course MBA Studio and other reputable advisors do not do.)

Here is the extracted interview text:

What does HBS look for in its candidates?

Our mission is to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world. So we’re driving back to that guiding principle. We’re looking to compose a class of talented leaders who come from many different backgrounds but share some common qualities. And those qualities might include curiosity, initiative, sense of purpose, energy, self-awareness, a real sense of others, and an ability to engage in a community, and a moral compass that points true north.

What kind of candidates do you actively avoid?

Think of the qualities I described, and think of their opposite. We want people who can come here and believe that they are as invested in their classmates’ learning as they are in their own. We’re looking for people who, over the whole course of their lives, have been givers versus takers, who are not bystanders but active participants.

Some applicants hire admissions consultants to try to game the system. Can you detect an application that’s written by an admissions consultant?

The written application is only one part of our process. We start with a written application, but we interview every applicant who is ultimately admitted. So we are not reliant only on a written application. I think we’re in a culture now where consultants are hired to do a lot of different things. We understand that some people – particularly those who do not work with people who have gone to business school, who do not have expertise in this admission process – we understand that seeking out advice is natural. But there is no such thing as a reputable consultant who will write business school applications.

If a young executive is already on the corporate fast track, do you recommend that he or she come to Harvard Business School?

If they’re thinking about Harvard Business School, which is truly a transformational experience, I’d ask that person: Do you want to be open to that change? Do you want to find out different ways of doing things? Do you want to possibly have your plan completely turned around, find out things that you didn’t even know were possibilities for you?

What do students learn at Harvard Business School that they can’t learn at a Wharton or a Stanford?

I’m only speaking from a point of expertise about Harvard. It’s where I went to school, so I’m speaking as an alum and also as an admissions director. The case method, which is our pedagogy, is truly distinctive. We’re educating leaders to be effective. Leaders operate in gray areas. It’s not about the specific analytical tools you have in some imaginary toolbox. It’s developing the judgment to know which tool to use when, to be comfortable in uncertainty, to be able to make decisions day in and day out with imperfect information, not enough information, never enough time, and to be able to take a stand and to be able to communicate it to others and to bring people along with you.

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Sep 26 2014

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How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good” profile application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a cop-out.

What I mean is–putting it another way–the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you, it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question, using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative-writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything–you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

 

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Sep 09 2014

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Do I Have to Stick to the Word Limit in MBA Admissions Essays?

“How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?” is a question I get a lot from clients and people who pop up on email.

To answer this, it’s essential, as always, to think about any process or task or limit in admissions from AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is AdCom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits applicants would ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste their time and the Committee’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for, taking touching comfort in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is. More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and/or asking for an indulgence that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted, talented individual with an valuable track record, and if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.

Responses

Aug 12 2014

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‘Fast-Thinking’ in MBA Admissions and How to Manage It

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow (Farrar, 2011) documents how decision-makers arrive at decisions, either instantly without a lot of mental hard work — “fast thinking” or by “slow thinking” which means full analytical process.

Fast thinking is going on when you have a “first impression” of someone, and of course when an MBA Adcom member forms a first impression of you.

On a similar theme, Blink (Little, Brown & Co, 2005) by Malcolm Gladwell, makes a further claim — that instant judgments oftentimes produce better, more accurate, conclusions than those made by way of exhaustive analysis.

Whether “blinking” provides a better basis for decision-making than formal analysis or not, the point is fast thinking and slow thinking are both at play decision-making, whether the decision-maker is aware of it or not.

The implication for MBA admissions is that, while b-school Adcoms everywhere would assert that they rigorously analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each applicant, there is also considerable “fast thinking” involved in how they choose.

Note that Adcom essay readers and committee members are not seeking to make an “impressionistic” judgment. In fact the opposite is true. But they will be picking up impressions at every turn. After all, they have to make a big call, fairly quickly, about a complex situation (you and your future prospects) and they don’t actually have that much analytical material to go on.

Fast thinking is the way the MBA admissions committee will get its working impression of your personality, motivation, determination, charisma, team orientation, and overall prospects, all of which will precede and then run in parallel with their more formal analysis.

Before Adcom even gets to fully considering your grades and scores, performance metrics, and work history, they will have formed an impression from the first things they see. It’s hard to know what they will see first of course, but very often it will be the file data and/or resume.

An impression will form almost immediately and build through the course of considering your application, as they continue to absorb first impressions about each part of it–the essays, particularly their erudition and tone; the tone and warmth of recommendations and interview report, and so on. (The interview itself is of course another first-impression decision situation.)

Managing fast thinking:

The best way to deal with fast thinking is to realize it is there, and always will be, and provide ways for admissions officers to use this mode in judging you.
• Expecting snap judgments about your motivation, take care that everything you submit is carefully checked and complete.
• Expecting snap judgments about your pre-MBA work experience, take care to get the highlights high up in the essay.
• Expecting snap judgments about your professionalism, take care that any correspondence you enter into (by phone or email) is scrupulously professional, and so on.
Play to the first-impression mode first, and follow this with data and detail that corroborates the impression.

Responses

Jul 14 2014

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Good vs. Bad Risks In MBA Admissions Essays

Business Week last week put out an illuminating story about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input. Part of the reason b-school adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled, as year-on-year Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid) in composing a good question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, tells Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it’s back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals a piece of who you really are and what shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you can make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you can discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest and self-revealing, that are specific in time and place and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice  and intimate tone into your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.

Responses

Jun 22 2014

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Learning from “Decisive Moments that Shape a Harvard Business School Education”

HBS has a long-standing video on its site: “Inside the Case Method,” talking about “decisive moments that shape a Harvard Business School education.”

It’s a promo for the HBS MBA of course, highlighting its main point of distinction: the case method, which, according to HBS creates “special moments that pull everything we have learned into focus. When theory, practice, experience and talent all come to one sharp point — a decision.” And so on.

For the Harvard MBA admissions applicant this is a worthwhile watch for a few reasons:

1. It is good insight into how b-schools work and think, that is, background on the culture and attitudes at play, including overall assumptions and ethics. This point to what is expected of the next class too, and therefore what HBS Adcom is looking for when it accepts or rejects.

2. It is a view into the dynamics of the business school classroom, and the requirements of individual and group-based learning. The MBA applicant well-positioned to work in this way, is well positioned to be admitted.

3. It is exposure to the case method of teaching. HBS is “ground zero” of the case method, but actually almost every school uses cases to a significant degree, so it is useful for understanding all b-school pedagogy, and therefore what makes sense to say to enhance admissions prospects.

Footnote: the case method has been under some scrutiny, and voices have been raised that Harvard did not adequately prepare its graduates to assess risk / business failure (ref the 2008 recession and fallout). See sample stories in Forbes and Bloomberg News. But, to me it doesn’t look like HBS or the case method was more at fault than any other elite school or any other teaching approach was (or wasn’t).

 

Responses

Jun 05 2014

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Rate Your GMAT Score and Keep Your MBA Application in Balance

It’s early in the MBA admissions season and many of you will be working towards a GMAT score as a first step on your admissions path.

So I thought time to dig this story out of the archives — about a utility from GMAC, purveyors of the GMAT, which allows test-takers to rate their score (or practice shores) with reference to their cohort, filtered by intended degree, age, gender, country, and so on.

GMAT Rate Your GMAT Score and Keep Your MBA Application in Balance

If you try it you will be able to see how you stack up against the sub-group you are really competing against.

You may also take heart that the median is much lower than you think. True, this doesn’t help “GMAT paranoia” when you look at your elite school and find it has an average accepted GMAT of 720 and your score is 680.

For that you need to absorb what b-schools keep telling us — once again here in a recent WSJ interview with Derrick Bolton Director of MBA Admissions at Stanford GSB — which is that the GMAT is only one among many factors that determine admission.

WSJ: “Do you check out the GMAT score and if it’s below a certain number, put that application aside?”

Bolton: “That would rob us of a lot of talent. The GMAT is helpful in terms of understanding how someone can perform in the first year, but that’s one small piece of the overall M.B.A.”

What would be nice, for the next iteration of this GMAC utility, would be the ability to check a box that shows the GMAT arc of accepted students at Stanford, or Harvard, or Tuck, etc. That arc would by definition show the 50% below the incoming median score, and how low incoming scores can be, and that would be reassuring to the many hundreds of applicants who will get into elite schools despite not being “GMAT geniuses.”

See also I Scored 700, Should I Retake? and The Myth of the 800 GMAT.

 

Responses

Dec 12 2013

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Nelson Mandela was “a Sinner who Kept on Trying”

Much as been written in the past week about the leadership virtues of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela. I certainly endorse the sentiments, and tip my hat at the passing of one of the truly great leaders in human history.

From an MBA Admissions perspective, what I found particularly useful was what President Barack Obama said at the Mandela memorial service in Soweto, Johannesburg, which was:

“Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I’m not a saint,’ he said, ‘unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’

“It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still.”

The lesson? To be a great leader or executive manager, you don’t need to be a model of human perfection. You don’t want to be a fallen character either, let’s be clear, but it’s certainly more than okay to be a fully rounded human being with lots of ordinary human failings that you are working on.

As in executive life, so in MBA admissions. You should not present yourself to MBA Adcom as a bust of marble perfection, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. That’s hard to believe, and it’s not even interesting. You can and you should share your doubts, fears, and miscalculations, along with your victories. That speaks confidence and maturity.

 

Responses

Oct 17 2013

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How HBS Writes. Write Like That.

Have a look at the message Dee Leopold, MD of Harvard Business School Admissions, sent last month to HBS R1 applicants. The mail confirms receipt of application (heading off the inevitables who call to ask “did you get my application?”) and gives a brief description of the way forward.

What’s important here is not the content, but the writing style. Check it out:

Dear [    ],

This message confirms that you’re a Round 1 HBS applicant. All of us here on the Admissions team are pleased that you’d like to be a student here.

Let me tell you what will happen next.

Within a day or so of our Round 1 deadline, we begin to review all submitted applications.  We have a senior team who reads and makes decisions as to who moves forward and who doesn’t.

“Moving forward” means being invited to interview.  We expect that interview invitations will be issued in early October.  Interviews will be conducted from mid-October through November.  All of the necessary details will be in the invitation.

“Not moving forward” means that we are unable to admit you.  We want you to be able to move ahead with other plans so we will send these decisions out in October.

Some Round 1 applicants will be asked to remain under consideration and be reviewed again with Round 2 applicants.  We call that “further consideration” and the details will be communicated to this group in mid-October.

Regards,

Dee Leopold
Managing Director, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid

Now… if YOU were writing a letter to the thousands of HBS applicants, would you write like this? Or might you have done the following…

Dear Applicant,

The Harvard Business School hereby confirms receipt of your application for admissions in Round 1. We would like to thank you for your application and advise you of the forthcoming process…

Sound familiar? Ouch.

You get the difference. If you don’t believe me, believe Dee: it’s not only fine, it’s good to write simply and unpretentiously, as you would normally talk. Mind that you don’t fall overboard into slang and half-sentences. Just be practical and personal, using words and phrases you would normally use, and you will get it right.

 

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