Getting The MBA Pre-Application Campus Visit Right

At this stage of the MBA admissions season many have finalized where they are applying to, but some are still visiting campuses. Here’s one from my files: HBS Adcom talking about the HBS campus visit a few years ago (nothing has changed.)

First it clears up some of the shibboleths of who’s noticing what in your b-school visit and how it is weighed in admissions. What is true of Harvard is broadly true of other schools too. Second, it’s worth noting as a writing sample. Here’s the text:

“Lots of questions on the road from prospective applicants about visiting schools.

Answer: We always welcome visitors to campus. It’s beautiful here and we have lots to show you. Do you need to make a pilgrimage in order to send a signal to the Admissions Office? Absolutely not. Visiting campus has absolutely no impact on how your application is reviewed. It may have a gigantic impact on how enthusiastic you are about US – that’s where the value-added comes into play.

Are we going to ask you to sign-in to an information session? Yes. Do we use that list in the evaluation process? No. So why do we ask you to do it? To track whether these sessions have any impact on whether an attendee chooses to apply to HBS or not, i.e. standard market research. If we found out that no one who attended an info session chose to apply to HBS, you’d better believe that we would make some changes!

When may I visit classes? This is the tough question. For those applying in Round One, it’s not possible to visit a class before the October 1 deadline. Why? Our first year students begin classes in early September. Our first priority is for them to get settled into the classroom. We have limited seats designated for visitors in each class – and we could fill them every day of the year. The faculty likes for the first few weeks of the first semester to be “students only.” We rely on the students in sections to be hosts for our visitors – and they really aren’t ready to do that right away. Class visits will begin in mid-October; information about the sign-up process will be posted on our website.

Applying to business school(s) is expensive and stressful. The last thing you need is to make it a scavenger hunt in which you need have “visited campus” checked off the list.

So…the message is: We welcome you to visit HBS – but don’t think of this as a “command performance.”

The takeaways and more:

(a) Visiting is good because it will create in you a much sharper appreciation for the school and its particular form of MBA offering. It will help you refine your list of target schools, and make your applications essays more naturally enthusiastic and therefore convincing.

But visiting is not a formal requirement and is not heavily weighed by Adcom in deciding whether to admit or ding you.

Use your time with admissions and/or school marketing reps wisely, that is, to ask pointed questions about particular aspects of the program or the school that are relevant to your career progress, so that you come away with specific information that will help you make the right school-choice decision, and then help you motivate this convincingly in your essays and interview.

Be aware, the formal visit program will only take you so far. To go deeper into the school’s culture, get talking to students. If you walk up and say “Hi, I’m a prospective applicant, may I ask you about your experiences at this school…” it is likely you will get a friendly and informative response.

(b) I’m aware it’s dangerous to offer HBS blog text as a writing model because applicants will mimic this style. Do NOT do this. But it has elements worth noting.

It’s informal-formal, like recorded speaking. There are no mistakes, but the copy is not stiff and overly “written.” In this way the author comes across like someone you’d like to meet.

Also note the the rhetorical question-and-answer style. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it is a superb device for getting information across quickly and clearly. Overall the text has a crisp, to-the-point feel, but it is not rushed or clipped.

Your MBA admissions essays are not a blog, but information-laden crispness that suggests you are worth meeting is exactly what you are looking to achieve.

Jack-o’-Lanterns And Why Being A ‘Maker’ Can Help Your MBA Application

It’s almost Halloween. That means some of us are turning pumpkins into gruesome candle faces. Other than pleasant distraction, can this have anything to do with MBA admissions?

Well here’s the thing.  To apply successfully you need to extract the full MBA admissions value from what what you do and have done in your life.

Truth is, if you just hack out pumpkin that’s not something you will get much advantage from talking about in your MBA essays. But there are people out there that have incredible craft and design skills, and perhaps are part of the international Maker Movement and present at Maker “faires”, and if that is you then that is something you absolutely should talk about in your essays or MBA interview.

The Maker Movement is a loose connection of crafts people, technologists, and tinkerers who make stuff, from basic crafts to the latest gizmos.

It’s creative. Innovative. Productive. Self-reliant. Often team-oriented. These are all value points that matter to MBA  Adcoms.

The takeaway principle is this: whatever it is that you do or are part of may seem too small and piecemeal to matter for MBA admissions. And on its own it probably is.

But look for ways to connect it to what is valuable in MBA terms. Note this sometimes requires bridging-up in terms of scale, or linking disparate items to an organizing category.

In this specific example, carving a pumpkin has no intrinsic value to your MBA application; but being active in and identified with the Maker Movement would have many dimensions that you could mine for an MBA admissions boost.

You’ve traveled widely. Can you extract its full MBA admissions value?

I’d estimate that three out of five MBA applicants to top-tier schools have traveled widely, for work or for fun. It follows that in their MBA applications they cite travel as an activity they value and put it among the important experiences they have had. They think that journeying across the world speaks for itself as proof of “diversity.” Travel broadens the mind and all that.

This is true. But there is a lot of value to be had in travel that MBA applicants often don’t get to. Here I tip my metaphorical hat to the mother of an MBA Studio client from a while ago who gave her son the following feedback — before he came to me — which absolutely dovetails with how I exhort clients to squeeze admissions value from their travel (and other) experiences, for both the essays and MBA interview. I quote:

“I don’t think you have written something meaningful enough about your travels. You have traveled widely but it looks like it doesn’t seem to have influenced you, affected your outlook about people, society.

“Perhaps write something meaningful about poverty, and yet the ingenuity of people who have very little but are innovative, creative, hard working.

“Can you think of reasons why you chose to travel to these places, culture, philosophy, history, etc.?

“Some insight into the way you and your friend chose to travel, no fuss, not staying fancy places.

“This travel was a test also in being independent, showing initiative, taking calculated risks in foreign places. You don’t give yourself sufficient credit for these things.”

If all mothers had this depth of insight, I’d be out of a job. But, seriously, the task here, and everywhere in MBA admissions, is to extract the full admissions value from any and every activity you have done, experiences you’ve had, or choices you’ve made.

Look at your experiences, look at the skill sets and character traits of middle-to-senior managers, and make the link.

In this case an applicant go beyond claiming “travel experience” to demonstrating a nuanced outlook on foreign cultures; an appreciation of alternative value systems including alternative forms of innovation; a no-fuss, non-materialist sensibility; an ability to ride out adversity; and practice at being in unfamiliar situations and taking calculated risks.

Putting it like this, you turn the empty label of “travel experience” into a platform that demonstrates the kind of experience, and insight into experience, that an MBA admissions committee will warm to.

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