The MBA Admissions Committee Is Not A Venture Capital Firm

I’m sometimes asked for the common mistakes applicants make in MBA admissions essays, and at some point I’ll pull together my all-time list. But in the meantime, here’s a mistake I see a lot of among clients: muddling up the demands of MBA admissions and a venture capital pitch.

What I mean is, applicants who are on an entrepreneurial track (including social entrepreneurship) and who are therefore talking about creating and building a firm, feel they have to make a VC pitch for their proposed venture. They seek to justify themselves and therein their MBA admission in terms of attractive markets for their product, low working capital requirements, short time to breakeven, and so on.

Now it is always good for MBA admissions to show detailed, careful thinking. And if your “why-an-MBA” is based on a new business, you need to talk about the proposed venture and its industry-market background in a specific and knowledgable way.

But you don’t need to make “the business case.” Adcom is not a VC firm. As long as the idea is not manifestly absurd, they can’t determine if it will actually work, nor are they ever going to try. This is not their skillset, and not their fundamental concern.

Put it this way: A VC firm will “like” a business idea if it thinks it will one day be able to exit the investment with much more money than it puts in. If so, the VC will, to quote Dragon’s Den, “make you an offer,” that is, invest cash for a percentage of the business.

MBA Adcoms are not investing cash. They will “like” a business idea if your venture seems broadly plausible, interesting, ambitious, doing something worthwhile in the world, and worthy of an MBA. If they do, your offer will be a place in their business school.

They take a bet you will be generally successful in your professional live, not that you will be financially successful in the particular venture you are talking about.

So, while you should make a general case for your new product or service, in reality your venture does not have to watertight. You can include the jumps of ambition and enthusiasm that you would have to scrub from a funding pitch.

One exception: MBA Adcoms are like venture capital firms in one way. It is well known that VCs judge two things: the business idea AND the entrepreneur(s), because they are investing in the person or management team as much as the project. Even a mediocre idea can be a winner if put in really competent hands. In this sense Adcom mirrors the VC, asking themselves: whatever the applicant wants to do, “can he do it?” Can she pull it off?”

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Why A Bad Boss Can Make For A Good MBA Admissions Essay

Unless you are independently wealthy or have been lucky enough to work for yourself all your life, chances are you’ve had a bad boss or have a partner or friend who has had.

You know the type: the boss who sets stretch tasks and but witholds the team resources to achieve them. Who talks about you taking more responsibility and the micromanages you. Who offers a grunt when you ace a project, but chews you over for 20 minutes because of a minor error. Who takes credit up the chain for great work you do, but won’t cover for you when deadlines slip…

I wrote about this here on this site years ago, and  was reminded of it again due to leadership sites I follow. At the time, my client had been doing everything right, killing himself to complete complex operations-IT projects, plus studying nights for an MS degree and managing a young family.

His boss committed all of the above evils and more. She would casually set him ‘by-close-of-business today” tasks late in the day, interfere in carefully nurtured team relationships he had built up over months, use fear of termination to crack the whip… and the list goes on.

At the first possible moment, he quit. Yay.

Listening to this phase of his life, I could at least offer some consolation. After the event, what he had was fabulous experience for his future role as a manager and leader, all of which would play well in an MBA admissions essay.

Why? Because if you have experienced having your motivation sapped, having to walk on eggshells around an idiot who controls you, having to grind your teeth in frustration at not being able to implement an obvious innovation — that is, if you have been poorly managed yourself, you have excellent insight into what not to do.

And therefore, reversing all that a bad boss does, you have a good idea what kind of leader you should be, and therefore are likely to be.

And for MBA admissions essay or interview purposes, your bad-boss story is a “proof event” showing you have been through real learning about management and have developed insights into how to handle people under you, and are therefore ready to manage effectively when your turn comes.

MBA Essay Length: We Can’t Go Over It. We Can’t Go Under It. Or Can We?

“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?” are questions I get a lot. Here’s an piece from the files:

To answer this, it is essential, as always, to think about any process or task in admissions from the MBA admissions committee’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 Adcom’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, in 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 the exact round number asked for, taking refuge 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 advantage 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. In fact, Stanford GSB has historically explicitly encourageed this giving guidance both per essay and for the essay set as a whole, inviting you to strategically trade off length between essays as you see fit. How well you do this is, by the way, is a test of your communications judgment.

Having said all this, be aware that it is possible that the computer system will act as a policeman, stopping you from going over the limit, or cutting your text in mid-stream. I believe this this less prevalent now than it was in the early days of essay uploading.

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 individual with an significant track record, so 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.

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