Sep 09 2014

Profile Image of Avi Gordon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Responses

Sep 23 2013

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MBA Resume: Look To Your Future

Business schools ask for a resume as part of the application package because they are professional schools and they want to see your professional record. But MBA admissions resumes are subtly different from ordinary work resumes and it’s important to distinguish the different requirements — see below.

Much is also identical in a normal resume and an MBA admissions resume, so you should start by getting yours as good as it can be as per conventional requirements. There many guides to this, free on the Web. I won’t dwell on the principles at length here, but be certain to take note of at least these basic points.

A resume should:

  • Be in reverse chronological order, education last
  • Contain tight clauses rather than full sentences, and not use the first person singular
  • Start items with the verb: Say “Managed team of…”; “Assigned priority to …”; and so on
  • Contain evidence, particularly quantitative records of budget managed or people supervised, etc.
  • Not contain obvious age, gender, race or other similar bio-data
  • Be easy on the eye (text at readable point size; layout not too dense)
  • Be absolutely, completely error-free

Those are the basics. And this is first base for Adcom too. They want to see you can do this common business communications task effectively.

Once you have that, then it’s time to adapt it to the needs of MBA admissions particularly. Adcom wants to be sure you are recruitable at the end of your stay on their campus, so your resume is the part of your application pack that most directly reassures on this. Good resume builders advise you to show as much experience relevant to the job you are applying for as you can, to reassure recruiters, and this it true of an MBA admissions resume too — only doubly so, because doing an MBA heavily implies that you will be transitioning to or accelerating quickly along a management path. Your resume needs to look forward to this (or to whatever you plan to do on MBA graduation.)

Look to the Future
The mistake that many of my clients make on their first draft is to proudly present their past experiences and achievements, which are very often technical or specific to the field they are exiting. Success is always good, but MBA Adcoms don’t really care whether you cracked a complex software conundrum or isolated a biological compound or developed prefabricated housing units. What they care about is whether you will make a good manager or leader, that is, the management portion that is there (or is implied potential) in what you did.

So that is where you should focus: the management, leadership, organizational (teamwork) or innovation implications of your past experience, that suggest future recruitability as a manager. Don’t say: “Developed molecular compound BN2P4R in 3 months using ‘BitsProDev’ software analytics.” Say: “Was part of team that developed unique molecular compound; led presentation to the Board; liaised with PR in media announcement.” And so on.

Augment don’t Repeat
The other key part of making your resume an MBA admissions resume is to work carefully with the knowledge that, unlike a typical employer, Adcom has various overlapping sources of information about you — not least all your file data. So you want to augment that rather than simply repeating it, in order to get your file data, resume, and essays to elegantly dovetail rather than simply overlap.

Your resume should not leave out basic resume attributes: dates, places, company names, and so on, even if this is already in your file data. But there are often ways to cut out repeating subsidiary information — names of products or service units and so on — that often just “jam up” a resume. This should leave space to go longer on quantitative evidence of management-oriented experiences and successes. In fact, I counsel admissions clients to put as much quantitative data in the file data and resume as they realistically can which, in turn, frees up the essays to be a little more personal and reflective.

Responses

Aug 20 2013

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MBA Adcoms: Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?

To be a successful MBA applicant, one key thing to get clear on is who you are talking to when you write MBA admissions essays.

Getting your head around who your reader is, is a crucial part of creating a winning communication and therein getting admitted.

One iconic profile is revealed in this now-somewhat-classic introduction to a Business Week interview with then-UCLA Anderson Director of MBA Admissions (now UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Director of Admissions) Mae Jennifer Shores. See: UCLA Anderson: Admissions Q&A – BusinessWeek.

“The Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions … says she ended up an admissions officer the way most people do—unintentionally. She went to Russia to teach public policy, but was assigned to teach negotiations at a business school at the last minute. After two years, she wanted to continue her Eastern European stay and almost took a job teaching in Kazakhstan. Her graduate school loans, however, forced her back to the U.S. There, Shores’ international and business-school experience eventually led her into the admissions department.”

Every MBA admissions officer is different of course. But what they have in common is that it is unlikely they planned and studied for this career. Most come to it “sideways.” They typically have broad interests, are people-focused, and are good communicators. They have lived life in more than one industry and often more than one country. They are generally not business trained, although many have some background in HR or marketing.

This makes the MBA application essay writer’s job harder and easier. It’s easier to engage an interesting person. Almost anything topic you raise will be “valid” for them.

But it’s harder if all your stories are highly technical, or closely work-oriented or if your ability to reflect deeply and persuasively on your life and career path is limited. You’re not going to interest the likes of Mae Jennifer Shores unless you can extract the human interest and personal journey from your life story.

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Jul 23 2013

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Applying for an MBA? Show you know the MBA Classroom Experience

It’s not easy getting into an elite MBA program. The odds are stacked against you. But you do have resources, and none is better to get acquainted with at the start of the admissions season than the many freely available videos out there that take you inside the MBA classroom. Here’s one from Darden (University of Virginia Business School) that focuses on the case method.

The value in watching videos like this is the raw insight you get as to what actually goes on in a b-school classroom. This gives a very good idea of the kind of applicant MBA Adcoms are looking for.

Particularly note how much the emphasis is on discussion, communication, questioning, argument, and independent thinking. Yes, this a case study class, but not only are case classes very common, but even non-case MBA classes are less about absorbing facts or calculating answers than about navigating complex situations and marshaling sound judgments.

If you show you know what it takes to learn the elite MBA way, and position yourself as the kind of student that will succeed in this open-discussion “evaluative” learning environment, you’re on your way to being a successful applicant.

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