All posts by Avi Gordon

How To Find Your USP For MBA Admissions

One from the files: There’s a debate in the MBA Admissions community as regards the benefits of applicants “selling themselves.”

On the one hand, some say the applicant is as one among dozens of cereals in the supermarket aisle, and so has to work to actively pitch herself to the Admissions Committee to stand out as a valuable admissions “package” and thus be selected.

Others say the applicant should not do ‘a sales job.’ Any form of selling takes away from the authenticity of his voice, which is what Adcom really wants to hear.

As in most things, the truth is somewhere in-between.

You can’t afford to be naive. Companies spend millions on marketing and sales because it works. Admissions to elite schools is very competitive, and if you pitch an admissions message that is tightly designed and produced to meet and beat Committee expectations, that will advance your admission chances.

On the other hand, if you come across like a used-car salesman with a greasy handshake and a cheesy grin, that’s obviously not going to help you at all. If you’re going to sell yourself in any way, you must sell yourself as an authentic, reflective voice imbued with “humble confidence” in your leadership skills; as a manifestation of ambition-with-integrity; as a persistent force for innovation; and so on.

If you can package yourself this way, then selling yourself will work for you.

And when selling yourself, don’t forget what is perhaps the very essence of a market proposition that works in the world — a unique selling point (USP.)

In other words, just as a venture capitalist will ask the entrepreneur of a new product: “what’s its unique selling point?” which is to say, what’s so different about this vs. all the other competing offerings in the market, such that the consumer is going to buy one? So you should ask yourself: “what’s my unique selling point for elite MBA admissions?” What is going to make Adcom pick me?

Two things come together in a USP: uniqueness and value. Uniqueness is what’s different about you compared with the general applicant: the things in your personal and professional experience that are uncommon. Value is what the Committee sees as valuable in you: what you will contribute to the program and the b-school, both while at school and in the future.

I’ve written in preceding posts about candidate uniqueness and candidate admissions value, and these topics are also handled in my book. My point here is to say: look for ways to run uniqueness and value together, and if you do, you’ve found your USP.

What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (And Then Submitted Them)?

Here’s one from the files: Getting your tone right in MBA Admissions essays — particularly a fine balance between self-confidence and humility — is really tricky.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, and the exact mix depends on the candidate. The swaggering quant at BlackRock is going to have to adopt a much more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

I help candidates check get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting back when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud, or in fact not loud enough

I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about this, and I remember some unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, then Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted at the time by Matt Symonds on Forbes.

Bolton’s advised candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Said Bolton: “You don’t need to lie to yourself. [Private] self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

There’s a lot in this. If you were to write strictly for yourself, you’d only be BS’ing yourself if you weren’t 100% honest about your motivations and intentions, and reasons for “Why an MBA” or “Why Stanford,” etc. You would hardly set out to “impress” yourself or to write what you think you want to hear.

Were you to be writing in your own private journal, you would sift honestly and reflectively through your experiences, and genuinely try to join the dots between your past accomplishments and future aspirations via an MBA at the particular institution.

The suggestion therefore offers a compelling device to cut through a lot of the preening and bluster that turns good candidates into bad applicants. It is a way to raise transparency and find that “genuine voice” that MBA admissions directors want to hear.

Having said all this… let’s not for a second be fooled that Bolton or any other admissions gatekeeper lives anywhere other than the real world. Neither Bolton, nor anyone else, got to be where they are by turning in their private reflections.

So, stay smart about the process. Once you’ve written your essays absolutely as-if for yourself, go through them again to add back clear admissions value, some gentle persuasion, a touch of artful promotion, and a dose of marketing sass before you hit “submit.”

Tuck Wants ‘Nice’ MBA Applicants. How To Respond?

As CBS News Moneywatch this week reported, to be successful in applying to the Dartmouth Tuck MBA program, candidates will need to show evidence of being a “nice” person.

Nice is part of a quartet of candidate evaluation criteria released by Tuck Adcom in early June—these being “Smart, Nice, Accomplished, Aware.”

How should you understand this, and what should youdo about it?

First, nice is a new-ish emphasis but not an entirely new criterion. Tuck and most other MBA programs have consistently put value on students who are collaborative, help others, and who interact thoughtfully and with good intentions.

In MBA Admissions Strategy, I conclude my list of the 25 different attributes and characteristics which Adcoms evaluate MBA applicants by, with this one:

(25) Likeability: This means someone whom people enjoy having around. All else being equal, people always choose people they like as colleagues and co-workers. If you are the otherwise perfect candidate, but you are arrogant, or emotionally unavailable, or an egotist, or antisocial, or ready to trample everyone else with a win-at-all-cost attitude, your application will stall. Business school is an intense 16-hours-a-day kind of place. Adcom prefers people who are genuine about who they are, and easy to live with and who will be easy for the other students, faculty, and recruiters to live with.”

This characteristic shares ground with others on my list, including awareness of self and others: being aware of how you come across;  emotional intelligence or “EQ”;  personal integrity and honesty; and being a collaborative team member.

On the Tuck Admissions site, nice means… “you cultivate a habit of kindness. You actively encourage, celebrate, and support others. But being nice does not mean you’re a pushover who always agrees and defers. Nice Tuck candidates exhibit emotional intelligence. You layer compassion onto courage, and challenge others tactfully and thoughtfully. You display both strength and vulnerability. You ask for help, and you help others. You’re positive and principled. You act with respect and integrity, even when it’s not convenient or easy. You show empathy for the diverse experiences of others, while also sharing your own. You recognize that your success and others’ success are interdependent, and generously invest in both. Being nice at Tuck means building trust through deep, genuine connections which endure for life.”

Tuck’s essay question that seeks evidence of your niceness is: “Tuck students are nice, and invest generously in one another’s success.  Share an example of how you helped someone else succeed.” (500 words)

Like most MBA admissions essays, there’s a quick, flat way to hack it, which probably won’t work, vs. a thoughtful, mature way to respond that takes more time, extracts more from you, and is more likely to succeed.

The flat way is to respond here is to give an example of when you helped someone complete a project or achieve a goal.

A better response would be to find ways to prove you have in yourself the complex matrix of ‘nice’ that Tuck Adcom is talking about. What example(s)  do you have where you helped someone AND it was an interdependent success; where you created trust, perhaps even lifelong trust; where you showed compassion; where you demonstrated good principles or created mutual respect; and so on.

If you can, go beyond their definition to make nice an even more nuanced value: how in your case it may include, for example, a sense of perspective, or timing, or soft-strength, or inclusivity, or more.