All posts by Avi Gordon

MBA Admissions Optional Essay: To Do Or Not To Do?

As I look across my clients pushing their MBA essays for Round 2 deadlines, one common question I get is “should I use the optional essay?” (The add-on question at the end of the set, that basically says: ‘If there’s something else you’d like say, say it here.’)

So do you use it, yes or no? And if yes, what should you be talking about?

Traditionally this essay has been the place to mention and mitigate weaknesses. If your work history has been a little choppy, or your GPA a bit up-and-down, or similar, here is where you get credit by (a) ‘fessing up in advance of being ‘found out’ (Adcom sees all, so better to get in ahead of it) and (b) giving your explanation.

In this sense, the optional essay is not ‘optional’ if you have a weakness in your profile. If you have a gap in your employment history, or an ‘F’ on your record, or any such item that is not addressed elsewhere, it MUST be addressed here.

Use of the optional essay should be short and didactic. This is not the place to get poetic. Reveal the problem; make the most of the steps you took and/or are taking to ameliorate it, and stop writing. You don’t need to use the full length in this essay.

MBA admissions death comes to you via this essay if you name the problem but then find ways to excuse yourself or blame others. The admissions test is: can you take responsibility for your own mistakes? If yes, your application goes forward. If no, you’re dinged.

But, here’s the rider in choosing to use the essay or not: if you don’t have a good explanation for a problem, better to say nothing. In other words, if your salary is low in comparison with the applicant pool because you are working in a non-profit environment, that’s worth a mention. If your salary is low because you haven’t been promoted in 4 years, better to say nothing than draw attention to it.

All this, above, applies when you have a weakness or irregularity that demands discussion. But how about if you don’t? Can you use the optional essay to add another story, to tell Adcom a bit more about you, and make one final push for admission?

Traditional MBA admissions thinking says don’t use the optional essay in this way. It looks under-confident and can be interpreted as overreaching. But times change. And current practice seems to accept that if you have a positive point that is additional and special, that the admissions committee needs to know to have a genuinely better understanding of you, then you should put it down here.

Whatever you do, don’t use the essay to provide a summary of your application, just in case Adcom isn’t smart enough to have gotten it the first time you said it. What happens if you do that? I know you know… ding.

10 Ways To Win The Game Of MBA Fairs

MBA fairs are events where many business schools are present in one place, each at a school-branded stall or booth, ready to interact with and provide information to prospective applicants.

How should you, the applicant, navigate these events? Here’s a 10-point guide:

1. Know why you are there. You are there to find out information about schools that is *not* on their Website. You want to be asking questions that will fill out your knowledge of the institution and the program, so that you can make good decisions where to apply. Some of what you learn should also be useful in your MBA admissions essays.

2. Know why they are there. The schools pay large sums to attend, and their goal is to promote their school brand and get the best set of applicants. They also want to provide enough information about their timelines so the good potential candidates get themselves into the process on time (including getting visas, etc.)

3. Be realistic about how many potential applicants any school rep will see in a day. That is, hundreds. That means no, he or she very likely will not remember you when you apply. But you may reference a conversation you had at the booth in your MBA essay.

4. Keep a savvy distinction in your head between a school rep and the admissions committee. It’s possible but unlikely that anyone from Adcom is at the booth.

5. Knowing your’e not talking to Adcom, and that the rep won’t particularly remember you, you can relax. This is not the time or place to sell yourself. Ask questions. Find out as much as you can. That’s what you’re there for and all that matters. If you are simply yourself it’s not going to harm your chances in any way. (For the same reason, there’s no need to dress up for an MBA Fair. Dress normally. And wear comfortable shoes!)

6. Knowing the school rep you’re talking to doesn’t make any admissions decisions –not even the first cut– also means there’s no point in monopolizing their time. Find out what you need and move on. Play nice for others who may be waiting.

7. Depending on your style, it’s worth having a planned route. You will have a good idea of the schools you want to talk to, and with a floor plan you can cover your ground in the most efficient way. But don’t shut out serendipity. Part of the benefit of an MBA admissions fair is discovery of the hidden gem.

8. Quality of engagement is more important than quantity. Having had a handful of significant chats with school reps is more valuable than saying hello and picking up the marketing material from 20 booths.

9. Go early. You want to catch the reps when they are fresh and when they have relatively more time for you.

10. Keep it professional. You’ll share some of your back-story and motivation in a decent conversation with a school rep, but you should remain at a business-like level. Your time at the booth can’t get you admitted, but it could circumscribe your chances.

‘Seven Habits’ of Highly Successful MBA Applicants

Motivational guru Stephen Covey wrote ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ which sold over 20 million copies in 40 languages. The book has critics but obviously also rings true for many. Anyway, the concept “seven habits” is synonymous with success, so I post my “Seven Habits” of Highly Effective MBA Applicants:

Habit 1. Know yourself. Self-knowledge, particularly in this case knowledge of the parts of yourself that count for MBA admissions—and being able to find these attributes in your profile—is the core of MBA admissions success.

Habit 2. Be yourself. If you don’t apply as “you,” you lose the authentic power of your own voice. Many applicants try to apply as someone else, or the “ideal” applicant. Being dinged for being you is hard. Being dinged for being someone else is pathetic.

Habit 3. Gain and demonstrate experience. Successful applicants have sought out many work and life significant experiences You don’t need to have traveled to the International Space Station to have had a significant experience. You just need to have taken the life chances that came your way, and be able to talk intelligently about them.

Habit 4. Develop and demonstrate character. Experiences, particularly challenging ones, create character. Good character is not just good ethics. It is the fully rounded resource base for individual decision-making and action that leads to positive choices for the individual and those around him/her.

Habit 5. Assume and demonstrate seniority. Successful applicants have reached for opportunities to become senior in their spheres of activity. Seniority is not a job type or a salary level; it is any position that implies responsibility, influence, and leadership of others.

Habit 6. Be bigger than you. Successful MBA applicants have walked the walk of doing something that is not entirely self-oriented. As I’ve written elsewhere, you don’t have to have fed the starving in Ethiopia: almost any form of unpaid community involvement counts.

Habit 7. Simplify. Push yourself to know what’s really important to say in your application, and say only that. Don’t throw everything at Adcom and hope something sticks.

Habit 7+1. Covey added an eighth habit, see below. My eighth is: A touch of class. You don’t need to listen to Dvorak while pruning your bonsai and sipping chai tea (see Habit 2.) But if your favorite book is Harry Potter and your favorite show is Love Island and you spend a lot of time on your sun tan… while there’s nothing technically wrong with this, you leave your competitors a plenty of room to beat you.

For the record, these are Covey’s seven: Be proactive. Begin with the end in mind. Put first things first. Think win-win. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Synergise: learn to work with others to the benefit of all parties. Sharpen the saw: keep yourself physically, mentally and spiritually refreshed through such things as exercise, reading, prayer and good works. He later added the eighth: find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.