All posts by Avi Gordon

The 7 Habits of Highly Successful MBA Applicants

Happy Thanksgiving! To celebrate, here’s one from the files: American icon Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” sold over 20 million copies in 40 languages. It has its critics too. Nevertheless,  the soundbite “seven habits” has become synonymous with success-lingo, so I created my own Seven Habits of Highly Effective MBA Applicants. These are:

Habit 1. Know thyself. This is of course the Oracle at Delphi, but Covey wasn’t original either. The fact remains that 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. Another old saw, but no less true for being so. 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 and embraced significant experiences (work and other.) 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 Phantom of the Opera and you spend a lot of time on your sun tan… while there’s nothing technically wrong with this, you leave your competitors a lot 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.

‘Bait the hook’ says The Guardian. Its also there in MBA Admissions Strategy

Today a shoutout for this how-to-write better article in the Guardian, which happily says exactly what MBA Admissions Strategy says about anticipating reader needs and serving those needs in MBA admissions essays.

Here’s the Guardian: “Call it audience awareness, call it decorum, call it reader relations if you like, but the key principle of all persuasive writing is customer service. I’m fond of a quote – variously attributed – that says: “When you go fishing, you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.” An obvious principle, easily lost sight of.

“Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes governs everything from the shape of your argument to the choice of vocabulary. Ask what they do and don’t know about the subject, and what they need to; not what you know about it. Ask what they are likely to find funny, rather than what you do. What are the shared references that will bring them on board? Where do you need to pitch your language? How much attention are they likely to be paying?”

Here’s MBA Admissions Strategy: “MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say…

“Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months…

“Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly…

(BUT) “There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because the admissions committee wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype…

“Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—and then beyond that also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences.”

How to Avoid Empty Calories in your MBA Application Essay

One from the files: Let me quote Wikipedia, “Empty calories are a measurement of the energy present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An empty calorie has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying nutrients such as vitamins, dietary minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, or in the case of refined grains, fiber.”

Empty calories define most fast food, sugary drinks, and popular cereals, so much so that regulators have reigned in advertising low-food-value items to children.

Why do I raise this? Because an MBA admissions essay – like any other piece of writing – is a meal for the reader. The reader’s hope and quiet prayer is that the text will deliver the informational nutrients they are looking for, with little fat or waste.

Consider something like this: “My journey to this point has been challenging, but the lessons I learned have been most meaningful – I truly have seen that a new beginning is an opportunity to start again, that life’s challenges are the best way to show one’s capability and forge memorable experiences, and that through passion and perseverance one can make a difference in the world.”

Or this: “I believe the best leaders are those who do things for the right reasons, grounded in a thorough understanding of economics, business, strategy, and innovation. I want to be a leader who is open-minded, can manage complex situations, and empowers people.”

Forget the turgid writing and cliche’s-running-amok for a moment. That can be fixed. The point is, even if fixed, there is still nothing there.

From the Adcom readers’ point of view there is no nutrition in the text, nothing that tells them anything interesting or specific or memorable about these applicants and why they should be admitted to b-school. There is no data, there is no record of action, no unique insights. Just words taking up space. That is, just empty calories.

The task of the MBA admissions essay is to explain your admissions value to Adcom, and you won’t achieve this via empty text. You must present nutrition-laden text, or you will be dinged.

This means excoriating anything and everything that tends towards vacant content, or generalization that could be said by any applicant. Cut that. Cut it urgently, to create space for reader nourishment –the crisp telling of specific experiences that show you in action, developing unique skills. Or fresh insights about yourself, about your future aspirations, and how you uniquely see the challenges of management and leadership.