All posts by Avi Gordon

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.

The Three Types of MBA Admissions Dings, And Their Fixes

Happy new admissions cycle! Some you out there will have the question: “I-was-dinged-last-year, what-did-I do-wrong?” So this seems as good a place as any to start the discussion this year, in the spirit of helping those dinged last year apply better, and those who are applying for the first time understand the category of potential pitfalls.

There are three types of ding:

  1. You were dinged because there is something or things in your background that make you just not good enough or right enough for the program, in comparison with the average standard of admitted applicants. This could be because of lack of high-quality or brand-company work experience, a low GMAT or GPA, being too young or old for the cohort profile, and so on. In this category, your ding is caused by something or things that you are, or are not. You fail to meet minimum qualification standards.
  2. You are good enough and fit well — you are a competitive, qualified applicant — but applied badly in that you made a clear mistake or raised a red flag in your application. Your ding was caused by something specific you said or did not say.
  3. You are good enough and fit well — you are a competitive, qualified applicant — and you didn’t make any obvious application mistakes, but applied badly in that your admissions value was not clear, or you didn’t stand out. This is the category of applicant that Adcom refers to when it says “we had many qualified applicants and we couldn’t take them all.” Your ding was caused by other qualified competitors applying better than you did in a system where there are more applicants than places.

What are the fixes? Let me take them one by one.

In the first situation, the problem is choice of school, or career timing of application or both. Bear in mind that everyone has weaknesses — I’ve never seen an applicant without weaknesses (though they don’t always know it.) But here we are talking about aggregate weakness in an applicant such that, no matter how they apply, they are going to be dinged because they don’t meet the standard of generally accepted applicant. The dinged candidate “doesn’t have the goods” so, logically, the only way to solve the problem is to get the goods, or lower one’s school aspirations, or both. Getting the goods is realistic only if age is on your side and you can take a few years to drive up your MBA admissions value via new career experiences, greater responsibility, new leadership roles, promotions or awards, new extra-mural participation, and so on.

The second situation is the easiest of the three to deal with. Here the solution has to do with recognizing in advance what creates or exacerbates problems in an application, so-called “red flags,” and staying well clear of these. These problems are, in theory at least, easily fixable once recognized (assuming none of them point to deeper category 1 problems.)

The third type of ding is all about competitive admissions. Here the applicant didn’t do anything wrong, just didn’t do as well as others in the application process. The solution has to do with applying all the hard and soft value-enhancement and value-communications techniques that make an application ‘pop’ from the pile. This is not easy, and varies on a case-by-case basis. But there are general principles that apply in optimizing any application.

I’ve written extensively, on this site and in my book, on the profile principles and communication strategies that can be applied, including creating the foundation of a solid yet differentiated application platform and driving up candidate value and uniqueness through use of memorable proof examples and stories.