All posts by Avi Gordon

MBA Adcom is not a venture capital firm

I’m sometimes asked for the greatest mistakes applicants make in MBA admissions essays, and at some point I’ll pull together my all-time list. But in the meantime, here’s a mistake that I’ve seen a lot of among clients this year so far: muddling up the demands of MBA admissions and a venture capital pitch.

What I mean is, applicants who are on an entrepreneurial track (including social entrepreneurship) and who are therefore talking about a future creating and building a firm, feel they have to make a VC pitch for their proposed venture. They seek to justify themselves in terms of potential market segments, working capital requirements, time to breakeven, and so on.

Now it is always good for MBA admissions to show detailed, careful thinking. And if your “why-an-MBA” is based on a new business, you need to talk about the proposed venture and its industry-market background in a specific and knowledgable way.

But you don’t need to make “the business case.” Adcom is not a VC firm. As long as the idea is not manifestly absurd, they can’t determine if it will actually work, nor are they ever going to try. This is not their skillset, and not their fundamental concern.

Put it this way: A VC firm will “like” a business idea if it thinks it will get out (a investment multiple of) more money than it puts in. If so, the VC will, to quote Dragon’s Den, “make you an offer,” that is, invest cash for a percentage of the business.

MBA Adcoms are not investing cash. They will “like” a business idea enough to make you an offer (an offer of a place in the b-school) if your venture seems broadly plausible, interesting, ambitious, doing something worthwhile in the world, and worthy of an MBA.

So, while you should make a general case for your new product or service, in reality the venture does not have to watertight. You can include the jumps of ambition and enthusiasm that you would have to scrub from a funding pitch.

But there is a wrinkle: Adcom is like a venture capital firm in one way. It is well known that VCs judge two things: the business idea AND the entrepreneur, because they are investing in the person or management team as much as the project. Even a mediocre idea can be a winner, if put in really competent hands. In this sense Adcom mirrors the VC, asking themselves: (whatever the applicant wants to do…) “Can he do it?” Can she pull it off?”


Answering the QS World MBA Tour’s admissions questions in 100 words or less recently asked for my brief and succinct summary input for an upcoming story on MBA application essays and letters of recommendation. If nothing else it was a challenge in writing tightly. And as it turned out, it provides a summary of some key deliverables and concerns, so I thought I’d share the experience here:

What should/shouldn’t MBA applicants include in their admissions essays?
Applicants should include points that carry admissions value. What is value? Any attributes or experiences that are relevant to peer education and not common in the applicant pool; anything that will get you noticed or make you stand out as a worthwhile addition to the classroom, on campus, and one day in the alumni network. What not to include? Don’t praise the school (they know they’re good); don’t repeat items on your resume; don’t denigrate anyone or any organization; don’t whine about life’s obstacles or blame others. Finally, don’t state the obvious — if you are talking about water you needn’t add that it is also wet.

Who should/shouldn’t they ask for letters of recommendation?
Reco’s are Adcoms only reliable way of finding out what you are like in a professional environment. Therefore, do not ask one of an old professor, your yoga instructor, your priest and so on. You need a reco from your current work supervisor (if not, explain why not) and other reco’s should come from other current or past professional supervisors who know you well. Don’t go for someone with a great title, who hardly knows you. Whoever you get — make him or her give examples and specific instances to back up their claims about you. Brief them on your application content so their communication is consonant with your own. Ask them to to address and reassure Adcom on any weaknesses apparent in your resume, if applicable.

What are the biggest mistakes that many applicants make in their essays?
One common mistake is to try be like a “business school applicant.” There is no one such thing; you will just sound generic and boring. Be yourself, and you will sound genuine and alive and interesting-to-meet. Don’t forget to give specific examples which create interest for the reader. Further, it’s pointless to claim an experience or attribute without giving some proof (a specific example or event or data or awards that demonstrates the attribute is real.) Also, don’t imagine that your reader is a financial or technical person. Adcoms members have a real mix of backgrounds, but at heart they are human resources professionals, and MBA admissions is an HR function.

What are optional essays? Should applicants bother writing them, as they are optional?
Optional essays are used to mitigate a weakness or explain something that may be confusing about your background or career path. They are not a way to get more text in. It is a statement of strength as an applicant not to have to use the optional essay. Only use it if you have something specific to address, and when you’ve addressed it, stop writing — there is no requirement to go to full essay length.