Category Archives: MBA Adcom

‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’

In normal times the answer to this question is ‘yes.’ Unless there is a compelling no-fault reason you are unemployed, or you have just sold a company for a few million bucks, your unemployment will count against you. In a situation where 3 in 20 are admitted, it’s going to be hard to be one of the three.

But these are not normal times. Lots of people have been squeezed out of the job market due to the Credit Crunch and resulting recession. If you’re one of them, Adcom will understand that. The emphasis then shifts to how you have responded: (a) what have you done with your time, and (b) how has the experience changed you? How have you grown? Unemployment often forces on us a period of life-stocktaking, where we have the breathing space to reevaluate our goals or at least ask ‘what do I really want to do next?’ Adcom is interested to see if you can do this ‘personal work,’ and what your answers are.

Keep in mind also that the average senior executive — your role model in your MBA aspiration — will face periods of career upheaval. Showing you can cope with this is a mark in your favor. For a sense of what others are doing and thinking, and particularly how to reflect on this kind of career bump, see the Wall Street Journal blog ‘Laid off and Looking.’

Also see The Rose Report, written by Rose Martinelli, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions at Chicago Booth GSB. I’m a big fan of this blog which really walks the walk in making the admissions process transparent. This is what Rose has to say on whether unemployed candidates will get into Booth this year:

“The simple answer is yes! Many people have been displaced over the past year through no fault of their own, and finding a new job in their target industry/function has been equally difficult.

So what can you do? First, take stock of what you have learned about yourself during this time. For many of you, this may have shaken your confidence and impacted what you want to do with your life/career going forward. Help us to understand this in your application. Second, let us know what you have been doing with your newfound freedom and what motivates you. Are you taking classes, volunteering your services, traveling, etc.? There is no right or wrong activity… Again, help us to understand your choices and motivations. As you’ve probably learned by now, we’re so much more interested in how you have coped with these surprises and what you’ve learned about yourself.”

Footnote: back in June I posted an article here about the humanities-based diversity of Adcom’s own career backgrounds, and how this should affect your approach. Martinelli fits this mold too. She received undergraduate and master’s degrees in vocal performance from Northwestern University, and spent 15 years as a professional opera and concert singer before doing an EMBA at Chicago Booth.

MBA essay word count: we can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Or can we?

“How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?” is a question I get a lot from clients and people who pop up on email.

To answer this, it’s essential, as always, to think about any process or task or limit in admissions from AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is AdCom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits applicants would ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste their time and the Committee’s. Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for, taking touching comfort in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is. More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and/or asking for an indulgence that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right. In fact, Stanford GSB explicitly allows this: its guidance is both per essay and for the essay set as a whole (1,800 words), so you are invited to trade off between essays as you see fit. How well you do this is, by the way, a test of your communications judgment.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself. But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted, talented individual with an valuable track record, and if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.

‘Blink’ in MBA essays, resumes, interviews, and emails to Adcom

“Blink,” by New Yorker writer and celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2005), is a book about first impressions, the first few seconds during which we appraise information and make instant judgments. Gladwell says these conclusions oftentimes produce better, more accurate, conclusions than those made by way of exhaustive analysis. One example he gives is of an art dealer who looked at an antique sculpture and just “knew” it was a forgery–and was right–well ahead of the subsequent analysis to prove this, which would take months or years. When people talk about “love at first sight” or “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” they are talking about the Blink factor.

Michael LeGault came out with a rebuttal – “Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye,” and the jury is certainly still out on whether “Blinking” provides a better basis for decision-making than formal analysis. But the point is it certainly provides, in every situation, an ever-present alternative basis for decision-making (whether the decision-maker is aware of it or not).

The implication for MBA admissions is that, while b-school Adcoms everywhere would assert that they rigorously analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate–and they certainly do–there is also considerable “Blink” involved in how they choose one over the other. Note that Adcom essay readers and committee members are not seeking to make an impressionistic judgment. In fact the opposite is true. But they will be picking up impressions at every turn. After all, they have to make a big decision, fairly quickly, about a complex situation (you and your future prospects) and they don’t actually have that much formal stuff to go on.

So, the Blink factor counts for a lot in MBA admissions, and before Adcom even gets to fully considering an applicant’s grades and scores, performance metrics, and work history, they will have formed an impression from the first things they see. It’s hard to know what they will see first of course, but very often it will be the file data and/or resume. An impression or “instinct” will form almost immediately and build through the course of considering your application, as they continue to absorb first impressions about each part of it–the essays, particularly their erudition and tone; the tone and warmth of recommendations and interview report, and so on. (The interview itself is of course another “Blink” decision situation.)

Note that this is all the fuzzy stuff of “tone” and “impression” that often cannot exactly be backed up with data. But it is crucial, and this is the way the admissions committee will get its working impression of your personality, motivation, determination, charisma, team orientation, and overall prospects, all of which will precede and then run in parallel with their more formal analysis.

Managing the Blink:

The best way to deal with Blink is to realize it is there, and always will be, and provide ways for admissions officers to use this mode in judging you. Expecting snap judgments about your motivation, take care that everything you submit is carefully checked and complete. Expecting snap judgments about your pre-MBA work experience, take care to get the highlights high up in the essay. Expecting snap judgments about your professionalism, take care that any correspondence you enter into (by phone or email) is scrupulously professional, and so on. In general you should play to the impression mode first, and follow this with data and detail that corroborates the impression.