Category Archives: MBA Adcom

‘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.

Getting distinctiveness into your MBA application even if you think you have none

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a carry-all cop-out. What I mean is – putting it another way – the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you – it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything — you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

The recession adds weight to the voice of Career Services in MBA Admissions

Every year is similar in MBA Admissions, but slightly different given what is going on in the economy and the world. This year a key framing condition is the recession. Applicants who get into top schools will have a excellent spread of academic, professional, and extramural attributes. But the economic downturn will make itself felt, and one of the aspects of this was well picked up by Business Week this week in an article which says MBA Career Services departments are getting a stronger voice in who gets admitted.

Says BW: “With company recruiters becoming ever more selective, B-school admissions departments are taking a closer look at how easily candidates will be able to parlay their education into a job come graduation… While admissions officers have always favored these qualities, increasingly—as the job market tightens—they’re demanding them. Admitting employable students on the front end in some cases means shying away from some traditional admissions metrics such as test scores and grades and embracing professional qualifications such as interpersonal skills, proven job performance, and promotions.”

None of this is new. Future employability, quality career continuation, and likely starting salary have always been a consideration in MBA admissions. It’s just a shift to greater emphasis.

Recruiting well out of an MBA is one of the key function a business school offers. They do this for the candidate (it’s part of what you pay your tuition fees for) but it’s hardly altruism. This is because, among the matrices along which MBA schools are typically ranked is “percentage of students recruited on graduation,” and “average starting salary.” In other words the pressure is on Career Services to get these numbers up.

In good times they are willing to take a punt on students who have potential but not much or a record because it’s likely they will get a good offer (in boom times practically everyone at a top-20 school gets multiple offers). But in a bust Career Services knows it will be left with jobless graduates. Not only is it a headache to have them emailing you and endlessly bugging alumni, but it drives down rankings, to say nothing of word-of-mouth reputation.

So while b-school Admissions Services (Adcom) and Career Services are traditionally separate “empires,” in recessionary times Careers want to make sure they get the most recruitable candidates possible. So many schools’ Careers departments are demanding and getting a seat on Admissions Committees, where they can sit in on interviews and evaluate applications.

What does this mean for applicants this year?
Says BW: “The increased attention to job placement could spell trouble for candidates whose essays fail to outline clear career plans. Career switchers, with no work history in what they hope will be their new profession, might be similarly disadvantaged. The same goes for younger students as some schools up the criterion for average years of work experience.”

The way through this is, first, to play up your career progress and future employability (via all inputs: essays, résumé, interview, recommendations, etc.) The second is to have a really convincing, plausible, short-term career plan. Given your work history plus an MBA (from the particular school) can you make Adcom and Career Services believe you will be gainfully employed in a MBA-worthy position on graduation day? If you can do this, you’re one step closer to getting in.