Category Archives: MBA Adcom

Attention to detail, cont. Answering the MBA essay question exactly as posed

Further to my post last week on ‘the business school and the avocado’ — the importance of attention to detail and showing the effort you have put in to achieve it — I can add a coda directly from an MBA Director of Admissions:

Says Rose Martinelli, Assistant Dean of Student Admissions at Chicago Booth on her blog this week, “I thought I’d take a break from reading to share a few pointers about what I’ve learned about this year’s application. After you’ve completed your self-assessment and researched which schools fit your needs, then it is absolutely important that you READ and ANSWER the questions each school is asking. I say this largely because many schools have quite similar essays this year. For example our Essay 2 asks you to answer one of these two choices (500-750 words):

A. Describe a time when you wish you could have retracted something you said or did. When did you realize your mistake and how did you handle the situation? or
B. Describe a time when you were surprised by feedback that you received. What was the feedback and why were you surprised?
HBS asks: What have you learned from a mistake? (400 word limit); and
Wharton asks: Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? (500 word limit)

While we recognize that you are likely to apply to multiple schools, it’s important that you make sure you answer each schools’ questions carefully. Your attention-to-detail, effort, thoughtfulness, judgment in choosing which essays to answer, etc., help us to learn more about you and your candidacy for Booth. It’s not just the words you use…”

There you have it as clear as you could like it. First, attention to detail and effort does not go unnoticed or unrewarded, and in fact answering the Booth question in such a way as it could equally be an answer to the similar Harvard or Wharton questions will be poorly received. Second, tailoring your answers carefully to each precise question forms part of Adcom’s assessment of your detail-effort contribution.

None of this suggests you should not reuse material across multiple MBA applications; just that it has to be done with great care not to compromise the exactness of your answer to the specific question each time. If not, you’re coasting, and you can’t expect Adcom to reward you for it. There are ways of judging which parts of your essay ‘port’ to the new, similar question, and we’re happy to help you with this.

The little story of the business school and the avocado

In my book ‘MBA Admissions Strategy’ I offer the following advice: ‘Proofread to show your hunger’ (that is, hunger for admission, a real desire to be selected.) Typographic or other careless errors in your text immediately clues Adcom in as to how (un)careful you were with your text, and this tells them not only how organized and detail-oriented you are — whether you are a ‘finisher’ — but also how much you actually really care about your application to their particular school.

In this sense MBA admissions works just like a resume you send out for a job. If there’s one error in it, eyebrows will be raised. Two errors and you may as well not have sent it.

The longstanding ‘pet peeve’ across all schools is that the wrong school name often appears in the text. That is, Stanford GSB Adcom gets essays that say: “I would contribute to my peer learning environment at Wharton by …” Ouch.

Famously, the spellchecker will help you a bit, but is not foolproof. It will happily let you say your first mentor was your high school principle. It will not replace Booth with Tuck. Nor does it know that Haas is a business school, but Hass is an avocado.

The tricky thing is that you, the essay-writing applicant, can’t proofread your own work. Obvious errors will go undetected because you will be focused (rightly) on content and value delivery. The MBA Admissions Studio does not offer this service either, for the same reason. Proofreading should be done by someone who is seeing the essays for the first time, and who is tasked with looking for errors (not reading for content or value assessment.)

Take a tip from George Soros in Managing the B-School Failure Essay

The setback-failure-weakness essay is commonly asked for in MBA Admissions because it is a test of an applicant’s maturity, self-knowledge, honesty, and ability to learn from mistakes. It is, in other words, the biggest indicator of real leadership ability and potential.

Sample questions that approach this topic are:

Tuck-Dartmouth (Essay 3): Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?
Harvard Business School (Essay 2) Tell us three setbacks you have faced?
INSEAD (Essay 3) Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed. Discuss what you learned.
Judge-Cambridge (essay 2) What did you learn from your most spectacular failure?

MBA applicants often struggle with these essays because they feel that admitting a weaknesses or sharing a time when they failed erodes their candidacy. In fact, it does just the opposite. Leaders know their weaknesses, and can admit them to themselves and others — in order to work on them, or work around them. It shows self-insight and points to seniority. No one is comfortable talking about their weak spots and failure. But nobody is perfect or has not failed. Not Bill Gates, not Richard Branson, not me, nor you, nor the admissions officer.

So it is not admitting a weakness is what will get you dinged, because it’s like waving red beacon that betrays inexperience and a junior mindset. If you “have no weaknesses” that just tells Adcom that you don’t know what they are yet or that you’re too immature to face them. It says you don’t know yourself, therefore you don’t yet know where you will mess up. You are a liability to yourself and your company.

Take a tip from George Soros, self-made billionaire, philosopher, philanthropist, social reformer, and fund manager extraordinaire – famous for “breaking the Bank (of England)” by shorting the pound sterling in 1992 – who shares this candid account of his weaknesses:

“I’m a very bad judge of character. I’m a good judge of stocks, and I have a reasonably good perspective on history. But I am, really, quite awful in judging character, and so I’ve made many mistakes. It took me five years and a lot of painful experiences to find the right management team. I am please that finally I found it, but I cannot claim to be as successful in picking a team as I have been in actually managing money. I think that I’m very good as a senior partner, or boss, because I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties that fund managers face. When they are in trouble I can give them a lot of support, and that, I think, has contributed toward creating a good atmosphere in the firm. But I’m not so good at choosing them.” – ‘Soros on Soros: Staying Ahead of the Curve,’ Wiley & Sons, NY, 1995, p.18

See, the greatest business leaders all have weaknesses and all have made significant mistakes in their careers and their lives. The point is not to prove that you don’t fail, or won’t fail. It is to prove that you have the insight into yourself to be able to recognize and compensate for your weaknesses.

What Adcom wants to know is not how you avoided failure, but how you managed it, what you learned, what insights into yourself you gained, and how you grew from there. They want to see that you have the will and the insight to locate and understand the source of your mess up – the underlying weaknesses that caused it – and that you have the maturity to face and work on the issue.

To summarize: the setback essay is not testing to see if you have weaknesses. We all do. It is a test of your self-knowledge and maturity. The committee wants to see if you can candidly face, discuss, and work on your flaws, or if you will you try to hide them or blame circumstances or other people. This is a significant test of your readiness for senior leadership.

A note on tone
Soros is candid, straightforward, and objective in his self-analysis. He shares measured self-insight with the reader. He doesn’t try to slip in softening or deflecting phrases, or hide behind humor; nor is he self-excusing or whining and looking to blame others – the hallmarks of a too-junior applicant.

[Updated 9/2011]