Category Archives: Ethics & Community

MBA Admissions: About You. About More Than You

The military style of management is usually best avoided in MBA admissions because it is not subtle or complex enough for civilian organizations.

MBA Admissions  committees are interested in your leadership style with respect to how you are able to motivate people without resorting to chain of command. To go up to someone’s desk and scream in their ear is hardly going to work in the office. In business, pulling rank usually does more harm than good.

However, occasionally there is something to be gleaned from the military, and here is a video worth two minutes of your time. It features Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, now  Governer-elect of Missouri.

In it he describes his epiphany during ‘Hell Week’ when it dawned on him: “This isn’t about me. This test is about my ability to lead and be of service to the people who are in that tent right now.”

Here’s the point from an MBA admissions perspective:

A lot of applicants describe corporate hazing of one type or another. That is, the 80 hours a week worked, vertical learning curves ascended, all-nighters pulled, jet-lag endured, and so on — in terms of personal gain. “I suffered, I showed perseverance and came though it, and learned a lot, and now I’m a better and stronger person.”

That’s okay as far as it goes.

But the real admissions jackpot comes from being able to see it and frame it in cohort terms. How the pain was all about bearing the load with and for the rest of the group, towards achieving goals for the group.

That is, how your effort was about more than just you. Therefore implying what you will do with your MBA will also be more than just about you.

In this regard, note how often MBA admissions instructions from Adcoms conspicuously remind you how leadership is about collective responsibility.

Here’s one from MIT Sloan a few years back: “We seek to enroll well-rounded individuals with the following characteristics:

  • Success in your professional endeavors (whether you are well into your career or a college senior)
  • Ability to collaborate to accomplish a common goal
  • Drive to inspire others to achieve success
  • Vision to seek alternative solutions to existing challenges
  • Pursuit of meaningful goals.”

First Round MBA Essays: Why Have Applicants Turned Into Monks and Saints?

Here’s one from the files, which I wrote a few years back at exactly this point in the admissions season, in responses to Round 1 essays I was seeing then. Given the essays I’m seeing now, I’m reminded of it:

You are not applying to join a holy order. You are not applying to Amnesty International. You are not applying to save the rainforests or unmelt the ice caps or feed the starving or create Middle-East peace.

You are applying to business school.

At business school, yes there will be electives around well-meaning things, but by far the main agenda of an MBA is to present you with and test you on classic curriculum stuff to do with finance and operations and marketing and strategy. They will not teach you to weave sisal or wash Zika babies.

Now of course you are a good human being. And you should certainly communicate to Adcom (with evidence) that you are a good human being, which includes being concerned about major domestic or world problems. And not just concerned: wanting to play your part in fixing them too. You definitely need to apply with a meaningful purpose to your future career, and it’s fine to want to improve social welfare at home or abroad.

But you are applying to business school.

So keep it credible. The pertinent question for MBA admissions is: how will you make a business or take a business in the direction of broader community benefit? How and why do you need business and management and leadership skills to make the difference you plan to make?

Here’s a clue to hitting the right note: one person or a group of well-meaning people can make a little difference somewhere. But a business, or a large organization, professionally managed, properly financed and running at optimum efficiency can make a whopping difference. That’s where you want to go.

If you do this, your MBA application will retain its credibility. If you say you want to run an education business in Ho Chi Minh City, Adcom will believe you. If you say you want to teach long-division to Vietnamese orphans, they won’t.

 

Maslow’s Hierarchy and the MBA Admissions Goals Essay

Abraham Maslow created a 5-level theory of human motivation (Psychology Review, 1943) in which he proposed that human needs and satisfaction levels move upwards according to a “hierarchy” of needs. When lower needs such as sustenance and safety are met, we aspire to fulfill social, self-esteem, and self-actualization needs. The chart looks like this:

credit: Wikipedia
credit: Wikipedia

(The structure of the pyramid itself has been tinkered with over time, for example by Manfred Max-Neef, who sees levels of subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, freedom.) But the core insight remains: once basic levels of fulfillment are achieved, and as long as they remain achieved, we move up the hierarchy in search of broader fulfillment.

What does this have to do with MBA admissions essays, and how does this help those struggling with the MBA admissions goals essay question in particular?

It helps because it provides a quick, reliable guide to the necessary reach of the essay. Too often applicants deal only at levels 2 and 3, talking of security and quality of employment, taking care of family (including elderly or immigrant parents) and developing friendship and contact networks, career progress, and so on.

This is all important. But there is more to say, and Maslow shows the way to it. The rest of your motivation statement should be rooted in levels 4 and 5: how the MBA will take you activities that create self-respect, and the respect of others, what you will create, or solve or build, and why this will be self-actualizing at the highest level.

As I tell my clients: a good career and family security are great things to want, but what comes after that? You don’t need to aspire to save the world, but you do need to reach into yourself and ask: “levels 4 and 5 — what are they for me? What would actualizing myself at these levels look like? And how will an MBA be part of the route that gets me there?”