Category Archives: MBA Admissions Book

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” 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 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 reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life 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 for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness 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, 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. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is 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.

 

MBA Studio is 10!

It is 10 years since MBA Studio was founded. It started more by chance than design, as seems to happen in this industry. I had worked on a few applications, including my own, and found I was good at it (and successful.) This was due to my media-editor background, my strategic marketing training, and my b-school cultural immersion. Anyway, quite early on I realized I was saying things to clients that had not been written down. So I wrote a book (MBA Admissions Strategy) which, happily, was snapped up by the first publisher I sent it to (McGraw Hill) and has since become a best-seller, now in 2nd edition.

On the back of the book, and gratifyingly also often by word of mouth, the client side of the business grew strongly and I was quickly forced in to a decision that has defined MBA Studio ever since: Do I adopt a flotilla of sub-consultants and spend my time managing them? Or do I stay a hands-on practicing MBA admissions advisor? I chose the latter because I was far more motivated by the intellectual and strategic challenge (and fun!) of crafting a savvy application that finds the way to pick the lock of the admissions gates and get a person admitted to an elite school, sometimes beyond even their own expectations. There is nothing better than getting the “wow, I’m in!” email, knowing I’ve meaningfully improved someone’s entire career and life prospects. (Full disclosure: I do of course have marketing and administrative support staff.)

So it’s been 10 years, and here’s to the next 10. As a point of demarcation, I’ve decided to implement some changes in service provision. Where MBA Studio used to handle all aspects of the application, as defined by the book, the focus going forward will be on the essays and allied asynchronous services. This is a business decision. Full-service provision for a one-consultant operation is inherently “lumpy” – I have to leave big spaces of time to fully serve clients who sign up in August for a large menu of services that they may use sporadically, or not at all, or in a January rush! This means every year I’ve been turning clients away. With an essay focus I’ll be able to work more consistently, and for more clients.

In another adjustment, the free essay review is withdrawn. There is simply no longer time to do them. In its place are sample reviews which demonstrate what’s on offer (see Services tab.)

 

Happy Thanksgiving, and some Nourishment for the Upcoming MBA Application Grind

I have various clients who are in the “uphill” phase of their MBA applications; having done one or two for Round 1, now pushing for a few more by early January. The gloss of self-discovery and self-expression is gone. It’s now just about getting it all done and done well, in what seems like an endless, thankless grind.

I’m sure there are many others out there in the same position.

So, as a pick-me-up, I’m sharing an old post: a heartwarming report from a 2009 MBA Studio client, who detailed his extended MBA admissions journey, see original report.

Not only is it a worthy success story which I’m most gratified to have played a part in — helping this very deserving applicant with a 640 GMAT into a top European business school — but it is also instructive as to the ups and downs of elite MBA applications, and the virtues of “keeping on keeping on.”

Here is what he wrote in the original:

“Hard work certainly goes a long way. These days a lot of people work hard, so you have to make sure you work even harder and really dedicate yourself to what you are doing and setting out to achieve.” — Lakshmi Mittal

“The above quote by the great Mittal is really my matra and this is what i believed in when i started on this journey. There were a great deal of challenges and difficulties that i faced but what kept me going was the ultimate goal! MBA is what i wanted to do, this would take me to my destination and i wanted to give in my 100 percent to get there!

“I started this blog back in February, 2009 and at that time I had no idea what was ahead of me. I still remember my first post on 9th February 2009. That was the day when I first laid my hands on the “Official Guide for GMAT Review”. That was the day I promised myself that I’ll put in my sole(sic) into the GMAT preparation and give-in my best shot towards my business school application.

“So without further ado here is a timeline representation of some of the important events that followed that day:

Feb 9, 2009 – I prepared a GMAT gameplan – a time table of how I’ll be taking on the GMAT. Ordered 5 books and dowloaded the beatthegmat flashcards by EricMore Info
Feb 18, 2009 – Took my first Diagnostic test from the official guide. Did pretty well!
Mar 2, 2009 – Took my first GMAT CAT (GMATPrep 1 downloaded from mba.com) – didn’t go well.
Mar 16, 2009 – Took my first Manhattan GMAT CAT
Apr 1, 2009 – Found out about GMAT Focus – that was a true gem!
Apr 20, 2009 – My first 700 score in a practice test!
Apr 22, 2009 – Influenced by all the GMAT gurus in the Beatthegmat community, I started an Error Log to record all my errors and started going throu’ them once every 2 days along with the flash cards.
May 1, 2009 – A very anxious day indeed with GMAT in 24hrs!
May 2, 2009 – GMAT Day (Attempt 1) – scored a 640 (Q44 V34). Was disappointed with the score and decided to re-take.
May 4, 2009 – Back on with preparation! Analyzed what went wrong and tried to come up with solutions. (You can read about it here)
May 7, 2009 – Scheduled my GMAT (attempt 2) for 19th June.
June 1 to June 8, 2009 – Took 4 practice CATs and averaged around 720! It was a real moral boost.
June 19, 2009 – One of the worst days of my journey – GMAT attempt 2 – 620!! Herez some realization.
June 24, 2009 – Back in the game for another attempt. This was the first time i met Charles – the best tutor in NYC.
July, 2009 – Rigorous practice. And this time with tougher materials such as LSAT critical reasoning book, GMAT Focus, and others. (More info)
August 8, 2009 – Realized something – I’m a horrible standardized test taker. GMAT (Attempt 3) – 640, Again! (More Info) I decided to stop wasting any more time on GMAT started the b-school hunt with my 640!
August 9 to 11, 2009 – Prepared a list of parameters that would help me select 6-7 b-schools that i’ll apply to. Shortlisted a few schools in Asia and Europe. (More Info)
August 15, 2009 – Prepared an outline for essays. First stop – INSEAD! Quite a bold move eh! icon smile An MBA application journey, from GMAT prep to acceptance
August 24, 2009 – INSEAD essays first draft – ready!
Sep 1 to 24, 2009 – went over 4 more drafts of INSEAD essays.
Sep 28, 2009 – After 6 drafts of essays, finally submitted my INSEAD application.
Sep 29, 2009 – Submitted my application to University of Hong Kong (I still haven’t heard back from them icon smile An MBA application journey, from GMAT prep to acceptance )
Oct 4, 2009 – ESADE Application submitted – after 3 drafts of essays!
Oct 6 to12, 2009 – IESE essays – done with my 3rd draft of essays.
Oct 15, 2009 – ESADE invited me to interview – this was one of my happiest moments since it was my first interview invite!!
Oct 23, 2009 – IESE Application submitted.
Oct 26, 2009 – IESE Invites me to interview within 3 days – That was the fastest response i’ve got.
Nov 1 to 20, 2009 – Interview preparation along with NUS Business school application essays.
Nov 5, 2009 – INSEAD dings! I kinda expected that.
Nov 13, 2009 – NUS Application submitted.
Nov 22, 2009 – ESADE Admissions interview (face to face with adcom). I still remember that day. It went amazingly well and I was quite confident on making it.
Nov 23, 2009 – IESE Interview – My longest interview but was a fantastic experience with a super friendly adcom!
Nov 25, 2009 – IESE Waitlists me and invited me to an Assessment Day on Jan 31st! It was a 2 months wait!
Nov 27, 2009 – ESADE dings me! I was totally shattered. I still have no idea why but now i understand that there is someone up there who controls your reins. Everything happens for the best!!
Dec 4 to 10, 2009 – HKUST application essays – draft 1,2 and 3.
Dec 12, 2009 – HKUST Application submitted.
Dec 15 to 31, 2009 – The dreadful WAIT!
Jan 1 to 15, 2010 – Applied to Tsinghua University in China, Interviewed and Waitlisted icon sad An MBA application journey, from GMAT prep to acceptance
Jan 29, 2010 – Two days before the big event – IESE Assessment day, I get dinged by HKUST!
Jan 30, 2010 – IESE Case presentation – Sample class by Prof. Mike Rosenberg from IESE B-school.
Jan 31, 2010 – IESE Assessment day – A fantastic experience interacting with 30 brilliant applicants from over 15 countries. A whole day of team activities.
Feb 1 to 10, 2010 – Waited impatiently for the IESE results!
Feb 11, 2010 – The day my dream came true – Got accepted to IESE Business school!

“Like World cup is to soccer, Wimbledon is to Tennis, an acceptance is to an applicant blog. I waited 12 months for such a post and I can’t be happier. I couldn’t have done any of this without the love, support, and encouragement of my parents and my girl friend. I would like to dedicate this admission to them. Amma, Appa and Vrush – this one is for you!

“I also want to thank many people who have played an important part in my journey:

Eric Bahn for Beatthegmat
Charles Bibilos – my tutor
Rocky for all the support
Avi Gordon – MBA Studio and his wonderful book.
Richard Montauk, for his book
All the GMAT Gurus at Beatthegmat
ClearAdmit and Accepted for their amazing resources
The entire MBA blogging community
All my readers for their constant support and encouragement.
Alumni and Students of IESE
Nick Vujicic for inspiring me when i was low. (Check this out)
Guy Kawasaki for sharing his knowledge and teaching me a lot.

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“My apologies for making this post so long. If there is one take-away from my MBA application journey (apart from persistence) that I’d cherish life long is this acquired addiction of Blogging. So I’ll be back here soon with another post. Till then, hang in there and have fun! Muchas Gracias!”