Category Archives: MBA Admissions Book

Unpacking the Categories of MBA Admissions Dings

It’s July, and a new admissions cycle year starts at the MBA Admissions Studio. As it happens, during my off-season sabbatical time — which new clients have patiently waited out (thank you) I’ve had numerous emails of the “I-was-dinged-last-year, what-did-I do-wrong?” type. So this seems as good a place as any to start the discussion this year, in the spirit of helping those dinged last year apply better, and those who are applying for the first time understand the category of potential pitfalls.

There are three types of ding:

  1. You were dinged because there is something or things in your background that make you just not good enough or right enough for the program, in comparison with the average standard of admitted applicants. This could be because of lack of high-quality or brand-company work experience, a low GMAT or GPA, being too young or old at the time of application, and so on. In this category, in other words, your ding is caused by something or things that you are, or are not. You fail to meet minimum qualification standards.
  2. You are good enough and fit well — you are a competitive, qualified applicant — but applied badly in that you made a clear mistake or raised a red flag in your application. Your ding was caused by something specific you said or did not say.
  3. You are good enough and fit well — you are a competitive, qualified applicant – and you didn’t make any obvious application mistakes, but applied badly in that your admissions value was not clear or somehow you didn’t stand out. This is the category of applicant that Adcom refers to when it says “we had many qualified applicants and we couldn’t take them all.” Your ding was caused by other qualified competitors applying better than you did in a system where there are more applicants than places.

What are the fixes? Let me take them one by one.

In the first situation, the problem is choice of school, or career timing of application or both. Bear in mind that everyone has weaknesses — I’ve never seen an applicant without weaknesses (though they don’t always know it.) But here we are talking about aggregate weakness in an applicant such that, no matter how they apply, they are going to be dinged because they don’t meet the standard of generally accepted applicant. The dinged candidate “doesn’t have the goods” so, logically, the only way to solve the problem is to get the goods, or lower one’s school sights, or both. Getting the goods is realistic only if age is on your side and you can take a few years to drive up your MBA admissions value via new career experiences, greater responsibility or new leadership roles, promotions or awards, new extra-mural participation, and so on.

The second situation is the easiest of the three to deal with. Here the solution has to do recognition — recognizing in advance what creates or exacerbates problems in an application, so-called “red flags,” and staying well clear of these. These problems are, in theory at least, easily fixable once recognized (assuming none of them point to deeper category 1 problems.)

The third type of ding is all about the soupy stuff of competitive admissions. Here the applicant didn’t do anything wrong, just didn’t do as well as others in the application process. The solution has to do with applying all the hard and soft value-enhancement and value-communications techniques that make an application ‘pop’ from the pile. This is not easy, and varies on a case-by-case basis. But there are general principles that apply in optimizing any application.

I’ve written extensively on this site and in my book on the profile principles and communication strategies that can be applied, including creating the foundation of a solid yet differentiated application platform and driving up candidate value and uniqueness through use of memorable proof examples and stories. More to follow as the weeks roll by to R1 deadlines.

 

An MBA application journey, from GMAT prep to acceptance

Today I thought I’d share the extended journey of an MBA Studio client, as reported here and here. Not only is it a worthy and heartwarming success story in which I’m most gratified to have been able to play a part — helping this applicant with a 640 GMAT get into a top European school — but it is also instructive as to the ups and downs of elite MBA applications…

“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 Eric. More 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! :)
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 :) )
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, 2009Interview 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 :(
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!

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“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
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!”
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The Myth of the 800 GMAT

I wrote this GMAT article last year on the Business Week b-school forum. It’s probably still up there somewhere, along with a firestorm of comments — gratifyingly mostly ‘agrees.’ (Speaking of gratifying, readers are still popping up on Amazon.com to say nice things about ‘MBA Admissions Strategy‘. I don’t know who you are, but thank you!)

Anyway, it’s been a year, and nothing has changed. I get the should-I-retake GMAT question from clients and prospective clients with healthy scores, so here is the article reposted:

I had a MBA admissions client recently who I’ll call Tim, and when Tim and I got talking about his admissions profile he told me he’d scored 720 on the GMAT, and then retaken the test (and scored the same again). I nearly dropped the phone. “Why would anyone ever want to retake a 720 GMAT?” I gasped.

The truth is, I know why. Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious but is it right?

Yes, of course the GMAT is crucial. It tells Adcom about an applicant’s intellectual and cognitive skills, and is particularly useful in allowing easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. Furthermore, every 10-point gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools they can legitimately hope to get into. All true.

But this is true only up to a certain level, about the 700-750 range. A higher score has diminishing returns and can even – believe it or not – harm one’s chances.

Why? As I told Tim, there are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a post-graduate university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people in business management positions, not academic positions. Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the cleverest people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or consultants. Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher, George Soros, Ted Turner, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einsteins. MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

This explains why an ultra-high GMAT can be harmful. Scoring in the super bracket (750+) means that you are, by definition, in the 99th percentile. People who score like that are often better pure scientists or philosophers, than managers. It’s a stereotype, and perhaps a poor one, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being a poor people-person and a poor manager. If you get a very high score, Adcom will be absolutely sure to thoroughly check and almost disbelieve that you are also a leader and team player and can manage adversity and do all the practical things you need to get done in a business day.

Maybe you can and do. But an extra burden of proof falls on you in this regard if you are in the GMAT super-bracket.

The second, related, problem is it takes a mix of talents to get admitted to a competitive school. The operative term here is “mix”. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership potential, team player profile, work experience, volunteer experience, profile diversity, and so on. Academic ability is definitely a requirement, but so are many other attributes. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

People who obsess with improving an already 700+ GMAT are, almost certainly, taking time and effort away from improving the rest of their admissions profile.

This is how it works: a threshold is reached at around (depending on GPA results and other  variables) the 700 level, where Adcom can safely put a check mark next to your academic ability, and move on to see what else you offer. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count. But once you hit the threshold, it’s pointless to keep knocking in that nail. A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” and chances are it’s already checked at 700. A super-score is not going to help you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview. Adcom greatly prefers “balanced good” to “unbalanced excellent.”

This also explains why there is more malleability in the GMAT rating than most candidates realize. If the rest of your application is good, and your undergraduate record is in the right range, you can be up to 40 or 50 points below the school’s published GMAT average (providing not too lopsidedly in Math or Verbal.)

Obviously, the published average means that half of accepted applicant’s scores are below that mark.

Bottom line: It makes sense to be very concerned with the GMAT until it is within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and spend time on other aspects of your application.