Category Archives: MBA Admissions

How to Avoid Empty Calories in your MBA Application Essay

One from the files: Let me quote Wikipedia, “Empty calories are a measurement of the energy present in high-energy foods with poor nutritional profiles, typically from processed carbohydrates or fats. An empty calorie has the same energy content of any other calorie but lacks accompanying nutrients such as vitamins, dietary minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, or in the case of refined grains, fiber.”

Empty calories define most fast food, sugary drinks, and popular cereals, so much so that regulators have reigned in advertising low-food-value items to children.

Why do I raise this? Because an MBA admissions essay – like any other piece of writing – is a meal for the reader. The reader’s hope and quiet prayer is that the text will deliver the informational nutrients they are looking for, with little fat or waste.

Consider something like this: “My journey to this point has been challenging, but the lessons I learned have been most meaningful – I truly have seen that a new beginning is an opportunity to start again, that life’s challenges are the best way to show one’s capability and forge memorable experiences, and that through passion and perseverance one can make a difference in the world.”

Or this: “I believe the best leaders are those who do things for the right reasons, grounded in a thorough understanding of economics, business, strategy, and innovation. I want to be a leader who is open-minded, can manage complex situations, and empowers people.”

Forget the turgid writing and cliche’s-running-amok for a moment. That can be fixed. The point is, even if fixed, there is still nothing there.

From the Adcom readers’ point of view there is no nutrition in the text, nothing that tells them anything interesting or specific or memorable about these applicants and why they should be admitted to b-school. There is no data, there is no record of action, no unique insights. Just words taking up space. That is, just empty calories.

The task of the MBA admissions essay is to explain your admissions value to Adcom, and you won’t achieve this via empty text. You must present nutrition-laden text, or you will be dinged.

This means excoriating anything and everything that tends towards vacant content, or generalization that could be said by any applicant. Cut that. Cut it urgently, to create space for reader nourishment –the crisp telling of specific experiences that show you in action, developing unique skills. Or fresh insights about yourself, about your future aspirations, and how you uniquely see the challenges of management and leadership.

Don’t Overcook Standardized Tests For MBA Admissions

First published on AMBA’s In the frantic scramble for MBA admissions to elite business schools, nothing appears more self-evident than ‘the higher your standardized admissions test score, the better your chances.’

Almost all business school applications require standardized tests, primarily because it gives MBA admissions committees (Adcoms) a level playing field to judge applicants’ cognitive ability.

That is, it gives Adcoms a quantitative and fair way to compare applicants from different backgrounds, different institutions, different undergraduate majors, and different cultures.

So the higher the score, the stronger the case for MBA admission, right? Wrong.

Well, right then wrong. Standardized test scores are crucial to a point. Every +10 gain adds to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of +30 or so fundamentally changes which business schools they can legitimately hope to get into.

But this is true only up to about the 700-740 range on an 800 point scale. Above that, the score has sharply diminishing returns, and can even harm an applicant’s chances.

There are two reasons. First, although the MBA is a university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people into business management positions, not academic positions.

Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the most academic people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or even consultants. Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einstein. Accordingly, MBA Adcoms are not looking for brainiacs.

The second, related, reason is it takes a full spread of talents to get admitted to a competitive School. Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership acumen, work experience, volunteer record, profile diversity, and so on. Smart is definitely an admissions requirement, but so are the others. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

Scoring in the super bracket (750 or above) means the applicant is, by definition, in the 99th percentile of the global population in raw cognitive ability.

Truth is, people who score like this are often better pure scientists or philosophers than managers. It’s a stereotype, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being esoteric in mannerisms, or not a people-person, or a chaotic manager of self and others.

Adcom will thoroughly check and disbelieve the MBA applicant with a super-score, who also claims to be a team player, and claims to be able to do all the practical and sometimes dull things managers need to get done in a business day.

So, at around the 700 level, depending on GPA and other variables, and provided the Math and Verbal sections are not massively unbalanced, a threshold is reached where even elite business school Adcoms put a check mark next to “academically capable” and move on to ask other questions of the applicant.

When an applicant is far below the School’s published average matriculate for a standardized test, nothing else they are, or do, or say will count. But once they hit the threshold, their higher score merely checks an already checked box.

Furthermore, candidates who obsess with improving an already high score are taking time and focus away from improving the rest of their application. A super-score is not going to save the applicant whose recommendations are lukewarm or whose essays are undeveloped.

So MBA candidates should be very concerned with their test score until it is within the guidelines of the target program, then set it aside and work on getting the other facets of their application to the same level.

If all this is a solid argument that fits the admissions facts, not least in explaining why hundreds of relatively ordinary test scorers are admitted to elite MBAs, the question becomes, where do super-score obsessions come from?

It comes from applicant misapprehension of how many crucial elements of admissions, other than academic ability, there are, and how important they are. MBA Admissions Strategy lists 25 distinct dimensions of admissions value, of which ‘smart’ is just one.

Standardized test educators and coaches have an interest in feeding the obsession too: the longer MBA applicants work at trying to garnish a score already in the 700s, the more the cash register rings.

MBA applicants do their best when they call ‘enough’ once their test score is in the right ballpark, and get on with putting the many other pieces of the MBA admissions puzzle in place.

To Win, Connect Your Goals With Those Of Your Audience

Here’s is a bit more from MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building To Essay Writing, just released (McGraw Hill Education, 3rd Edition, 2017). It is high-level in this extract, but the nuts and bolts of “the how,” that is, steps to take to concretely achieve the outcomes advised, are in the book too. However, this gives a good idea of the foundational approach…

MBA admissions success turns on the simplest and oldest rule in communications strategy: to win, you need to connect your objectives with those of your audience. You need to understand what your target need to see or is ready to hear, and to increase the overlap between that and what you say. If you are better than the next applicant at demonstrating the common ground between your objectives and the objectives of the MBA program’s admissions committee (Adcom), you are well on your way to getting admitted.

Conveying fit between an item and its target audience is like marketing in the sense that you are selling a value proposition (you) to a consumer-client (the admissions committee) in a situation where the consumer has lots of other choices. You have to understand their needs, wants, and desires so you know what they value and why they value it, and how to pitch your product within this value system. Like any market communicator, you need to research consumer preferences, and coordinate various methods of communication (essays, interviews, recommendations, etc.) to make it clear why you are an attractive and necessary product, so that you get picked off the shelf. You create a coordinated campaign to influence the admissions officers’ “buying” decision, and manage this campaign as it unrolls over weeks or months.

Understanding your admissions task in these terms should turn your application world upside down: it is about you but not just about you. It’s about them, and the overlap between you and them. Companies don’t make products and then try to sell them. They study the market, determine needs, and produce accordingly.  When you know what the admissions committee is looking for and listening for, you can almost always find things in your profile that match this.

Staying true to you

There is an important, immediate caveat. Nothing about this market-communications approach implies that you need to or should try to bend yourself into something you are not, or to what you think the mold of the ideal business school applicant is, and “package” yourself as such. There is no such mold. In fact, trying to be the stereotypical candidate puts you right outside the successful profile because Adcom wants and needs a full spread of different, diverse, authentic individuals, not an applicant stereotype. Why? Because business school education is not a pre-packaged set of skills that you are going to be spoon-fed, but thousands of learning events, co-created between faculty and students, and between the students themselves. In such “peer learning,” which is a huge part of MBA education, the scope of experience of the student group directly raises the quality of the learning. Adcom cannot just admit “the best.” They have to balance the incoming cohort for diversity of abilities and experiences in order to provide the best overall peer-learning mix.

Therefore, your first task is always to be highly individualized, authentic, absolutely true to yourself—but once beyond that, then also savvy as to which parts of your unique special selfhood also happen to overlap best with the admissions committee’s needs and preferences. Your application task is one of judicious profile selection and framing for chooser delight, not one self-compromise.