Category Archives: MBA Essays

What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (And Then Submitted Them)?

Here’s one from the files: Getting your tone right in MBA Admissions essays — particularly a fine balance between self-confidence and humility — is really tricky.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, and the exact mix depends on the candidate. The swaggering quant at BlackRock is going to have to adopt a much more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

I help candidates check get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting back when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud, or in fact not loud enough

I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about this, and I remember some unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, then Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted at the time by Matt Symonds on Forbes.

Bolton’s advised candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Said Bolton: “You don’t need to lie to yourself. [Private] self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

There’s a lot in this. If you were to write strictly for yourself, you’d only be BS’ing yourself if you weren’t 100% honest about your motivations and intentions, and reasons for “Why an MBA” or “Why Stanford,” etc. You would hardly set out to “impress” yourself or to write what you think you want to hear.

Were you to be writing in your own private journal, you would sift honestly and reflectively through your experiences, and genuinely try to join the dots between your past accomplishments and future aspirations via an MBA at the particular institution.

The suggestion therefore offers a compelling device to cut through a lot of the preening and bluster that turns good candidates into bad applicants. It is a way to raise transparency and find that “genuine voice” that MBA admissions directors want to hear.

Having said all this… let’s not for a second be fooled that Bolton or any other admissions gatekeeper lives anywhere other than the real world. Neither Bolton, nor anyone else, got to be where they are by turning in their private reflections.

So, stay smart about the process. Once you’ve written your essays absolutely as-if for yourself, go through them again to add back clear admissions value, some gentle persuasion, a touch of artful promotion, and a dose of marketing sass before you hit “submit.”

Tuck Wants ‘Nice’ MBA Applicants. How To Respond?

As CBS News Moneywatch this week reported, to be successful in applying to the Dartmouth Tuck MBA program, candidates will need to show evidence of being a “nice” person.

Nice is part of a quartet of candidate evaluation criteria released by Tuck Adcom in early June—these being “Smart, Nice, Accomplished, Aware.”

How should you understand this, and what should youdo about it?

First, nice is a new-ish emphasis but not an entirely new criterion. Tuck and most other MBA programs have consistently put value on students who are collaborative, help others, and who interact thoughtfully and with good intentions.

In MBA Admissions Strategy, I conclude my list of the 25 different attributes and characteristics which Adcoms evaluate MBA applicants by, with this one:

(25) Likeability: This means someone whom people enjoy having around. All else being equal, people always choose people they like as colleagues and co-workers. If you are the otherwise perfect candidate, but you are arrogant, or emotionally unavailable, or an egotist, or antisocial, or ready to trample everyone else with a win-at-all-cost attitude, your application will stall. Business school is an intense 16-hours-a-day kind of place. Adcom prefers people who are genuine about who they are, and easy to live with and who will be easy for the other students, faculty, and recruiters to live with.”

This characteristic shares ground with others on my list, including awareness of self and others: being aware of how you come across;  emotional intelligence or “EQ”;  personal integrity and honesty; and being a collaborative team member.

On the Tuck Admissions site, nice means… “you cultivate a habit of kindness. You actively encourage, celebrate, and support others. But being nice does not mean you’re a pushover who always agrees and defers. Nice Tuck candidates exhibit emotional intelligence. You layer compassion onto courage, and challenge others tactfully and thoughtfully. You display both strength and vulnerability. You ask for help, and you help others. You’re positive and principled. You act with respect and integrity, even when it’s not convenient or easy. You show empathy for the diverse experiences of others, while also sharing your own. You recognize that your success and others’ success are interdependent, and generously invest in both. Being nice at Tuck means building trust through deep, genuine connections which endure for life.”

Tuck’s essay question that seeks evidence of your niceness is: “Tuck students are nice, and invest generously in one another’s success.  Share an example of how you helped someone else succeed.” (500 words)

Like most MBA admissions essays, there’s a quick, flat way to hack it, which probably won’t work, vs. a thoughtful, mature way to respond that takes more time, extracts more from you, and is more likely to succeed.

The flat way is to respond here is to give an example of when you helped someone complete a project or achieve a goal.

A better response would be to find ways to prove you have in yourself the complex matrix of ‘nice’ that Tuck Adcom is talking about. What example(s)  do you have where you helped someone AND it was an interdependent success; where you created trust, perhaps even lifelong trust; where you showed compassion; where you demonstrated good principles or created mutual respect; and so on.

If you can, go beyond their definition to make nice an even more nuanced value: how in your case it may include, for example, a sense of perspective, or timing, or soft-strength, or inclusivity, or more.

5 Ways To Show Applicant Value To MBA Adcoms

First published on QS TopMBA, June 2017: The MBA admissions process at elite schools is competitive. Invariably, successful applicants beat out other hopefuls who almost always have the goods to succeed as well, but don’t demonstrate value in MBA admissions, or are unable to stand out from the crowd.

How can you ensure you demonstrate value and stand out? It’s well known that MBA admissions looks for academic ability, a professional success record, and leadership potential, etc. But it also looks for other attributes, many of which value personal or organizational attributes within the soft skills, some of which may surprise you. My book, MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing, records 25 distinct types of value that committees look for in MBA applicants, or respond positively to. The following is five of them:

1. Maturity, professionalism and good judgment

This means a candidate who looks, talks, and acts ‘like a grown-up’. Through your essays and interview, the MBA admissions committee will get a sense of whether you have the personal maturity, diplomacy, and professional polish necessary to succeed at school, in job recruiting, and in life.

Are you poised under pressure? Are you diplomatic under fire? Can you handle responsibility? Do you have ‘senior presence’, or do you come across as a brash kid? Immaturity will be signaled by giveaways such as poor self-restraint, blaming others for your bad calls, showing an inability to see your own weaknesses, or in choosing inappropriate material for your essays. In the era of social media transparency, your claim to maturity could also be undermined by a junior social media presence.

2. Pursuit of meaningful goals

Beyond ambition and the desire to succeed, an MBA admissions committee will be asking, “what do you want to succeed AT?” There is no right or wrong answer. A wide range of career goals are acceptable. But, they will want to understand why you want to do what you want to do. What meaning does it have for you?

Just wanting to ‘succeed’ or ‘make money’ is not enough. That’s assumed. The question is, beyond success, why this path over another one? Also, how might what you do professionally be meaningful for other people, for communities, or for the school itself?  Harvard Business School (HBS) has asked matriculating students the following question [taken from the last lines of a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mary Oliver]: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You could say you planned to be a hospitality manager or an aviation entrepreneur, or anything. The point is why is this worth spending your one precious life on? Why for you? Better still, why for those around you.

3. Awareness of self and others

Leaders and successful people almost all have good awareness of self and other, meaning they understand themselves well and they are aware of how they come across to others. Sometimes this is called ‘emotional intelligence’ or ‘EQ’.

However you frame it, it belongs to those who understand their own personality attributes and weaknesses and are aware of how this plays out in interactions with others. Put another way, the skill is to be able to ‘read the room’ and understand the people and power dynamics in it, and to be able to influence these dynamics not least by first being aware of how one comes across.

4. Coachability and a continuous learning mentality

Business schools exist to teach, train and prepare professionals for senior management careers. There’s nothing quite as much of a turnoff as an applicant who appears unreceptive to the idea of learning and improving at the hands of faculty, coaches, and peers – which, incidentally, is a lifelong requirement in the modern knowledge economy.

If you appear to know it all already, the business school won’t see room for themselves, and they may see incipient trouble in the classroom and in groupwork as a result of a non-participating mentality.

5. Communication ability

A candidate who can write, speak, and organize ideas well. Financial and technical skills are important, but the most important skill in senior management is communication: The ability to frame, transmit, and negotiate ideas in meetings with clients, staff, investors, regulators, lawyers, industry partners, and other stakeholders.

As a general rule, quantitative skills are the tasks of lower jobs in a business organization. People in the c-suite and on boards spend almost all of their time talking. So, an MBA admissions committee will be looking hard at how well you organize and communicate concepts and ideas, thinking down the line to when you are going to be interviewing in front of an employer, and on and on throughout your career after business school. You can demonstrate value, in terms of your communication abilities, through your verbal GMAT or GRE score as well as in your MBA admissions essays and interview.