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.

 

The Business School I’m Applying To: Do I Need A Campus Visit?

About five years ago I quoted now-retired HBS Head of Admissions Dee Leopold on the question of campus visits. The original post is deep in this “Direct from the Director” thread.

While I was looking for it, I came across new Head of Admissions Chad Losee’s first Director post last month in which he says Harvard will consider  your application “in its entirety —application, resume, essay, recommendations, transcripts, interview, post-interview reflection, GMAT or GRE scores, etc.  Said another way, no one thing will get you admitted or “released” from our admissions process.” (My italics.)

In other words, don’t fixate on a strength (or weakness) you have with reference to any one strand of the application. You can have isolated strengths and weaknesses, but overall everything has to be at a high standard across the board.

But I digress. What I wanted to talk about is how your b-school campus visit is weighed in admissions. (What is true of Harvard in this case is broadly true of other schools too.) Here’s the text:

“Lots of questions on the road from prospective applicants about visiting schools.

“Answer: We always welcome visitors to campus. It’s beautiful here and we have lots to show you. Do you need to make a pilgrimage in order to send a signal to the Admissions Office? Absolutely not. Visiting campus has absolutely no impact on how your application is reviewed. It may have a gigantic impact on how enthusiastic you are about US – that’s where the value-added comes into play.

“Are we going to ask you to sign-in to an information session? Yes. Do we use that list in the evaluation process? No. So why do we ask you to do it? To track whether these sessions have any impact on whether an attendee chooses to apply to HBS or not, i.e. standard market research. If we found out that no one who attended an info session chose to apply to HBS, you’d better believe that we would make some changes!

“When may I visit classes? This is the tough question. For those applying in Round One, it’s not possible to visit a class before the October 1 deadline. Why? Our first year students begin classes in early September. Our first priority is for them to get settled into the classroom. We have limited seats designated for visitors in each class – and we could fill them every day of the year. The faculty likes for the first few weeks of the first semester to be “students only.” We rely on the students in sections to be hosts for our visitors – and they really aren’t ready to do that right away. Class visits will begin in mid-October; information about the sign-up process will be posted on our website.

“Applying to business school(s) is expensive and stressful. The last thing you need is to make it a scavenger hunt in which you need have ‘visited campus’ checked off the list.

So…the message is: We welcome you to visit HBS – but don’t think of this as a ‘command performance.’”

The takeaways:

Visiting shows your interest, and if you can do it, do it. It is good for you because it will create in you a much sharper appreciation for the school and its particular form of MBA offering. It will help you refine your list of target schools, and make your applications essays more naturally enthusiastic and therefore convincing.

In other words, visit for you, not for them. Visiting is not a formal requirement and is not weighed by the admissions committee in deciding whether to admit or ding you. People apply from 12,000 miles away: it must be so.

Where possible, register your visit with Adcom. Note that campus visit programs typically only start when MBA programs begin (after Labor Day) and some programs like HBS delay class audits to allow new MBA cohorts to bed themselves down without distractions.

Use your time with admissions and/or school marketing reps wisely, that is, to ask pointed questions about particular aspects of the program or the school that are relevant to your career progress, so that you come away with specific information that will help you make the right school-choice decision, and then help you motivate this convincingly in your essays and interview.

The schools formal visit program will only take you so far. To go deeper into the school’s culture, get talking to students. If you walk up and say “Hi, I’m a prospective applicant, may I ask you about your experiences at this school…” it is likely you will get a friendly and informative response.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit, War, and MBA Admissions Essays

Here’s a bit of fun with a serious twist. You may have seen this document below as it does the rounds on the Internet.

I believe it is genuine, and in it the then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was telling his 1940 War Cabinet the equivalent of “hello, did you know there’s a war on? Let’s not confuse ourselves and waste our time on excessive verbiage and writing flourishes. If you’ve got something to say, just say it.”

brevity

MBA admissions is not a war zone. But admissions committees are busy, particularly around their application deadlines. So do them and therefore yourself a favor by keeping your writing tight and to-the-point.

This does not mean you should adopt a clipped tone and write like morse code. You get to brevity without losing content or style by carefully selecting your examples,  using plain words, avoiding all verbal windups and empty phrases, and deleting repetition.

For a full discussion of practical writing strategies to deliver content in the briefest possible way, with examples, please see Section 4: Writing Tools and Methods, in my book MBA Admissions Strategy: From Profile Building to Essay Writing (McGraw Hill).

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