Answering the QS World MBA Tour’s admissions questions in 100 words or less

Topmba.com recently asked for my brief and succinct summary input for an upcoming story on MBA application essays and letters of recommendation. If nothing else it was a challenge in writing tightly. And as it turned out, it provides a summary of some key deliverables and concerns, so I thought I’d share the experience here:

What should/shouldn’t MBA applicants include in their admissions essays?
Applicants should include points that carry admissions value. What is value? Any attributes or experiences that are relevant to peer education and not common in the applicant pool; anything that will get you noticed or make you stand out as a worthwhile addition to the classroom, on campus, and one day in the alumni network. What not to include? Don’t praise the school (they know they’re good); don’t repeat items on your resume; don’t denigrate anyone or any organization; don’t whine about life’s obstacles or blame others. Finally, don’t state the obvious — if you are talking about water you needn’t add that it is also wet.

Who should/shouldn’t they ask for letters of recommendation?
Reco’s are Adcoms only reliable way of finding out what you are like in a professional environment. Therefore, do not ask one of an old professor, your yoga instructor, your priest and so on. You need a reco from your current work supervisor (if not, explain why not) and other reco’s should come from other current or past professional supervisors who know you well. Don’t go for someone with a great title, who hardly knows you. Whoever you get — make him or her give examples and specific instances to back up their claims about you. Brief them on your application content so their communication is consonant with your own. Ask them to to address and reassure Adcom on any weaknesses apparent in your resume, if applicable.

What are the biggest mistakes that many applicants make in their essays?
One common mistake is to try be like a “business school applicant.” There is no one such thing; you will just sound generic and boring. Be yourself, and you will sound genuine and alive and interesting-to-meet. Don’t forget to give specific examples which create interest for the reader. Further, it’s pointless to claim an experience or attribute without giving some proof (a specific example or event or data or awards that demonstrates the attribute is real.) Also, don’t imagine that your reader is a financial or technical person. Adcoms members have a real mix of backgrounds, but at heart they are human resources professionals, and MBA admissions is an HR function.

What are optional essays? Should applicants bother writing them, as they are optional?
Optional essays are used to mitigate a weakness or explain something that may be confusing about your background or career path. They are not a way to get more text in. It is a statement of strength as an applicant not to have to use the optional essay. Only use it if you have something specific to address, and when you’ve addressed it, stop writing — there is no requirement to go to full essay length.

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‘If you aren’t an idealist at 25, you’re a rogue; if you’re an idealist at 50 … you’re a fool’

In the headline above I’m paraphrasing Winston Churchill, who is alleged to have said: “If you’re not a communist at 20, you’re a rogue; if you’re a communist at 50 you’re a fool.” In fact the quote in one form or another goes all the way back to Francois Guisot (1787-1874) who said during the French Revolution: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” (Republican meant something altogether different from the GOP, of course.)

This quote, in its various iterations is saying: Society expects its young men and women to have ideals and seek to change the world. It expects the fire and passion of youthful optimism and its critique of the status quo, even if it is rash or naive. If the youth do not have that, what do they have? (Whatever they have, it’s worse than naivete.)

When you are in middle-age, then okay, it is expected that you accept certain compromises and adopt a measured cynicism.

Why is the quote important for MBA admissions? Simply, if you are applying for a full-time MBA program you are likely to be somewhere between 23-30; that is still in the age bracket where you should have fire in your belly to change and improve the world. If not, that means you just want to advance yourself and make boatloads of money, and while Adcom likes those driven to succeed, the whiff of narrow self-oriented goals is a golden highway to being dinged.

What does it mean to change and improve the world? See my previous post on this. It does not mean hugging trees in Roanoke or digging wells in Sudan or other “bleeding-heart” welfare-service missions, which, frankly, are a low credibility angle for MBA applicants.

It does mean using your new business and management skills for broader societal benefit, in addition to your own benefit.

Wider benefit that you create can come in developing a new product or service or business model that challenges and improves an industry. To take some famous examples: Herb Kelleher created a no-frills airline (Southwest) that brought air travel to the masses; Ted Turner (CNN) made global news sexy; Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) developed a platform that brings social communities together in an unprecedented way; Niklas Zennström & Janus Friis (Skype) brought free voip calls to the world — and in the process decimated exploitative national telecoms parastatals.

These were not do-gooders. But they were industry “revolutionaries.” They didn’t look at their sector and say “I just want to be a senior manager and go up the corporate ladder.” Whether as startup entrepreneurs or sitting corporate executives, they were ready to challenge industry status quo’s to build something more ideal. That’s the kind of 20-something idealist you need to be for MBA admissions.
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