Round 1 MBA essays are taking shape: but why have many applicants turned into monks and saints?

It’s busy season, so I have to blog short, but here’s what I have to say today as MBA application Round 1 deadlines approach — and this is to my clients as much as anyone else out there (although the clients have heard it before):

“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 is to present you with and test you on classic curriculum stuff to do with finance and operations and marketing and strategy and so on. They will not teach you to weave sisal or wash Aids 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. It’s fine to want to and plan to improve social welfare at home or abroad.

But you are applying to business school.

So the material question is: how will you make a business or take a business in the direction of social welfare and human development? How and why do you need business and management 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 innovatively led, professionally managed, properly financed and running at optimum efficiency can make a whopping difference. We’re talking “order of magnitude.”

Best of all, 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.

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‘I scored 700, should I retake the GMAT or focus on the rest of my application?

Two years ago I wrote a GMAT article on the Business Week b-school forum called ‘The Myth of the 800 GMAT,’ arguing that a geek-level GMAT score could be counterproductive when applying to professional business-management MBA training. It’s probably still up there somewhere, along with a firestorm of comments — gratifyingly mostly ‘agrees.’

Last year I blogged about it, and here we are again, and nothing has changed. Well … nothing much has changed. There is admittedly, every year, a slight inflation in the average GMAT score of matriculated students at top business schools, and for the elite schools the published average is now invariably over 700. (Obviously,  half of matriculated applicants scored below the average mark.)

This causes students even with 700+ scores to retake the GMAT, in the bid for a further 20 or 30 points. Or even perfection.

Leaving the pros and cons of super-scores aside, yes 720 is better than 700, but is it the smart thing to aspire to — when the tradeoff is time lost to essays and other part of the application? Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious but is it right?

Here’s how to think about it: The GMAT operates on a threshold principle. If you are applying to an elite school and you don’t have enough, then everything else you do and say will be in the shadow of that. What is enough? About 700, assuming Q/V balance, that is, 80th+ percentile in each. At this point (and maybe well below it, depending on GPA and other academic recognition,) Adcom will put a check mark next to your cognitive abilities and look for what else you offer.

So the GMAT is crucial — up to a point. It tells Adcom about your intellectual ability, and is particularly handy in that it facilitates easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count. Every 10-point gain adds to your admissions prospects and move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools you can legitimately hope to get into.

But only up to a point: A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” that was already checked at around 700. There’s no benefit to keeping on hammering away at a nail that is already knocked in. Moreover, even a super-score is not going to save you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview.

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

So it makes sense to be very concerned with the GMAT until it is broadly within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and spend time on other aspects of your application. People who obsess with improving their already 700+ score are short-changing the rest of their admissions profile.

As I tell my clients: ‘It’s like chopping the fingers off one hand while you paint the nails on your other. Don’t do it!’
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