Tag Archives: admissions red flags

MBA Adcoms: Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?

To be a successful MBA applicant, one key thing to get clear on is who you are talking to when you write MBA admissions essays.

Getting your head around who your reader is, is a crucial part of creating a winning communication and therein getting admitted.

One iconic profile is revealed in this now-somewhat-classic introduction to a Business Week interview with then-UCLA Anderson Director of MBA Admissions (now UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Director of Admissions) Mae Jennifer Shores. See: UCLA Anderson: Admissions Q&A – BusinessWeek.

“The Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions … says she ended up an admissions officer the way most people do—unintentionally. She went to Russia to teach public policy, but was assigned to teach negotiations at a business school at the last minute. After two years, she wanted to continue her Eastern European stay and almost took a job teaching in Kazakhstan. Her graduate school loans, however, forced her back to the U.S. There, Shores’ international and business-school experience eventually led her into the admissions department.”

Every MBA admissions officer is different of course. But what they have in common is that it is unlikely they planned and studied for this career. Most come to it “sideways.” They typically have broad interests, are people-focused, and are good communicators. They have lived life in more than one industry and often more than one country. They are generally not business trained, although many have some background in HR or marketing.

This makes the MBA application essay writer’s job harder and easier. It’s easier to engage an interesting person. Almost anything topic you raise will be “valid” for them.

But it’s harder if all your stories are highly technical, or closely work-oriented or if your ability to reflect deeply and persuasively on your life and career path is limited. You’re not going to interest the likes of Mae Jennifer Shores unless you can extract the human interest and personal journey from your life story.

MBA Admissions Interviews and the Art of the 45-Second Story

It’s interview season and I’ve been fielding a lot of questions, ranging from the specific (most commonly, how to prepare for the Wharton “team-based discussion” interview) to the general “what questions should I focus on?”

A lot of MBA admissions ink has been spilled on Wharton’s team-based discussion, so let me just say this: the form is different to a classic interview, but MBA adcom’s goal is the same. That is, they are looking for the same things they always were – the bright, personable applicant who stands out as a communicator and a beacon of good values, while being highly driven and achievment-oriented.

As they are looking for the same thing b-schools have always looked for, it is a bit of pouring old wine into new bottles. You prepare yourself in all the same ways as before, but in this case an additional familiarity with the team-discussion format is no bad thing.

The Wharton interview format is part of the cat-and-mouse game between MBA adcoms and admissions advisors, where adcom seeks a format less prone to preparation and admissions advisors respond by adjusting their menu. See this Wharton Premium Interview Preparation service ($500) from Accepted.com which I’m happy to be associated with.

More generally, how should you prepare for the interviews? Here are some bases to cover:

Look across the interview reportbacks that are freely available on the Web. This will give you a flavor of what to expect. But don’t over-focus on a specific question that appears to “come up” a lot for a particular school. By all means prepare yourself for it, but don’t bank on it.

Do, however, focus on the questions most candidates are asked most commonly. This is the 80-20 rule in action: a few common questions are asked again and again, and these questions are not a secret. They are ones you should be able to recognize by now: “Walk me through your resume; Why do you want to do an MBA; Why here; Why now; How will it help you towards your (What is your) career goal, short term and long term; How will you contribute to the program; What do you bring to the program that is unique?

There are many other common questions, but these are the basics. If you are deeply prepared on these, for the rest as long as you don’t roll over any landmines (aka red flags) you will do well.

What’s a landmine? Space doesn’t permit me to go too deeply into this here, but I’ve blogged about it consistently here over the years. Suffice to say, if you say something that moves you towards social prejudice or personal badmouthing or psychological instability or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know, you’re probably too close to a landmine.

Anyway, to the points I wanted to make today. This is

(a) be ready to bring facts and

(b) 45-second stories.

Notice any persuasive politician, President Obama for example. When he talks he doesn’t say “average household food costs were better this year.” He says national food retail prices dropped 1.6% year-on-year, following 2.2% improved harvest yields in six breadbasket states despite a $12 per-barrel hike in the global oil price.

Likewise, when talking about yourself, don’ t say “I have made rapid career progress recently.” Give the interviewer good reasons to believe you.

Your other go-to proof device is use of story form. Don’t say you “faced many dangers” on a project. Say say you were off-site, starting at 6am with a rig inspection and ending at 10pm with your explosives assessment call to the Montana office. Stories naturally supply facts. They bring your real-world experience to life. And they are also easy on the listener. Everyone likes a good story.

MBA admissions interviews are 30 minutes on average, so you don’t have a second to squander. It’s likely the admissions value from any story in your life can be captured in the first 45 seconds if you tell it right. So, prep yourself around short, illustrative career and life stories you can tell in under a minute.

 

Unemployment Setback Can Set You Apart for MBA Admissions

As things roll towards R1 deadlines I’ve been seeing quite a few unemployment stories used in the setback/failure essay slot, for example in the HBS “Tell us three setbacks you have faced” essay.

This makes sense. Unemployment is a real setback. And it’s understood by Adcoms that many applicants have been laid off for no fault of their own through the Credit Crunch and global recession.

But there is a better and worse way to talk about unemployment. I see a lot of copy that goes something like this: “I was going along great in my career – then suddenly my whole department was laid off – I was totally in shock and despair – but I didn’t get downhearted – I sent out thousands of resumes – eventually I landed a good position – I learned to persevere and how important it is to have a network to rely on.”

I’m simplifying of course. But this is a reasonably accurate schematic of what I see, and at a surface level there is nothing wrong with it. No red flags. But there’s nothing there that will get the Adcom reader to notice the applicant either.

So, do you say: “I was laid off – I thought the world had ended – I moved back in with my parents and sat in a darkened room for a month”? Of course not. Telling the truth is recommended, but “too much information” also hurts you.

The path through this (and through any situation where you are likely to share the same base story with many applicants) is to demonstrate individuality not in the story, which is by definition common, but in your response and depth of reflection.

The best unemployment essays will use the experience to shine light on personality. Going beneath generically “keeping on keeping on,” what did you specifically do to motivate yourself? Even in hard times, there are events that are funny or cute or somehow emblematic of the situation or of you. What were they?

The positives to exploit are not just connected to perseverance. You can make points that have to do with creativity – how you didn’t just work hard, but worked differently.

Unemployment also forces unstructured free time. How did you fill it? Talk about volunteering, talk about courses you took sharpen your skills and keep yourself in circulation. But again, everyone will talk about that. So don’t forget the whimsical. If you fell in love with two puppies and took them for slippery winter walks in the hills around Vancouver, that’s worth saying too.

* See also ‘I’m unemployed, does this mean my MBA application will be dinged?’ http://t.co/BMpftjT