Tag Archives: ambition

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good” profile application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a cop-out.

What I mean is–putting it another way–the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you, it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question, using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative-writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Distinctiveness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it is set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything–you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.

 

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.

 

The Hidden Why of Work-Life Balance in MBA Essays

Everybody knows “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And therefore that you need to mix non-workplace stories and situations into your MBA admissions essays.

I find I still have to nudge on this. Truth is, after 10 years in MBA admissions, I can read applicants’ minds somewhat, and I see the thought bubble above a client’s head that says: “C’mon Avi, this lifestyle story is a ‘soft’ story, while this work story clearly demonstrates my business leadership potential…”

You do need workplace stories, of course. But you need life stories in equal measure, and not just to demonstrate work-life balance. There are further reasons, which are:

1. Your work is not that interesting

What?!! Not interesting? I break it to you, if you didn’t know already, that your own work is more interesting to you than it is to other people. That’s why you do it and they don’t. There may be some exceptions, like if you worked on the international Space Station, but most people most of the time dread having their back to the wall while someone bends their ear about this or that installation where they were able to integrate the database mobility platform of… er…. you’d suddenly feel the urge to refresh your drink, if you know what I mean. Myself, I find picking the lock of elite MBA Admissions gates endlessly fascinating, but if I talk about it socially, people’s eyes glaze over.

2. Your work is relatively junior

Sorry, another home truth here. As an MBA applicant, chances are you are in your mid-late 20s, and so your work is, by definition, quite junior. You are not yet at the top of your game, nor at the top of your industry — where you would have the kind of experiences that would allow you to tell truly interesting work stories, like the time you were in the BP Boardroom when the Chairman of the Federal Reserve called… But, for now your work is pretty standard stuff, or at least it could be bigger and better. That’s why you’re applying for an MBA, no?

3. Your work will change.

By definition, if you are about to embark on an MBA, your professional life will change dramatically. Whatever you’re doing now, you won’t be doing it after graduation. So, whatever your workplace story, you are focusing the admissions reader on your past, while she is in fact looking to your professional future and trying to make a judgment about your ability to progress there.

For these reasons, while workplace essays *are* important, they are inherently limited in terms of their real purpose (to get Adcom to pick you.) The admissions committee is somewhat interested, but is going to gloss over the micro-technical or organizational details in the search for what they really want to know, which is, what is this applicant’s prospects for significant successes at a higher level?

They know, even if you don’t yet, that your current job spec will disappear and be replaced. So they focus on what is relatively fixed by your mid-20s: your character, personality, ambition, drive, and management style.

Turn it around and look at if from the reader’s point of view, as you should always do. What does Adcom at an elite b-school really want to know? (Yes, they say they want to “get to know you,” and they do. But in a way, this is the usual cr*p they alway say.) What they really, really want to know is whether you are going to be a future star, that is rapidly move onward and upward to one day do great things in your industry. Convince them of that (within your applicant sub-group) and you’re in.

The standard workplace conundrum that you solved and learned from is going to take you some way down that road. To go the rest of the way, you need to charm them with your formative life stories.