Tag Archives: Business Week

Good vs. Bad Risks In MBA Admissions Essays

Business Week last week put out an illuminating story about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input. Part of the reason b-school adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled, as year-on-year Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid) in composing a good question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, tells Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it’s back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals a piece of who you really are and what shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you can make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you can discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest and self-revealing, that are specific in time and place and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice  and intimate tone into your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.

‘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!’

Look ahead and count the Carey School among the top-10 MBA programs

The Carey School? Never heard of it? It is Johns Hopkins University’s school of business, as renamed in 2006 when the university received a $50 million endowment from banker William Polk Carey.

It’s well known that JHU has been a bit of an oddity — a top-tier university with relatively little offering in business management. It has had a part-time program available at its Washington, D.C., campus, but nothing that attracted serious attention. Now that’s all changed. As reported in BusinessWeek, Johns Hopkins University is launching a new MBA program in August, in Baltimore, and it intends to become one of the world’s best.

The admissions implications are this: for a while — a few years — Carey will be relatively easy to get into. It will quickly move up the ranking based on the stellar JHU brand (it is particularly renown medical and public health schools) and soon will be as hard to gain admission as at any top program. If you’re prepared to think a little creatively, and move quickly, you can have a top-tier MBA ticket even if you’re likely to face a lot of dings from the established schools.

As BW reports, the Carey School is seeking to distinguish itself by designing a curriculum that will capitalize on Johns Hopkins’ strength in medicine and public health, have a focus on emerging markets and ethics, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Yes, there will be challenges. As a prospective student you should be aware that the Carey alumni network will be nascent at best, and career services won’t have a lot of clout in the market. The school’s inaugural dean, Yash Gupta, is busy recruiting top faculty and still working on AACSB accreditation, and this could all fail. But, brand capital in the bank says chances are it will succeed. And, as with Oxford-Said and Cambridge-Judge in the early days, top-tier admissions is currently there to be had even if you’re a long-shot applicant.