Tag Archives: interviews

Getting distinctiveness into your MBA application even if you think you have none

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but 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 carry-all 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 applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their 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 your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness 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, timid, 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. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s 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.

Harvard Business School essays (2009-10) add a cover letter just like MIT Sloan’s

Harvard has released their new essay questions, and deadlines for 2009-10, adding a cover letter essay (optional) which MIT Sloan’s has as a standard request for years. Still only four essays are required for HBS, and the first two compulsory questions remain the same:

1. What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (600)
2. What have you learned from a mistake? (400)

For essays essays 3 and 4, applicants now have five topics to choose from (up from four) two of which are new. One , a cover letter “introducing yourself to the Admissions Board,” is equivalent to the MIT Sloan signature essay.

This is no surprise. Cover letters are deeply difficult to get right because they require acute balance between brevity and detail. They test your ability to extract and communicate what is really important – demonstrating a key management skill.

The other new question: “Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision,” is familiar ground in admissions, and something well covered in MBA Studio’s profiling process that focuses on your key life transitions (why?) and prepares you for questions like this in your essays and interview.

The full set of options for HBS essays 3 & 4 are:

Please respond to two of the following (400-word limit each):
1. What would you like the MBA Admissions Board to know about your undergraduate academic experience?
2. Discuss how you have engaged with a community or organization.
3. Tell us about a time when you made a difficult decision.
4. Write a cover letter to your application introducing yourself to the Admissions Board.
5. What is your career vision and why is this choice meaningful to you?

The deadlines are (all 5pm EST) R1: October 1, 2009; R2: January 19, 2010; R3: April 8, 2010


Some great interview advice between the lines in “Harvard is my hump”

There’s a heartwarming story in today’s Philippine Star (philstar.com) by Gina Valerie Chua, who tells the story of her March HBS interview and April admission to Harvard. See the full story at this link.

Other than the feel good factor, for admissions purposes there are two takeaways. First is she beat out many apparently better candidates – as she puts it: “those NASA astronauts and genetic scientists who are dreaming of the exact same thing.” She says: “Only 900 applicants are admitted out of 10,000 from all over the world: investment bankers, UN diplomats, cancer-curing surgeons — and little old me somehow found my way through.”

I’m sure she is being modest about her own competitive profile, but the point remains. You don’t need to be a superstar. You just need to be competitive and apply well.

The second takeaway concerns reflections on the HBS interview.

Says Chua: “I remember my interview. They asked me why I insist on writing despite my career in investment banking, an anomaly in this world of perfectly drawn certainties. What I told them is the very reason you are reading this now: I wish to write about possibility. Whether we are meant to find it at home or some 9,000 miles away, there is a world waiting for us, waiting for our courage and our lack of self-restriction. We cannot help but be creators — of books, skyscrapers, wars or dynasties — and the best of who we are can only be found in the hope they leave behind.”

Idealistic waffle wouldn’t you say? Puke? Well, that’s the point. For better or worse most Adcoms like idealism. Harvard perhaps more than most. They don’t want naivete, but they do like world-changing visions. If you are not something of a dreamer at 25, you’ll never be, and they are not looking to put the HBS brand on (more) money-grabbing cynics.

And, reassuringly, they don’t penalize anomalies, nor seek a world of perfect certainties. Be yourself.