Tag Archives: Stanford

What If You Wrote MBA Admissions Essays Not To Turn Them In? (And Then You Did)

Getting the tone right in MBA Admissions essays — particularly a fine balance between self-confidence and humility — is really tricky.

There are no hard and fast rules for this, and the exact mix depends on the candidate. The swaggering quant at BlackRock, NY, is going to have to adopt an altogether more modulated tone than the doe-eyed violinist from Vietnam, and so on.

As I’m consistently helping candidates get this element of tone right in their essays — not by doing it for them, but by reflecting when I’m feeling the self-tooting trumpet is too loud or not loud enough — I’m always looking for ways to think more intelligently about it.

Recently I found myself nodding at a unique device suggested by Derrick Bolton, Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB, as quoted by Matt Symonds on Forbes. Bolton’s advises candidates to write the application as if they were writing it for themselves and not going to turn it in.

Why might this work?

Says Bolton: “You don’t need to lie to yourself. [Private] self-reflection allows you to think about the things that bring meaning to you, and the knowledge and experience you need to aspire to be the person you want to become.”

There’s a lot in this. If you were to write strictly for yourself, you’d only be BS’ing yourself if you weren’t 100% honest about your motivations and intentions, and reasons for “Why an MBA” or “Why Stanford,” etc. You would hardly set out to “impress” yourself or to write what you think you want to hear.

Were you to be writing in your own private journal, you would sift honestly and reflectively through your experiences, and genuinely try to join the dots between your past accomplishments and future aspirations via an MBA at the particular institution.

The suggestion therefore offers a compelling device to cut through a lot of the preening and bluster that turns good candidates into bad applicants. It is a way to raise transparency and find that “genuine voice” that MBA admisions directors want to hear.

Having said all this… let’s not for a second be fooled that Bolton or any other admissions gatekeeper lives anywhere other than the real world. Neither Bolton, nor anyone else, got to be where they are by turning in their private reflections.

So, stay smart about the process. Once you’ve written your essays absolutely as-if for yourself, go through them again to add back gentle persuasion, artful promotion, and marketing sass before you hit submit.

Amen Mr Jobs

The sad news today is Steve Jobs is dead, and America and the world has lost one of the most capable and innovative leaders ever born.

Steve Jobs’ Commencement address to graduating Stanford students in 2005 is the kind of orienting motivational document that is worth reading from time to time no matter who you are and what you do. But, in the spirit of better MBA applications, which is what this blog is 100 percent about, it’s worth going there today specifically to draw some lessons.

Lesson 1: Structure

In his opening few words, Jobs tells his audience: “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life.” What is he doing? He’s saying, here is the structure of what’s to come. Three stories. He’s signposted it in just one sentence, with no artifice and no fuss, and via these few words everyone knows what is coming and where they are all the way through the program. That’s being kind to your listener (or reader.) Kindness is often rewarded.

Lesson 2: Stories

Jobs needs to communicate fairly high-level and potentially abstract notions to do with choice, motivation, learning, patience, luck, love – and so on — to students. He could (so many do…) say something like: “It’s really important to be motivated and stay focused, and keep your focus when things go against you because sometimes adversity has good consequences you can’t see at the time …” Yawn.

Instead, he tells stories – relating concrete situations and events about himself. You are pulled into his life, prickled by the detail, listening or reading on willingly to know what happened next and how it turned out.

The stories make the point he wants to make all by themselves. Just one example: He doesn’t say: “I had no money when I dropped out of college, but I didn’t need much at that age.” He says: “I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”

Relevant, colorful story detail will make your interesting to your Adcom reader or MBA admissions interviewer; being interesting will get you noticed; getting noticed will go a long way to getting you admitted to the b-school you are applying to.

Lesson 3: Why an MBA?

Job’s again: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

When you answer the ‘Why-an-MBA’ question that all applications ask, this is what is at stake: not how will b-school put you on the next rung of a ladder, but how it will put you on or further along your life path. You don’t need a career blueprint – lot’s will change. But you do need to show the Admissions Committee some sense of what your heart and intuition calls you courageously to become, and how the MBA from their school will help you get there.

* See also How to Dent the Universe (or how to apply for an MBA like Steve Jobs would)

Top-3? Top-6? Among elite MBAs does it really matter where you go?

I found myself following a discussion on the Businessweek “Getting into B-School” forum. The thread is headed: “Does rank really matter among top 6?”

I select extracts to present here because the comments — before they descend into the flaming and slanging that bedevils these forums — deal with important (and corrective) thinking about what matters with rankings, and to whom, and helps understand how US program rankings are perceived internationally too. It finishes with common sense that I endorse.

Original question: “Does rank really matter among Top Business schools? With my European point of view, I consider that there are only 6 Top Schools (in descending order): HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Booth and Kellogg. Actually, I don’t really care about rankings here: my only criteria is prestige (which in my view is the only thing you can’t ignore when applying to business schools). In Europe, these schools are famous: if you say Stanford or Columbia, everybody knows what you’re talking about. [But]If you say Tuck business school (at random), very few people will have heard of it regardless of the quality of the school.

“So my question is: among this prestigious top, does is REALLY matter if you go to one or another? On this forum we can often read that if you go to HBS it is infinitely better that if you go to Wharton but Wharton will change your life so much more than Kellogg, and so on and so forth.”

Response: “In France [among] 100 person taken randomly in the street and educated in France, 100 will know about HEC, 90 about Harvard, 3 to 5 about Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Columbia and 10 maybe will know about INSEAD. But I would say that 90 will know about Yale, Princeton, 100 about Oxford, Cambridge.”

Response: “As a Frenchman I feel the need to throw in my 2 cents on this one. INSEAD is hands down the strongest MBA brand in France. Does every random person on the street necessarily know the name? No, but who cares? The employers do.”

Response: “I would like also to add that the education at the top business institutions is quite the same. I highly doubt that you will learn better investment management in Chicago or Wharton than in Yale, Haas or Fuqua. If you visit those schools, you might get surprised by the background of the faculty. You might take a class at Berkeley taught by a Yale alumni or even receive Michael Porter at Tuck.”

Response: “Although I agree with the notion that the value of an MBA drops as the ranking drops, I do not agree that there is a substantial difference between similarly ranked programs. Every objective metric I can think of (starting salary, quality of recruiting companies, average salary of graduates after 20 years etc.) clusters most top 15 programs closely together. The main exception seem to be HBS and Stanford. Another objective metric are the GMAT and the GPA. Those two metrics are hardly distinguishable in the top 15 programs, including HBS and Stanford.”

Original: “I’ve reached my conclusion I believe: go where you think you belong regardless of what people say/think. I chose to apply to Wharton and CBS finally even if i totally agree HBS/GSB are more famous and Booth/Kellogg are great schools simply because i think it will teach me what i want to learn in my specific field…And education among them is NOT that different, apart from some specialties that should ultimately lead your choice.”