Tag Archives: team player

MBA Admissions: About You, About More Than You

The military style and ethos of management is usually best avoided in MBA admissions, because it is not subtle or complex enough for the real world of business. If Adcom is interested in your leadership style (and they are) they are interested in how you are able to motivate people without threats or force or heirarchy. To go up to someone’s desk and scream in their ear is hardly going to work in your office. In business, pulling rank usually does more harm than good.

However, occasionally there is something to be gleaned from the military, and here is a video worth two minutes of your time. It features Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, now CEO of ‘The Mission Continues.’


He describes his epiphany during ‘Hell Week’ when it dawned on him: “This isn’t about me. This test is about my ability to lead and be of service to the people who are in that tent right now.” The irony is he then falls asleep…

Jokes aside, here’s the point from an MBA admissions perspective:

A lot of applicants describe corporate hazing of one type or another. That is, the long hours worked, vertical learning curves ascended, all-nighters pulled, jetlag endured, and so on — in terms of personal gain. “I suffered, I showed perseverance and came though it, and learned a lot, and now I’m a better person.” That’s okay as far as it goes.

But the real admissions jackpot comes from being able to see it and frame it in group terms. How the ‘pain’ was all about bearing the load with the rest of the group, and achieving goals for the group. That is, how your effort was about more than just you, therefore implying what you will do with your MBA will also be more than just about you.

In this regard, note items 2 and 3 on the MIT Sloan guidance (which enumerates principles equally true of all top tier MBA admissions.)

“We seek to enroll well-rounded individuals with the following characteristics:

  • Success in your professional endeavors (whether you are well into your career or a college senior)
  • Ability to collaborate to accomplish a common goal
  • Drive to inspire others to achieve success
  • Vision to seek alternative solutions to existing challenges
  • Pursuit of meaningful goals”


‘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!’

Some Harvard puffery, but good insight into what HBS looks for

Harvard Business School has a promotional video up at http://www.hbs.edu/mba/academics/

The video can also been seen here.

It’s an ad for HBS of course, highlighting its main point of distinction: the case method, which, according to HBS creates “special moments that pull everything we have learned into focus. When theory, practice, experience and talent all come to one sharp point — a decision.” And so on.

For the MBA admissions applicant this is a worthwhile watch for a few reasons

1. It is good insight into how b-schools work and think. It is good background on the culture and attitudes at play, including overall assumptions and ethics, and therefore what would be expected of the next class too.

2. It is good insight into the dynamics of the business school classroom, and the requirements of individual and group-based learning. The applicant positioned well to work in this way, is well positioned to be admitted.

3. It is good insight into the case method of teaching. HBS is “ground zero” of the case method, but actually almost every school uses cases to a significant degree, so it is useful for understanding all schools.

By the way, the case method has been under a bit of scrutiny, and voices have been raised that Harvard did not adequately prepare its graduates to assess risk / business failure (the credit crunch and fallout). See example stories in Forbes and Bloomberg News. But, to me it doesn’t look like HBS did worse than anywhere else …

Note also how HBS focuses on its distinctive marker – the case method – in branding and advertising itself. Same principles apply to MBA applicants.