Tag Archives: Teamwork

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”

 

The value of a bad boss in MBA admissions

Unless you are independently wealthy or have been lucky enough to work for yourself all your life (and most of us fall into neither category,) chances are you’ve had a bad boss or two along the way.

You know the type: the boss who sets ambiguous tasks and then micromanages them. Who offers a grunt when you ace a project, but chews you over for 20 minutes because of a minor error. The one who will take credit up the chain for great work you do, but won’t cover for you when deadlines slip. And so on.

I was reminded of this in profiling a client recently. He had been doing everything right, killing himself to complete complex operations/IT projects, plus studying nights for an M.S. degree and co-managing a young family. His boss committed all of the above evils and more. She would casually set him ‘by-close-of-business today” tasks late in the day, interfere in carefully nurtured team relationships he had built up over months, use fear of termination to crack the whip, and the list goes on.

At the first possible moment, he quit. Yay.

Listening to this phase of his life, I felt need to reach for the Kleenex. But I could offer some consolation. After the event, what he had was fabulous experience for his future role as a manager and leader, and it would play well in an MBA admissions essay. Why? Because if you have experienced having your motivation sapped, having to walk on eggshells around an idiot who controls you, having to grind your teeth in frustration at not being able to implement an obvious innovation — that is, if you have been poorly managed yourself, you have excellent insight into what not to do. And therefore, reversing all that a bad boss does, you have a good idea what kind of boss you should be.

Further, for MBA admissions essay or interview purposes, your bad-boss story is “proof” you have been through fundamental learning about management, have developed insights into how to handle people under you, and are therefore ready to manage effectively when your turn comes. If you have a story like this, tell it.

Wharton’s MBA admissions essays for 2010-2011: a challenging set of questions

Wharton’s MBA essays for 2010-11 are great; and very significantly reformulated from previous years, demanding new comment and analysis here.

The required question:

What are your professional objectives? (300 words)

This is in some senses the classic Why-an-MBA? question. What’s new is that it is really short, particularly when compared with the longer questions that follow. The implication is that Wharton, following HBS and others, are putting less and less emphasis on what applicants claim they will do on graduation. They expect to heavily influence that. It is important that you have direction and motivation, but they reckon, and they’re right, that 300 words is more than enough to get that across. Notice that there’s very little space for Why (an MBA) Now? or Why Wharton? If there’s something important to say to that, you’ll have to be really succinct, or work it into one of the other essays.

The optional questions — respond to three of the following four:

  1. Student and alumni engagement has at times led to the creation of innovative classes. For example, through extraordinary efforts, a small group of current students partnered with faculty to create a timely course entitled, “Disaster Response: Haiti and Beyond,” empowering students to leverage the talented Wharton community to improve the lives of the Haiti earthquake victims. Similarly, Wharton students and alumni helped to create the “Innovation and the Indian Healthcare Industry” which took students to India where they studied the full range of healthcare issues in India. If you were able to create a Wharton course on any topic, what would it be? (700 words)
  2. Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today? (600 words)
  3. Describe a failure that you have experienced. What role did you play, and what did you learn about yourself? How did this experience help to create your definition of failure? (600 words)
  4. Discuss a time when you navigated a challenging experience in either a personal or professional relationship. (600 words)

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Question 1 does a number of things worth noting. First it’s mining for what you, specifically and uniquely, bring to the program. It does not automatically follow that you would create a class around your speciality, but this will be the case for many applicants, and so is a place to show your special attributes, connections, or interests. The question also therefore allows you to show your “fit with Wharton,” not only what you will contribute but what you would like to learn or experience. Further, as the language of the question suggests, it looks toward your innovativeness, which is a core value in MBA admissions. Your choice of class must show innovation with reference to the curriculum as it stands. This of course demands that you demonstrate knowledge of what is already on offer and where the gaps might be. Finally the question tests your realism and knowledge of how b-school electives and/or off-site experiential programs work. You might say “I’ll create a class that goes to visit Nelson Mandela to learn to balance business and policy objectives” but that would show total naivete as to how things really work and what’s really possible, and your application would be in the bin.

Question 2 is a deep, almost wickedly deep, dive into your personal stuff. They are probing the tissue of your motivation, your self-awareness, and self-understanding. The actual opportunity turned down is far less important than why you choose one thing over another, which should takes Adcom right to who you are as a person and what your core values are. Don’t disappoint them in this. Obviously when you turned down an opportunity, it was for a good reason, either a better opportunity or a family obligation or something like that. So what is at stake here too is your judgment and maturity. The question specifically looks to that in asking if you would make the same choice again, in other words, “how have you grown?”

Question 3 is the similar to last year, but the sub-question is new. It is a classic failure question. I’ve written a lot on how to manage failure questions (click on ‘failure essay’ tag,) and in my book. The sub-question that asks about your definition of failure, deepens the motivational, maturity, introspection angles to the standard MBA admissions failure essay. Everyone fails. Not everyone knows why, or demonstrates the self-knowledge or emotional resilience that is core to “bouncing back.”

Question 4 is a fairly typical “challenging situation” question. Of the set it is the one that most clearly asks about your relationship with others — and therefore your role in groups, teams, and so on, although it does focus you on a particular event and a specific 1-to-1 relationship. The ability to manage relationships is key to leadership, and therefore key to business success, and thus key to Wharton Adcom.

All in all, Wharton 2010-11 has put out a really state-of-the-art set of questions. Varied. Behavioral. Hard. But don’t be scared of hard questions. If they were easy you wouldn’t be able to separate yourself adequately from the crowd of pleasantry-and-platitude writers.