Tag Archives: why-an-MBA

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)

Managing the MBA admissions interview as a fake fireside chat

As promised, more on MBA admissions interviewing. The difficulty with interviewing (of all types) is that it is a test of “total communication.” That is, it is not just what you say, but how you say it. And this how includes judgment of your expression, tone, confidence, body language, and so on.

The further difficulty is that interviewers “read” these communication signals differently in different contexts and cultures. Now, this is not an anthropology dissertation, and I have no expertise in interview styles across the world, so for clarity let me just stick to US cultural expectations and norms, which are often confusing for foreigners (and Americans too!)

MBA applicants interviewing for a US business school face a contradictory injunction. They are expected to be very formal in dress and politesse before and around the interview, but at the same time (read the guidance on the b-school sites if you don’t believe me) the interview is positioned in *very* familiar terms, as a get-to-know-you event, a conversation, a friendly chat, etc.

This is a “mixed message” if ever there was one. Do they want formal or informal? Both, in different ways. You need to be able to play the formal game, but also be “American” in your ability to be casual and egalitarian across age and authority lines. So while you are dressed like a stuffed chicken, you can still, with permission, call your interviewer “Bob” and so on.

This is, all-in-all, a hard thing to get right for 30 min. One of the images I like to use in interview rehearsal is to get applicants to visualize themselves in a “fireside chat.” That is, to strive for a balanced friendly conversation that bubbles along merrily as if one was having a totally relaxed 1-to-1 in intimate surroundings. This is fake of course, because underneath you have your agenda (transmitting admissions value) and they have theirs (judging you.)

The way get the conversation to bubble along is to make sure there is never a one-way question-vs.-answer dynamic. Bear in mind you can’t ask questions of the interviewer until the very end, when he or she will (formally) signal that this is now appropriate.

So how do you do that achieve a more balanced conversation? One way is not to stop dead when you’re done answering one question, but rather look for a natural segue between topics, ending your answer to one question by saying “which leads me to tell you about…” and then marching off onto new terrain you want to cover. For example, you can end your answer to a “why-an-MBA” question by saying “Which leads me to: why MIT-Sloan? …” Or you can finish a question about managing a tricky report by moving on to how this experience will benefit your team-building skills on campus, and so on.

It’s a technique that has to be used subtly, scanning for visual confirmation that you have permission and are on-topic in broad terms. But if used well, the interview will have a better “formal-casual balance,” and that’s to your great advantage.

MBA Adcom is not a venture capital firm

I’m sometimes asked for the greatest mistakes applicants make in MBA admissions essays, and at some point I’ll pull together my all-time list. But in the meantime, here’s a mistake that I’ve seen a lot of among clients this year so far: muddling up the demands of MBA admissions and a venture capital pitch.

What I mean is, applicants who are on an entrepreneurial track (including social entrepreneurship) and who are therefore talking about a future creating and building a firm, feel they have to make a VC pitch for their proposed venture. They seek to justify themselves in terms of potential market segments, working capital requirements, time to breakeven, and so on.

Now it is always good for MBA admissions to show detailed, careful thinking. And if your “why-an-MBA” is based on a new business, you need to talk about the proposed venture and its industry-market background in a specific and knowledgable way.

But you don’t need to make “the business case.” Adcom is not a VC firm. As long as the idea is not manifestly absurd, they can’t determine if it will actually work, nor are they ever going to try. This is not their skillset, and not their fundamental concern.

Put it this way: A VC firm will “like” a business idea if it thinks it will get out (a investment multiple of) more money than it puts in. If so, the VC will, to quote Dragon’s Den, “make you an offer,” that is, invest cash for a percentage of the business.

MBA Adcoms are not investing cash. They will “like” a business idea enough to make you an offer (an offer of a place in the b-school) if your venture seems broadly plausible, interesting, ambitious, doing something worthwhile in the world, and worthy of an MBA.

So, while you should make a general case for your new product or service, in reality the venture does not have to watertight. You can include the jumps of ambition and enthusiasm that you would have to scrub from a funding pitch.

But there is a wrinkle: Adcom is like a venture capital firm in one way. It is well known that VCs judge two things: the business idea AND the entrepreneur, because they are investing in the person or management team as much as the project. Even a mediocre idea can be a winner, if put in really competent hands. In this sense Adcom mirrors the VC, asking themselves: (whatever the applicant wants to do…) “Can he do it?” Can she pull it off?”

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