Tag Archives: writing style

How to Make your MBA Application Stand Out

One of the problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser–friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant–to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools is explaining that while “good is nice and great is nicer” 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 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 reader) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their life 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 for your local Agony Aunt magazine column.

2. Distinctiveness 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, 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. (Much more about the how of this is in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

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

 

Surviving the HBS ‘Answer a Question You Wish We’d Asked’ Question

Following the various HBS applications I’m seeing, it’s clear my post today should be about how to approach the HBS “Wished-We’d-Asked” question.

The first thing, which I hope is obvious, is there are two tests here: (1) can you find a question that is appropriate and important, and ask it in an interesting way – a way that piques your reader’s interest; and (2) can you answer it in a way that advances your admissions prospects?

The two are of course related – you want to choose the single question that most allows you to advance your admissions value. As this essay comes at the end of the set, you will be looking to address a topic or factor that you have not spoken of yet (or not enough.)

The steps to a good question are as follows:

  • What is there left, that is really important to say, that hasn’t been said in my other essays?
  • What question will best let me address that?
  • How can I formulate the question in a really interesting way?

An appropriate question, in Adcom’s eyes, is one that opens a channel of insight into who you are, what you stand for, what formative experiences in your past matter and why, how you have derived your values or motivations or ambitions, or other similar important stuff about you.

In other words, the right kind of question is one where the answer will leave the reader significantly more knowledgeable about you.

The right kind of question will be hard to answer. If you ask a question you feel you can knock off “no sweat,” then the question is probably betraying your admissions prospects.

Finally, it’s important (if you want to stand out, and you most surely do) that you ask the question in an interesting way. You could say, “I wish you had asked me what my favorite TV show is,” but that’s a yawn. It would be more flavorful to say, “I wish you’d asked me why I own the full 7 season DVD box set of ‘The West Wing.’”

You could say, “I wish you’d asked me about my community service,” but that’s like a road sign “beware, extreme dullness ahead,” when you could say everything you need to say about your volunteering in a soup kitchen and beyond under a question like: “I wished you’d asked me how cook soup for 400, in the dark, with one onion.”

What does the sign on your desk say?

Everyone knows leadership is a key theme in MBA applications. One way or another, the b-school graduate is going to be a leader. Therefore showing evidence and understanding of, and aptitude and appetite for, the demands of leadership is central to succeeding in MBA admissions selection.

Because of this, as an admissions coach, I’m always on the lookout for insight into leadership and how to communicate it, and I found some by Paul Thornton at a blog called Great Leadership.

Thornton says business and political leaders often have a motto or plaque on their desk or office wall that encapsulates their leadership attitude. His article is below. I repost it here in full on this blog, in order to be able to ask the question: as an MBA applicant, what is the sign on your desk, or what will it be when the time comes?

More specifically, if you can distill the essence of your leadership attitude or style or motivation in this way, it makes an excellent basis for telling Adcom about it in your essays or interview in a way that will get you noticed… much better than serving up worn-out phrases about leadership as “motivating people” or “making a difference” or other standard waffle that will shift you only sideways into the bundle of applications about to be dinged.

Here is Thornton’s text:

“As a leader, what should the sign on your wall or desk say?

W. Clement Stone began as a shoeshine boy and became a multimillionaire. He credits his success to three words: Do It Now. He required everyone who worked for him to write those words on index cards and post them in their work area.

Over the past twenty years I have collected and analyzed many of the quotes leaders post on their office walls or keep on their desks. Many of these quotes are the guiding principle they followed to achieve success. Here are my top 15.

1. “It can be done!” —Sign President Ronald Reagan kept on his desk in the Oval Office.

Leaders are optimistic, upbeat, and positive. Reagan was known for his optimism and the ability to express ideas in a clear, eloquent, and quotable fashion.

2. “No Whining” —Sign on the desk of James Parker, former CEO, Southwest Airlines.

Victims wine and blame others. Leaders may get discouraged on occasion but never play the victim role.

3. Bill Gates had a picture of Henry Ford in his office. It was there as a reminder to not do what Ford did. Ford didn’t listen to his customers. He knew his customers wanted the option to buy cars painted other colors besides black. This “fatal attitude” caused him to lose market share to upstart General Motors.

4. “The Buck Starts Here!” —Sign on the desk of Donald Trump.

Leaders see opportunity and take action. Non-leaders only see the status quo and sit still.

5. “Be brief. Be Brilliant. Be Gone.” —Former sign on the office wall of Mark Goodman, CEO, Twist Image.

Leaders who are clear and concise are more credible and more brilliant.

6. “Start Talking and Get to Work” —Sign in the office of Alden Davis, former Business Effectiveness Consultant, Pratt & Whitney Division of United Technologies Corporation.

Leaders spend a significant amount of time talking and listening. Advocating, proposing, nudging, selling, questioning, listening, probing and digging are what leaders do.

7. “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupery”—Sign above the desk of Michael S. Hyatt, CEO, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Michael states, “Leaders remove the clutter so their big ideas stand out.”

8. Hatim Tyabji, former chairman and CEO of VeriFone, Inc. —On his office wall there was a poster that consisted of twelve blocks, each with a photo of an Irish setter. The first 11 blocks show the dog standing, not responding to a command to “sit.” Finally, in block twelve, the Irish setter sits. “Good dog,” reads the poster.

Hatim states, “That is the essence of leadership. I can’t get disillusioned when I say ‘sit’ and nobody sits. So I just keep repeating the message. Leaders must be clear, consistent, and repetitive. Keep repeating the message until it sticks.”

9. “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” —Sign in the office of T. J. Rodgers, founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor.

Leaders are demanding! They expect more than others think is possible. Leaders believe most people have underutilized talents and abilities.

10. Strive for Excellence. Signed photographs of Frank Sinatra, Mohammad Ali, Albert Pujols, Ted Turner, and Donald Trump are on the office wall of Jim Stovall.

Jim is president, Narrative Television Network and author of The Ultimate Gift.

Jim states, “These are people who I’ve worked with and respect. They remind me to always strive for excellence.”

11. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” John le Carré —Sign in the office of Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO of IBM.

Seeing the problem, touching the part, talking directly with employees and customers provides a reality you don’t get sitting in your office. We want to see our leaders directly involved in the problem like Louisiana Governor Bobby Gindal has been involved in the Gulf Oil Crisis.

12. “Prove Your Groove.” —Sign on the office wall of Peter H. Reynolds CEO/Owner, FableVision Enterprises.

Peter states, “It means don’t just say it—do it. Show us your passion in action. Leaders use the media, storytelling, and technology to foster the development of each person’s potential.”

13. “Just because it worked once, doesn’t mean it will work again!” —Sign on the desk of Shaun Coffey, CEO, Industrial Research Ltd., New Zealand.

Shaun states, “Every situation is different, and this is particularly so when dealing with change. People are different, and people change. An intervention that has been spectacularly successful may not work in a new situation. It may not even work in the same company/organization again because the people will have changed as a result of the experience. Keep changing your tactics, staying aware of how people are responding. Attack from different angles. Look for signs that something isn’t working, and try something else—don’t get stuck in your ways.”

14. “The time is always right to do what is right.” Martin Luther King Jr. —Sign on the office wall of Michael Jansma, President GEMaffair.com.

Leaders consistently stand up for their values and beliefs. It’s not a once in awhile thing.

15. “Leaders should be able to Stand Alone, Take the Heat, Bear the Pain, Tell the Truth, and Do What’s Right” Max DePree —Sign in the office of Brian Morehouse, coach of women’s basketball at Hope College, 2006 Division III National Champions.

Brian states, “That quote covers everything a leader needs to do as they approach their day in terms of courage, integrity, focus, and perseverance. And, it closely meshes with my coaching philosophy which is –Do the right thing every day, every play, on and off the court!”