Category Archives: MBA Admissions

What MBA Adcoms Want is an Authentic Expression of Self

There is an old post from Business Week that I find as current as ever, about how MBA Adcoms set about thinking up MBA admissions essay questions.

The context is, increasingly over time, business schools are asking fewer essay questions in total, often swapping text questions for multimedia input.

Part of the reason b-school Adcoms are asking for fewer questions is they don’t get what they want from the answers.

What they very often get is a generic “promo-style” answer from the applicant, telling the admissions committee what they think the committee wants to hear.

If an essay prompt results in thousands of formulaic responses it will be pulled when Adcoms sit down to refine their questions based on the quality of answers they got the previous year.

There’s a lot MBA applicants can learn from knowing what Adcom’s task themselves to achieve (or more specifically, what they try to avoid getting back) when they compose a good admissions question.

Liz Riley Hargrove, Associate Dean for admissions at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, told Business Week how admissions officers pass boardroom hours lobbing edits back and forth to craft the perfect question.

They answer each other’s questions. If Adcom members themselves answer the question generically, it is back to the drawing board.

What they don’t want is your elegantly varnished cookie-cutter answer that takes no risks about who you are and the choices you have made so far in life, and how those have worked out. What they do want is an authentic expression of self, something that reveals at least a part of who you really are and what has shaped you.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you are welcome make mistakes in grammar or tone or style, or you may discuss inappropriate topics or waste words capturing little admissions value. That’s taking a bad risk.

It does mean you can be yourself. Really, truly. Being who you really are, and saying what your really want is a good risk.

How can you “be yourself?” By saying things about you that are honest, that are specific in time and place, and unique only to you. This is the way to achieve an authentic voice and intimate tone in your communications.

If what you say could just as easily be in the next applicant’s essay, you’ve failed an important test in MBA admissions essay writing.

How to extract MBA Admissions Value from your experiences: an example

I find myself consistently, always telling MBA applicants to extract the full MBA admissions value from what they have in their bio, and what they have done.

Doing this is the only way to present as more valuable than the next applicant to the business school in question. That is, the only way to get admitted in a competitive system.

Easier said than done of course. So the question comes back: How do I do that?

How to do it, as I’ve written at greater length in my book, has to do with:
(a) understand the full dimensions of MBA admissions value associated with what you have done and/or achieved;
(b) understanding what is valuable to Adcoms, which is to say what is valuable in the b-school environment and in MBA careers, and
(c) being able to connect “a” to “b” in a clear and compelling way.

That’s the theory. Here’s an example. (Note: nothing works in MBA admissions essays as well as an example, if it is relevant and credible.)

Let’s say you have been involved in Jujutsu for much of your early life, achieved your “black belt” at the age of 18, were reasonably successful in competitions during high school and college, but now just keep your hand in at the dojo as a part-time instructor.

Is this valuable or not? Or, how do you make it valuable?

First, of course it’s valuable. Martial arts are a recognized personal, psychological and physical development activity. It takes youths through a structured and disciplined and group-oriented series of challenges.

Also, if you have have spent this much of your life on the activity, it has to get some airtime in your application.

More pertinently, which parts are valuable? What do you say?

Is it valuable to say you can fight people and easily knock them down. Of course not. That’s a red flag. 

Is it valuable to say you can defend yourself in any situation? That’s not going to hurt your application, but it won’t help. Adcom doesn’t rate people on whether they can physically defend themselves – it is not something that counts for much at business school, or with the school’s careers office, or for recruiters of MBA graduates, or in the business world in general

The value is in:

  • the self-discipline you acquired
  • your experience of setbacks, and perseverance in overcoming them
  • participating with competitors and in competition
  • learning to manage adversity
  • being part of a structured environment
  • learning to structure and manage your time (e.g. going to the dojo 5x a week on top of everything else.)

There may also be value to be had in the psychic development your experience offers: exposure to alternative (oriental) philosophy, mindfulness, inner peace and self-reliance, and so on. If you are now a coach or trainer or mentor of the next generation, there is obvious admissions value in that too.

The point is, there is usually lots of admissions value on offer from a past experience, if you mine it properly. This becomes part of your “value claim” as a person and professional going forward.

Once you can extract what admissions value is there to be had, you can choose which parts to emphasize and how much to say. And then you move onto the next value activity from your past, approaching it in the same way.