Category Archives: MBA Admissions

How to not be ‘Excepted’ to a Top MBA Program

One from the files – but in this regard nothing changes. No matter how the MBA admissions process may iterate slightly with the times, correct English grammar and word usage remains the bedrock of successful MBA Admissions essays.

Any slip makes you look at best undereducated, or incompetent or just sloppy.

English has famously “low startup costs.” You don’t have to decline nouns or conjugate many verbs, so it is comparatively easy to get going with. The flip side is, with so many, many words, each with subtle nuances of usage and meaning, getting English to be actually correct is very hard – even for many mother-tongue English speakers.

Part of the problem is that many errors have become so commonplace they no longer stand out in everyday use. But your Adcom readers for business school admissions will absolutely know right from wrong. You have been warned!

The last section of MBA Admisssion Strategy book is devoted to English usage and better writing, and on this theme, I re-cite this LinkedIn post by Travis Bradbury, detailing commonly misused pairs of words – of the kind I find myself flagging frequently in editing MBA admissions essays.

“It’s the words that we think we’re using correctly that wreak the most havoc. We throw them around in meetings, e-mails and important documents (such as resumes and client reports), and they land, like fingernails across a chalkboard, on everyone who has to hear or read them…

“Often, it’s the words we perceive as being more ‘correct’ or sophisticated that don’t really mean what we think they do. There are 20 such words that have a tendency to make even really smart people stumble.” Have a look to see which of these commonly confused words throw you off.

Accept vs. Except
These two words sound similar but have very different meanings. Accept means to receive something willingly: “His mom accepted his explanation” or “She accepted the gift graciously.” Except signifies exclusion: “I can attend every meeting except the one next week.” To help you remember, note that both except and exclusion begin with ex.

Affect vs. Effect
To make these words even more confusing than they already are, both can be used as either a noun or a verb. Let’s start with the verbs. Affect means to influence something or someone; effect means to accomplish something. “Your job was affected by the organizational restructuring” but “These changes will be effected on Monday.” As a noun, an effect is the result of something: “The sunny weather had a huge effect on sales.” It’s almost always the right choice because the noun affect refers to an emotional state and is rarely used outside of psychological circles: “The patient’s affect was flat.”

Lie vs. Lay
We’re all pretty clear on the lie that means an untruth. It’s the other usage that trips us up. Lie also means to recline: “Why don’t you lie down and rest?” Lay requires an object: “Lay the book on the table.” Lie is something you can do by yourself, but you need an object to lay. It’s more confusing in the past tense. The past tense of lie is—you guessed it—lay: “I lay down for an hour last night.” And the past tense of lay is laid: “I laid the book on the table.”

Bring vs. Take
Bring and take both describe transporting something or someone from one place to another, but the correct usage depends on the speaker’s point of view. Somebody brings something to you, but you take it to somewhere else: “Bring me the mail, then take your shoes to your room.” Just remember, if the movement is toward you, use bring; if the movement is away from you, use take.

Ironic vs. Coincidental
A lot of people get this wrong. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s not ironic—it’s coincidental (and bad luck). Ironic has several meanings, all of which include some type of reversal of what was expected. Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but clearly means another. Situational irony is when a result is the opposite of what was expected. O. Henry was a master of situational irony. In “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each character sold something precious to buy a gift for the other, but those gifts were intended for what the other person sold. That is true irony. If you break your leg the day before a ski trip, that’s coincidental. If you drive up to the mountains to ski, and there was more snow back at your house, that’s ironic.

Imply vs. Infer
To imply means to suggest something without saying it outright. To infer means to draw a conclusion from what someone else implies. As a general rule, the speaker/writer implies, and the listener/reader infers.

Nauseous vs. Nauseated
Nauseous has been misused so often that the incorrect usage is accepted in some circles. Still, it’s important to note the difference. Nauseous means causing nausea; nauseated means experiencing nausea. So, if your circle includes ultra-particular grammar sticklers, never say “I’m nauseous” unless you want them to be snickering behind your back.

Comprise vs. Compose
These are two of the most commonly misused words in the English language. Comprise means to include; compose means to make up. It all comes down to parts versus the whole. When you use comprise, you put the whole first: “A soccer game comprises (includes) two halves.” When you use compose, you put the pieces first: “Fifty states compose (make up) the United States of America.”

Farther vs. Further
Farther refers to physical distance, while further describes the degree or extent of an action or situation. “I can’t run any farther,” but “I have nothing further to say.” If you can substitute “more” or “additional,” use further.

Fewer vs. Less
Use fewer when you’re referring to separate items that can be counted; use less when referring to a whole: ‘You have fewer dollars, but less money.'”

The Myth of the Super-700s GMAT

For many MBA applicants, now is GMAT or GRE test-taking season. Below is a piece I wrote years ago on Business Week b-school site, but the issue does not go away. So I hope it gives a new cohort of MBA applicants a strategic reality check in terms of how a GMAT or GRE score helps and hurts in MBA admissions, and therefore what score is needed:

I had a MBA admissions client recently who I’ll call Tim, and when Tim and I got talking about his admissions profile he told me he’d scored 720 on the GMAT, and then retaken the test (and scored the same again). I nearly dropped the phone. “Why would anyone ever want to retake a 720 GMAT?” I gasped.

The truth is, I know why. Candidates think the higher they score, the better their chances of admission. It seems obvious. But is it right?

Of course the test score is crucial. It tells Adcom about an applicant’s intellectual and cognitive skills, and is particularly useful in allowing easy comparison across institutions and undergraduate majors, and to some extent across cultures. Furthermore, every 10-point gain does add to candidates’ admissions prospects, and a move of 30 or so fundamentally changes which b-schools they can legitimately hope to get into. All true.

But this is true only up to a certain level, about the 700-740 range. After this, a higher score has steeply diminishing returns and can even harm one’s chances.

Why? Two reasons. First, although the MBA is a post-graduate university degree, it is primarily professional education. Its fundamental task is to prepare and place people in business management positions, not academic positions. Managers need to be smart but, as everyone knows, the cleverest people don’t necessarily make the best managers, nor best entrepreneurs, or bankers, or consultants. Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, etc., are smart enough. But they are not Einsteins.

MBA programs are not looking for brainiacs.

Therefore, an ultra-high GMAT can be harmful. Scoring in the super bracket (750+) means that you are, by definition, in the 99th percentile. People who score like that are often better pure scientists or philosophers, than managers. It’s a stereotype, and perhaps a poor one, but the absent-minded professor is commonly associated with being a poor people-person and a poor manager. If you get a very high score, Adcom will be absolutely sure to thoroughly check and almost disbelieve that you are also a leader and team player and can manage adversity and do all the practical things you need to get done in a business day.

Maybe you can and do. But an extra burden of proof falls on you in this regard if you are in the GMAT stratosphere.

The second, related, problem is it takes a mix of talents to get admitted to a competitive school. The operative term here is “mix.” Academic ability is just one of many items considered, along with career potential, leadership potential, team player profile, work experience, volunteer experience, profile diversity, and so on. Academic ability is definitely a requirement, but so are many other attributes. This reflects the multifaceted demands of a real business career.

People who obsess with improving an already 700+ GMAT are, almost certainly, taking time and effort away from improving the rest of their admissions profile.

This is how it works: a threshold is reached (depending on GPA results and other  variables) at around the 700 level, where Adcom can safely put a check mark next to your academic ability, and move on to see what else you offer. If you are too far below the school’s average GMAT, yes, nothing else you are, do, or say will count.

But once you hit the threshold, it’s pointless to keep knocking in that nail. A higher GMAT won’t check any other box than “cognitively capable” and chances are it’s already checked at 700. A super-score is not going to help you if your recommendations are so-so, your essays are undeveloped, and you stumble in your interview. Adcom greatly prefers balanced excellent to unbalanced stratospheric.

This also explains why there is more flexibility in GMAT-score accepted than most candidates realize. If the rest of your application is good, and your undergraduate transcript is soild, you may get in despite being 40 or 50 points below the school’s published GMAT average (providing not too lopsidedly in Math or Verbal.)

Obviously, the published average means that half of accepted applicant’s scores are below that mark.

Bottom line: It makes sense to be concerned with the GMAT until it is broadly within the guidelines of your target program. Then forget about it and focus on the rest of your application.