‘I’m Furloughed, Does That Affect My MBA Admissions Prospects?’

In September 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, I wrote a post on unemployment and MBA admissions.

At the time, a lot of people—particularly in financial services but also more widely—had been bounced out of their jobs due to the credit crunch and associated recession.

Sound familiar? Here we are in the era of Covid19 in a similar place, only more so, with employment implications that are wider and deeper.

If you’re furloughed, but in a few months you find yourself back in the same position, that’s not going to affect your MBA application in any way. In fact it helps you, if you can show you used your time off wisely and productively

What I said then as regards a real period of unemployment was, yes, it does negatively affect your MBA acceptance prospects, particularly at top schools. In the context where 1 in 10 are admitted, it’s going to be hard to be the one if you’re unemployed.

But just as those were not normal times, nor are these. Lots of people have been squeezed out of the job market due to the pandemic. If you’re one of them, Adcom will understand that.

The test then becomes,  how did you respond? What did you do with your time? Also, how did the experience changed you? How have you grown?

Unemployment often stimulates a period of life-stocktaking, where we have the breathing space to reevaluate our goals or at least ask ‘what do I really want to do next?’ Adcom is interested to see if you can do and have done this personal work, and what your answers are.

Keep in mind also that most senior executives—your role model in your MBA application—will face periods of career upheaval. Showing you can cope with this is a mark in your favor.

Back in 2009, Chicago Booth had  fabulous admissions blog written by Rose Martinelli, then Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions. (When she left, it became the more prosaic”Booth Insider,” and it is now the really dull ‘Chicago Full-Time MBA Admissions Blog’. They ask you to write lively, attractive essays yet themselves put out this dull info wire, what’s with that…? But I digress.)

Anyway, the point is, what Martinelli had to say then about newly unemployed candidates and MBA admissions still holds as excellent advice. Asked whether unemployed candidates would get in, she said:

“The simple answer is yes! Many people have been displaced over the past year through no fault of their own, and finding a new job in their target industry/function has been equally difficult.

“So what can you do? First, take stock of what you have learned about yourself during this time. For many of you, this may have shaken your confidence and impacted what you want to do with your life/career going forward. Help us to understand this in your application.

“Second, let us know what you have been doing with your newfound freedom and what motivates you. Are you taking classes, volunteering your services, traveling, etc.? There is no right or wrong activity… Again, help us to understand your choices and motivations.

“As you’ve probably learned by now, we’re so much more interested in how you have coped with these surprises and what you’ve learned about yourself,” said Martinelli.

How Strictly Must I Stick To The Word Limit On MBA Admissions Essays?

Here’s a question I get a lot from clients: “How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?”

To answer this, it is essential–as always–to think about it from the MBA AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they set a word limit? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is AdCom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits, applicants would be emailing and incessantly asking the equivalent of: “Please Miss, how long must it be?”

Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste both their time and the Committee’s.

Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know you via your writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process. Certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail.

Note: don’t fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for. This is not an engineering or accounting task. You get no credit for being exact. You only get credit for a meaningful essay, well told.

Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is.

More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and/or asking for an indulgence that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe in: “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly, then stop talking.”

This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, waffling, or repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and — if you merit a place at a top b-school — you are a multifaceted, talented individual with a valuable track record.

So if you can’t find enough  to say to take up the word count, this in itself flags that you have not bothered to (or been able to) fully investigate your own motivations or present your merits.

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