Thursday, May 29, 2014

HBS 2017 - Should I Write the Essay?

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For 2014-2015 HBS applicants, the open-ended question provides the same set of challenges it did last year -- first among them, should I answer at all?

Ben Feuer

It's back.  That terrifying creature you thought was dead has emerged after a brief hibernation to once again terrorize your days and haunt your nights.

No no, the OTHER terrifying creature -- HBS's new old 2014-2015 optional essay!

This question raises all the same bugaboos it always did, first among them, should I answer it or give it a pass?  See, the thing about optional essays is, unlike required ones, they can actually hurt your candidacy if you do them wrong.  Look at it this way -- if you mess up a required essay, you still get more points than the guy who didn't write one at all.  But with optional essays, you don't have that out anymore.  No one is holding a pencil to your head and forcing you to write about the awesome (read: snoozefest) $20 million deal you helped close by sheer Excel wizardry.

So should you answer the HBS prompt?  That depends.

1.  Something new.  The question is exquisitely clear -- do NOT rehash anything that already exists in your application.  So if you want to answer HBS's prompt, you had better bring something new.

2.  Something you.   The question is clearly asking you to ILLUMINATE your candidacy -- shine a light on it in a way they would not otherwise have seen.  What's the amazing thing about you as a human being that you did not have a chance to talk about anywhere else?

3.  Something true.  This one ought to go without saying, but the sad fact is, I see people replacing their own life experience with platitudes every single day, just because it's too much effort to remember the specifics of what you thought, felt, said and did.  Well, buddy, if you want to get into Harvard, you're going to have to dig deeper than that.  I need to feel that exquisite resonance of authenticity.  Just gotta have it.

Can you fulfill these three criteria with your idea?  If so, go write an essay!  If not, go back to the drawing board.

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The ongoing debate on a potential Federal government college ranking has revived the old debate about just how important rankings are.

By Ben Feuer


Here at Forster-Thomas we have been saying it for years -- a great fit matters much more than a number on some ranking, both in terms of student experience AND ultimate success.  That said, it's a lot easier to attempt to gauge schools on some sort of consistent set of metrics, and that is where rankings come in.

The New York Times today highlights the ongoing debate on whether the Federal government should create a college ranking system, and whether it should tie 'success' (as gauged by these rankings) to the ability to offer student loans or Pell grants.

If you are thinking about your college application right now, this debate is more relevant than you might think.  Believe it or not, both the schools and the government are curious what YOU, young high school student, have to say about this.  How was your personal experience moving through the system?  What has it inspired you to do?  Are you a minority?  If so, how (if at all) do you feel you were treated differently, and did it impact your ability or your willingness to go to college?

These are great topics to consider if you are thinking about what to write for your 2014-2015 common application essay prompts.  After all, your school experiences (beyond the simple fact of your grades or your test taking ability) are a big part of what have shaped you up to this point.  How have you felt the personal impact?  It's worth thinking about before setting out to write the great college essay you are capable of writing!


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Reversing her statement last year, Dee Leopold has announced that Harvard intends to keep its prompt the same.

By Ben Feuer



\The latest update to Dee Leopold's HBS admissions blog (on May 15th) had some very intriguing information for prospective HBS students thinking of applying this year.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, the prompt for this year's HBS application is the same as last year.  Leopold says that although they had intended to change it up every year, the responses they received were so varied and interesting that they changed their minds and decided to keep it the same.

Secondly, there is some information on this year's recommender questions, so if you are looking to put together something for your recommenders, you now know what to work from.

Finally, the deadline for first round applications has also been pushed up this year to September 9th, so be prepared to sharpen those pencils (keyboards?) a little earlier this year than last year.

Once the application goes live, we will be posting the relevant information here as part of our MBA essay guide.  For now, however, you at least know the prompt and the first round deadline, and that is more than enough to get started!

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Intimidated by the 2014-2015 Common App Essay Prompts?  Don't be.

By Ben Feuer

So the common app has been out for some time now, but we continue to get questions on how to attack these prompts.  We posted the prompts themselves awhile back -- check here if you don't remember -- but now we have taken the time to go over these questions and offer some guidance on how to answer them.  Hopefully it'll be helpful!
And remember -- 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.   

To some extent, this is a so-called diversity prompt -- it is asking you to explain how your background, your life experiences, made you the person you are today -- one life experience in particular.  You could answer this question very effectively, and very legitimately, by simply focusing on that.  But the prompt is crystal clear that it is not ONLY referring to your background -- any kind of story that really defined who you are would do.  A story about your mother or father, or your best friend, or your worst enemy.  The hardest thing you ever tried to do.  The most amazing place you ever visited.  Whatever it was that really defined you.
Whatever you choose to talk about, write about it in a fast moving, narrative style.  Talk not so much about what happened as how you felt about what happened, and what you think about it now.  And leave enough space to give examples of how you have changed as a result of this -- prove that it really was an influential moment in your life.

2.  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

To write persuasively about learning from a failure is a deceptively simple AND difficult thing to do.  Why is it difficult?  Because the first step, the step that most people are unwilling to take, is ADMITTING YOU FAILED and explaining the nature of your failure.  After that, you must highlight the COST of your failure; who you hurt (you don't count).
Then, once all of that is done, you can talk about how you did better the next time you were faced with a similar problem.  But if you don't explain the failure first, it won't be of much use.  Remember, the more honest and direct you are when writing this kind of essay, the better off you will be.

3.  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Challenging a deeply held belief, yours or someone else's, shows character and leadership, and that is what you should focus on when you write about this topic.  Start by identifying what the idea was, then explain YOUR OWN thought process in understanding that the idea, whatever it was, was flawed.  After that comes the real meat of this kind of essay -- explaining how you went about challenging the idea.

Don't choose a topic where there was little or no conflict.  Avoid easy answers to easy questions.  I proved to my friend that racism is wrong.  Well, good for you, but everybody knows that.  Dig deeper.  Find a really challenging question and a really powerful answer -- or else choose another prompt.

4.  Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

This prompt is a bit of a trap.  By inviting you to talk about a place, and a pleasant place, at that, it opens you up to waste 500 words rhapsodizing about how pretty Walden Pond is in the summer.  Don't fall into that trap.  This essay, like every essay, is a chance for admissions officers to get to know YOU, and that won't happen if you spend all your time talking about some place they can see just fine from Google Earth.

Focus instead on the experiences.  Use them as a springboard to discuss your own growth, evolution, and maturation.  The place is just a place -- its meaning for you could be tied up in a loved one, or a key moment in your life where everything changed in some important way.  Ask yourself this simple question -- why am I choosing to write about this instead of anything else?  What does it say about me?

5.  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

There is a term, bildungsroman, which came to be translated into English as "coming of age".  Three quarters of the books you were forced to read in middle school are coming of age stories, in one way or another.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lord of the Flies.  A Separate Peace.  Catcher in the Rye.  When you think about this prompt, think about those books.  How did their protagonists change, grow and evolve?  When was the moment that it happened?

You have had moments like this in your life.  All of us have.  The moment when you first understood that the world is not fair.  The moment when you first fell in love (or out of it).  The moment you realized your parents were only human.  The pride you felt when you earned your first paycheck.  Take one such moment and write an essay about it.  Knock my socks off.

Hopefully this was helpful.  If you have more questions, email us!
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It's Obama vs Scalia as the debate rages about whether to limit law school to two years.

By Ben Feuer



After Barack Obama suggested that law schools reduce student debt by cutting the time required to earn a degree down to two years, Justice Scalia fired back not just at Obama but at the entire institution of Law school.  His position is that constitutional issues are underrepresented and too many 'frilly' courses have taken their place.  The law schools he was criticizing then fired back at Scalia, insisting that everything they do is right and good.

So how does all of this hullabaloo affect YOUR application to law school, be it this year or next year?  You are unlikely to benefit from any substantial reforms, so why worry about it at all?

Simple.  Because it has a direct impact on what kind of lawyering you want to do when you graduate, or  indeed, whether you want to be a lawyer at all.  Do you want to study theory, become a constitutional heavyweight, perform intricate deals and corporate transactions, or maybe start your own non-profit or business?  There's no wrong answer -- unless your answer is not to think about the problem at all.

Consider how this factors into your choices of extracurriculars and essay topics.  Are you using all the available space to really set yourself apart from the pack?  If the reader isn't coming away with a pretty good guess as to what kind of lawyer you will turn out to be, you're not doing your job.  Remember, it's not a contract, but it is a way of helping admissions get to know you better -- and that's a good thing.
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Forget getting into a top medical school, you might have trouble getting into ANY medical school.

By Ben Feuer

Blame it on the economy, kiddos.  With more and more career paths looking like potential dead ends, the allure of the seemingly eternal growth and profitability of a career in medicine is drawing in more students every year.  According to the Star Tribune, only 42 percent of students applying to medical school were accepted ANYWHERE, a ten year low.

So what can you do to stand out and be a competitive applicant to your target medical school?

1.  Retake your MCAT.  If you don't have a 31 or higher, it might be a good idea to shake up your study habits and take another crack at the test.  As this chart shows, the median scores are very high throughout the top 100 or so schools, and while you can't do anything to make your GPA more competitive, you can improve your MCAT with study and practice.

2.  Make your Secondaries Count.  It's a well-known myth of medical school applications that the rolling admissions mean that getting your application in early is the ONLY important thing.  While it may help you in certain situations, it is much less important than taking an extra week to polish all the rough edges.

3.  Take a Gap Year.  Didn't make the cut at your school of choice?  All is not lost.  Go out and bolster your work and volunteering experience, retake tests if necessary, rethink your goals and try again next year!

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Columbia GSB has released its 2014-2015 application and essay prompts -- here's everything you need to know.

By Ben Feuer

Columbia's new application can be found here.  The rolling admissions process is still in place, so it remains advantageous to either apply to Columbia first or last, depending on your overall application strategy.

Columbia requires two recommenders this year.

Columbia has changed its essays somewhat this year -- they have a new video, and their short answer for goals is 25 words shorter.  Check out our essay guide for more information, and read our best practices blog for tips on how we handled earlier essays.


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Recommenders go down from three to two, as do the essays.  Make every word count!

By Ben Feuer



Stanford just released its 2014-2015 MBA application, and there are some substantial changes.

RECOMMENDERS

Stanford has reduced its number of required recommenders from three to two.  The first recommender should be, as it was last year, a "direct supervisor or the next best alternative".  This is the recommender who can speak to what you've done, how you did it, and how that sets you apart from your peers in terms of abilities and leadership style.

The second recommender can be EITHER a peer or a supervisor who has observed your work (AKA, a boss's boss).  The rule of thumb with second recommenders is that they should provide a different point of view than the first -- they should be able to speak to aspects of your work or your personality that the primary recommender cannot or does not.  Either option can work for this, but you want to avoid overlap where possible.

ESSAYS

This year there are two essay questions, instead of three. "What matters most to you and why?" remains the primary essay prompt (750 words). The second question, "Why Stanford?" (350 words), asks you to explain how the Stanford MBA Program, specifically, will help you get where you’re trying to go.  Take note -- this new second prompt, like almost all "why school prompts", is not exclusively asking what YOU hope to get out of THEM -- it is also asking what you see yourself being able to provide, and how you can enhance the campus environment.  For more detail on What Matters Most, check out our best practices page for Stanford.

DEADLINES

The deadlines have moved up by one day.  Symbolic?

Round 11 October 2014
Round 27 January 2015
Round 31 April 2015



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This is a first for the country and demonstrates the growing impact of Southeast Asia. 

By Ben Feuer



We live in an age of globalization, and nothing proves that more conclusively than the rise of new academic powerhouses in Southeast Asia.  For the first time, Singapore's NUS was ranked #1 in the Quacquarelli Symonds top Asian university rankings, outshining powerhouses like Korea's KAIST, the University of Hong Kong, and Seoul National University.

A look at the extended rankings reveals some additional intriguing facts.  Japan's top university is now ranked tenth in Asia -- a far cry from its absolute dominance throughout the 1980s, and a testament to the power of population and geographic size of the new emerging superpowers.

No country other than Hong Kong, China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea placed in the top twenty, although Thailand's NTU (National Taiwan University) was ranked 21st.  This seems to indicate a consolidation of the top educational minds and opportunities by the leading countries in the region, but ongoing plans to form an economic union (like the Euro Zone) may change that in the future.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

How to trim your essays

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Many people find rewriting to be the toughest part of writing -- here are a few time-honored tricks to help you kill off surplus verbiage.

By Ben Feuer

The New York Times has a fun article today about the importance of editing to good writing.  This is especially true for writing with a word count -- as you do when, for example, you are writing an essay for school!  Most people are able to get something down on paper, but then they have no idea what to do next -- so we have put together some important tips to help you shave excess words.

1.  Avoid redundancy, weasel words, and the passive voice.   To be fair, this is an easy trap to fall into -- after all, it can be hard to come up with exactly the right word to describe the job you did on your most recent volunteering trip to Guatemala, or the look in your boss's eyes when he told you you were getting promoted.  Unfortunately, people try to solve this problem by putting in EVERY relevant word they can think of.  Look out for obvious cases of redundancy -- using synonyms or restating an idea multiple times in slightly different ways.  But also be wary of superfluous adjectives -- your massive, amazing, innovative and revolutionary idea is probably really just a good idea with too many clothes on.  And above all, those words that people write when they are coming around to the thing they mean to say but not quite wanting to say it until they finally get to the sentence's end -- that's called the passive voice.  It stinks.

2.  Get fresh eyes.  Not your mom, not your best friend, not your coworkers, not alumni.  Those people have agendas.  You want someone who knows nothing about your subject matter and ideally, nothing about you -- because that person is as close as you're likely to get to the perspective a real admissions officer will have on your essay.

3.  Cover less ground.  Essay writing is not informational, it's persuasive -- forget trying to give a comprehensive account of your actions, or your time at a company.  Focus on one tiny sliver, one simple story, with powerful emotional roots, like the moment you convinced your boss to hire his first gay employee, or the time you finally got healthier options added to the lunch menu.

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