Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to write an awesome why mba essay

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Why Stanford?  What actions have you taken to determine that Stern is the best fit for your MBA experience?  Given your individual background and goals, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time?  These are examples of Why MBA essays -- here is a primer on how to answer them.


Photo by Lillith, Article by Ben Feuer

If there is one type of essay everyone moans and groans about having to do — it’s open-ended essays (HBS, NYU, Booth).  But the “why school” essays run a close second.  Everyone struggles with them.  Yuki, a stellar candidate (professional consultant, mid 700s GMAT, 4.4 Engineering GPA from a top school) recently confided to me that writing “why school” essays was one of the hardest things he had to do in his entire application process.  He said to me, it felt like hitting a single, not a home run.

Listen up, Yuki -- you can absolutely hit a home run with your “why school” essay — if you are willing to put in the work.  

Writing a great school-specific essay requires a very different set of skills than writing a great “What Matters Most” essay, but both types of essay are important, and school-specific essays are much more common.  In fact, this year in the top 25 business schools, they are more common than the goals essay.  So read on to find out how to ace these essays.  But first -- a burning question answered!

Why are schools so concerned with research?  

Don’t they already know what is great about them?  Of course they do (although it never hurts to hear it again).  These essays demonstrate your level of interest in the program.  Have you visited campus?  Have you spoken to alumni?  Are you familiar with the enviroment?  Class size?  Reputation?  Interest correllates to yield, and yield boosts rankings — and everybody likes high rankings.  Ultimately, it’s about fit.

OK, fine.  What am I even supposed to talk about?


Here’s a partial list.  There are many more.

Top professors (shared history, publications, work history, teaching reputation), student body (diversity, age, work history), recent alumni (willingness to communicate, quotes drawn from experience), advanced alumni (internships and placement), career services, industry strengths (sectors, disciplines), specialized majors, ability to cross-enroll, strength of cross-disciplinary opportunities, campus setting (proximity to family, friendliness, size, appearance), local opportunities (incubators, fellowships, internships, work-study, volunteering), clubs and organizations (duration, comparative strength, leadership opportunities, ways to grow or give back), conferences and campus speakers (relevance, reputation), entrepreneurial opportunities (competitions, incubators), classes (first year, second year, specializations), campus visits (info sessions, experience, sitting in on classes), family history (connections, early life)

How many points should I be discussing?

A common bad strategy for this type of essay is overstuffing it with poorly supported points — referencing three classes in a row without explaining why any of them are necessary (or particularly strong at your chosen school), name dropping professors without explaining how their book on Cannibal Theory changed your life, using alumni quotes but providing no context as to their relevance.

Instead, make a few well chosen points and back them up.  What are the two or three things you MOST need from an MBA?  (and if you say “a bigger network”, I WILL smack you in the face).

Okay, so I know my two or three general areas of growth.  How do I write about them in the essay?

Simple. You research what at the school you have chosen makes it an ideal fit for those areas of growth.  Say you’re trying to learn marketing — well, Kellogg has a great marketing program, as we know — but did you know that LBS does too?  Maybe you need a basic grounding in finance — a school like Columbia, with a universal first year curriculum, would have a lot to offer you.  But these are broad strokes -- to make really solid points, you need to do research.

Why research?  I know their ranking.  Isn't that enough?

No. 

Actions speak louder than words.  Every early draft of a why school essay shares the same pernicious flaw — blanket statements made without evidence (to back them up) or context (to explain why they belong in the essay).  So how do we fix these statements?  Watch the following bland comment transform into a great point — through action.

Booth’s campus is very inclusive.  Awful.  A blanket statement with nothing to back it up — not a shred of research or introspection.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited.  So-so — at least you spoke to (and quoted) an alumni.  But not much effort shown, nor much reflection on your own goals and needs.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited — my four years at Ball State proved to me that I thrive when I am learning from my peers as much as my professors.  Above average — not great.  Action taken, related it back to your own experience.  This is what I’d consider “bare minimum” for making a solid point as to why you and a school are a good fit.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was excited, but skeptical — after all, nobody trumpets their campus’s cutthroat vibe.  So I went to see for myself, visiting on September 9th, 2014.  The info session was intimate — more so than any other I have attended — and Bob Davis ’12, my tour leader, was extraordinarily patient, walking me through Booth’s outstanding Operational Management program step by step.   Outstanding.  The candidate walks us through his thought process — smoothly incorporating his actions taken (alumni interviews, campus visit, talked to tour guide for 1/2 hour) into a larger journey of how he came to fall in love with Booth.  We believe him.

Don’t fake it.  

I know, I know — you’re thinking, nah, that sounds too hard, or too expensive — I don’t want to Google-stalk a professor, or haunt an internet forum, or network on LinkedIn to meet alums from a school — I’m busy!  (as 1000 tiny violins play)  Campus visits, I have a job!   I’ll just make it up.  Ok, big boy, you do that.  And you might fool your parents, or even a peer reviewer or two.  But you won’t fool the experts, who have to read literally THOUSANDS of these things.  They know their own programs, and if you think you can generalize your way around campus — sorry, no.

You can’t have fit without a goal.

Your school may ask you “why us” but may not ask specifically about your goals.  Use one or two sentences to tell them about your goals anyway.  Why?  Because if you don’t, how are you going to show that you are a good fit on campus?  All professional goals require skills — some technical, some ‘soft skills’ — and opportunities, like networking and partnerships.  Your goal and your past experience dictates what you need from the school.

Your skills are not just your skills.  

So, you want to get an MBA to learn leadership.  OK.  What aspect of leadership are you looking to develop?  Small teams?  Big teams?  Collaborating remotely?  Speaking in front of groups?  Setting long term visionary goals?  Achieving short term objectives?  By better defining your growth areas as a leader, you can focus more precisely on what the school has to offer you.  The same thing applies to every discipline you wish to develop — precise thinking and precise language will set you apart.

The end -- and the beginning.

That's it -- everything you know to write a great "why school essay.  It's not complicated -- but it's also not easy.  It takes time, and thought, to get it right.  Still, as with everything in this process, practice makes perfect -- so get to work on those drafts!



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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.


Evan Forster advises MBA applicants how to escape the waitlists at Columbia.

Last week, I received a call from my MBA candidate, Dylan. This is his second shot at applying to business school (when he applied on his own last year, it was a close-but-no-cigar). He was recently waitlisted/deferred at Columbia. Why? Probably because of his GMAT score. It’s only a 710. But we all know how Columbia operates when it comes to numbers. It’s like that date who only wants to know how big your bank account is. Regardless, he got waitlisted—not denied.

He’s an incredible candidate—an Olympic athlete, a successful banker, and gorgeous head to toe: blonde mop, piercing blue eyes, a lean, mean soccer machine. Put him in a Paul Smith suit and he has you at “Cheerio.” So you can imagine my bafflement when Dylan whined, “My admissions coordinator at Columbia is making time to meet me this Thursday—but she didn’t sound overly excited to have me come into the office.” Apparently, during their brief phone call his admissions coordinator went on to say, “There’s nothing really more we need to know about your candidacy. We’ll have our decision by February 1.”

Dylan was hesitant and asked me, “So…should I go?” His voice was meek. Where was the confident athlete I had been working with for the past few months? Apparently, it was stuck somewhere beneath a waitlist letter, under the paragraph that reads: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” (Of course some programs offer the proverbial “the committee encourages you to let us know—via email or phone—of any significant new achievements since your application was submitted.” And you should.) But Dylan’s MBA letter was clear: “Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot accommodate individual requests [to speak/meet with candidates]. A member of the Admissions Committee will contact you if we have specific questions.”

So, Dylan wondered, should he actually visit? Put a face to the name?

My answer is simple: YES!

Let me put this into perspective: Thousands of people apply to the same schools and programs you do. Admissions officers are over-worked, underfed, and fed-up with every candidate trying to get a foot in the door. If you’ve been waitlisted or deferred, however, you have a foot in the door. So, buck up. Have a little self-confidence! Realize that one of your super powers is not mind reading: You have no idea what was going on in the moment you contacted that admissions officer about your candidacy. In the immortal words of Cher when she slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”

You don’t know what prompted the admissions officer’s seeming lack of enthusiasm. Was it a bad morning? A stop-and-roll ticket on the way into work? You simply don’t know. Nor do you need to.

What you need to do is be brave and bold and make sure you’ve taken every opportunity to let that school know how serious you are about attending—and how perfect you are. Because you are perfect. There is a 6’3” hot blonde soccer player in you somewhere. Even if you’re acting like a little wiry 14-year-old.

So if somebody gives you an opportunity to press the flesh and put a face to a name, take it. Don’t err on the side of, “Oh, maybe I’m overdoing it.” For example, if you’ve already visited campus, go visit again.

How to know if it’s time for another visit:

  1. You got waitlisted or deferred! This means the admissions office is serious about you. If they weren’t, you would have received a denial letter.
  2. Did you get a response to your email or phone call that agreed to a specific time to visit? If the answer is “yes” and a time was set, then ignore your inner weakling and summon your outer superhero. Go be your dazzling self.
  3. You’re still wondering whether it’s overkill to visit again because the response to your email or phone call was lukewarm? You don’t know what anyone is thinking. You are assuming that they don’t want to be “bothered.” This is your opportunity to pleasantly surprise them. Show them you know about the school by asking specific questions about classes, clubs and facilities. (I’m talking about questions that cannot be answered by looking on their website. Think “how” or “why” and nothing that can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or a number. Because you are only a bother if you waste their time with questions you could get answered online.)
  4. You’ve never visited before? It’s a no-brainer. Get on a plane, train or automobile—now—even if you don’t get a response to your call or email. BTW—you live within three hours of campus, but you’ve never visited? You don’t deserve to be accepted. (If I were an admissions officer at that school, I’d certainly wonder whether you were actually going to say “yes” to an offer of acceptance if you had never inconvenienced yourself with a visit.)
  5. You Just Don’t Know – Stop making up reasons not to visit. Dylan did that for a while, and all it got him was fear and worry. But I guess we all need a little encouragement. I, for one, am frightened as hell of rejection. But you have an opportunity to do more than the minimum, to put a face to your name. Dylan had an opportunity to restate his goals and chat about his excitement about Columbia. As a result of doing so, he was so well-liked that the admissions coordinator introduced him to the Dean of Value Investing—his area of interest/goal.

Post-visit, when Dylan called me, he had that old Olympic tone in his voice when he said: “There are probably a 100 people vying for three spots, but now, at least when they decide, they will think of my face and not just my name or number—they’ll be thinking of me

And that’s why you go and visit. And Stay in touch after you do.

Read more about how to get off the waitlist.

We are waitlist experts:  schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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