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As educational consultants, we hear it every day in one form or another -- isn't it the school's job to pick the best people, and can't they see that I'm one of them?



By Ben Feuer

One of the few real positives to come out of the Apple/Samsung patent war happened yesterday, when Apple engineer Greg Christie delivered a seemingly obvious but remarkably deep observation.

When designing products, Apple keeps in mind that it wants “normal people – people with better things to do with their lives than learn how a computer might work – to use the product as well as we can."

It's one of those quotes you glide over, thinking to yourself, 'oh sure, well of course, everyone tries to do that'.  And to a certain extent, you're right.  Everyone does try to do that.  And almost everyone who tries fails.  

A similar phenomenon, believe it or not, happens when people apply to school.  Everybody knows that the purpose of an application is so the school can determine whether you are a great 'fit' or not on campus.  But most people, when they actually sit down to WRITE their application, are thinking about nearly everything EXCEPT demonstrating a good fit.  They're worrying about getting their recommendations in on time, staying under word count, sounding smart, picking nifty colored envelopes -- but not that simple, insidious slogan -- am I making my case clearly, concisely, and consistently?

So what should you do about it?

1.  Figure out what your primary strengths are and list them.  No really, write them down in a list.
2.  Search your application.  Where are these strengths on display?  Are you being direct enough?  If you're a great leader, have you given enough concrete examples to show leadership?  If you're passionate about the law, have you demonstrated passion through the examples in your personal statement and resume?
3.  If necessary, ask a friend.  Heck, ask an enemy if you have to.  One of the hardest things to do is see yourself clearly.  Enlist others's help in making sure your history is conveyed in a persuasive and direct manner. 

Pull this off and your candidacy can be like an iPhone -- designed to look effortless.

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To reveal or not reveal other awards? That is the question.

During this time of year—and more and more, during this economic climate—my accepted students revisit, meet with, and ultimately follow-up with financial aid appeal letters to their top-choice colleges and universities, asking for more financial assistance. And why not? It never hurts to ask—especially if you are a top, sought-after candidate at that college. Right?

Maybe. All too often, the request from the college-of-your-choice is the same:  “Please attach the offers you have received from the other schools to which you were accepted.”

So what should you do? Is it ethical for your first-choice school to see what other institutions have offered? Is it anyone’s business? Should you ignore the request?

Let’s work through these questions for some peace of mind.

Recently, a student of mine who was accepted to her first-choice private university, and offered $10K per year. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough. What she needs is $15K to make it possible for her to attend without taking a job. After her second visit to the campus, the financial aid office asked her to reveal the other colleges’ offers. That’s when my student asked me, “What should I do?” After all, no one had offered her $15K. Her second and third choices offered her $11K and $13K respectively. She was worried she had boxed herself in.

Are you in a similar situation? Have you already met with the financial aid office? If so, here are a few questions you might be asking yourself:

If my first-choice college—the one I want the $15K from—sees the lower offer from another school, are they likely to meet it or beat it? What is the benefit of showing them a better offer? Isn’t it like showing your poker hand?
 
Should I reveal the lower offer, but explain that although my first-choice college is A, I will have to go with College B—a great school, but not the one I have my heart set on?

Since it’s my number one choice, should I just take the 10K offer and figure out a way to make up the difference? Work at Starbucks or the bookstore?

Obviously, you get that all of the questions depend on how bad you want to be at your number-one choice, here are some responses from the wisest colleagues in the admissions biz.

First off, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples—make sure the tuition is frozen for the next four years—meaning the colleges you received financial awards from are similar in rank and style…

1. Go ahead and show your number-one that better offer from the other schools. All colleges base their calculations on the same federal methodology, but alter their offers based on their particular financial policies. So, seeing a higher offer just might get you the extra $ you need. If the margin is small, my colleagues assure me, your top-choice will adjust their original offer to match the other schools.  But make sure you’re only sharing the letters of “comparable” schools…for example, a highly selective college won’t care that you got a full ride from a local “suitcase school.”

2.  When you’re sending in that “please, sir, I want some more” request, make sure you do it with grace and respect. Express your regret at even having to make the choice between your number-one and the other schools.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If your number 1 is really your number 1—has the programs, the people and the professors you want—then rise to the occasion and don’t let a few thousand dollars come between you and dream school. Who cares if you spend a few hours a week in college asking “would you like fries with that” if you’re set up for the career you’ve wanted?

Finally, I’d go with what Nirav Mehta, the associate director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said when I asked him the above three questions:

“I believe the other offers should be revealed, as requested by the Financial Aid Office. But it's equally important to highlight the real financial need without an adversarial approach. Financial aid officers are interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation will be the most effective approach. I have seen modifications in the financial aid package with this kind of approach that focuses on the need, especially if [you’re] academically stellar.”

Thanks, Nirav!
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Bottom line: It never hurts to ask, and honesty is the best policy.

Best,
Auntie Evan

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Should a prospective student visit college before applying?  Does a student gain significant advantage visiting or can "Demonstrated Interest" be displayed by attending local fairs, hotel and high school presentations? 

YES. 

Visiting schools is a MUST—at least the ones that are most important to a student. Colleges do take it seriously and it absolutely helps the student demonstrate interest—especially if you’re on the edge (academically or otherwise) or you’re applying to select/top colleges and universities.

Nothing says "I am serious" like showing up on campus. College fairs and online research are good. After all, Big-Brother College knows when you’ve been checking ‘em out—every time you go to a college site. But does your mother suddenly think you’re really doing your homework because the postal worker delivered an info pack from Harvard? C’mon.  

Consider visiting college a “cost of doing business” for applying to (and attending) higher education. (This will become clear when Mom & Dad get that bill for $50K.)  Look at it from the point of view of an admissions team: You are willing to shell out the money to go to their “dream school,” but you can't bother to look at it until you know you're accepted? What does that say? Certainly not "I'm serious."

If this is not enough to get my point across and you or your parents don’t see the import of going to visit, then you better have something really amazing to bring to the table—at the very least, excellent grades. For students who are not clear admits (and who is for the most selective schools?), only attending college fairs and hotel and high school presentations just doesn’t say "I wanna be at your school." Much better (and on the record) is a registered visit. (That means you actually go online and sign up for a scheduled college tour and college info session.)  The same is true for the “clear admit”—schools don't want to waste an offer on a student who does not seem like he or she is ever going to say "yes" if accepted.

And what if you are on the edge academically—and you do bother to figure out a way to visit? You might just get there, decide it's a whopping "not for me" and voilà, you just saved mom and Dad some real $$$$—not to mention the cost of applying.

As for NOT having the time—that is the worst reason not to visit. Make the time. Time is NO excuse. (And summer visits are absolutely fine.)
Making the time is what responsible people do.  If Mom or Dad can't take you, get it together with a few friends and get on a bus or train, or car and get there. (Also, getting in a car with four of your friends saves money; split the gas fare, make a bunch of sandwiches, and off you go. That's what we all did back in the day. When did traveling independently become such big deal for someone who claims to be ready to go off to college?)

If you live in a foreign country, or you're on the other side of the country—and you are not from a family of means—then you get the pass. Then and only then can you settle for meeting with the reps who visit Nigeria. (I am not being sarcastic.)

And if, like many of my truly disadvantaged kids, you really can't afford to visit, then you get a pass. In both cases, you need to find a way to explain your reasons for not visiting in a letter of some sort or in your supplemental essay for that school and you had better done everything else in your power to research that college and write about these extraordinary things you did to get to know the school and its majors and programs beyond fairs. You scoured though YouTube videos, youniversitytv.com, contacted the head of (for example) the College Republicans Club or the GLBT club president, that Accounting professor, and on, and on, and on. And explain why you were not able to visit.

I am serious. It just gets Auntie Evan crazy when y’all come up with excuses like time. I'd like to know what you’re so busy with that you cannot find a day here or there or a weekend to visit three of your ten top choice schools. Think of it this way: If a college was a girl or guy you were into, you’d fall over backward to find the time to get to that first date.

In short, not visiting campuses is “pennywise and pound-foolish.” Ask your grandfather what that means.

Auntie Evan


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For the first time ever, Forster-Thomas reveals the data behind its HBS applicants to provide a snapshot of what a successful candidate looks like.

HBS has spoken. Now that the b-school has announced interview invitations on two back-to-back Wednesdays (along with those dreaded dings and deferrals), a picture has quickly emerged as to what the school is looking for in its new, sole admissions essay. So what kind of essays is the school responding to?

In a word: Personal.

At Forster-Thomas, we spent the last week crunching the numbers to determine who got interviews and who didn’t—and what set the yeas apart from the nays. While there are many factors that determine a given applicant’s candidacy, one clear trend emerged with regards to essays: a full 75% of the essays written by candidates who received interview requests were personal in nature.

Instead of beating their chests about their accomplishments, these candidates spoke from the heart, reflected upon challenging experiences, and talked about how they think, not just what they’ve done. In some cases, this meant exploring how overcoming a challenging situation in the candidate’s youth provided them with the outlook and perspective to succeed later in life. Other candidates spoke about a current passion of theirs, and why it’s so important to them. Still others reflected upon an attribute or value that has defined their decisions throughout life. In many of these cases, candidates spent up to 75% of their word count (which averaged around 700) describing these defining experiences, then related how these perspectives have driven personal or professional success.

Forster-Thomas has always embraced the notion that the best essays are introspective, insightful, and focus on the candidate’s journey (rather than just the destination or result). It’s one of the key messages in our book, The MBA Reality Check: Make The School You Want, Want You. Our candidates’ Round 1 success at HBS proves just how powerful this approach is.

“Snobbery” not a factor

Another metric we uncovered—though one we’ve long been aware of—is that HBS will not turn up its nose at candidates lacking in “prestige” brand names. Among our Round 1 applicants who received interviews, only a quarter attended Ivy League universities. Meanwhile, those remaining split almost perfectly between private and state schools—including second-tier state universities. In other words, despite a reputation for the contrary (see here, here, and here for three pretty funny examples), HBS is not wowed by prestige—it is wowed by great candidates.

The GMAT sweet spot

Over our 17-year history, we’ve helped candidates with a vast range of GMAT scores get into the b-schools of their dreams. In a recent Poets & Quants’ feature, we even came the closest among a number of top admissions consultants to identifying 2012’s 570 GMAT admit into HBS (having helped numerous candidates with sub-600 GMAT scores over the years helped us greatly). However, we have always maintained that the optimal GMAT score is around a 730-750: high enough to raise (rather than lower) a school’s average GMAT score, but not so freakishly high that admissions assumes you are a socially awkward bookworm (Big Bang Theory characters don’t belong in b-school). Our HBS Round 1 findings support this perspective, with the average GMAT score being…drum roll…a 740. We expect the average GMAT of our interviewed Round 2 candidates to be more like a 720 (Round 2 is generally more accepting of less conventional candidates in our experience).

Candidacy is King

Ultimately, all other factors aside, what our successful candidates all possessed were great candidacies. As Evan Forster wrote in a blog right after HBS announced the move to one optional essay, “[HBS is] really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk the talk anymore. They have to walk the walk.” In other words, HBS is still looking for the same qualities they’ve always valued: A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship. A great GMAT score and powerful essays can help a strong candidate stand out from the pack—but a weak candidate can’t gussy him/herself up at the last minute and hope to be taken seriously. That’s why we have our Leadership Action Plan—and why every candidate needs to be a strong candidate from the get-go, not at the eleventh hour.

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