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Forster-Thomas takes a peek inside this year's Haas business school application and gives you insight on the questions.

By Ben Feuer


Although we have already covered the basic dates and deadlines and the primary essay questions here, now that students are beginning their 2014-2015 Haas applications (at least for round one) we thought it was high time to take a closer look at the application.  Turns out, there are a lot of intriguing short answers and hidden prompts to address, so without further ado, let's dive in!

1.  Describe an experience that has fundamentally changed the way you see the world. How did this transform you? (400-500 word max) 

Berkeley has always had an enjoyably contrarian streak -- question authority, go your own way, be independent!  This prompt continues that theme, albeit in a more subdued vein than "tell us your favorite song".  You could look at this question as a 'lite' version of Stanford's What Matters Most to you and Why essay -- indeed, variations on this essay are cropping up across the b-school landscape this year.  The approach is simple but not easy.  Find a defining moment in your life, a time when you were stressed out, pushed to your limits, tested or threatened -- or a time when you encountered a dilemma, exceeded expectations, et cetera.  The point is that there must be a strong emotional heart to the incident, and it has to focus on a very limited time frame -- a month, two months.  Not six years.  Be introspective in discussing your transformation -- talk about your feelings, and focus on  the why as much (or more) than the what.

2.  What is your most significant professional accomplishment? (200-300 word maximum) 

An accomplishment can be any task that you did exceptionally well.  It differs from a leadership essay in that it does not HAVE to involve other people, although given that you only get to write one such essay in the entire application, you are much better off if your accomplishment shows adcom your ability to lead.  It is a professional accomplishment, so do not use a personal or scholastic story.

3.  What is your desired post-MBA role and at what company or organization? In your response, please specifically address sub-questions a., b., and c. How is your background compelling to this company? What is something you would do better for this company than any other employee? Why is an MBA necessary and how will Haas specifically help you succeed at this company? (500-600 word maximum for 3a, 3b, and 3c combined)

See any of our previous posts on goals, or our book, for a sense on how to approach this. 

SECTION III: Optional Essays

1.  Please feel free to provide a statement concerning any information you would like to add to your application that you have not provided elsewhere.  (500 words maximum)

Given the extensive section II supplemental questions (not covered in detail here) which ask about your professional and extracurricular background, letters of recommendation and all the other things that would usually be covered in an optional essay, this should be interpreted in the same manner as HBS and Wharton's optional essays -- IE, it is a good idea to fill this out.

The prompt is completely open-ended, which means you can discuss anything you have not discussed elsewhere.  Since you already have a defining moment essay, you could consider using this for additional leadership material, or discussing diversity experiences, or talking about your values -- or maybe telling them your favorite song!  :)

2.  If not clearly evident, please discuss ways in which you have demonstrated strong quantitative abilities, or plan to strengthen quantitative abilities.  You do not need to list courses that appear on your transcript.  (250 words maximum)

It's not entirely clear why this is an essay, and why it is optional rather than supplemental, but for those of you who do not come from conventional quantitative backgrounds, this is a must-answer.  Avoiding your transcript, highlight experiences and abilities the admissions committee may not otherwise know that you have.


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Friday, September 12, 2014

Weird essays

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 Weird essays.  We have all read them -- not so much in terms of the structure or approach, but in terms of the content.  So are they a good thing or a bad thing?

By Ben Feuer



I had an interesting conversation with a client, Louie, the other day -- a typical I-banking/PE guy.  I was spending my time (as I so often do) trying to wring more personality out of his essays, which read like they were written by committee.  Louie, of course, fretted over every little trait I wanted to highlight, no matter how mild.  "Won't this make me look childish?"  "Won't this make me look goofy?"

"Of course it will," I answered.  "That's the whole point.  This is a personality game.  You can't win with your whole self tied behind your back."  Louie, like so many others, had worked long and hard to excel in his professional life, and he did not want to throw it all away by seeming out of step with the other lemmings -- while simultaneously fretting endlessly over differentiation, a prized bugaboo for nearly all applicants.

Well Louie, you can't have it both ways.  Hide if you must, but don't be surprised when you fail to make it out of your 'bucket' -- a little personality goes a long way.

A Darden professor, Martin Davidson, has been studying the effect of oddballs and outcasts on business for quite some time, and he has a new article in Businessweek discussing some of his findings.  He concludes that we undervalue oddballs in corporate environments.  Business school, in this regard, is very different.  B-schools WANT the mavericks.  They want the leaders.  So the same lockstep behavior that served you well in your previous life will not serve you well here, in your applications.

You can be like everybody else -- or you can set the building on fire.  Your choice.


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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kellogg Video Essay Questions 2014-2015

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The Kellogg Video Essay questions are arriving with the round one candidates.  Here are the ones we have heard so far.

By Ben Feuer

The prompts for the Kellogg video essays are beginning to trickle in.  Here are the ones we have heard so far --

What is the best piece of advice you have ever gotten?

What is your favorite TV show?

Tell us about your first job.

If you could teach any course, what would it be?

Remember that these questions are intended to be answered in a casual, off the cuff manner -- do NOT attempt to script responses and read them to the camera!  Speak naturally, as you would to a friend.  Use the questions above as PRACTICE -- don't overthink this!

For more detailed advice, check out our other blog on this topic as well as our helpful video


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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Economically diverse colleges -- where to apply?

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The New York Times has released its list of the most (and least) economically diverse colleges.  How should this affect your application strategy?

 By Ben Feuer


 We here at Forster-Thomas have followed with some interest the ongoing furor over economic diversity at top colleges.  Simply put, are lower income students being given the shaft, and if so, what are colleges doing to change that fact?

 The New York Times has finally weighed in, releasing a long-awaited list of the top colleges for economic diversity, and the worst offenders. In case you are wondering, the top five are --

1.  Vassar

2.  Grinnell

3.  UNC Chapel Hill

4.  Smith

5.  Amherst

Wesleyan (my alma mater), Susquehanna and Rice (my brother's alma mater) also received positive nods. If you are a lower-income junior, you may be thinking to yourself, fantastic!  Now I know exactly where to apply.  Not so fast, cowboy.  If you want to apply to these five schools, fair enough, they are excellent schools, but consider an alternate strategy --

Aim for the bottom of the ranking.

Some excellent schools, including Wash. U in St. Louis, Caltech and Wake Forest, were publicly shamed (and in some cases named in the article) by this list.  You can bet your bottom endowment dollar those schools will be looking to climb in the rankings this year, so the smart money is that they will look favorably on Pell Grant applicants for the next few years, whereas some of the schools on this list with smaller endowments, such as St. Mary's, Susquehanna, and Kalamazoo, may be inclined to sit on their hands for a few years and pursue more profitable students.

Food for thought -- but whatever path you choose to take, the release of lists like this is a great thing for college admissions, and an important counterweight to that all-important *other* ranking system.


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 Forster-Thomas offers helpful tips for MBA applicants seeking an international edge.

 By Ben Feuer

The Guardian wrote on Friday about the ever-increasing value of international experience in the admissions process.  More now than ever, business is global, and MBAs looking to get the maximum value out of their degree and their training should think about whether they are competitive on an international scale.

Are you fluent in a second language?  English may be the worldwide language of business, but Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Arabic can all come in very handy for MBAs.

Are you experienced at integrating into unfamiliar cultures?  I don't mean going on a fun vacation in Taiwan or backpacking across Europe with your buddies.  Have you immersed yourself in a foreign culture, forged connections, made new friends and contacts in completely alien settings?

Do you have skills that translate internationally?  Are you strong quantitatively?  Do you have a lot of experience with Excel or other computer programs that are commonly used overseas?  Do you understand the fundamentals of leadership and how to motivate people?

Mastering your core skills and honing them is the best way to be competitive nationally AND internationally -- and as businesses continue to expand their influence, these abilities will only grow more important.


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The 2014-2015 Emory, INSEAD, USC Marshall Essays and Deadlines are up on our website!  Check them out right here. 

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Duke Fuqua 2014-2015 Essay Prompts with Analysis

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Duke's essays maintain their distinctive flavor this year -- here are some tips on how to attack them.

By Ben Feuer

Required Short Answer Questions: Answer all 3 questions. For each short answer question, respond in 250 characters only (the equivalent of about 50 words).

1. What are your short-term goals, post-MBA? 

2. What are your long-term goals?

These are standard goals essays.  See any of our previous posts on goals, or our book, for a sense on how to approach this. 

3. Life is full of uncertainties, and plans and circumstances can change. As a result, navigating a career requires you to be adaptable. Should the short-term goals that you provided above not materialize what alternative directions have you considered?

This question is unique to Fuqua.  Simply put, they are testing how adaptable you are to change if your goals do not work out exactly the way you want them to.  There are two great ways to answer this question.  The first way is to focus on the same long term goal, but find an alternate short term path to arrive there -- a different kind of interim position, or a different field.  The other way to approach this prompt is to create a completely new long term goal and explain how you would go about achieving that from scratch.

First Required Essay – Answer the following question – present your response in list form, numbered 1 to 25. Some points may only be a few words, while others may be longer. Your complete list should not exceed 2 pages.

1. The "Team Fuqua" spirit and community is one of the things that sets The Duke MBA experience apart, and it is a concept that extends beyond the student body to include faculty, staff, and administration. When a new person joins the Admissions team, we ask that person to share with everyone in the office a list of "25 Random Things About Yourself." As an Admissions team, we already know the new hire's professional and academic background, so learning these "25 Random Things" helps us get to know someone's personality, background, special talents, and more.  In this spirit, the Admissions Committee also wants to get to know you–beyond the professional and academic achievements listed in your resume and transcript. You can share with us important life experiences, your likes/dislikes, hobbies, achievements, fun facts, or anything that helps us understand what makes you who you are. Share with us your list of "25 Random Things" about YOU. 

This essay has been around for years -- frankly, it's one of our favorites here at Forster-Thomas.  We find it is often very revealing, and a lot of fun to read and to write!  The approach couldn't be simpler -- list random things about yourself.  You can and should draw from every aspect of your life, personal, professional and extracurricular -- be diverse!  You should list more than 25 initially so it is easy to cut a few.  They should vary in length and complexity -- here are two examples, one short, one long.
SHORT: my favorite food is salmon.
LONG: One time I wanted to surprise someone by jumping out of their trunk when they got back to their car, but they never opened the trunk so I was locked in there as they drove home.
Some should be funny, some should be serious -- show a range of unconnected facts about yourself.

Second Required Essay – Choose only 1 of the following 2 essay questions to answer. Your response should be no more than 2 pages in length.

When asked by your family, friends, and colleagues why you want to go to Duke, what do you tell them? Share the reasons that are most meaningful to you.

This is a why school essay with a twist -- namely, that your friends, family and colleagues are asking you why you want to go to Duke.  This means that you should spend at least some time discussing your friends and family -- what do they want for you?  What are their primary concerns as far as your development goes?  Maybe your aunt is only concerned about money.  Maybe your wife is concerned with work life balance.  Maybe your uncle is a former college quarterback and wants to know about fun athletics opportunities.  Use the essay both to demonstrate your interest in the school, and to tell Duke a bit more about the important people in your life.

The Team Fuqua community is as unique as the individuals who comprise it. Underlying our individuality are a number of shared ideas and principles that we live out in our own ways. Our students have identified and defined 6 “Team Fuqua Principles” that we feel are the guiding philosophies that make our community special. At the end of our 2 years at Fuqua, if you were to receive an award for exemplifying one of the 6 Principles listed below, which one would it be and why?  Your response should reflect the research you have done, your knowledge for Fuqua and the Daytime MBA program and experience, and the types of activities and leadership you would engage in as a Fuqua student.

Authentic Engagement: We care and we take action. We each make a difference to Team Fuqua by being ourselves and engaging in and supporting activities about which we are passionate.
Supportive Ambition: We support each other to achieve great things, because your success is my success. The Success of each individual member of Team Fuqua makes the whole of Team Fuqua better.
Collective Diversity: We embrace all of our classmates because individuality is better and stronger together.
Impactful Stewardship: We are leaders who focus on solutions to improve our communities both now and in the future. We aren’t satisfied with just maintaining the status quo.
Loyal Community: We are a family who looks out for each other. Team Fuqua support you when you need it the most.
Uncompromising Integrity: We internalize and live the honor code in the classroom and beyond. We conduct ourselves with integrity within Fuqua, within Duke, and within all communicates of which we are a part. 

First, choose one (and only one!) of the six principles listed below.  Pick the principle that you feel you best embody.  Use about 2/3rds of a page to tell a few stories about previous experiences and accomplishments you have had that highlight why you represent this quality.  Then use the rest of the essay to talk about what you plan to do and take advantage of at Fuqua that will allow you to win this award, using the usual "why school" principles to guide your decisions on what to include.  An essay like this is all about your ability to 'give back' to the school, its clubs and programs -- and in order to explain how you would give back, you have to understand some of what the clubs and programs would actually need from you.  Be specific!

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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Most indebted MBAs 2014

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US News published a short list today of the top ten MBA programs ... in terms of student debt.  Probably not the ranking you want to reach the summit of.

Fuqua, Darden, Sloan, Ross and Johnson occupy the top five slots.  All are top 20 ranked b-schools nationally.  The only low-ranked school with a high debt load is the anonymous USF Masagung school.

Overall, what is perhaps most striking about the list are the size of the numbers involved, with AVERAGE student debt topping $100,000 at all three of the top ranked programs -- this for a two-year graduate degreee, no less.  Those numbers suggest that students are shouldering nearly all of the cost of the degree themselves, and are financing their degrees almost completely through debt.


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Monday, September 01, 2014

The no frills essay

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How is a big-box discount store like an application to a competitive school?  Read on and find out.

By Ben Feuer

In an intriguing profile, Businessweek analyzed the success of Costco, a company that pays well above industry average to its employees while charging much less than average for products.  How is this achieved?  The article goes on to describe a no frills approach from top to bottom at the company, with all the focus on delivering mission critical products to the consumer.  For a mature industry like brick and mortar retail, this is a great idea, focusing on what people care about the most -- quality and price.

Believe it or not, this is directly relevant to your job as an applicant to college, business school, medical school or law school -- you, too, can benefit from a 'no frills' approach, if you apply it to your essay writing.

So what is a no-frills essay, and why is it a good thing?  A no-frills essay focuses on the story or incident it is describing.  Like a great piece of reporting, the no frills essay gives all the necessary information to understand what happened in the story, and why it is important -- and nothing more.  This is much harder than it sounds.  It is depressingly easy to pontificate, generalize and speculate in essays, filling the word count without adding to the content.  Here are some powerful tricks that can help you trim the fat.

Are you describing simple things simply?  Think about your job.  I don't mean your title, your function, or the 8 million sub-headings and tasks it entails.  I mean the core, elevator pitch version of your job.  Do you make businesses run more efficiently?  Do you evaluate deals, judging them as good or bad for a company?  These functions are easy to understand, and described simply -- much better than company valuation in a mid-market private equity hedge bla bla bla, or operational efficiencies derived from careful analytics oh God please kill me now.  Think about it this way -- do you want to sound like a boring drone?  Of course not.  So simplify.

What are you talking about?  When did the event you are discussing begin?  When did it end?  Who was involved?  What were their names?  Why is it important that we hear about this story?  What did you think at the time, and what do you think now that it is all over?  These basic questions are so often ignored in essays.  Don't fall into that trap.

Get to the point -- now.  Does your first sentence have a date, place and a simple description of what is taking place in the essay?  If the answer is no, you're doing it wrong.  Don't open with a quote.  Don't ease us into the story.  Don't generalize before you start.  Remember.  No frills.  Now apply this to every sentence, everywhere.  Done.

The next essay you write -- make it a Costco essay and not a Gucci.  A no frills approach will make them love you in the end.


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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?


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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