Great candidates don't develop by accident, and bad candidates don't set out to fail. These tips will help you fall on the correct side of the ledger.

 By Tom Locke


The admissions process is stressful. Of course, here at Forster-Thomas we help take the stress out of admissions – but not everybody can work with us!

Not to worry – you can still benefit from a lower-stress, more successful admissions process by following the example of successful candidates who have come before you (and avoiding the pitfalls of the less successful ones).

  1. Who said 80% of life is just showing up? Well whoever said it was right, if you really understand what “showing up” means. It does not mean arriving for your meeting on time, or calling when you said you were going to call. That much is a given. “Showing up” means that when you hit a deadline or have a meeting about your essays (with your coach or your grandmother, you already have your mind set on what you want to improve on your next pass. Showing up means knowing your target schools, and what classes, programs, clubs, and initiatives are appropriate to you and your goals.

The Good Applicant is so well prepared for her meeting that she is already a step ahead of whoever she is meeting with.

The Bad Applicant had ideas, but did not take the time to flesh them out. He relies upon others to “make it work” – because he does not know how.

The Ugly (Self Destructive) Applicant is plagued by some combination of fear, entitlement, and paralysis. Whether you are afraid of rejection or just plain have no idea what you want to do, you hide that fear with a seeming lack of care, focus, and commitment – which in turn makes you invisible on the page.

  1. Do not assume your reader knows you … even if he does. The single most important factor in helping you craft a compelling candidacy is that the reader gets to know you, the real you! Too many candidates hold back on telling their favorite story, fearing it is 'too edgy' or 'not relevant'. The truth is, even readers that do know you well will appreciate getting your take on relevant issues in your life.

The Good Applicant feeds the fire, bouncing ideas off of coaches or friends – perhaps more than anyone needs to hear! This year, a candidate opened up to me about a big fear he had – he realized he was “becoming the brash and abrasive leader his father had always been”. Once he figured out how to get past it, it made for a great essay. Another came from a girl who was driven by “watching her grandfather blow his life savings at a blackjack table.” You just never know.

The Bad Applicant is shy, closed off and insecure. People keep telling him that he is interesting has something to share but he does not believe it, and as a result his essays are average, expected, and ordinary. I had a bad MBA candidate become a great one this year, when he realized that the way he was brought up (devoutly religious) had shaped the way he operated in his business today. That understanding laid the groundwork for a wonderful essay about leadership and stereotypes.

The Ugly (Self Destructive) Applicant mistakenly believes rattling off accomplishments will “wow” admissions committees. Newsflash: EVERY candidate has a list of accomplishments as strong as yours, and some will be stronger. The committees do not accept resumes, they accept people. Why? Because companies are not led by resumes, they are led by people. The self-destructive applicant fights his critics tooth and nail, convinced that simply telling them all the great things she has done is enough. It isn't. I have seen a 760 GMAT with a 3.8 undergrad GPA at an Ivy have fewer options than a 690 GMAT with a 3.5 undergrad GPA at a state school because the latter candidate was willing to open up and let the school get to know him!

  1. In the words of Jerry McGuire, “Help Me ... Help You!” This is something I encounter in my work all the time, but every applicant who has someone read his essays is at risk of falling into this trap. I want to help the people I work with, because I care. But I can only do so much – and the same goes for your readers. In the end, you must do the necessary work to have your best candidacy.

The Good Applicant has worked hard every step of the way – studied hard for the GMAT, secured great recommendations, taken on leadership roles at work. He is really trying to be a force for good in the world – which is exactly what schools want to see. His essays do not have to be a wasted effort to cover 'inadequacies' in his candidacy – instead, they are a compelling complement to it. My best client this year boosted his GMAT from 610 to a 720, while starting a new leadership training program in his company, and still turned in fantastic essays on time. If you are not committing that much effort to your application, you cannot expect great results.

The Bad Applicant took the GMAT once, did pretty well, decided it might just be good enough if everything else fell into place, and avoided taking it again. He worked hard, but did nothing substantial to change the way his company did business, and all he knows about his target school is its location and its rank in US News & World Report. Bad clients say “I want to go to XYZ School of Business because of its robust alumni network.” Great clients say, “I worked on the creative side of film and tv, and noticed that if I had a strong business foundation to combine with my creative talents, I could be a leader who builds a real bridge between art and commerce; thus, I really want to go to NYU Stern where I can concentrate in media and entertainment, and even do a dual degree with NYU Tisch.

The Self Destructive Applicant starts his goals essay as follows -- “I don’t know what my goals are. That’s what an MBA program is for.” I'm serious. That was something I actually heard this year. When I explained that top MBA programs are not new-age journeys of self-discovery, he asked hopefully, “In that case, can that be what you are for?”

Asking us to figure out what you want is like getting the chance to play basketball with Michael Jordan and asking for tips on your golf swing. Take a deep breath, put on your adult hat, or shoes, or pants, or whatever makes you feel most grown up, and commit to a goal.

It’s clear that no client is always good, always bad, or always self destructive, but the more you work to be a good client all the time, the more pleasant and effective this entire journey is going to be!