Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Forever MBA

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We all know sometimes it FEELS like school never ends.  What if it actually never ended?

By Ben Feuer

Be honest -- when ranking business schools on a scale of innovation, Wharton is not at the top of the list.  Prestige and name recognition it has in spades, but along with that comes a bit of a prim and proper vibe.  You may have to change your tune now that a frankly revolutionary idea has come out of Pennsylvania.

Simply put, imagine a Wharton MBA ... who never graduates.  Imagine a business school running not on a 2-year immersion model, but a lifelong subscription model.  That is the disturbing and fascinating brainchild of Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich -- ten months of immersive learning and networking, followed by a return to the workforce and an as-needed array of MOOCs, courses and meetings to round out the degree.

Is it a good one?  Possibly.  It has some obvious advantages.  Less time out of the workforce means less of a financial burden for students, who can return to the workforce more quickly.  But will they really have time for learning once they are working full-time jobs and raising families?  Will they even feel like they need it?  And what would the degree really mean if distance learning was a la carte?  Would it ultimately dilute the perceived value of the MBA still further, hurting students' job prospects?

All in all, the idea definitely needs more polish before it can shine -- but then again, no one is talking about implementing this right now.  This much is certain -- it's innovative.


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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Money's Best Colleges

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Money Magazine ranked the best value for money colleges in America.  We analyze the top five.

By Ben Feuer, photo by


College rankings are like fudge -- even when you've had more than enough, there's always room for one more.  Money Magazine has obliged, offering up a ranking of the best colleges for your dollar.  It will be fascinating to see how this list compares to the one the government will be putting out at some point in the near future.  For now, you'll have to settle for Forster-Thomas's quick take on the top five.

1.  Babson College.  Obviously a surprise pick, but not a completely shocking one.  As MBA applicants have known for years, Babson is a hidden gem among Northeastern b-schools at both the graduate and undergraduate level.  Perhaps this will help bring them out of the shadows a bit.

2.  Webb Institute.  Listing a college of 80 students on a list of this kind feels a bit like a gimmick -- isn't this really more of a trade school?  Still, I can tell you one thing for sure -- now that this list is out there, that 38 percent acceptance rate is set to go way, way down.

3.  MIT.  Here is where the powerhouses begin to weigh in, and it is not particularly surprising that a school that graduates the most exclusive batch of STEM majors in America at a time when STEM is highly desirable would have excellent employment numbers.

4.  Princeton.  Princeton is the top liberal arts school on this list, and the top Ivy.  Apparently this is because of its excellent financial aid.  Of course, with an acceptance rate of 7% and a top ranking on many 'best college' lists, this was not exactly a hidden gem.

5.  Stanford.  Stanford's reputation across disciplines has grown exponentially in the last fifty years, and its ranking on this list is just another example of how amazingly far this school has risen in the world.  Tops in entrepreneurship, tops in undergraduate ... heck, they even  have a great D1 football program!

The rankings are definitely worth a top to bottom read -- or at least a 1-20 read.  An interesting new take.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Why Failure Matters

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Learn to own your failures, or they will own you.

By Ben Feuer


Before I became fabulously rich and famous as an educational consultant and all my dreams came true, I had a dark past.  I made (gasp) short films.  Some of them were quite enjoyable.  Others, not so much.  Why I decided to make a terrible science fiction short film on a budget of $3, I will never know, but there exists actual documented footage of me forcing a man to climb inside a cardboard box and wave a light over his head, pretending to travel through time so he can go back and kill himself.

And before you ask, no, you can't see it.

Most people sitting down to write an essay have a block around failure.  Failure, the ugly stepchild of success, is something essay writers tend to flee from, even when they KNOW that exploring and understanding failure is important.

We all have different ways of avoiding it.  One of the most common ones I see is people claiming they 'just can't think of anything good'.  Like heck you can't.  These mortifying experiences will haunt you until the day you die.  You know exactly what they are.  You just ain't sharing the good stuff!

Some people are happy to show failure -- of a particular type.  The type where, at the very last minute, the day is saved through some fabulous deus ex machina.  This is another way of absolving oneself of responsibility for the failure.

We are in a renaissance of failure.  Self help books tell us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.  Failure is a good thing, as we are becoming more and more aware.  Entrepreneurs benefit from failure.  So do purveyors of cheap pizza.  There are conferences devoted to it.  It's a good thing.

So why are we still afraid to talk about it?

The problem is one of self-insight.  It is one thing to experience failure, quite another to learn from it.  Most people are perfectly good at failing, but lousy at recovering.  They never examine their failures closely to figure out what they might have meant.  Worse still, they abandon the field, giving up on things they're 'just not good at' (as though they knew).

So let me be the one to tell you.  No application to a top school is complete without a failure story.  You may not wind up telling it.  But you have to write it.   You have to figure out what it was, what you learned, and how you evolved as a result of it.  Don't wait.  Go write it now.  Your application will thank you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

MBA Employment Trends 2014

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Forster-Thomas covers recent trends in MBA employment.

By Ben Feuer

The MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance's surveys from the past two years have revealed some interesting trends in MBA recruiting and employment.  Although there are always a lot of questions left unanswered by surveys like these, a few trends seem very clear indeed.

1.  Overall, recruiting is up.  Since the source of information is B-schools' self-reported statistics, this can hardly be considered unimpeachable data.  Still, things appear to be trending upward overall as the economy continues to rebound.  Small, midsized and large firm recruiting is up at around 40% of reporting schools.

2.  Startups are recruting more fresh MBAs.  As poaching executives becomes more impractical for fresh startups, MBAs are looking like a more attractive alternative every day.  57% of startups are doing more on-campus recruiting.

3.  Schools 21-50 have seen a recruiting boost.  Although the rising tide of MBA desirability is lifting all boats, it is lifting the boats of the 21-50 ranked schools the most.  Poets and Quants attributes this to 'overfishing' at the top schools, but it is equally possible that the reputation of the degree overall is simply improving.

Overall, although there are never any guarantees in the realm of employment, these developments can only be seen as promising for the degree and the field overall.


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By Ben Feuer

Kellogg has finally released its essay prompts for this year, and you can read them right here on our website.  As with almost every other school this year, Kellogg has trimmed both word count and essay count.  The trend is shorter and sweeter, or as Kellogg admissions prefers to frame it, "a nice amount of space for an applicant to give a well thought out answer but not to feel constrained".  We will let you be the judge of that.

One other useful tidbit -- although the questions are different this year, Kellogg stresses that the themes are the same.  They still view team skills and resilience as very important qualities in developing leaders.  So when you set your pen to paper to answer that first prompt about a challenge you have faced, remember that the size and intensity of the challenge really matters if you are planning to craft a compelling response.

The video essay also survives for another year -- once again, candidates will have twenty seconds to prepare a response, but this year, they will have only sixty seconds to answer.  But don't worry, you are not supposed to feel constrained there, either.  For more information on how to ace the video essay, check out this great video from Forster-Thomas interview skills expert Tom Locke.

1. Resilience.  Perseverance.  Grit.  Call it what you will…. Challenges can build character.  Describe a challenging experience you’ve had.  How were you tested?  What did you learn? (450 words) 

This is what we at Forster-Thomas call a "setback" essay.  It's a kissing cousin of the "failure" essay, which you can read all about in our book.  In fact, you could answer this prompt by writing a failure essay as well, and for certain candidates (particularly those that come across too shiny and well-manicured in their resume and professional experience) it can be really nice to have that humanizing element, especially for a more socially adept student body like Kellogg's.  Just remember the two most important elements of a failure essay -- that you own the failure and take responsibility for it, and that you show us how you learned from it going forward.

But back to the setback essay.  Setback essays are about something you were trying to achieve, be it personal or professional, when ONE SPECIFIC obstacle came up and prevented that from happening.  That obstacle can be concrete (a hurried deadline) or more ambiguous (your boss's controlling attitude stifling innovation), but in order to answer the question, you must write about how you RESPONDED to the crisis -- or as Kellogg puts it, how were you tested and what did you learn?  And of course, you finish up by telling the reader what happened to the project or relationship.  Did it work out?  How?  Are there any relevant metrics?  Was the achievement a first of its kind for that setting?

2. Leadership requires an ability to collaborate with and motivate others.  Describe a professional experience that required you to influence people.  What did this experience teach you about working with others, and how will it make you a better leader? (450 words)

This is a standard 'leadership' essay (covered in our book), meaning that the focus should be on a specific, single event that took place over a well defined period of time (a month, two weeks, et cetera) where some organizational goal needed to be achieved.  In the best leadership essays, the candidate identifies the problem, finds a solution, lobbies to have it implemented and then sees it through to a successful conclusion, creating legacy going forward.  The bigger and more diverse the team, the more important and powerful the leadership experience.

Please note that Kellogg asks you to focus on professional experiences here.

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We all know it when we see it (or think we do).  But do we know how to use it, and how not to?

By Ben Feuer

Bullshit, or BS, as it is affectionately known, seems to be undergoing a kind of renaissance lately.  Respected schools like USC Marshall conduct studies which are then misinterpreted and used to make clickbaiting articles (like this one!) proclaiming to the heavens the value of powerful sounding vagaries.

A lot of people (including some of my clients) enjoy proclaiming with great confidence that they 'don't do bullshit'.  A lot more people (including some of my clients) announce that everything they are saying is 'just bullshit', then say it anyway, as though that was somehow going to improve my impression of the bullshit they are about to say.

We all know too much BS is a bad thing.  So what value (if any) does it have in an essay?  Are we all writing it, to a lesser or greater degree, and some of us are just better at it than others?

The answer is no, but if you're convinced the answer is yes, nothing I'm about to say will change your mind.  For those of you willing to learn a little bit about how language works, read on.

BSing consists of saying things you do not believe are true.  In your essays, you should not be writing things that are not true.  Therefore, there should be no BS in your essays.

That's the black and white answer.  Now for the shades of gray.

Some people have truths that, for one reason or another, simply MUST be evaded or omitted when they write their essays.  An essay is not meant to be 'full disclosure', it is meant to give an accurate portrait of you as a candidate.  So if there is a non-representative but utterly damning fact about you, well, it might be a good idea to choose not to talk about it.  BS?  Of course not.  This is just common sense, and most people intuitively get this.

Going deeper into the rabbit hole, things get more complicated.  Some candidates have a story they're dying to tell but no space in which to tell it.  BS allows them to shift the 'question' to suit their packaged answer.  You see politicians do this all the time.  It doesn't work for them and it will not work for you.  Answer the essay question, even if it means giving up on your 'favorite' story.

Some people have big, complicated ideas and work histories and very limited word counts to explain them.  In these situations, you must simplify things.  Simplifications are not BS -- if done well, they clarify a point you're trying to make, not obscure it.  The problem comes when they are done poorly.  The fact is, it is really hard to make a big idea simple without destroying it.  Simplifications that rely on jargon "make you sound stupid", to quote the Marshall professor who commissioned the study.  Simplifications must use simple, plain language that speaks to emotions rather than to facts.  

Once simplified, stories can often read rather abrupt and lifeless.  This is where detail comes into play.  Detail makes stories feel real and lived-in, so details (metrics, dates, facts) are vital to telling a compelling story.  This is a key way readers unconsciously distinguish BS, however well written, from reality.  Even if it means you have to say less, say it with enough detail to be convincing, but not so much as to be overwhelming.  Pick and choose your most valuable details.

Hopefully this helps draw something of a line in the sand distinguishing BS from effective (and necessary) self-promotion and self-explanation.


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Booth, McDonough and McCombs have released their essay prompts for this year.  Check them out right here on our website!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

LSAT Takers at a 14 year low

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The dip in June test takers, and what it means for your prospective application.

By Ben Feuer

As most people know by now, Law School is in decline, at least when it comes to the number of students they graduate.  There was further evidence of that this month when the new data on LSAT takers showed a steep drop.

If you were one of those LSAT takers, of course, this is great news for you -- less competition means your application will be more competitive.  Just make sure that you are not falling into the same trap some of the last few class years of law students have fallen into by reviewing this ultra-simple checklist.

Is your LSAT over 160?  If the answer is no, wait a year and retake the LSAT.  If you never clear 160, choose another line of work, as your odds of gainful employment post-graduation go way down.

Do you have work experience?  K through JD might seem like the most efficient career path, but you could be setting yourself up for failure.  You are also making yourself less competitive at top schools, which prefer some work experience.  Again, the solution is to take a year or two and be sure this is what you want.

Are you ready to work really hard?  This one might seem self-explanatory.  After all, studying for the LSAT is hard too, right?  well, yes, but depending on what school you wind up going to, class rank is going to matter A LOT in your job opportunities, and class rank is competitive.  Class rank is also dependent upon the amount of time you are willing to spend studying.  Ergo, if you are looking to cruise or avoid academic hardship for a little while, wait.

Are you paying sticker price at a <T14 school?  Reconsider.  You will probably be better off getting to the top of your class at a T50 school while also saving some money on tuition, which in turn will save you from some of that nasty student loan debt.  At a T14 school, your odds of getting a big law offer improve dramatically, so this concern is somewhat alleviated.

You make the call on this one -- but really, take our advice (and everybody else's), and don't rush into a decision about ANY graduate degree, but ESPECIALLY a JD.


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How the learning algorithms work, and what it can teach you about your writing strategy.

By Ben Feuer

Automated writing assessment (as a supplement to human writing assessment) has been used for years now in undergraduate university settings.  It is used by EdX MOOCs.  But how exactly does it work?

Those familiar with the technology will know exactly how it works -- it is based on machine learning algorithms, which consists of a computer studying human behavior and turning key components of it into patterns the computer can then recognize and spit out at will.  The more patterns the computer spots, the better it gets at reproducing the 'model' it has in its virtual head.  A much more detailed (and fascinating) explanation of the software can be found here.

All well and good in theory, but how does this affect how you take your GMAT?

The machine learning algorithm that governs computerized essay grading is going to focus on errors in grammar, passive use cases, ability to adhere to a central message or theme and the ability to support that message.  Obviously, in a context independent of human readers, it's easy to game that system, as MIT professor Les Perelman has been demonstrating for years.  But the GMAT uses the machines as a second reader, and (very hurried) human beings as first readers.

So the optimal strategy for the GMAT AWA would be to write a technically perfect essay that answers the central question well enough not to offend the sensibilities of the human 'first reader'.  Most likely, if the essay passes a sanity check and contains a few worthwhile insights, the human reader isn't going to give the essay a hard time, and the machine will recognize what it is trained to recognize -- good grammar and sentence structure and staying on topic.


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Forster-Thomas breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of coding experience for an MBA, and evaluates its worth in a b-school application.

By Ben Feuer

There is an intriguing ongoing debate right now about whether MBAs should learn to code.  As the workforce becomes more and more technical, coding becomes a more and more valuable skill.  The question, really, is how much is too much?  And on a related note, if you are seeking an MBA and you know how to code already, how valuable a skill is it to bring to the table?


Managers who can code (at least a little bit) know enough to be able to determine what is feasible and what is not.  This allows them to make smarter management decisions.

Coding teaches logic.  Logic is a valuable tool in any management position, and helps with problem solving.


Managers may become overconfident in their understanding of coding.  A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The work is long and arduous, and could potentially distract from core MBA curriculum.

As a fundamentally solitary activity, coding-focused MBAs might be poorer communicators and less visionary leaders and become more concerned with the nitty gritty.


Fair enough.  So what about that other category, MBAs who already have coding experience?  Historically, the results for highly technical people seeking an MBA has not been great, if that is their primary qualification.  The needle on that issue may be moving somewhat, but Forster-Thomas needs a few more years of results before we can definitively say whether it is or it is not.

In the meantime, the status quo still rules -- b-schools respond first and foremost to leadership in group contexts and the ability to take on visionary initiatives and see them through to completion.  Coding, unless it is in the context of a more ambitious goal like building a startup, should be seen as a complementary flavor rather than a main course.


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