By Ben Feuer, Photo by Marco Bellucci

Feedback. We all need it – if we’re smart, we’re always asking for it – but how good are we at actually using it? Here at Forster-Thomas our job is to give honest (sometimes brutal) feedback to people who are applying to school so they can do a better job of applying to school. Sometimes the job is easy – more often than not, it’s really hard. It all depends on what kind of guy (or gal, gender FTW) you have sitting across the table (or Skype-chat) from you.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know.

This is our favorite kind of guy to work with – he’s almost always smart, dependable and open because he knows who he is and why he’s here – he’s great at what he does, and he’s comfortable outsourcing what he’s not great at to others.

Think of it this way -- if I dropped you in the middle of a steel mill right now and said, send the hot slag into the vibratory tumbler to de-burr it, then use the lathe to shape it as it cools and make sure to respect all the standard factory workload requirements (PS don’t cut your right hand off), you’d say, um, a little help please, a little clarification? In other words, you’d know you didn’t know, and you would make smarter decisions because of that.

If you just said to yourself, yeah, but applying to school isn’t like that, then you are not this guy. Admissions is exactly like that. Who makes the decisions? What are they based on? What are the big turn-ons and turn-offs of adcoms? You don’t know. That’s because they’re secretive, and they change pretty much every year as new deans come in and new university strategies take hold.

This guy knows he doesn’t know. That’s why he almost always gets what he wants in the end.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know, but pretends he knows.

But because of ego or anxiety (or more accurately both, since they’re two sides of the same coin), certain candidates decide their job is not to complete the admissions process but rather to game it. These people fixate on the one or two crumbs of information they do collect and (never bothering to independently verify it) decide it’s the most important thing they ever heard. We sometimes call this the ‘shiny’ effect.

“Someone secretly told me who went to U Chicago that the University really likes people with marketing background – shouldn’t I go back and rewrite my entire history to make it look like I know a lot about marketing?”

“Um, no, because you’re a finance guy and everything you’ve ever done proves that. Your job is to be the best you – remember?”

“Yeah but – my friend said!”

“And how many years has he spent on the admissions committee? How many applications has he read?”

“…”

This guy is so busy pretending to be a newly minted expert that he forgets to focus on his real job – being and knowing himself.

The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know.

One real application-killer is lack of self-awareness. You run into it all the time when you get to the interview stage, as anyone who’s been on the other side of that table will tell you. People will walk in that door convinced they have themselves (and you) figured out. Sometimes it really gets ridiculous – I’ve had candidates recount interviews to me where I had to tell them, “You just told your interviewer who he was and how to do his job. How do you think he liked that?” Answer – not very much.

it can be a huge problem with essays and recommenders as well. The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know has zero introspection skills. He’s never really thought about why he does what he does and he sees no reason to start now. Instead, he pulls convenient labels off the shelf (I’m a natural leader, I’m a team player, I’m a smart, confident empire builder) that he thinks will appeal to admissions. It's not that he’s lying – it’s more like he has a massive blind spot. He really believes he never had a drinking problem, and that he loves every member of his family equally, and that all his peers willingly defer to him all day.

The reason this guy is so hard to help is because he feels so comfortable in his ‘not-knowing’ situation. Unlike the previous two guys I described, he doesn’t even think he has a problem! Yikes.

What to do?

If you recognize yourself in one (or more) of these people, congratulations! You’re not guy #3. But no matter who you are, you still need honest, unbiased feedback if you want to present the best version of yourself to the admissions committee. No guy is an island – so don’t put yourself on one!