Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shaping your essay-writing environment



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Tim Taylor

Many people underestimate the importance of environment when it comes to writing a great set of essays for college or graduate school. They figure, "I'll just squeeze this in when I can ... after all, what difference does it make when I do it, as long as I do it?"  Actually, it can make a huge difference!  How effective your writing sessions are, and how many new ideas you're able to come up with, is deeply impacted by the way you prepare for and spend your precious writing time.  So, since we're all writing veterans here at Forster-Thomas, we wanted to share a couple of our best tips with you.


Everyone has an optimal time of day for writing.  For some, it's the morning. For others, the evening. But you'll know you've hit your 'sweet spot' when your mind is at its clearest, and least distractable. This is the time when most of your best ideas are going to come.
Shut off distractions. Even one notification or alarm can take up to fifteen minutes to recover from. You'll get the work done a lot more quickly if you shut off all your dings, dongs and bleeps until you're done with the difficult work of crafting your first draft.
Create a pattern. Unless you're extraordinarily lucky, the muse isn't going to show up the first time you come calling for her. It often takes a few days of marinating on the problem, trying approaches that don't work, and fumbling with your own memories, before you're able to hit on the opening that 'feels right'.  So instead of setting aside a block of time on one day, set aside a little time, even a half-hour or an hour, over several days. Get used to getting into a writing mode.
Forgive mistakes. Writer-brain and editor-brain are two very different creatures.  You're going to be a lot happier with your results if you shut off editor-brain for awhile. You'll know him when you hear him, he's the one who second-guesses and nit-picks every idea you come up with. The problem with editor-brain early in the process is that it prevents you from completing a thought and seeing where it takes you. Even if the beginning isn't promising, the day's explorations may uncover a few gems. So just start where you start, and go where you go, and worry about cleaning everything up later.


So there you have it!  A few simple, practical tips to make writing easier.  Of course, if you're still having trouble, you can always give us a call -- but then, you were already planning to do that, weren't you?

 

 

By Ben Feuer and College Choice

We all know that it’s a good idea, fiscally speaking, to attend a quality college and graduate school – but how good of an idea is it, exactly?  The chart above tells the tale in full.  But one of the many hurdles you’re going to have to leap is the completion of the dreaded FAFSA – federal application for student aid.  But don’t despair -- the FAFSA’s bark is much worse than its bite, and we’re here to offer a step-by-step guide, with props to our good friends at College Choice.

Is the FAFSA Need or Merit-Based?  Many colleges and graduate programs offer merit-based scholarships, but not through the FAFSA. It is strictly need-based – the key factors are your family’s income, assets and the cost of tuition at your chosen school(s).

What form does FAFSA aid take?  It’ll be a blend of loans, which you’ll need to pay back, and grants/scholarships, which you keep.  You may also qualify for work-study, low-wage jobs offered by the school and its partners, but even if you don’t, you can always just … you know … find a job …

How do I know if I qualify for the FAFSA?  Just go to this webpage.  You’ll need last year’s tax docs, a pay stub, your banking information, and about half an hour.

Darn, I don’t qualify.  Fill it out anyway -- many colleges, foundations, and state scholarship organizations use the FAFSA to distribute money and determine scholarship funding. Plus, filling out the FAFSA qualifies you for low-cost federal student loans of at least $5,500 per year!

What if I don’t know how much my school is going to cost?  Pick the most expensive school on your list and base your calculations on that.  If you don’t know how much your target school costs, use College Navigator to figure it out.

How do I apply for FAFSA?  You can apply to FAFSA online at fafsa.ed.gov, on the telephone at 1-800-433-3243, or by paper application (available on the FAFSA website). The FAFSA application becomes available October 1st and closes June 30th the following year.  You’ll need your Social Security number or alien registration number, your driver’s license number (optional), your tax records, lists of untaxed income like child support and veteran’s benefits, asset records and lists of schools. This data retrieval tool may help you.

What kind of assets will show up on a FAFSA application?  Here’s what does have to be reported: CDs, stocks, bank and brokerage accounts, bonds, mutual funds, college savings plans, trust funds, real estate, and money market accounts.

Here’s what doesn’t have to be reported: home equity, qualified retirement plans (pensions, annuities, IRAs, 401(k)s, and any similar accounts), and estate-related assets (boats, furniture, fine art, etc.).

How can I get more money from FAFSA?  Plan ahead and apply early, when more aid is available – on October 1 if possible.  Move or spend as many qualified assets as possible well before applying.  If your life circumstances change after your application (a relative is hospitalized, someone gets fired), appeal, politely and humbly. Don’t be ashamed of or afraid to disclose your parent’s occupational status or level of education – as far as FAFSA is concerned, do not know = no.


By Ben Feuer, picture by Harold Navarro

T.S. Eliot once referred to April as the ‘cruelest month’, but for many MBA applicants, that month is February. February, that blessed/accursed time of year when some applicants are celebrating their Round 2 admits, and others are curling up in little balls, wondering how things went so horribly wrong.

Obviously, the happy ones don’t need to read this blog, because they already know exactly where they’re going and what they’re going to be doing next year. But if you’re in that other camp – then this one is most definitely for you.

Step Zero, before you do anything else.  Stop catastrophizing.  Stop blaming yourself (or others).  And stop freaking out, your life has not ended.  Take a deep breath, soak in a bubble bath, get your nails done, spend a night drinking with your feet up watching “Love, Actually” / “The Expendables 2” / your narrative comfort food of choice.

Ok, now that you’re a little calmer, and ready to take on this process in a powerful, professional way –

Take stock.  What are your options?  Do you have interviews still pending?  Are you waiting on some decisions to come down?  Have you been waitlisted at some of your target schools?  List every result of your application other than a ding on a nice clean sheet of paper (if you’re into the whole ‘pen’ thing).

Adding to the list.  In addition to all of your pending opportunities, you have a few more options; round 3, rolling and European late rounds (which for simplicity’s sake I’m treating as a single entity, even though that encompasses a whole range of possibilities), and strengthening your application and re-applying next year.  Of course, you also have the option of doing specialty programs such as MM and MFin, but that’s a whole other ball of wax, and beyond the scope of this humble blog.

So what are the pros and cons of your various options?

Waitlist.  The waitlist is your bird in the hand – your last, best chance of getting into a target school this year.  Assuming you have already maximized your odds, there’s nothing more you can do except, well, wait.  The pros are obvious – if you get in, your troubles are over.  The con is that a waitlist can breed complacency.  You can’t afford to just sit back and hope things work out – you have to be proactive!  So waitlists are great, as far as they go, but don’t get hung up on them.

Admits from safety programs.  Congratulations, your safety net paid off, and you have been accepted by one of the schools you applied to.  Should you attend?  If you did this process the right way, you only applied to schools you had a very good feeling about, so I’m going to assume that you like the program in question.  So the choice ultimately comes down to cost/benefit.  How expensive is the program?  What are students doing after graduating – are they entering the fields and careers that interest you?  Are you communicating with alums and current students?  Do they seem friendly and eager to help you out?  How big is your appetite for risk, and how well do you like your current job?  These are some of the questions you’re going to need to answer before you can decide how to respond.

Round 3/European/Rolling.  Even in February, there are a range of schools you can apply to, including schools with late round 3 deadlines, European schools with year-round deadlines, and schools with rolling admissions.  This can be a good option if your safeties didn’t come through, or if you feel better about some of these schools than your safety school.  But it is expensive and time-consuming to apply, and at such a late date, all of these applications are going to be long-shots, even for schools you’re a pretty good match for otherwise – their classes are going to be mostly full by now.

Waiting a year.  If you’re on the young end (23-26) of MBA admissions, if you’ve recently been promoted or are expecting a promotion, if you like your current job, or if your appetite for risk/reward is high, then waiting may be your most appealing option.  MBA programs look favorably on reapplicants – IF they have taken concrete steps to strengthen their candidacies in the intervening year(s).  Promotions, increased responsibility at work, taking on more and better extracurriculars, retaking the GMAT or GRE, and taking satellite/extension courses on key mathematical and financial topics can all make you a more appealing applicant the second time around, as can networking and getting to know more people at your target schools.  This is the high-achiever, high-effort option, but hey, if you want to go for the gold, this is how it happens.

***

So there you are – no matter what results you’re looking at right now, you have a wide array of options remaining for you.  So don’t get downhearted – get motivated.  Nodoby said this was gonna be easy.  And if you want more personalized feedback on why you were dinged or how you can improve your candidacy, contact us!



By Evan Forster, photo by Alan Light


Question: Isn’t spring of senior year party time?  

Answer: No Prince, this is not 1999!

Recently—and hardly for the first time—I received a phone call from a mom who went from excited to panic when her daughter was accepted early to college. In this case, I’m talking Vanderbilt.

Let’s back up just a little.  Her daughter, Felicia, was no clear admit; she had some difficult times in 9th and 10th grades, but she pulled it together as the semesters went on so it wasn’t an outrageous idea to apply early to Vandy—her number one choice. When she got that fat acceptance packet, we all did the happy dance. And then, a day later, I got the following call from her mom:  

“What if Felicia doesn’t keep her grades up this spring? I’m worried she’s not keeping her grades up."

Let me answer that in simple terms by showing you the letter I sent to all of my college candidates and their families:

Dear Felicia,

I know it’s very exciting to know you’re going to Vanderbilt this fall! You worked your ass off and got in, and the crew at Forster-Thomas is incredibly proud of you.

BUT it’s not over yet. The admissions office is keeping track of what you’re doing, and there was some fine print in your acceptance letter: Your acceptance is contingent upon your continuing high grades and activities. If you suddenly make straight Bs or (god forbid) worse, you are putting your acceptance in jeopardy! We’ve actually seen this happen before, where an acceptance was revoked or someone was put on probation before they even got to school. You don’t want that to be you.

So, keep those grades up, and keep being the marvelous person who we enjoyed working so much with! We want to know what’s going on with you for the rest of the year, and beyond! We are so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished, and working with you has been AMAZING. 

And be prepared: In the fall, your whole life is going to change—and you’re going to LOVE IT. 

Please let me know you got this email, and keep us in the loop with any questions.

Best,

Auntie Evan

This advice about keeping your grades up affects you not only if you applied early, but also to those of you who are still waiting on that fat envelope. Ignore this advice at your own peril. You certainly don’t want any college saying “Bye Felicia!” 


Article by Ben Feuer, photo by jarito

What to write about?  Many people find this the most intimidating question of all when they first sit down and get to work.  After all, most people know (or think that they know) how to string a few words, paragraphs or sentences together.  But it can be very hard, living in the moment, to have any sense of what the key themes are in your life, let alone how they’ve changed or evolved over time.

And yet, those are precisely the questions you need to answer, and answer with precision, if you want to write a great personal essay for college, graduate school, your next New York Times opinion piece or anything else.  Personal essay writing, or short stories drawn from your life experience, follows many of the same rules as all good writing.  You need to know what you’re trying to say, why you’re trying to say it, and how your audience is likely to approach your work.  You need to have patience with ideas and themes as they develop, rather than settling for the first thing that comes into your head.  You need courage to face the times when you get stuck, or just can’t think of anything to say.

So are there any tricks, tips or ideas that can help you generate new topics, or new approaches to old topics?  Fortunately, the answer is yes!

Get a fresh perspective.  If you’re stuck, ask a friend or a relative, a mom or a dad, someone who knows you and your topic pretty well, for advice.  Don’t show them your essay or tell them what you’re planning to do – that might pollute their own memory.  Just ask them, in an open-ended way, to share their experiences and memories about a certain time or topic.  You’ll be surprised to learn that their memories often differ substantially from yours, both as to what happened and how people felt about it at the time, and they just might inspire something you didn’t consider earlier.

Take advantage of flow and focus.  Before you write, read something that inspires you for fifteen minutes – some writing you consider top-notch (and something that is in the same style as what you intend to do).  Then take a deep breath and forget it – after all, you’re not trying to copy, just feel motivated.  Once you’ve got your motivation, work in silence or with some light background noise (classical music works well for me) in a concentrated block of approximately 45-50 minutes, taking breaks not to think about other things, but to perform mindless tasks like stretching, taking out the garbage or shaving.  Approaching writing in this manner will clarify your intentions and help you to write exactly what you are thinking in that moment.

Start over.  It takes distance to evaluate writing, and if you’re trying to evaluate your own writing, that can be particularly hard to achieve.  So once you’ve finished a draft, pat yourself on the back and go do something else for a day or so.  Then return to it and try to figure out what you were writing about, what you were saying.  Force yourself to sum up everything you ACTUALLY WROTE (rather than what you were intending to write) in a sentence.  What message have you conveyed with these words?  Is there growth, progression, change?  Does it start quickly and end with a fun surprise or an emotional payoff?  If your sentence doesn’t correspond to what you were imagining (or if you’ve since come up with a better idea), start the process over fresh with a brand new document, rather than trying to rewrite.  You can always mix and match your favorite parts later.

Of course, there are many other things you can do to improve your ability to write on themes, but these are a few of the most helpful core ideas.  If you’re still struggling and want some guidance, feel free to reach out to us – we’re always happy to help.


By Evan Forster. Photo by Malcolm Manners.

Wondering about Summer College programs--and whether any of them will help you get accepted to the college you want most? If not (just being real here), what's the point of applying, or even going?  These are some of the very valid questions that students and parents have been  asking me lately – here are my answers.

Whether it's the RISD Summer Pre-College Program for that high school Leonardo da Vinci, the Carnegie Mellon National High School Game Academy for the world’s next Shigeru Miyamoto (think Super Mario Brothers)  or Wharton’s "Leadership in the Business World"

for that rising Meg Whitman or George Soros, summer college programs can be of great value, demonstrate that you follow your passions, and teach you great skills. But no, they don’t guarantee you an admit to the university sponsoring the program.

Let’s use Wharton’s “Leadership in the Business World” (LBW) as a case study. The program is highly selective.  Its website also reinforces that participation in the program is no guarantee of admission to Penn.  This program is US$7,500 for four weeks. Yes, it's truly selective, and some say there's a good correlation with admission to Wharton—perhaps because the admitted applicant pool of LBW is so competitive and qualified. Wharton claims that 40% of last year’s LBW participants applied to Wharton Undergrad, and that 30% of those participants were accepted. That’s a 75% admit rate, which dwarfs the usual 9% -- but again, remember this is a stronger applicant pool to begin with, and about half of them applied early decision, which strongly influences top universities these days. So take the numbers with a grain of Auntie Evan’s best brand of salt. Even top students with 36 ACTs, straight As and heavy AP schedules applied last year--highly ranked in their high school/secondary class--with strong leadership do not get in. For the students who do, independent business achievement is at least as good a yardstick for adcoms as are programs like LBW.

And as for RISD and Carnegie Mellon, numbers are harder to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that for highly motivated students, they can be pipelines into their parent universities -- sometimes. Recently, a friend of mine, certain her daughter was the next Frida Kahlo, pushed her  to apply to RISD Summer Pre-College Program. She was accepted, and it cost a lot of money. She even went so far as to have her daughter create her company logo and was certain that she would be accepted to RISD full-time. However, the daughter did not get in, and Mama was furious. She thought the summer program was the Yellow Brick Road. Daughter did get in to SCAD, however, and is doing quite well in her graphic design career.

So back to my earlier question – if you aren’t guaranteed an admit, why would you go? Well, there's always pure academic growth (What a concept!). Then there's the opportunity to see if you're really into the subject enough to continue your journey in a particular area of academic or artistic area of study. It also ensures that admissions will see your "demonstrated interest". Life is what you make of it. It is not based on a summer pre-college program.

Summer college programs show interest and commitment--especially if you do well and have other extracurriculars that focus on this same academic or artistic area of study. So it's always a good thing. Just not a sure thing. 



By Ben Feuer. Photo by Miniyo73.

Six years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation. That is the first, and in many ways, the most important, thing to remember about Online MBAs. They are new. Brand new, really. And they have to be approached the same way we approach any new product, namely, with a blend of optimism and caution. We here at Forster-Thomas have seen quite a few clients evaluate or choose online, executive and part-time MBA options, and we have helped people make those decisions. As such, we felt it was high time someone helped people understand the pros and cons of online MBAs. Hence, this article.

THE CONS

We're going to address these first, and make no mistake, they're substantial.

JOB PLACEMENT IS A CHALLENGE. Even the most optimistic numbers show 20% lower success rates for top online MBAs vs their equivalent 2-year programs. In other words, Kenan-Flagler 2-year MBA places 20% more students in jobs than Kenan-Flagler Online. And that's considering only the sheer number of placements, not factoring in the quality of those jobs, industry or salary. There are a couple of reasons for this. One of the big ones is that online MBA students have less access to organic networking and traditional recruiting than their 2-year peers. Another reason is the cohort of the online students themselves -- they tend to be older, and from non-traditional backgrounds, which disadvantages them versus pliable youngsters. Finally, recruiters (and the machines that do much of their work for them) are still leery of online degrees -- the fact that low-quality product was the first to hit the market negatively impacted first impressions of the degree, and it's taking time for employers to warm up to the idea of learning leadership by yourself in your bedroom. 

THE COST IS HIGH, CONSIDERING. You might assume that cost would be a strength of the online MBA, but in fact, schools are charging almost as much (or in some cases, exactly as much) for the online degree as for the 2-year degree. You're taking the same number of classes with the same professors, and earning the same degree at the end, so it's not completely unjustified. Nevertheless, it's definitely a frustrating fact.

INTERNSHIPS ARE TRICKY. On-campus recruiting and internships are much diminished in online MBAs. Schools are working to counter this as best they can, but it will be years (probably many years) before career-shifters are well-served by the online option.

So why would you do an online MBA? Well, there are several important pro's -- 

THE PROS

THE PROFESSORS (AND STUDENTS) ARE TOP-NOTCH. The myth that an online MBA is isolating is just not true. The top programs go to great lengths to make sure students are speaking with professors and each other at least once a week. Courses, classwork and professors are the same online as they are at the brick-and-mortar equivalents. As long as you put in the work, you'll be able to pass the same tests and achieve the same professional results as any other MBA student.

FLEXIBILITY IS UNMATCHED. A top-20 MBA (or an M7 MBA, if you're that kind of elitist) remains the Lamborghini of degrees. But not everybody is equipped to drive one, and not everybody needs one. And for some people, the sacrifices involved in getting one aren't worth the trade-off.

Consider the following -- you may not be one of the lucky few who's able to take time off your job AND go into mountains of debt -- and even if you are, and even if you do get that promotion or career change you're angling for, that kind of money may take 5-10 years to earn back, making the ROI less attractive at 2-year programs.

Some students aren't able to travel the long distances required to learn at a top institution. Family or other life circumstances hold them back. Their options are to go with a potentially sketchy local or community college degree, or an online MBA. The online may well be the better choice of those two.

You may be in an age range MBA programs don't target, or your career experience may not be in line with your academic ability, and therefore you can't get accepted to a program that's rigorous enough to challenge you (and provide you with all that fantastic on-campus recruiting so many crave). Again, that makes the online more attractive.

WHO IS IT GOOD FOR?

It's a mistake to think of the online MBA as an 'alternative', or worse still, a 'replacement' for the traditional 2-year. It isn't now, and it may not be for a long time. But executive MBAs, part-time MBAs, night-weekend MBAs and Mini-MBAs may indeed be threatened, and ultimately subsumed by this newcomer. 

The best thing about the online MBA is that you don't have to give up your job, move or commute. Therefore, right now it's best for people who are happy with their current situation but want to move up the ladder. If you are promoted internally while earning that degree, as many online MBA students are, your next lateral move won't be concerned with how you earned your MBA, simply that you have it. After all, the best online MBAs make no distinction as to where or how the degree was earned. A Kenan-Flagler MBA is a Kenan-Flagler MBA. 

It's also a great option for people who are, for whatever reason, outside the realistic target of the top 20 MBA programs. You get a much more valuable degree at a lower cost, a better education, and better networking options, assuming you are able to apply yourself and work well in an online learning environment, and assuming you are pro-active and eager to network and seek opportunities in your area. 

It's probably not the right choice for emigres, career shifters, or people entering highly selective hiring processes -- yet. But give it time. As certifications and skill tests grow in popularity, employers will have a more objective way to judge achievement than a name on the diploma -- and at that point, it's anybody's party.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BEST ONLINE MBAs RIGHT NOW?

There are a couple of ways to look at this question. Since most people considering an online MBA are also considering 2-year and other options, we feel that at this time, students' best bet is to go for a degree that is viewed as similarly as possible to the 2-year equivalent, at schools with a reputation for high quality academics. As such, our top choices as of this writing are --



HOW TO GET IN

Top online MBAs are extremely selective, with between 25 and 45 percent acceptance rates. Those numbers are in line with many excellent non M7 programs, such as Yale SOM and Duke Fuqua. And as employers grow to accept the degree, expect those numbers to plummet. The relative ease of access (and perceived ease of earning) an online MBA makes them, potentially, much more popular than their brick and mortar counterparts.  

So how can you make yourself appealing? All the typical rules of the MBA game apply (we wrote a whole book about it!), but the online degree does a few tweaks and twists. Students should be prepared to explain why the online MBA specifically is right for them, and should use their storytelling materials to highlight why they will be active and engaged participants in this somewhat unusual learning environment, and how they will be great ambassadors for the school in the future. Online MBAs are going to be very concerned with their reputations for the foreseeable future, so every student they graduate has the potential to put them on the map. You want to be that student for them.

Do you have questions about your particular situation?  Call us, we'll be happy to help.



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Kamaljith KV.

Do you watch The Voice?  No?  Your loss, girlfriend. We do, and it's taught us a lot over the years.

One of the things you quickly notice is that it takes more than just a great set of pipes to make the cut -- after all, there are way more top-notch singers than there are opportunities for said singers to make ends meet. And in the end, on a competition show, there can be only one. So how do you make the choice between two singers, equally qualified, equally driven?

Go to the backstory.

That's what the producers of the show do every day. They plumb the depths of family history, trying to ferret out those little nuggets of gold that take a competitor from being just another voice in the crowd to an unforgettable story echoing across the hills.
What's all this got to do with essays?

Simple. You may not have a producer, but you are on a competition show. It's called applying to graduate school. And you'd better not be thinking that a couple of mindless sound bytes about your professional accomplishments, film festival placements or showy shadowing experiences are going to set you apart from the pack. On the contrary; they're likely to bury you inside it even more deeply.

What is unique about me?  This is a question that many people find terrifying. Understandable -- it's extremely nerve-wracking to stand out. It's not easy being different. But it is important, when writing essays, passing outlines to recommenders, shooting videos and prepping for interviews, that you have a sense of yourself, and one of the best places to start looking is your own family tree.

Start with the basics. What did your father do for a living? Your mother? Who was your primary caregiver? Where did you grow up? How big of an extended family did you have? How close are you to your brothers and sisters, in age and in mindset?  What role do you play in the family, and who was your role model?  Do you pride yourself on being the same, or different, from the people who surround you? 

These questions, and the dozens of others like them, serve as the root of your identity. You are not your numbers, nor are you your resume. You are the amalgam of the influences that have shaped you over the years. Whoever raised you, their values and beliefs are imprinted on you, unconsciously, most likely, so it's important that you be able to enumerate what the heck they are!

Develop a hypothesis. It's not enough to assemble facts. People need stories to make sense of the world, and you will need a story to understand what your childhood meant to you. It may be a profound story, or a rather simple one. It may have a happy ending, a sad one, or the story may be in process (unfinished). That's fine, but you still need to understand what it is. In a paragraph or two, start assembling the various data points into a cohesive narrative. I am the son of two immigrants, who taught me to work hard and with integrity. I am the wild child of a brilliant family, and I have spent my entire life so far looking for somewhere to belong. I am the overachiever who no one expected to go anywhere, least of all my alcoholic mother. There are no wrong answers, and no right ones. Only true ones.

See your family as characters. Write brief physical descriptions of them, like you were describing a stranger. Try to simplify their personality into two or three basic ideas. Give the world a thumbnail sketch of the people who were in your life, and it'll go a long way to helping them understand you.  

Write fearlessly. The greatest enemy most people face in the essay writing process is their own reluctance to speak, clearly and forcefully, about the things they have seen, done and overcome. You can turn this weakness into a strength if you are willing to open up, willing to accept imperfections in yourself and those you love. There are no saints, no perfect people, so why pretend that you and your loved ones just happen to be the exception?

***

This is just the beginning of your journey. Writing about family doesn't just make for a great essay or two, it can also be the beginning of new clarity about who you are and why you do what you do. And, if you can carry a tune, it might get you on a stage in front of a panel of celebrity judges. So sharpen your pencils and get to work (and if you get stuck, call).

Monday, December 19, 2016

How to edit your essay



Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Susan Fitzgerald

So after an exhaustive and exhausting effort, you've finally completed all of your first drafts. Great news!  Now the real fun begins -- editing!  Many people don't realize that editing and rewriting is, in fact, the most demanding and time-consuming part of the writing process. It's the stage where you refine your initial ideas, make them easier to understand, and get rid of everything that's superfluous or confusing. While it's impossible to boil all of our expertise down to a page and a half, here are a few of our top tips on the topic.

Think like a reporter. Before a reporter begins to write the details of his story, he makes sure to clearly establish all the facts. Since you are, in essence, the reporter of your life story when you write an essay, you have to make sure that whoever is reading it is properly equipped to make sense, not just of what the story is, but of why you're telling it.  It might feel didactic to you, writing down dates, names of important characters, and laying out your themes in plain language at the start of the essay, but it will make it easier on everyone in the long run, and clarifying is an important part of the editing process.

Know what to cut. How can you decide what is essential to your story, and what isn't?  Refer back to the basic facts of your story, and the reason you're telling it. For example, if you're trying to make a point about how your relationship with your father has evolved over the years, details of your work performance, however intriguing, just don't fit. On the other hand, if the prompt you're answering demands details of a time you were an outstanding leader, maybe don't focus so much on details about the organization or why you decided to take on this opportunity in the first place. Effective editing is making the core story stand out!

Read your work aloud. One of the best pieces of advice you'll ever get (and one you're very unlikely to follow) is the tip that you can always catch several mistakes in your work if you read it out loud before sending it to anyone. People are reluctant to do this for many reasons -- they feel awkward, it seems slow and inefficient. But it's still the best and most reliable way to make certain you're submitting something error-free.

Stick to the word count. People often think that if they throw in just a little bit extra, they'll be improving their essay. Not so!  When you have to read a hundred of them in a row, you're always looking for excuses to get rid of a few applications quickly, and failing to follow the rules is an easy one. On the other hand, if you're UNDER the word count, that's fine, as long as you're fully answering the question.

Ask for help. It's nearly impossible to be your own editor. Get a trusted collaborator to help go over it with you at least a couple of times. Otherwise, you'll never be fully confident that your message is coming across clearly and without mistakes!

Need more advice?  Reach out to us and we'll be happy to help.  In the meantime, happy revising and good luck with your applications!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Entrepreneur's Guide to MBA Applications



Article by Ben Feuer, photo by The Stoe

Entrepreneurship is a growing sector of business worldwide, and many entrepreneurs are looking at MBAs, eMBAs, or other high-level masters degrees to help round out their skill sets, meet new people and encounter new opportunities. These applicants face a unique set of challenges, but also bring a unique set of strengths. In this guide, we'll deliver all the essentials, covering how to stand out.


Areas you're likely to be strong.


1. Hands-on leadership. As an entrepreneur, you've likely had two or more direct reports, overseen budgets and dealt effectively with vendors and lawyers, all strengths the investment banking crowd can't usually claim.  Use these hands-on experiences in your essays and talk to your recommenders about highlighting them as well. But don't just say that you were a leader, say what kind of a leader you were. Be descriptive and make helpful distinctions for b-schools so they can separate you from the pack.

2. Crisis Management. You've probably faced some seriously hair-raising situations where your entire business was put at risk, and come out of them the other side. These make great stories for your essays, but only if you know how to put them in the proper context. It's not enough to simply explain what happened -- you have to help us re-live the experience with you, and walk us through your decision process as a leader, almost like a case study.

3. Visionary goal-setting.  The most exciting thing about entrepreneurs is their capacity to dream big. So don't come to the table simply saying, "I'd like to be a management consultant," even if you do want to be one!  Find a visionary, exciting, empowering way to look at this career change. You're an entrepreneur, a maker, a trend-setter -- don't just be 'another X', be the first, smartest, or best XY.


Areas you're likely to be weak.



1. Volunteering, extracurriculars and non-profit work. Entrepreneurs are often busy, and are usually too focused on succeeding in their business to worry about backup plans. So when their first idea doesn't pan out and an MBA starts to look more attractive, they haven't done all the groundwork b-schools like to see as far as service and community engagement go. If you're in this boat, you have to start engaging with organizations immediately. Look for places where you can offer meaningful skills and help on a high level -- the usual one-off events, mentoring and tutoring are only slight improvements over having nothing at all. Can you fundraise, work on strategy, or develop deeper relationships with streams of volunteers or key donors?

2. International exposure. Diversity is a key element of the mix these days at top business schools, and international diversity is a very important factor in class balance. A student without meaningful foreign exposure risks seeming uncompetitive in today's market. Applicants with time to develop their candidacies should look into forging new relationships abroad, exploring business opportunities or collaborations overseas, or simply take a foreign language immersion course or an extended service trip for a month or two.

3. Comfort discussing failure. Since most entrepreneurs applying to b-school are failed entrepreneurs (no shame, just saying), it's really important to be able to show that you have learned from your mistakes and found ways to bounce back, stronger than ever, in your next proposed venture.  Don't avoid your failure, don't apologize for it, and don't blame others for it. Instead, take a powerful, full-responsibility stance on what happened, and show how you have grown and rebounded after what was probably an emotionally draining experience.

If you bear in mind these basics and incorporate your own set of strengths and weaknesses, you'll be well on your way to success in the application game. But if you're more than a year out from your MBA application and looking for ways to make yourself a stronger candidate, contact us about our leadership action program, and we'll get an expert to help plan your next few pre-MBA career moves.