Graduate school personal statements can be challenging, often because they don’t specify what exactly they want you to write about. For instance, the prompt might read as follows: Personal Statement (500 word limit).

This can create a lot of anxiety in grad-school candidates. “So, I can write about...anything?” my client, Ryan, an aspiring speech pathologist asked. “It says ‘personal’ – does that mean that I should tell them about how my mom had a stroke when I was in tenth grade?”

I gave Ryan the same answer I give all of my candidates who come to me with that confused puppy dog look: “Yes and no.”

If you’re applying to a speech pathology program because you want to work with stroke victims, then yes, by all means, include the story about your mother’s stroke in your personal statement. Discussing the impact that moment had on you would be the perfect set-up for the essay. BUT, be careful not to end up writing an essay about your mother. Remember, you only have 500 words, so talk about you. Your mother is only a launching point for a discussion about a defining moment in your development as a future speech pathologist.

Let me break it down for you:

Paragraph 1. This is where you get personal. No, this doesn’t mean empty the contents of your diary. This means write about the moment that you realized you wanted to pursue your goal. For the speech pathology example, this paragraph could be about how your mother had a stroke and then how you watched her struggle to relearn how to speak—and how you worked with her to improve her speech and found that you had a passion and a talent for it. Be specific.

Why? Graduate programs want students who are passionate about what they want to do, not students who are just looking to avoid the real world for another few years. This is your opportunity to show them why you want it.

Paragraph 2. What have you done thus far to pursue your interest in speech pathology? This is an opportunity to discuss specific classes you’ve taken in college—talk about a particular professor you learned from, clubs you started or joined. Discuss internships or observation hours. But DO NOT simply list them, you don’t want to regurgitate your resume. Remember, they have your resume! Tell them what’s not on your resume. For instance, discuss specific moments within your observation hours where you learned something significant and how you plan to apply what you learned.

Why? Graduate school want students who have already been seeking knowledge; show them what you’ve learned so far.

Paragraph 3. Why do you want to go to grad school? What do you still have left to learn that you need NYU for? Discuss skills that you need to obtain, improve or expand. For instance, you might want to work with stroke victims in a hospital—therefore you are looking to apply to a medically-based speech pathology program. Perhaps the majority of your observation hours were spent in a classroom with young children. Therefore you lack the medical knowledge needed to obtain a job as a speech pathologist in a hospital.

Now here’s the part where Ryan asks, “But Kirsten, don’t I want to appear confident? Won’t it make me look weak to admit that I still have stuff to learn?”

The answer? No. Schools want students who are self aware–they know their strongest and weakest areas. You want to show the school that you know what you need to work on and what experiences you need to gather in order to accomplish your goal. This also demonstrates that you actually will benefit from graduate school—and proves to the school even more that you are a serious candidate.

Paragraph 4. The school-specific portion of your essay. Why NYU, specifically? Here, it is important to be extremely specific in order to show enthusiasm for a particular school. Research classes, professors and clubs, and discuss how they will help you accomplish your goal.

Why? You must prove that you want to go to the school. By getting specific about the school you also demonstrate your ability to research and gain knowledge—good traits for a prospective student. Additionally, when you get an interview—you’ll have lots to discuss.

Last paragraph. Your conclusion. A few short sentences about how NYU is going to help you, and you are going to help them, change the planet (by using your speech pathology degree to work with stroke victims).

Don’t worry, it’s completely normal to feel anxious about writing a personal statement. It can feel like the be all end all—when you start to feel overwhelmed, just remember that you already know all of the answers. You’ve been living this essay—just dig down deep and start typing.

--Kirsten Guenther

You just got waitlisted.

“Lucky you!”

That’s exactly what I said to Todd when he called to give me the news about Columbia Business School. He was really confused by my remark. His face looked as if he had just slammed on the brakes at 50 mph, leaving a skid mark. It was that kind of moment.

Todd didn’t understand my congratulatory tone until I reminded him that he could have received another kind of notice: one that said, “Better luck next time; you’ve been rejected.”

So, you’ve just been waitlisted. The first thing you need to do is stop the panic and start realizing that it could have been worse. Schools don’t waitlist people who are not solid candidates. You end up on a waitlist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is very simple—they had five other guys just like you. The quota for you got filled earlier.

In other words, you are just like Todd. You had all the right parts: He got a 720 on his GMAT, he was a leader, he had extracurriculars, a great hedge fund job, and phenomenal grades at his Ivy League school. So why didn’t he get in? It might be as simple as five other people just like him were already accepted, and Columbia reached its hedge fund quota this year. It’s very likely that the only reason you got waitlisted is because Columbia is waiting to see if the other “you”s are going to say yay or nay. And when they do, and the space opens up, don’t you want Columbia to choose you?

Of course you do. And here’s how:

Stop whining and start planning your strategy for making sure that you are their number one choice. You need to find out who the waitlist manager or the admissions officer in charge of your candidacy is. How? Just call the school and ask. Oh, wait, the letter says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Nonsense. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s like a dirty little secret. It’s not that business schools admissions people don’t want you to call them, it’s the way in which you call them.

If the school did not provide the name of the waitlist manager or admissions officer who is handling your candidacy, call the school and ask. I know you’re scared that you’re going to annoy them. The way to ensure you don’t annoy them is to refrain from begging for acceptance. When you contact them, you want to contact with authority. Take control of the situation. Be the answer, not the question.

Once you’ve called and gotten the name of the person in charge of your candidacy, you know who your champion is. That’s the person you want to become good friends with. How? Let me break it down:

  1. Write them a letter in which you remind them who you are, let them know that you know they are overwhelmed, but you want to let that admissions officer know that Columbia remains your number one choice. Don’t come out and say you’ve been accepted to other schools, even if you have—it’s inferred by the way you are saying “Columbia still remains my number one choice.” Less is more. This is also an opportunity to inquire about what you can do to improve your chances—in the letter, ask if there’s a way you can bolster your candidacy.
  2. Update them on something new: Something great that happened after you submitted your application—an organization launch, a CFA exam you passed, a promotion you received, or a project you led. Choose one or two things, max. It’s not a laundry list, and it better be BIG. If you have nothing to say here, you probably just found out why you were waitlisted.

  3. Next, tell them when you are going to revisit campus. Make the request to meet with them. (I’m assuming you’ve already visited campus or maybe you just figured out why you got waitlisted.) You’re making a request here, to stop by to put a face to your name. Nothing says, “pick me” like a visit to the admissions office. Even if it means you have sit there in your best suit all day and all you get is a quick handshake. Remember every time you meet an admissions officer, no matter how brief, it’s an interview. Dress your best, and be ready to give that elevator pitch.

  4. If you don’t get a response, don’t freak out. Follow up two weeks later. The thing about waitlists is that you have to be prepared for this to go on, all the way until the first day of classes begins. I once had a student named Drenna who was literally on her way, in mid-August, bags packed, to UVA when Chicago Booth said, “We want you.” So she turned the car around and went north to Chicago.

  5. Yay! You heard back. You’ve stuck gold. Now you have a friendship. However it’s not an opportunity to hound this person, take it SLOW. Put the brakes on yourself. Follow the admissions officer’s lead. Either way, there’s a next step.

  6. Enlist other people’s help. If you know someone incredibly influential involved with the school, then have that person contact admissions on your behalf. Choose wisely. Pick carefully. Because nothing makes an admissions officer crazier than to be told what to do. So if you’re going to pull that card, then you better be sure it’s really powerful. If you know someone that is donating millions to add a new wing at Columbia, have this person make a call, or write a letter on your behalf. You know a professor? I’m sorry to say that won’t help. So if you don’t know someone giving millions to the school...

  7. Find two people to write character letters about you, preferably people who either went to the school or are already in the program—someone who has reason to say why you are a good match/fit. These letters should be really short—200 words max. They should explain the following: How they know you, WHY they are in support of you (like one of the things they know you’ve accomplished—hopefully a new piece of information), and finally, have them tell the admissions officer that they are available to talk in more detail by phone if necessary. (Don’t worry, that will never happen.) The letters should be spread out over several weeks. The goal here is to keep you on the admissions officer’s mind. You are planting a seed, so when it comes time to make that choice, your name is the one they choose. You’re the guy or gal you want them thinking of. It’s hard to say “No” to someone you feel like you know.

Side note: You heard from the admissions officer, and the problem was your GMAT. Take the GMAT again. In fact, if you know from day one it’s the GMAT, prepare to take it again and you let them know in that letter. If the problem is your grades, enroll in your local community college quant course in accounting. You might need to build your GPA the Forster-Thomas way.

If nothing else, if you still don’t get in, I promise you that you have set yourself up as the best re-applicant of all time. You will be the first of your kind to be accepted next year. If you do all of this, and you still don’t get in, and you’re really passionate about going to this school—then none of this was a waste of your time. There’s always tomorrow. It’s only a day away.

In this guest blog, high school student Lily Shenk describes her experience visiting colleges across the Northeast with Forster-Thomas co-founders Evan Forster and David Thomas (AKA Auntie E and Uncle D). 

I recently went on a college tour with Auntie Evan and Uncle David, where we spent three days visiting Roger Williams University, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Northeastern University, Wheaton College, Marist College, and Vassar College.

For as long as I can remember, my Mom and her BFF Auntie Evan have been talking about where I would go to school and what I would do with my life. The arguments would go like this:

“She’s an artist!” Auntie Evan would exclaim.

“But I don’t want her ending up poor!” Mama would yell back.

And somewhere in between, Uncle David would gently mention my love of marine life, animals, biology, and then something about “liberal arts”—whatever that was. But try to get a word in when Auntie Evan and Mama are in what I like to call “arguing-while-drinking” mode—impossible.

I love animals and sea life, but in my heart and in my hands, I am an artist and a craftsperson, so I was most excited to see RISD. That’s where I was sure I could express who I truly am.

Auntie Evan and Uncle D picked me up at LaGuardia Airport and we drove late into the night, straight to Rhode Island. The following morning, after avoiding the lovely do-it-yourself waffle at the Holiday Inn Express, we arrived at Roger Williams University (RWU) for my first real info session and college tour. I had no idea what to anticipate, except that my uncles promised me that it had art and marine biology. And they promised my mother that this could lead to environmental law. (Law school is one of Uncle David’s strengths. Auntie Evan’s is knowing how to say what Mama needs to hear.)

I thought RWU was going to be my least favorite college on our tour, but that quickly changed. RWU had a really cool wet lab, roomy dorms, a great campus, a convenient location, and a welcoming student body; while we were on the tour, Auntie Evan and I broke off and went into the wet lab (AKA a marine biology lab) and one of the students working there—a Graphic Design minor—even invited us in and showed us around. Cuttlefish and pregnant Clownfish—and the students, right from freshman year, get to do research! Love that! I also liked that it was only an hour outside Boston and thirty minutes from either Providence or Newport, RI. Bristol was a typical cute New England town on the water, which is an environment I like. The point is that it had everything, and with my strong B+ average, I might even get some money to attend. Mama loves that. As for me, I never would’ve thought RWU would be my thing, but there it all was. It had everything I want to study: Art and marine life!

Still, I figured RISD would win out. That afternoon, we drove to Providence. It’s beautimus and I love a small city, but right from the start I realized RISD is 100% art—and I am just not an Art-ster. So, while I was sure it would be my favorite school, after visiting, I’m not sure I’ll even apply. It would be a great school for anyone who wants art—and only art. At least that’s how I saw it. In all honesty, it was just too edgy for me. I realized that art is not all that I am interested in, and frankly, the students I met were standoffish and thought they were better than me; I’m a damn good artist and I can hold my own when it comes to drawing free-hand, crocheting, felting, or sculpting. And I’m sure the RISD kids are too, but they were just not me. I’m never going to wear tie-dye, Birkenstocks, or smoke cigarettes. I did not care for the campus set-up, either. It was in Providence and the buildings were spread out throughout a few blocks, so there was this kind of open-in-the-city campus, and I realized that I want a more traditional campus.

The next day we visited Northeastern, with its campus smack in the middle of Boston. A campus and a city! I loved the Co-op program; it allows you to intermittently go to school and work at the same time. Mama would love that! And I might even be able to intern at the New England Aquarium.

On our way back to New York, we stopped by Wheaton College. The snow was falling around this tiny liberal arts school* and the kids thought Auntie Evan and Uncle David were my two dads. That assumption and the poster for HIV testing said a lot about how accepting and laid-back the environment is. Oh, and I still dream about that beautiful botany lab. The problem is that I don’t even remember exactly where Wheaton was, except it was in a cute small town and part of the Marine Studies Consortium.

Maybe I was just getting worn out. Auntie Evan and Uncle David were too, so we took a day off back home in Westchester before heading to Poughkeepsie, where we visited Marist College and Vassar College. They couldn’t have been more different! Both were great, but Marist was way more “vocational” (SAT word!!!!) That means, like Northeastern, it’s all about getting the job right after graduation, while Vassar is all about grad school and higher learning—like RISD without the sole focus on art and cigarettes.

I also liked the dorm situation. At Vassar, the dorms aren’t separated by grade, which I think is the way it should be. You live with students of all ages. At Marist, freshmen live with freshmen. There are pros and cons to that. Like, if you don’t know where a class is, what are the chances another freshman two doors down will? I would say slim to none. The big problems with Vassar? My grades may not be high enough and it’s very expensive. Mama’s gonna hate that!

Here’s what I learned on my first college tour: Sometimes what you think you want and what you actually want are two very different things. I thought I would love a school I hated, and a school I didn’t even want to go to ended up being my favorite. So when you are going on college tours with family or friends—or your two uncles—you should keep an open mind or you might miss out on something great—and be honest with yourself about who you are: I like Alex Claire, my Toms and I want to save the Honey Badger, but at the end of the day I am a Sperry girl who loves her Tori Birch ballet flats and Deva hair products. Three snaps up.

--Lily Schenk

PS. Next tour: Washington D.C.: Catholic v. American—and both Mama and Auntie Evan are coming. Oh, brother!

* I learned that a “liberal arts school” is one that focuses on imparting broad general higher education in the arts and/or sciences, rather than focusing on vocational or technical education such as business or engineering.

In addition to requiring a personal essay, a film reel, and transcripts and test scores, most film schools ask applicants to complete various types of “creative materials.” Why? Because the schools want to ensure that its students have creative abilities in visual storytelling, and the example video on your reel might be a fluke—a happy accident that is not representative of your true abilities. The importance of these creative materials with regards to your candidacy differs from program to program, as well as from element to element; no two items are evaluated in the same way.

In short, there are a lot of “X factors” when it comes to creative materials for film school. Here are the most common kinds that film schools request, along with a brief explanation of what they look for in each:

Feature Film Treatment
This is one of the most common items film schools request, and also one of the most difficult—summarizing an entire feature film in 1–3 pages is an almost impossible task. You’re best off choosing a reputable genre (gross-out comedies and horror are generally frowned upon) and avoiding overly complex and convoluted plots that can’t be easily explained. Show your treatment to friends and family to make sure they understand the story. Capturing the plot is important, but equal weight should be placed upon the “softer” pillars of storytelling like character and thematic development. Finally, make sure your story has a real ending; “hilarity ensues” is not a proper third act.

Short Dialogue Scene
Required by NYU, USC, and a few others, this exercise is usually limited to 2–3 pages and two characters. Here, you’re not being judged on your ability to come up with a great plot or an expertly crafted narrative, so don’t waste effort on that. What’s important is character: You need to create two distinct characters with unique voices and clear objectives. If you write hackneyed lines like, “I think we got company” or “I’m getting too old for this shit,” you will fail; your characters should sound like real humans, and preferably be identifiable in some respect (i.e., “old Southern gentleman” or “teenage stoner,” not “average white male”).

Silent Story
NYU and USC have offered this one for years: Tell a silent story using no dialogue in 3–4 pages. Here, creativity is key. It’s not easy to tell a compelling story without the crutch of dialogue, and you’ll be docked points if you rely on cop-outs like gestures and pantomime. Think and write visually, using action whenever possible. For inspiration, watch Pixar shorts and Charlie Chaplin films—they are both the kings of this type of storytelling.

Script Excerpt
Screenwriting programs always request a sample screenplay, as do general production programs like Columbia University that emphasize strong storytelling skills. The good news is that you’re allowed to make some rookie mistakes; no-no’s like exposition and lengthy scenes without sufficient action will be tolerated more than usual, because you can easily be taught to avoid them. What won’t be tolerated are one-dimensional characters, wooden dialogue, and recycled story ideas. 

--Justin Marshall

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

In the MBA admissions game, there are no guarantees. Most elite business schools, including Stanford and Wharton, look favorably on reapplicants. They appreciate the persistence and commitment you have demonstrated to the MBA degree by applying again after you have already been rejected. At Forster-Thomas, we have an excellent track record helping reapplicants get into top b-schools. The way to win this game is simple; show them how you have enhanced your candidacy since last year. Here are some areas you can focus on.

1. GMAT. A higher GMAT score is one of the best ways to polish any candidacy… yes, even yours! Nothing says I’m ready for the intellectual rigors of Kellogg quite like a competitive GMAT. The exception to this rule is if you're already in the rarefied air of the 730+ GMAT range … if that’s the case, drop what you’re doing and email our office manager at RIGHT NOW, because that means your weakness lies in another area… almost certainly #2…

2. ESSAYS. Reapplications are divided between schools which require that you write a reapplicant essay and those which simply ask you to answer this year’s questions. This divide isn’t as meaningful as it seems at first, because either way, you still have to show them how you have grown from your failure to get in the previous year. Make a list. Take out your magic marker and scrawl on the kitchen wall all the things you have done since your applications went out last year. Make sure that numbers 1 through 5 are addressed somewhere in your application, either in your reapplicant essay, or worked into some of your other essays.

3. QUANT. If you're weaker in quant, take summer classes. The big four: Calculus, Statistics, Microeconomics and Financial Accounting.

4. JOB AND TITLE. Did the new year bring a new job, promotion, or title change? Perhaps one with expanded responsibilities or greater client facing exposure? If so, your essay practically writes itself.

5. LEADERSHIP. From the moment you get that ding in your inbox, take a hard look at all of your extracurricular engagements, including clubs and volunteer opportunities. Ask yourself, have I been capitalizing on my opportunities to lead in my communities? If the answer is no, get cracking, because this is one area that is entirely in your power to control.

6. ADD NEW SCHOOLS. Sometimes you have your heart set on a particular program and it simply doesn’t work out. Don’t despair … cast a wider net. There is a school for you--one that will get you all the success you want--and more research will help broaden your horizons. Fold in two or three schools that may be more of a target school, where your GMAT and GPA are more competitive.

Always remember, the moral of every great reapplicant story is the same: like Kelly Clarkson says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” You didn’t get in last year, you understand why you didn’t get in last year, and you’ve committed yourself to strengthening your candidacy. Write this and your dream school is sure to look favorably on you. (But if you’re struggling, don’t be “Miss Independent” … just click on this link and contact us!)

In my last blog, I explained why the personal essay is the single most important element of your MFA film school candidacy. Now that you know what it is and why it matters so damn much, you need to know how to write it.  With that in mind, here are three DO’s and three DON’Ts when it comes to writing the film school personal essay:

First, the DOs: 

1. DO open with a story. You want to be a storyteller?  Then prove it.  But don’t just open with any story; detail the moment in your life when you realized filmmaking was your calling—what I call a “catalyzing moment.” Just one warning: This is not the time to tell us how you watched “Kill Bill” 30 times or made videos of your Legos when you were 8. Everyone has those moments—even future ornithologists.  You want to recount a defining life experience where you realized what kind of films you want to make. In other words, you should trace the origin of a perspective or viewpoint you have—the one that will allow you to make films that aren’t like all the others out there.

2. DO have strong opinions.  In personal essays, being opinionated is a good thing. Mamsy-Pamsy people don’t make films (and if they do, they’re mamsy-pamsy films).  If you’re tired of mindless Michael Bay movies, then tell them why, and how YOU plan to make different kinds of films. If you want to make movies that force people to consider the effects of racism or sexism, then sound off! Don’t worry that you’ll upset someone. The people reading your essays are open-minded adults. When I did admissions at Columbia University, a candidate wrote about how he loved Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. I loathed that film, but I recommended the student be admitted—he made good arguments for why the film worked for him, and he demonstrated heartfelt passion. Those are both great qualities.

3. DO get specific about why you like the school you’re applying to. If you want to go to NYU, you better have a good reason for it. And “it will help me reach my dreams” isn’t one of them. Show that you did your research and that you know why NYU is the perfect match for your particular needs. By the end of your essay, you should have identified at least two things that set the school apart from its peers.

And now for the dreaded DON'TS:

1. DON’T make excuses for your reel.  If you’re submitting a film with many problems, the first thing you should do is submit something else. But if you don’t have anything else, don’t spend multiple paragraphs explaining why the close-up is out of focus and why the actress’s cigarette magically disappeared halfway through Scene 5. The people reading your essay are filmmakers—they know why these things happen. Instead, focus on what you learned or the insights you gained through the filmmaking process. If we see your evolution, we will know you can be taught.

2. DON’T show off. The personal essay is not a pissing match, nor a time to roll out the laundry list of all the film festivals where your short film played. The admissions committee uses your reel and sample creative work to decide if you’re worthy—not the personal essay. If they don’t like your film, they don’t care that Steven Spielberg’s niece loved it, and they don’t care how many awards it garnered. Use those precious words to showcase how you think, not how big your “package” is.

3. DON’T try to prove how much you know about film. I once read a personal essay that was essentially a review of Citizen Kane, with lots of big French words thrown in for good measure. Sigh. If the schools wanted to test your knowledge of film theory, they’d give you a test. But you’re applying to make films, not appreciate them. Your knowledge of obscure Japanese films won’t impress anyone. Write about what your vision is, and what you want to say with your films.  

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment

-Justin Marshall

How do you write the perfect personal essay for film school?  Admissions experts at Forster-Thomas have the answers.

By Justin Marshall

USC film school calls it a Personal Statement.  So does NYU Tisch.  To UCLA, FSU, and the University of Texas, it’s a Statement of Purpose.  It’s a Narrative statement at AFI, an Artist’s Statement at CalArts, and an Autobiographical Essay at Columbia University.  Whatever the name and regardless of length (anywhere from 500 words to six pages), the personal essay is one of the most common application documents MFA film programs request for admissions.  

What few realize is that it’s also the single most important item you’ll submit. Richard Walter, professor and co-chairman of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, told me: “The single best way to get into our program is to give us a great statement of purpose—one that’s personal and well written.”

Surprised? Sure, filmmaking experience is an important element.  So are good grades in college. And if you have a strong reel, that absolutely increases your chances of getting in.  But the personal essay is king for three key reasons:

  1. It sheds light on how you think. OK, you have a good GPA and a killer music video under your belt. But do you have the life experience, maturity, and unique voice necessary to tell a career’s worth of amazing visual stories? Are you capable of working in a fundamentally collaborative process? Do you have the tenacity of spirit to survive the film industry? These are all crucial qualities, and the personal essay is the only opportunity you have to showcase them.
  2. It puts your reel into perspective. In the personal essay, you can explain the influences behind the films on your reel, what you were trying to say, and what you learned through the creative process. If we understand what you were going for, we will appreciate your films more.
  3. It tells the school if you’re the right fit for their program. USC wants Hollywood players. CalArts wants artists. NYU wants something in between. The personal essay allows you to explain which one you are—and why.

If you want a cheesy analogy, think of the personal statement like an online dating profile or a personals ad (don’t act like you’ve never read them). If you’re looking for true love, a couple of cute photos and a matching Zodiac sign aren’t going to cut it. You want to know that you’re compatible at the core, from musical tastes to hobbies/interests to political views. The personal essay does just that: it shows the school the person behind the images.  It allows you to communicate who you are and how you think.  It’s where sparks fly and true compatibility emerges. And at the end of the day, as good as your reel might be, the schools aren’t admitting a film to a program; they’re admitting a person to their program.  So use the personal essay to showcase who you are—the real you.

Now that you understand what the personal statement is and why it’s so important, read Part 2 of this blog, where I provide three do’s and don’ts for writing the personal essay.

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

--Justin Marshall


A lot of people are complaining about the College Board these days and the fact that in the recently announced 2013–2014 application, the personal statement word limit of 650 is strictly enforced. In previous years, you could upload your essay in a word document, allowing you to slip in an extra 50–100 words without anyone noticing. Guidance counselors and colleagues of mine, including educational consultants, are in an uproar about this, as I’m sure are you.

To be honest, however, I am thrilled by these changes. I want to say, “FINALLY!”

You too should be EXCITED that the personal statement is now 650 words or less—now you have an opportunity to show how creative you are. In fact, limits are a good thing—and not just for admissions officers who have to wade through the hundreds and hundreds of essays filled with lengthy babble just to find the gems. This is an opportunity for you to make sure you are one of those gems.

This is a test of how effective you are in communicating and how you use your 650 words; you still have more than enough to tell a story. Story being the operative word here. The personal statement is not a place to regurgitate the activity resume—it’s an opportunity to show or reveal a level of maturity through the choice of topic and the way you write about it what you learned—concisely. And about those clever uploads your younger child got to do—you know the one where he uploaded that cartoon from the New Yorker to make his point? You should not have to rely on props. The essay is about your ability to WRITE—you know, that thing one has to do all of the time in a land called college!

I understand that this is difficult, that you have so much that you want to say, and that you think that everything you want to say is so important. There’s no one more full of himself than I am—and I think you need every detail, but that’s just not true.

One easy example of how writers cut out the steps for the sake of storytelling is on the show Friends, when Ross picks up a girl for a date. He always shows up at her front door—even though everyone in New York City knows that this is impossible. You have to get buzzed in to a building first. Yet we just go with it, because it’s not important with respect to the story they are trying to tell. The writers EDIT out extraneous details like getting buzzed in first (unless that’s part of the joke). This makes the story BETTER.

Creativity is the picture you create with eight Crayola crayons, not the one you make when you use the box of 64. Creativity is about limitations and boundaries.

So calm down. This is a GOOD thing that the College Board is doing. Mom, Dad, students—there is power in brevity and editing. So, don’t even use your full 650 words: Try to keep it closer to the 500-550 that Common App is actually requesting..

Also, I practice what I preach: After re-reading this blog, I went back and cut it down from 662 words to 550. 


Auntie Evan

P.S. For your reference, here are the 2013-2014 Common Application essay questions:

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

    Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

    Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

    Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

    Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

    Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Attitude is More Important than Getting In

As eager as you are to get into the school of your dreams, remember that no college, grad school, or MBA program is a silver bullet.  The key to true success lies with YOU. Evan Forster tells you why.

Right now, so many of us are struggling with our New Year’s resolutions. I know I am: The Medifast diet (“Dutch Chocolate Shake”—disgusting). Goodbye, Tequila. And of course, spend more time with friends and family.

At Forster-Thomas, however, our candidates are too stressed to grapple with these high-level resolutions, because they are in what we call the “Waiting Season”—waiting for colleges and graduate programs to say, “yay,” “nay,” or, “congrats—we’d like you to come in for an interview.” As anyone who has gone through it knows, the waiting season is terrifying. Crippling. Even worse than sitting through a Celine Dion concert. And sometimes, you just need to vent, which is exactly what one of our candidates did.

Justin Marshall, one of our coaches, recently received an email from a Forster-Thomas MBA candidate I'll call Kathy. Like so many others, Kathy is freaking out in her Pradas. She just had her Wharton interview. And it went well. She thinks. Or did it? Yes! No! She just can’t tell.

Like you, she’s driving herself crazy. Fortunately, Justin has personal experience waiting for admissions results (and he’s read The MBA Reality Check, which addresses this very topic). His response was brilliant, so let me share it here:

The good news is that you’re very competitive at Wharton. Therefore, I’m not surprised at all that you got an interview. You’re remarkably intelligent and authentic, and I always found you to be charming in our conversations, so I’m sure you did great with the interviews.

Here’s the BETTER news: As eager as you are to get in, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you do. I know that sounds, crazy, but it’s true.  A Wharton degree guarantees you nothing [same goes for HBS, Stanford, etc.]. Sure, it’s a great education, and a great name. But there are THOUSANDS of top-tier grads out there that are in a job they hate, doing fairly “functionary” work. They don’t necessarily regret their education, where they went, or how much they spent, but it didn’t magically turn them into heads-of-state or company CEOs.

Meanwhile, there are THOUSANDS of people all over the world who went to a second- or third-tier MBA program, or didn’t even study business at all, who are amazingly successful business people.  Look at Apple, one of the world’s most successful companies. Steve Jobs was a college drop-out. The current CEO, Tim Cook, went to Auburn University for undergrad and then Duke for his MBA. Neither of them needed Wharton, or HBS, or Stanford. Ditto Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc. The list goes on and on. As Auntie Evan reminds me all of the time: ‘A top MBA program can make your path to success easier, but it can’t CREATE the path to success.’ Only you can do that, and if you have the personal strength and ability to be successful, you will get to where you want to go—no matter what.

Kathy, I don’t say this to DE-VALUE Wharton, or any school. I truly hope you get in—because that's where you want to go, and I think it will provide you with an amazing education. But I also know—both from personal experience and a lot of wisdom gained over the years—that the key is never a school, a job offer, a fancy title, or anything else. The key is YOU. Once you get that and embrace this way of thinking, you will kick-ass in everything you do. As the MBA REALITY CHECK says: “Invite Wharton or any program or potential job to be part of YOUR journey, not the other way around.” That’s what gets you accepted rather than rejected…from ANYTHING in life.

Justin is DEAD RIGHT. And THAT should be your New Year's resolution: Invite the world to join YOU in your journey to reach your personal top-tier.

--Auntie Evan (and Cuzin' Justin)

So you know better than to tell Stanford GSB that “what matters most” to you is your iPad. And you managed to figure out that Wharton’s admissions committee will swiftly reject you if you go 4,000 words over the maximum word count. But could you still be dooming your business school candidacy with less egregious blunders?

To quote everyone’s favorite Alaskan: You betcha!    

Common sense will help you avoid the biggest b-school admissions essay mistakes, so we’re not going to waste your time with those. After all, if you’re smart enough to be reading our blogs, you’re smart enough to avoid using one of those birthday-cake fonts for your essays. Instead, I reached out to one of my intrepid essay coaches (fondly referred to as Cuzin’ Justin), and we put together a list of the five most common MBA admissions essay mistakes we’ve seen over the years:

1. Not answering the essay question. You’d be amazed how often we see candidates make this mistake, especially when it comes to two- or three-part questions. Remember, the admissions committee spent months deciding exactly what questions to ask and how to word them. There’s no better way to piss them off than blatantly disregarding all that effort.

Example: an MBA program asks, “What are your long-term career goals and why is now the best time for an MBA?” If you spend 100 words telling them how much you love their school without ever mentioning why now is the best time for an MBA, well, game over. You lose. It’s that simple.

Some people don’t answer the question because they’re too smart. You know what the school really wants to hear, so you write about that. Or you figure out how to turn the question into an opportunity to showcase your awesome accomplishments. Bravo to you. You’re the reason safety schools stay in business.

2. Trying to write like Noam-freaking-Chomsky. Or Susan-frickin-Sontag. Or anyone else besides you. We know you’re desperate to sound intelligent, but if your own voice doesn’t come through in your essays, the admissions committee won’t connect to you… and it’s a lot easier to reject someone you don’t feel connected to. So put a "face" on your essays. Inject some of the real you into those words. If you quote a conversation with a friend, don’t write, “Would you like to venture to an eating establishment?” Write what you really said: “Dude—wanna get something to eat?” You will not get rejected because you say "dude." In fact, you’re more likely to be accepted because you have the confidence to admit that you say "dude." And guess what? When admissions people were your age, they said "dude." Some of them still say it now. Dude—trust us.

3. Using vague platitudes like "giving back to the community” and “making a difference." The biggest way you could "make a difference" would be to stop promising to do so in your essays. We don’t believe you anymore. First, it’s making admissions officers’ eyes roll, and roll to the point of spinning. Second, it’s like that famous Shakespearean line: “The lady doth protest too much.” The more you talk about it, the less we believe it. Just do it by giving examples. Stop talking about your commitment to "transform the planet" or "create access to opportunity for those less fortunate." Show it to us—through your actual examples. Describe the time you got your friends to build that playground in Crenshaw or the way you organized the mentor team to show up even during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. You get accepted when there’s less talk and more walk.

4. Baffling your reader with jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo. Stop going from the sell side to the buy side or describing that SWOT analysis following the divestiture. You’re smart. We get it. But you’re also confusing and worse, you’re boring.  Insider phrases and ten-dollar words do not get you accepted. What they do is get you thrown into the "Gotta-read-that again later?" file. Here’s the rule of thumb: If Granny gets what you’re talking about and little Tommy doesn’t scrunch his face and walk away, you’re probably writing a "readable" essay—one that makes it easy for admissions officers to understand what you do and what you’re talking about. Remember, admissions officers are people too—and often, they have a masters in education, not business. So, EBITDA to you. I’m going back to playing Minecraft!

5. Essays by committee. We mentioned this in our book, The MBA Reality Check, but since you’re stubborn, we’ll mention it again: don’t ask for feedback on your essays from all your friends, family, and colleagues. Yes, we know how smart they are. But if you incorporate all their notes, you'll start to sound like everyone else (because everyone else helped you with your essays). You’ll also drive yourself crazy when you get back conflicting notes ("I love when you say dude" / "You can’t say dude").  Spare yourself the frustration—put your big-girl panties on and keep your essays to yourself.

Bonus mistake: last-minute essays / putting off essays in favor of endless test prep. We’re not saying ignore that GMAT. You need to knock it out of the ballpark. But we are saying give your essays the same level of respect and effort or it won’t matter how many 760s you get. You’ll just be a great test-taker and have proven your command over math and reading. But that’s all IQ stuff. What makes a great, accepted candidate—one who’s got something to add to that diverse class at HBS, Haas, or USC’s IBEAR—is your EQ, or emotional quotient. The deep down, who you are: your failures, your defining moments, and your surprises.  And none of that’s getting revealed by writing “last-minute” essays. So get to writing now—not after you get the test score you want—cuz your essays are what will up your chances after your immutable numbers just keep you where you are.

--Auntie Evan & Cuzin' Justin