Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster provides his tips and suggestions on how to answer the HBS MBA essay questions.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been coaching people on how to approach their MBA essays, I’ve seen all the schools, from the top echelon to the bottom of the barrel, pretty much stay the same at their core. Sure, sometimes schools ask for your “long-term goals,” and sometimes they call them “career expectations.” Sometimes schools call a mistake a mistake, and sometimes they call it a setback. But essentially the approach is always the same: Be specific, tell the truth, dig down deep, and take risks. That said, here we go with Harvard Business School’s 2011-12 essay questions.

Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words).

Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly the same as last year, but its damn close. Here’s the deal: all they took out was “tell us why.” The likely reason? Because no one ever bothered to answer it—except for Forster-Thomas candidates. So we say tell them anyway.

What should you write about? Firsts and bests. “I launched the first ever…” “I was rated the best in my….” Whether it’s a first or a best, you better have overcome a hurdle. Some big-ass Goliath better have stood in your way. But remember, it’s all about context. What’s big for someone else might not have been a big deal for you. For example: completing the Ironman isn’t such a big deal nowadays. Unless, of course, you have one leg. After all, we are talking about Harvard.

And of course it’s the biggest deal when what you’ve accomplished lives on without you. Like that training manual for the telecom group, or that college-bound program for inner city kids you no longer run.

Here’s the structure, kids: you get 200 words for each of the three accomplishments. Each one goes like this: about 100-125 words for what you did, and at least 75 for why it’s so significant, as in what did it teach you, how did it change you, what’s the impact you made on yourself or that organization? In a perfect world, one accomplishment is personal, one is professional, and one is about an extracurricular act of service.

Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

This year, HBS changed “failure” to “setback.” This is a big distinction. They are not the same. Like it says in Chapter 13 of The MBA Reality Check, a failure is something you screwed up, or that went wrong because of you. A failure is something you take responsibility for.

Whereas, while you might be responsible for a setback, you are not always responsible for a setback. It can be something you have no control over. For example, we had a client who had a brain aneurysm. That can be used as a setback. But there can be no more than one of these.

One of your setbacks should definitely be a failure or a screw up—something you can’t take back. In this type of setback, the failure causes the setback. For example, your low-income mentee missed his early decision or first round college application deadlines because you missed two sessions of the mentoring program due to last-minute work conflicts. What’s the failure? Work came first, even though you made a commitment to that kid. (Please note: I realize the mentee should take responsibility as well, but you’re writing about your part in the matter, not his.) A straight up setback with this topic would have been that the wireless system at your mentee’s high school went down hours before the deadline. How did you help meet the deadline or get the deadline pushed back?

The question for all of these is how you handled it moving forward. And the key to all of these is being really honest.

Structure? Don’t use more that 50% of your word count describing the actual situation. You want to save half of it for analyzing and synthesizing the situation and how it defined or matured you.

Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

One word: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Harvard’s gone back and forth with this question. For many years they asked it, then they made it optional, and last year they got rid of it altogether. But, like Herpes, it moves around and eventually comes back. Here’s how it goes: like all great goals essays, you need to be really clear about what you want to do (see Chapter 8 of The MBA Reality Check) in the long term. Is it okay to have more than one long-term goal? Yes. While your goal doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking, it needs to create change (that’s the HBS watchword) and make a difference. If you don’t believe us, read the HBS mission statement. What has shifted a little bit since our book was written is the economy and the relative importance of a short-term goal. Harvard, and every other school, wants to make sure you know how you’re going to make your dream happen. What’s the road map?

What is NOT important for Harvard is why you want to go to Harvard. While you might mention a specific HBS attribute (and not just the tired old Case Method), why you want to go to Harvard in particular doesn’t need to be explained. That’s right, the place has an attitude. But remember, the key to getting in is that yours better be bigger. In this essay, be up to something big, and invite Harvard to join you.

Answer a question you wish we’d asked (400 words).

This is a Forster-Thomas favorite. It requires the ultimate in creativity. Don’t just read Chapter 15 of The MBA Reality Check, imbibe it. To get this one going, use the right side of your brain. Questions to ask yourself would be the following: What’s something really surprising about you? For example, do you play hockey and tap dance? What’s the worst thing people would say about you? (No really, the worst thing.) What’s the best thing people would say about you? When people make fun of you, what story do they tell? Who do you really look up to and what do you have in common with that person? Most importantly, what negative attributes do you share with that person? This essay is an opportunity for you to show how in touch with yourself you are. It is not an opportunity to show how big your junk is. That should be self-evident. Rule of thumb: if you have to talk about it, it’s probably not all that.

On that note, is any topic sacred? Probably not. It’s all about the grace and maturity with which you handle it, with a small side of self-deprecation.  One last thing: never use this as a space to write about your bad grades!!!! This is not an optional essay. And, of course, only write an optional essay if absolutely necessary!

For more infomation, see our HBS 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide

 


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Ben Feuer provides his advice on how to answer Kellogg’s MBA essays

It’s one of those movie clichés everyone remembers: The ragtag bunch of misfits who, when assembled and given the proper direction, manage to beat the big scary team from Center Central—you know, the guys whose uniforms match.

That’s one way to think of Kellogg. After all, it didn’t make the top five in the Financial Times’ global MBA rankings this year, or even the top twenty.  Isn’t Kellogg just a safety for the 700+ GMAT crowd?  Another also-ran?

Think that way and you’ll end up the same way those boys from Center Central did—eating turf and wishing you’d taken your app more seriously.  The truth is, Kellogg is a top-notch school with a unique mandate: it’s all about achieving in group settings (read: Being part of a championship team).  That’s why their mission statement lists “grounded wisdom” and “collaborative spirit” ahead of vision.

So, think you can make a champion misfit?  Well, you better be ready to put it all out there, because Kellogg’s essays will challenge you to do just that.

 

Essay 1: MBA Program applicants - Briefly assess your career progress to date. Elaborate on your future career plans and your motivation for pursuing an MBA. (600 word limit)

Yeah, it’s another goals essay.  But pay close attention to the wording.  They’re emphasizing your career progress to date, and they’re not mentioning short- and long-term goals as distinct entities.  What does this mean?  It means we’re back to “grounded wisdom”.  Kellogg is looking for a track record of high achievement in a particular field and a short-term goal that reflects that.  Prove to us that you’re going to be ready to work on day one after graduation… that’s what they’re saying.

Also, even though they don’t specifically ask for your motivation for pursuing a Kellogg MBA, you had better read between the lines and do your school-specific research.  Kellogg wants you to want them, but you have to be able to tell them why they’re the right program for you.

Essay 2: Describe your key leadership experiences and evaluate what leadership areas you hope to develop through your MBA experiences (600 word limit).

This is a standard leadership essay, with a few important tweaks to consider.  The first is that they’re asking for experiences.  Plural.  So you need to work at least two stories into this essay.  They’re also asking you to evaluate potential growth areas (This is going to be a theme at Kellogg … how can we help you grow?  White boys beware, if you try to come out of this looking like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way—you will crash and burn).  Do a little head math and you come up with approximately 200 words for each story, and 200 words of what you hope to develop.  What does this remind us of?  It rhymes with Schmarvard Shmuniversity.  And if you’ve read our blog on Schmarvard, you know that there’s no room for anything artsy, fartsy, or god forbid, both artsy and fartsy.  Stick to the story, and try to devote at least a third of each example to takeaways, lessons learned, analysis and personal growth.

One important way Kellogg differs from that other Burgundy-flagged school is that it treats the whole essay as a single unit.  So you need to consider transitions.  Think about a way to tie your examples together at the beginning, and don’t forget to place your stories on the timeline of your personal development (in 2008, after graduating, I was a young greenhorn when I…).

Essay 3: Assume you are evaluating your application from the perspective of a student member of the Kellogg Admissions Committee. Why would you and your peers select you for admission, and what impact would you make as a member of the Kellogg community? (600 word limit).

My candidates always dread this essay, and I always love it.  Nothing encapsulates Kellogg better than this essay, and I personally suspect that this is essay they use to really separate the wheat from the chaff. 

The purpose of the essay is to make you put yourself in admission’s shoes, and do their work for them, explaining to them why they should accept you. The wording of the essay has recently been revised, so you are now allowed to introduce information that doesn’t exist elsewhere in your application, and if you choose, you no longer have to write from the perspective of a student committee member.  That said, I still recommend that you do.  It shows creativity and allows you to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your understanding of Kellogg—which is extensive, right?  Because you really want to go to Kellogg, right?  If not, see paragraph one.

As for the content, devote equal time to your undergraduate and post-graduate achievements.  Try to think about things the way admissions would—are you worthy of admission, based on your numbers?  Will you contribute to the incoming class?  How?  What makes you stand out?  And perhaps most importantly, what will Kellogg do for you?  How is it a natural and necessary step on the way to your goals, both short- and long-term? 

Essay 4: Complete one of the following three questions or statements. (400 word limit)

Re-applicants have the option to answer a question from this grouping, but this is not required.
a) Describe a time you had to inspire a reluctant individual or group.
b) People may be surprised to learn that I…..
c) The riskiest personal or professional decision I ever made was…

a) If you are a leadership juggernaut, this can be an opportunity to squeeze in that amazing third story you didn’t get a chance to fit into your essay #2.  But most of the time, that isn’t going to be your best use of precious words.  Beware of repurposing to fit this prompt just because it’s easier than writing a new essay—unless, as I said, you really have a GREAT leadership instance.

b) This is the choice for people who want to spread their creative wings.  If you’re afraid to do that, then you should DEFINITELY choose this prompt.  You have to push yourself to write great essays, and surprising someone with your first sentence is a good challenge to set for yourself.  Once you have surprised them with your opening sentence, continue surprising them by showing your response to the situation or your evolution over time.  You should be different at the end of this essay than you were at the beginning.

c) This is a chance to show the gears turning.  Really delve into the introspective side of your personality.  Remember that these kinds of essays should always be a choice between one good and another good.  It’s a decision, not a bummer. 

See our Kellogg Class of 2014 MBA Essay Guide for more information.


Forster-Thoms founder Evan Forster on how to get the most out of your b-school campus visit

So, now you’ve done your research on which schools you probably want to apply to: You’ve read all the rankings, looked at all the websites, gone to the World MBA Fair in your locale, even made an Excel spreadsheet detailing the strengths, weaknesses, and stats of each program. That’s great, but now it’s time to pack a bag. Until you get on that campus, you really never know.

It may sound wonderful to go to INSEAD and be in France for a year, but remember, INSEAD is not in Paris; it’s in Fontainebleau, a beautiful, quiet suburb. It’s sort of like assuming that Kellogg is in Chicago. It’s close. Real close, in fact. But it’s not in the city.

Researching schools is kind of like online dating. At first, that picture looks really good. It’s like the school is smiling at you with that “come-hither” stare that promises everything. But until you’re actually face-to-face on that first date at Starbucks and have spent some real time with that school, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Seriously, would you sign a two-year lease with Brooklyn Bombshell23 or Papa Motown24 without spending a little real time with ’em first? That’s why campus visits are so important.

There are two kinds of campus visits:

A) The Guerrilla Method: You just show up. Certainly, if you’re in the area, and you’re just reading this now, there's no reason not to drop in and hope for the best, but you can’t expect to get the same level of information you would with a more structured visit.

B) Planning Ahead: We recommend you call the school, and that way, at the very least, you can find out when they typically host information sessions, tours, when it's closed, when it’s open, et cetera. For example, certain schools, like HBS, do not allow visits at the start of the semester, while others, like Vanderbilt’s Owen and Emory’s Goizueta, have overnights or weekends ( Discover Weekend, Super Saturday) specifically devoted to everyone and anyone interested in business school.

But ok, you’re special! Gay, African-American, female, Latino—or a little bit of each! Most MBA programs—especially top-tier ones—have niche events geared toward all sorts of groups. For example, Chicago’s Booth has an LGBT weekend in the fall. (If you don’t know what LGBT stands for, then you’re probably not in that group ... or in marketing ... or an employee at JetBlue.) Some, like Indiana’s Kelley, have events geared specifically toward women. If you're thinking about Stanford, check out the “XX Factor: Women Changing The World.” Are you part of an ethnic minority? Check out The Duke MBA Workshop for Minority Applicants or the Ross Up-Close Weekend.

Now You’re There: What to Do

  1. At the very least, go to an information session and take the tour.
  2. Do your best to meet the admissions officer who reviews candidates from your part of the planet.
  3. Get your butt to the student union or wherever students hang (ask your tour guide) and schmooze. People love to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  4. Do your best to attend a class and meet a professor.
  5. Check out clubs and organizations. Where can you help? What can you add?
  6. Bring business cards. Get business cards. You want to stay in contact with current students (like the head of the soccer or wine organization or Women in Business), not to mention that admissions officer.
  7. What’s the curriculum like? Is there a core? Or is it flexible? What does this mean for your intended study plan? You should not leave the school without having good answers to all these questions.
  8. Check out the surrounding community and city. Do you see yourself there, or are you gonna go stir crazy at Purdue’s Krannert when you have to live in West Lafayette, Indiana?
  9. Take notes the whole time you’re there. You’re going to use all of this info in your essays.

Your head is probably spinning right now. How am I going to remember all of this? But don't worry. Even a journey of a thousand miles (say, from NYU Stern to Chicago Booth) begins with one motivated candidate and a bushel of hard work. Happy trails!

--Auntie Evan


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Ben Feuer on how to answer MIT Sloan’s MBA essays

If MIT Sloan were a dog, it would be an Irish Setter … you know, that dog that sticks out its head and holds up one leg to show the man in the coonskin cap which direction to point his Winchester? That’s right, MIT Sloan is a pointer. It’s a forward-looking, forward thinking school full of high achievers focused on the promise tomorrow brings … and no, not everyone there looks like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. MIT Sloan has a hip, diverse incoming class, and if you’re looking to join the party, you’d better glom on to these essay notes like they were the brand new Blu-Ray box set of Star Wars (Sorry, that’ll be my last MIT nerd joke).

Prepare a cover letter (up to 500 words) seeking a place in the MIT Sloan MBA Program. Describe your accomplishments and include an example of how you had an impact on a group or organization. Your letter should conform to standard business correspondence and be addressed to Mr. Rod Garcia, Director of MBA Admissions.

Here it is … the stealth essay. Many people don’t even realize that this IS an essay, but believe me, if you don’t take the cover letter seriously, you will live to regret it. You need to bring the same energy, specificity and creativity to this as you do to all your other essays.

That said, there are some quirks particular to the format. Use proper formatting and include your mailing address at the top, as well as Rod Garcia’s. And don’t forget to use a proper greeting, like ‘Dear Mr. Garcia:’, and sign-off, like ‘sincerely’.

MIT doesn’t have a traditional goals essay or a traditional why MIT essay, so if there’s anything you’re burning to say about how right MIT is for you, or how well it fits in with you life’s ambition, the first and last paragraphs of this cover letter are the place to say it. Don’t go overboard, but do make it clear why you think MIT is the right fit—and if you can’t figure out why, you probably shouldn’t be applying.

When you talk about your accomplishments, don’t go in depth; you’ll have three other essays to do that. Instead, do two broad survey paragraphs centered around periods of time—for example, covering your life during college and your career since college. But do note that MIT specifically requests a story where you had an impact on a group or organization, so devote at least one full independent paragraph to telling them that story.

And remember: for this and all other MIT essays, that thanks to a flirtation with B.F. Skinner, MIT has gone behaviorist, judging you based solely on your actions. That means no takeaways, no talking about what your accomplishment taught you, at least not in a focused, dedicated paragraph.

Essay 1: Please describe a time when you went beyond what was defined, expected, established, or popular. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

MIT’s essays can’t be approached individually. They have to be approached as a unit, holistically. By presenting them with what amounts to a theme and variations on your leadership background, and by solely focusing on your actions and behaviors, MIT is forcing you to focus on what matters to them. So, as Primal Scream would say: don’t fight it, feel it. Bearing in mind that you are limited to the last three years, brainstorm times in your life when you struggled, times when you had something very important to accomplish but something or someone was standing in your way.

Squabbling with a difficult boss? Advising a colleague who just couldn’t get with the program? Raising funds for your school play (or casting it)? Landing a fantastic deal by pulling off a personal coup? Getting your grandmother to finally forgive your sister for marring a Kuwaiti man?

Any of these could be examples of you going beyond what was expected. The key is … how far did you have to push yourself to get to that point? How different were you after doing it than you were before you began?

Essay 2: Please describe a time when you convinced an individual or group to accept one of your ideas. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

When thinking about balance, it’s important to consider not just the setting, but the role you played in the setting. How many sides of yourself can you show through these three essays? Can you show yourself leading by example, cajoling and persuading, giving orders and holding people to their promises? Be diverse. Show that you can lead in different ways.

Convincing an individual or group to accept an idea is the essence of leadership. It always begins with a problem. After all, if everything was perfect, why change it around? The idea doesn’t have to be yours alone, but you must be able to talk about how you became its champion—how you were able to show everyone potential in the idea that they didn’t see before.

Essay 3: Please describe a time when you had to make a decision without having all the information you needed. (500 words or fewer, limited to one page)

At this point, the leadership fountain is probably running dry. So get some help. Talk with people who know you well—go through your resume and your shared history with them. Ask them what they remember about the time when you did this or that together. They may be able to remember things you cannot. Or, sometimes, they’ll have a perspective you never imagined possible.

Having to make a decision without all available information implies that you didn’t know the whole story when you went in—and then the OTHER shoe dropped. Often these stories involve people getting to a certain point, THINKING they’ve succeeded, and then realizing that they’d only just gotten started. Setbacks can fit well into this format, assuming you learned something from it and it ended in success, of course.

See our MIT Sloan MBA Essay Guide for more information.


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Rafe Tennenbaum provides his advice on how to answer the NYU Stern MBA essays. 

Essay 1. Professional Aspirations

Think about the decisions you have made in your life. Answer the following:

  • a) What choices have you made that led you to your current position?
  • b) Why pursue an MBA at this point in your life?
  • c) What is your career goal upon graduation from NYU Stern? What is your long-term career goal?

Unlike most goals essays, Stern provides an outline for you to follow. The rule of thumb for any essay is: when a school just lists the components of a question they want answered in a sentence or two, your essay can provide the answer in the order you want, within reason. But if the essay question sets forth a lettered or a numbered outline, you must follow that outline. In this case, Stern's outline scrambles the ordinary goals essay strategy (long-term goal, short-term goal, your professional background, "why now?", what you’ll contribute).The interesting thing about Stern's goals essay is that the resulting profile they get tends to be quite different. By making you start with who you are right now, rather than what you want to be doing in two or three years, they're encouraging you to sell yourself out of the gate. If you've done fabulous things in your career, show' em off right here -- but don't just brag; make sure they have a narrative thread -- a sense of purpose, a through-line that shows you're the one pulling the levers. Most goals essays encourage you to dream -- the Stern goals essay is encouraging you to be creative about how you got to where you are. 

Notice that Stern asks you to tell them about your short-term goal before the long-term goal.  Say what you will about New York City -- it's real.  And NYU is asking you to be realistic.  Which is why they want to hear about the short-term goal before the long-term goal -- as we say in Brooklyn, whaddayagonna, move into your parents’ basement when you graduate business school? Geddouddahere! 

Essay 2. Your Stern Experience

We take great care to shape the Stern community with individuals who possess both intellectual and interpersonal strengths.  We seek individuals who are highly intelligent, collaborative and committed to flourishing as Stern leaders. Please answer the following questions:

  • a) What is your personal experience with the Stern community? Tell us what actions you have taken to learn about us.
  • b) Describe what most excites you about Stern from both an academic and extracurricular perspective.
  • c) How do you anticipate making your mark on the Stern community? Be specific about the roles you will take on and the impact you hope to achieve.

Getting into a business school is like courting a woman: you've got to show her you want her.  No wealthy, beautiful matinée idol worth her Louboutins is going to accept your proposal if you preface it by saying, "Well, the last one dumped me, so how's about you and me hooking up?"  You've got to hand it to Stern -- they are upfront about making you take the trouble to praise them. 

It makes sense, really.  To begin with, Stern doesn't want to be bothered with your application if you aren't serious about wanting to attend.  And Stern wants to hear not only that you want to go there, but that you know what you're getting into.  That makes Stern like nearly every business school in the world -- except Harvard, naturally, who has heard it all before, dahling.  But since Stern gives you a whole 500-word essay for this, they’re explicitly asking you to spend a few days immersing yourself, talking to students and alumni, and sitting in on classes.  Grab this question as an opportunity to pay a visit to New York City and take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Essay 3. Personal Expression

Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations).  Feel free to be creative.

A note about New York City geography: there's uptown and downtown.  Stern is downtown.  So is Essay 3.  If you're fashionable and creative, if you're fun and wear your heart on your sleeve, or even if you just have a slightly quirky point of view, this is a question to have fun with. 

Certainly if you've got a real talent, consider putting it to work.  But be honest -- performing a song about yourself could be a great idea -- if you can actually sing and play guitar.  And keep in mind, "describe yourself" gives you a lot of leeway.  Don't think “the story of your life”; think “a story from your life.” It's not going to be an autobiography, it's going to be a narrative about you – about something you love, maybe, or some setback or accomplishment (probably personal) that shows you being characteristically yourself.  Or, it could be a pivotal episode from your youth that had a profound impact on your development, or a slice of life that shows you dealing with something characteristically, and hopefully at your best.  Remember that your execution of the idea, if it's skillful enough, will describe you just as well as the facts of the story you're telling -- just the fact, for example, that you had the idea to use this essay to confess something your best friend doesn't know about you says that you are smart enough to understand the importance of taking risks.  Don't do anything dumb -- but remember that the dumbest thing you can do is to play it safe. 

A few things to keep in mind: as they note lower down in the guidelines and restrictions, it's "not a test of creativity": in other words, don't strain -- if you can whip up a PowerPoint or a Flash animation without too much trouble, AND you've got an idea that actually describes yourself, go for it.  On the other hand, if what you had in mind was a 135-minute biopic with a cast of hundreds and a CGI episode and you have to learn Final Cut Pro in an hour -- you're probably on the wrong track.  As the question goes on to elaborate, this isn't a creativity test -- you're not trying to prove anything, you're communicating something about yourself. 

Finally: there's nothing wrong with answering this question with an essay.  Just make sure you write something honest that says you understand who you are. 

For more information, see our 2011-2012 NYU Stern Essay Guide.  


Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Rafe Tennenbaum on how to answer Booth's MBA Essay questions.

 

Essay 1: What are your short- and long-term goals, and how will a Chicago Booth MBA help you reach them? (600 words)

Out of the gate, a simple and straightforward Goals essay question with a reasonable length -- thank you, Booth!

Aim to write 300-400 words on your goals, and the remaining 200-300 on Why Booth. Any less than 150 words on Booth is a mistake; you need sufficient space to convince them that you know the school and you like it.

 

Essay 2: At Chicago Booth, we believe each individual has his or her own leadership style. How has your family, culture, and/or environment influenced you as a leader? (750 words)

This is certainly an unusual question, but when it's answered well, it provides an extremely valuable sense of your leadership pedigree -- a tradition of core values and a background of stepping to the forefront.  None of which should be surprising, since after all this is the University of Chicago we're talking about, located smack in the middle of the Midwest.

Sometimes the Booth leadership essay can look like a brick wall towards which your candidacy is racing at 100mph.  It forces you to ask what your "leadership style" is (whatever that means) and where you got it.  It might strike you as tough to answer, particularly if you have little seniority in your job, or if you feel whatever leadership experience you have got  was earned through a combination of working your butt off, learning from your screw-ups, and sheer dumb luck. 

The first thing to do is to find those examples when you led. Remember, don't confuse "leadership" with "being a boss."  Leaders find opportunities to lead whatever the situation -- it can be setting an example, or taking a moral stand, or taking on the toughest tasks -- it's really about stepping up. 

If being asked, "What influenced your leadership style?," doesn't make sense to you, have another think.  Most of us learn about leadership from a family member – a parent, or a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle who took an interest.  Sometimes we've learned from an activity our families made sure we did.  If you were taken to figure skating classes starting when you were a toddler, and one of your instructors took an interest in you and helped you develop, there's a pretty good chance you gained a lot of knowledge and understanding of what it takes to lead by this very significant person who spent a lot of time and effort showing you how to get better, how not to give up, how to practice, and maybe even how dedication to a pursuit or a discipline is good for you.

Some things to avoid: writing about Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or Kim Kardashian.  All had inspiring messages (or a good body), but if you try to answer this essay with historical or social lessons, well, congratulations! You've probably just turned an important business school essay into a ninth-grade term paper.

 

Essay 3: Considering what you've already included in the application, what else should we know about you?  In a maximum of four slides, tell us about yourself.

Don't be intimidated by that famous Booth Essay 3 -- in fact, the single most important thing you should do with this essay is make sure to relax and have fun with it.  The more you enjoy coming up with an idea and putting it together, the more entertaining it will be for them to read -- and, if you do it correctly, the better idea of you it will give them.  The wonderful thing about Booth #3 is it gives you complete freedom to come up with whatever format you'd like, so long as it'll fit in four slides.  Are you a baseball fan?  Maybe baseball cards will work for you.  A musical theater enthusiast?  Think "Playbill."  Once you've found the medium that precisely fits your passion, you can use your knowledge of the genre -- whether it's a tourbook, a celebrity gossip magazine, or music CD covers -- to find opportunities to tell Booth about yourself. 

What do you want to tell them?  Well, it's not about your GPA or how good you are at your job; they know those things already.  Passions, hobbies, friends, family -- this question is kind of asking you to show off your personal warmth in a kind of homey way.  Remember when your best friend or significant other put together that scrapbook and proudly handed it to you on your birthday?  It's something like that, but without the naughty words.  You're pulling together all the things you like about yourself -- the very same things that would make people say, "Wow, this person is pretty cool, I would definitely want to have a cup of coffee with them -- or maybe even invite them into my office to discuss the possibility of going to the very business school where I work."  Don't forget the pictures, either – candid photos of yourself smiling and looking charming or enthusiastically pursuing your pastimes definitely belong here!

For more information, see our 2011-2012 Chicago Booth MBA Essay Guide. 


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Tackle MBA Goals Essays

Evan Forster on How to Get Real, Defy Expectations, and Have “The Vision Thing"

Our success at Forster-Thomas is predicated in large part on helping each of our candidates dig down deep to determine his or her long-term career vision . Goals are the central theme of your candidacy around which every other part hinges (this is even true for program like MIT Sloan and HBS, where goals are optional or not required, because the question will come up in an interview). Furthermore, until you know your long-term goal, you cannot possibly know why you and the school(s) you’re applying to are a “fit.”

And your long-term goal can’t just be an industry, like private equity. To get an admissions officer on board and excited about you and your goals, you need to be specific and passionate.

Jared, a recent candidate, simply didn’t care about private equity, despite the fact that he, and his friends and family, were certain that private equity was a perfect response to the latter part of the question “what are your long- and short-term professional goals?” Yawn.

Then I asked Jared to tell me what made him so passionate about private equity. He mumbled a response. Clearly, Jared simply did not care about private equity—at least, not specifically. When pressed—because he’s not the kind of guy who quits easily—he started throwing out jargon like “returns,” “growth,” “developing businesses,” “skill sets I need.” After I broke open the smelling salts, I was able to ask: “Tell me, why would Columbia’s Dean Hubbard—who’s all about the entrepreneurial mind-set and making a difference wherever you are—care that you want to go into private equity?” Jared sputtered a couple of “ums,” “becauses,” and “wells”—and, thank god, finally ran out of steam and threw his hands up.

By the time most people graduate from college, they tend to stop thinking they can do anything, and replace “sky’s the limit” goals (like inventing a new energy source or landing on Mars) with cautious, “sensible” goals that first and foremost include paying their rent, second doing something—anything—in a field of their choice, and then one day, when they have “enough,” that’s when they will pursue what they really want (and maybe even help out their fellow man with a check).

There’s nothing wrong with this guy; the problem is that he’s not who Dean Hubbard is looking for. He’s what none of the deans of the great MBA programs are looking for. He’s just what 95 percent of the world is. The top programs are looking for the top people—the most competitive, leadership-oriented and—yes—visionary in their ability to think they can make a big difference somewhere.

So I put Jared through the paces, and I suggest you do the same for yourself:

As you make your decision as to what to write about, the rule of thumb is as follows: come up with three ideas for your long-term goals.

  1. The first is the one where b-school will help you return to your current industry at a level via which you can make a difference in that industry.
  2. The second, and most common, is a career shift wherein b-school will be the lynchpin to the new industry in which you hope to make a difference.
  3. The third , and usually the most visionary, is what I like to call “The dream goal” or “I want to be a rock star.” You know, it’s the one you generally don’t tell people because you are afraid they’ll laugh at you. (Think about one well-known visionary: “Mom, Dad, I want to quit school and make a program that allows everyone to run a computer even without a computer science degree.” Or here’s an example I like a lot: “I want to create an amusement park place where everyone can experience the future.” Thank God Bill Gates and Walt Disney ignored the laughter, the confused stares, and the closed minds they surely received when they first had their ideas for Microsoft and Disneyland.)

Now, being in private equity in and of itself is not a “bad” long-term goal. It’s just so abstract and so overdone that no one’s getting on board without further refinement. It’s like trying to sell ice to an Inuit sitting in an igloo. 


By Auntie Evan & Uncle David

The other day, Uncle David came to me in puzzlement. “It’s amazing how different Michael and Scott are. They’re both Econ majors from Bowdoin, both have great grades and GMAT scores, and both work for top consulting firms. Yet, when we tell Michael he needs to take on a leadership role in his extracurricular activity, he complains about how he doesn’t have enough time. Scott, on the other hand, with the exact same job, gets excited when we brainstorm ideas for him to take on leadership roles outside of work. Scott even delivers his Extracurricular Action Plan days before it was even due. Scott just naturally gets that there is a difference between being a ‘member’ and being a ‘leader’.”

For all Michael and Scott’s similarities, there is one big differentiating factor—and Uncle David and I realized that difference was at the heart of how these two candidates took on life. They were, by and large, competitive college lacrosse players (or very active in some other team sport). People who works in teams, especially athletic teams, don’t come up with reasons for what they can’t do, but instead figure out what they can do.

So we came up with five attributes that great team athletes all have in common, making them great MBA candidates (and frankly, law, medical, and graduate candidates of all types):

  1. They are willing to be coached. Top college coaches are known for two things: They love their athletes, and they are not afraid to get right up in their athletes’ faces. Any lacrosse player who threw a tantrum when his coach yelled at him would get laughed off the team. They carry this willingness to be coached—and knowledge that coaching is an act of support, not criticism—into all things, including their MBA applications.
  2. They don’t make excuses. When a lacrosse player misses the ball, he doesn’t point a finger at the guy next to him—or blame the weather, the stick, his hangover, or his dying grandmother. He takes responsibility. For MBA applicants, this means they study for their GMAT even when their brother is getting married, they know when their MBA programs are holding events in their town, they know when their recommenders are available and create talking points for them, and they don’t blame their not filling out their MBA applications until deadline week on a pressing project at work. And they certainly don’t complain about not having the same opportunity as their friend who works at a “better company” or has a supervisor who “likes him more.” Competitive MBA candidates create opportunities rather than waiting for them to come along. 
  3. They don’t take no for an answer. Just because a lacrosse player lost last week’s match—or even multiple matches—he doesn’t give up the stick. Likewise, when these guys score 40 points lower than they expected on the GMAT, they don’t throw their hands up, they schedule a new test. They hire a private tutor. They don’t go out for drinks the week of the test. On a campus visit, when the receptionist at admissions says, “No one can see you now,” they sit down with a magazine and wait.
  4. They don’t get upset when you tell it like it is. When a teammate tells another teammate that his stroke is veering to the left, a top player says “thank you” instead of “how dare you.” The best players will take that a step further by asking for help. As MBA applicants, they seek feedback on their essays, resumes, short answers…and practice interviewing.
  5. They gather a great support network. Great lacrosse players don’t go to their football and basketball friends for feedback on their game. They go to other lacrosse players. And as MBA applicants, they don’t seek feedback from every Tom, Dick, and Daddy. They go to the right person with the right skills—one person whose opinion they respect. The person whom they know will tell the truth about the spinach in their teeth. Getting that person behind you is much more helpful than going to a friend who’s getting their MBA, or even a former admissions officer who may know how to recognize a strong application, but doesn’t necessarily know how to produce one from scratch.
Of course, lacrosse players don’t have a corner on this market. Girls, the same goes for field hockey, basketball, and even cheerleading; boys, this goes for football or ballet. The lesson here is not that you have to have been a lacrosse player. You just have to think like a college, professional, or Olympic athlete. They know how to be coached, they know how and when to listen, they know when they’re out of bounds. And most of all, instead of complaining or whining when things are difficult, they take to heart the immortal words of Nike, and they “Just Do It.” 

-Auntie Evan and Uncle David

For more guidance on being a kickass candidate, check out Chapter 3 of The MBA Reality Check


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Never Confuse An Admissions Officer

Evan Forster on a common admissions essay pitfall, and how to avoid it.

Late into another Friday night college-bound session at Chess-in-the-Schools--the non-profit organization that helps New York inner-city kids get into college--Carter asked me to help edit his mentee’s college personal statement. Carter, a mentor with the program, was so confused by the details of the student’s essay that he couldn’t get past the first paragraph. In my capacity as College Advisor, I grabbed a hold of Katie, my assistant, who is also a CIS mentor, to get her help as well. We all sat down to read Ziploq’s essay.

Ziploq’s opening paragraph included the following: “I spent the summer helping Ramapo with chess.”“Is Ramapo an Indian tribe?” Carter asked. “I think it’s a college in New Jersey,” Katie said.

Ziploq had had enough. “Ramapo is a sleepaway camp that helps students master chess—among many, many other things,” he said, rolling his eyes as if Carter and Katie were both idiots. “Um, how would I know that unless you include that detail in the essay?” Carter asked Ziploq.

I found Carter’s retort to be hilarious: Just a week earlier, Carter had looked at me like I was an idiot when I didn’t know what the word “quals” meant when he used it in an HBS leadership essay draft (for the record, “quals” has something to do with marketing materials produced by an investment bank to establish its qualifications for a banking gig).

Whether you’re applying to college or graduate school, always remember: admissions officers don’t work in the same office as you, they don’t live with you, and they certainly don’t read minds (at least not any I have ever met). They’re smart, and some—though certainly not all—may have worked in finance or even been counselors at Camp Ramapo. But do you really want to take that chance? Is potentially impressing your admissions officer with “inside knowledge” worth the much bigger chance you’ll alienate or confuse them?

How to avoid confusing admissions officers:

  1. Whether you’re writing a college, law, clinical psych, or MBA essay, make sure you use signposts: This means helping the reader figure out when and where everything happened. For example, “In the summer of 2008, I…,” “Three weeks later, the four of us…” “At 17, I … and by 26, I…” While all of these little dates and signifiers may seem obvious to you, such simple markers will keep the reader on track instead of scratching her head.
  2. He, she, it, they? Relying exclusively on pronouns and titles like “Managing Director” is confusing when referring to people in your essays. Always use a first name when you introduce the character, and continue dropping in that name occasionally: “My friend Laquan”; “His mother Ruchi”; “My supervisor Gretchen.” This is particularly important in any kind of leadership essay or group events essay, in which you’re writing about a group of two or more people. Just because you know who “he” or “she” is, doesn’t mean the reader is going to.
  3. Lingo, Jargon, Acronyms. “LBOs,” “quals” and “MSAs,” oh my! To some of you, it might be obvious that an MSA is a Metropolitan Statistical Area, but to my student Farzana, it’s the Muslim Students Association. When using acronyms or jargon, it is very important that you spell it out first (this is called “attributing”). For example, “While working on Morgan Stanley’s quals—external marketing materials used to sell a company’s services to clients—I had a great idea…”

So, if you’re “making my workspace green,” make sure we know you’re talking about the paint color for the tool shed by actually using words like “tool shed” and “paint” during your “vacation.” Unless you are talking about your office, in which case you need to talk about getting rid of plastic and use words like ”recycling” and “my coworkers” during “my lunch break.”

Just remember, Ramapo is not always an Indian tribe in upstate New York. 


Friday, June 10, 2011

Your Superpowers Don't Work Here

Why Financial Analysts Shouldn't Analyze Their Own MBA Admissions Essays

By Justin Marshall

Joseph called me at 1:00am. “I finally got it,” he announced, almost breathless with excitement. “I figured out what’s wrong with my essays!” It was two days before the Wharton MBA deadline, and Joseph, an investment banking analyst I had been coaching for a month, had been re-reading his completed essays over and over for days, certain there was some problem we had failed to catch throughout our many revisions.

Once I had stumbled groggily from my bed to my desk, Joseph unveiled the “fatal” flaw: “In paragraph two of the leadership essay, I describe myself as ‘assertive’. But in paragraph four of the failure essay, I say that I was ‘too aggressive’ as a first-year recruit. And that happened a year before the story in my leadership essay! See…? I’m basically saying I didn’t learn anything from my own failure!”

I work with many financial analysts, and I’m always in awe of their skills. Just as Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound and use his X-Ray vision to see through people’s garments (an ability he underutilized, if you ask me), financial analysts have genuine superpowers. Armed only with an Excel spreadsheet and pages of data that look like ancient Hieroglyphics to me, they use their powers of analysis to precisely gauge just how much Company X will make in 10 years’ time if merged with Company Y.

But when it comes to writing essays, financial analysts often make a grave mistake: They assume that their superpowers work in the world of admissions, too. They dissect their essays like they would a company headed for a merger, scrutinizing every word, and ensuring that no aspect of their work could be deemed too risky. In short, analysts work themselves into a frenzy trying to apply quantitative analysis to something that, ultimately, is not fundamentally quantitative.

This is where I often have to tell them: “Sorry, Super-Analyst. Your powers don’t work here.”

The simple truth is that admissions committees don’t think like analysts. I would know—I worked in admissions at an Ivy League university for two years. I’ve been on the other side of the table, and I know how things look from over there. Admissions committees don’t scour every last detail of your essays, looking for facts that don’t add up. There is no formula such as: Essay X + GMAT score + Freshman year Anthropology grade + misspelling by peer recommender = acceptance. And they never (I repeat, NEVER ) consciously compare individual words in one essay with another in an attempt to “catch” you. When you have to read and evaluate hundreds of applications in a period of one-to-two months, who has time for that?

Perhaps a more accurate analogy is how you would look for a new apartment. You carefully weigh all the important elements (location, price, closet space, natural light, kitchen amenities), but you never check each and every outlet in each and every room to make sure it works and is within a satisfactory proximity to where you intend to place an appliance. That’s just overkill, no matter how you slice it.

Most importantly, though, remember that admissions committees are composed of real live human beings. For all the quantitative analysis they do, it is another consideration that will always factor most prominently in their minds.

That consideration is this: “Do I like this person?”

This is the X factor. It’s why the best singers don’t always win American Idol. It’s why inane Adam Sandler movies do well at the box office. It’s why Obama beat McCain. Like it or not, it’s much more important than any amount of quantitative analysis.

And that’s why I coach financial analysts to surrender their professional training at the door when it comes to essays. It’s not easy—when you do something 80 hours a week, you become brainwashed; you eat, breathe, and sleep your skills. So sometimes I have to do some heavy deprogramming. But eventually I get them to realize that if they focus on just being their likeable selves instead of agonizing over every possible way a word could be interpreted, they’ll fare much better in the long run.

As for Joseph, I have to admit I don’t know that I ever quite got him to completely abandon his analytical ways. True, he did eventually agree to keep the wording as we had it (after we talked about it for an hour—twice). But even after he got accepted to Wharton, he couldn’t help but wonder aloud to me over the phone: “I guess they must have read the leadership essay first, and then didn’t connect the dots to the failure essay.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe they just really liked you.”

--Justin Marshall, Forster-Thomas coach and Super Analyst