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


Whether you're applying to college or an MBA program, or simply trying to give your career a much-needed boost, the key to success comes from being indispensible. Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster explains why.

Last week, Sammy B.—an ex-college bound, inner-city high-school student of mine—literally arrived on my doorstep, out of the blue, with almost no money and five days away from having no place to live. Sam is 20 now. He went to college in Memphis for a short while in 2008 before having to leave school due to bone marrow cancer and, in the spring of 2010, a bone marrow transplant.

So there he was on my office doorstep asking for a job. But what, in fact, did Sam actually have to offer? His skills as a Starbucks barista? His brief encounter with a Target pricing gun? Or, at the risk of being harsh, his tale of woe? The answer, to be honest, is that he had almost nothing to offer, not even a can-do attitude despite his fight against cancer.

Do you have a can-do attitude? And have you shared it in your essays? I soon realized I needed to infuse some of this attitude in Sammy. I was happy to help him out with some “neither a borrower nor a lender be” money, but after I set him up with a place to say at a youth hostel, he didn’t seem to do much of anything but play that old familiar tune, "Oh, poor me"--fighting with his friends, arguing with his aunt, all on the heels of asking me for a job.

So I made a suggestion: “Sammy, stop being a victim! Call Roberto, our office manager, and offer to help him free of charge. Be so good at lightening his daily office load—answering phones, making appointments, running errands before he is even asked, and reorganizing the entire storage and kitchen area—that Roberto has no other choice but to go to bat for you and demand that Forster-Thomas hires you in some capacity. Otherwise, you’re either just another guy looking for a job in a bad market, or the poor bastard looking for a handout. Become the guy who is indispensable. Create a role that doesn’t exist.”

The key to success is being indispensable. Be someone who people absolutely have to have around, someone who will make a difference in other people’s lives—no matter what.

Let me give you an example. When Justin Marshall first came to us, he was one of 300 people who applied for the role of a Forster-Thomas MBA Essay Coach. Through a winnowing down process involving writing samples and role-playing (seriously), he was hired. And he became great at it.

Over the past few years, he surpassed “great” and became indispensable. In addition to becoming our lead essay coach, he now leads seminars and trains new coaches. This happened because he offered himself up as someone who could do all these things, and actually did it without even telling us it was happening. Within a single year, he was not only working with MBA candidates but expanded his practice to MFA film candidates, thanks to his expertise in film directing, writing and producing.

He also began working with us to help us produce our video blogs. He saw the ones we were creating (and boy, were they lacking), and offered to help with lighting and sound. They may not be awesome, but they’re a hell of a lot better thanks to him. And then, as we began to hire other consultants, he began mentoring them about how to respond to clients who are concerned about, for example, the Harvard accomplishments question. He did this without asking.

What was in it for him? It’s simple: his efforts made Forster-Thomas better. He didn’t get (or ask for) extra pay or other perqs. But an interesting thing happened: making Forster-Thomas better brought us more clients. More clients meant we needed more manpower—and who better to fill that need than our newly-found, demonstrably committed, unofficially titled top coach, Justin Marshall. Then came the extra money, prestige, power, and fame (have you seen those Mary Poppins commercials all over New York City?)

Sammys of the world, are you getting the point? The Justins of the world make themselves indispensable. So, if you are applying to college or graduate school, think about what will make you or has made you indispensable—that key leadership ingredient. And include it in your essays!

I’d like to say that Sam made himself indispensible. That remains to be seen. Victims have a way of remaining victims. But I will say this. Sam is turning a corner. As of the end of writing this blog, Roberto has informed me that Sam called. Apparently, he’s got some time on his hands, and will be coming in to help Roberto and Forster-Thomas out, and hopefully, to become indispensable. If he does, I promise you, we’ll find money to hire him, even in a down economy. That’s what being indispensable is all about.

--Auntie Evan

Evan Forster on how NOT to answer Stanford GSB'sn notorious What Matters Most essay question.

In just seven words—“What matters most to you, and why?”—Stanford GSB strikes fear into the heart of even the most accomplished candidate. With good reason: This is perhaps the most difficult essay question of all. Answering it requires a level of digging down deep that doesn’t come easy for most. It separates the men from the boys—those of you who understand inspiration and transformation as opposed to those of you who are trying to game the system through “branding techniques.” Save the latter for your company, not your candidacy.

Here's how NOT to answer this essay.

Pitfall 1: Over-connecting your long-term professional goal to what matters most to you.

One common version of this is that you’re committed to a long-term goal wherein you want to go into private equity so that you can grow Goldman Sachs’s new media group. Because you are passionate about this goal, it’s obvious that it matters a lot to you. Duh! On the surface, it probably even matters more to you than anything else at this particular moment, especially if you’ve only recently realized how passionate you are about transforming Goldman. The key word here is “surface.” Derrick Bolton, director of admissions at Stanford GSB, wants you to dig a lot deeper than that; he has even suggested that candidates use the essay as an opportunity to learn about themselves, and invited you to be transparent about that in the actual writing of the essay.

Pitfall 2: When “what matters most” makes your goal look like a strategy or gimmick as opposed to a value you deeply care about.

Those of you who have found a long-term goal that is about transforming the planet in that Free Willy way—you know, ending world hunger, irrigating the Irrawaddy River through venture capital—are particularly susceptible to such overkill. In these cases, the mistake is also particularly tragic: Having a persuasive, convincing Free Willy goal is a powerful thing, but it can easily be dismissed as an eye-roll-inducing gimmick when beaten into the ground in a what matters most essay.

Linking this essay with your long-term goal essay does seem like a nifty idea, but don’t think you are the first person to come up with it. It’s been done thousands of times, but in perhaps only ten of those times was it done well. As someone who probably has strong quantitative skills, what do you think the odds are that you’ll be one of those ten?

--Auntie Evan


Evan Forster on how to take on the Stanford GSB "What Matters Most" essay

While a great goals essay should encompass what matters most to you professionally, what Stanford GSB is looking for in this essay is what matters most to you as a whole person—not just as a professional. As Derrick Bolton, Stanford’s director of admissions, wrote in one of his online letters from the director, “This probably sounds strange, since these are essays for business school, but we don’t expect to hear about your business experience in this essay... Tell a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you actually may achieve the opposite effect.”

Often, this essay goes hand-in-hand with open-ended questions such as Columbia’s “Please tell us about yourself and your personal interests.” As Columbia B-school says in its application, “The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have achieved professionally.”

Similar soul-searching applies to questions asked by schools like Kellogg, Fuqua, and Anderson to name a few, not to mention HBS’s “How will you introduce yourself to your classmates” question. (All ask these types of background/what-makes-you-unique questions.)

How do you get to the answer? For Sabrina, a candidate I worked with a few years ago, a lifetime of experiences led her to understand that what mattered most was “being true to myself.” Any corniness this theme may have dissolves instantly when you hear the backstory. Sabrina spent her childhood training to be a world-class athlete—and succeeded—yet, on the eve of an Olympic-level event, she was forced to choose between attending college or pursuing a medal. That’s when Sabrina realized she never wanted to be an athlete, and had lived her life to please her father. After she walked off the field, she vowed to remain true to herself from then on—and embarked on a lifetime of accomplishments she truly cared about.

Caution: Because of the level of sophistication this essay calls for, what matters most (or any open-ended question) is often best answered after all other essays for all other schools have been tackled. Just because a school with an open-ended question like Stanford’s “what matters most” may be your first choice—and you want to finish that application first—that’s no reason to jump forward and answer this question early on in your essay-writing process. In answering all the other essay questions, you’ll be exploring many aspects of your life. All the introspection that’s required for those essays needs to percolate in the brain for some period of time. This percolation most authentically leads you to what really matters most to you. After the other questions have been answered, if there’s something important still left unsaid, still nagging at you because it seemed just too personal, that subject may be a great starting point here.

--Auntie Evan