It's the OMG heard 'round the world: Today, Harvard Business School released its deadlines and essay questions for the Class of 2015, ushering in big changes to its MBA admissions policies. 

The most obvious difference from years past is that there are now only two required essays (as opposed to the four HBS asked last year). But there's also an additional essay question that those who are invited to interview must complete within 24 hours of their interview.  

The two required essays are:

  • Tell us something you've done well (400 words)
  • Tell us something you wish you had done better (400 words)

Yup, that's it. Now if only those questions were as easy to answer as they were to come up with...

In her May 22nd blog, Dee Leopold, the head of admissions at HBS, explained the school now views admissions in three stages: Introduce Yourself (application, GMAT/GPA, recs, essays), Tell Us More (the interview, which as in years past will be mandatory for all admitted applicants), and Have The Last Word, in which candidates are asked to "do a written reflection on the interview experience which will be submitted via the online application system."

Details on what the post-interview essay question will be are still fuzzy, but it will likely ask candidates to discuss something they did not have the chance to address during the interview.

A final (albeit less significant) shake-up is that the Round 1 deadline has been moved from early October to September 24, 2012.  That gives procrastinators one less week to do what they do best.  But luckily for them, the Round 2 and 3 deadlines remain more or less the same as last year.

For complete information on the HBS essays and deadlines, see the HBS page of our Essay Guide. And check back soon for our Best Practices Blog on how to answer the new HBS essays.


Guest Post by Maria Ahmed, Editor at

As the business world grows ever more connected internationally, the new, global version of the MBA is gaining popularity.

These are typically part-time MBA programs, delivered through a mixture of online learning with classmates spread out across nearly every time zone, and regular residencies in different cities around the world where you meet face-to-face.

If you want to embark on one of these programs, you’ll need to show evidence that you're an internationally-minded candidate with a thirst for discovering the world!

The key attraction of these programs is the network you’ll build. Since they’re mostly part-time, your classmates are working and can give you immediate introductions, all-important insider gossip, and hiring information from their employers.

The team at the Duke Cross Continent MBA describe it as an opportunity to build a “culturally-diverse peer network across the globe.” Duke’s Cross Continent MBA is delivered over 16 months in Dubai, New Delhi, St. Petersburg, Shanghai/Kunshan, and Fuqua’s home campus in Durham, North Carolina.

Duke University is something of a pioneer among US institutions in its global coverage, but several European and Asian business schools offer similar programs, for example:

Chinese University Hong Kong partners with four business schools worldwide and its OneMBA takes students to Hong Kong, São Paulo, Rotterdam, Monterrey (Mexico) and Chapel Hill (North Carolina)

The Manchester Business School Global MBA takes place in Manchester, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Miami and Sao Paulo.

Bradford University School of Management offers an EMBA that is delivered in the UK, Dubai and Manila, the Philippines.

So, if you’re applying to one of these programs, how can you show that you’re the type of person who would thrive, and also bring value to the class?

  1. Highlight your travels, whether for work, vacation or something in between like a gap year spent working and backpacking. In particular, highlight any internships, exchanges or voluntary work you have done abroad. It shows that you can handle diverse work environments and want to do more than lie on the beach.
  2. List your languages, even if you’re not fluent. Explain when and why you picked them up. Even if you learned basic Thai on your gap year travels, it shows you’re willing to make the effort.
  3. Include examples from your professional life. If you’ve ever worked abroad or worked with team members in different countries, explain what the project was, your role in it, and the outcome. Show that you’re aware of both the challenges and opportunities that the globalized workplace offers.
  4. If you’re active on LinkedIn or Twitter or have a blog, connect to people and groups worldwide and interact with them through your questions, comments, and posts. You’ll demonstrate that you can find common ground and build relationships with people from very different cultures than your own.
  5. Show that you’re a connector. Give examples of occasions when you’ve used your personal or professional network to connect people successfully, whether in your own country or abroad. Much of the appeal of a global MBA is in the class members themselves. Business schools want to see that you’ll bring value to the class.
  6. Give examples from around the world. When you’re writing about a company you find interesting or would like to work for, or a business leader who inspires you, draw examples from around the world, not just your own country or the US. Check out the European, Asian and Americas editions of the Wall Street Journal for exhaustive reporting on business, finance and movers and shakers in those regions.

About the author: Maria Ahmed is Editor at – a professional network for business students that helps you make connections before, during and after your MBA. On BusinessBecause you’ll find useful information on MBA rankingsMBA jobs, MBA distance learning, and fresh daily editorial such as the Why MBA series.  

Listen up, Peter Cottontail, it’s Spring—a time of revitalization. Starting over. Starting fresh. So let’s get hippity-hoppity (Yeah, I said it) with your b-school candidacy and plow a new trail, create an innovative project, and commit to making a difference through your extracurriculars (or, as we call them at Forster-Thomas, “Power-curriculars”).

But whatever you’ve decided you’re going to do—whether it’s launching a microlending organization in Guatemala or a new mentoring program for at-risk teens, becoming a Big Brother or Sister, or helping yourself and everyone around you lose weight, the only way it’s ever going to happen is if you put a date on it.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that you’re coming up with all those ideas, but no matter how ambitious your plans, if you don’t put a date on them, none of them will come to pass. Trust me on this. I’ve seen it happen too many times to count.

I heard Lori swear that she and her friends were going to lose 20 pounds each. Fred went on and on about how he was going to organize a reunion for his high school basketball league, and Cosmo was convinced he was going to launch a holiday food drive in his old neighborhood. Let’s just put it this way: Lori’s boyfriend still can’t fit a ring on it, there never was a reunion for Fred’s basketball league, and nobody ever helped Cosmo collect a single can, let alone a hill, of beans.

Why? Because none of them put a date on it. Putting a date, or “the when” on something, makes it real—not just for you, but for everyone. You can’t get a team or group to commit to an event if you don’t tell them when the event is. They can’t make plans to be there, they can’t fit it into their schedules, and frankly, they don’t really see it as something that’s ever going to happen, so they never rally around your cause. In the absence of a date, it’s just a fantasy. Not only will you be unable to organize your life around it, but nobody else will be able to, either.

This brings me to the tale of Henri, a Frenchman living in London. A very fine Frenchman, I might add. A steamy baguette, if you will. It was January of 2010, and he was doing his ever-amour-ing best to bolster his extracurricular prowess (Yes, just his extracurricular prowess, you slimebags). The prior summer, he had spent several weeks in Cambodia, where he stumbled upon a non-profit arts organization for poor and orphaned children. It’s a place with little funding, limited art supplies, and no ability to hire the Jeff Koonses of the world. Henri wanted to change all of that. So he came up with an idea: “Let’s do an art show in London. We’ll fly the students’ artwork in, invite all the twenty-something finance MBA-bound people we know to help us, and make sure the school gets the funding it needs to put its students on the map.”

Faaabulous, right? Wrong. Everybody seemed to love the idea, but no one actually called him back a second time, or committed any time, money, or logistical help to the project. When I explained to him that it wasn’t “real” because nobody knew how, where, or when the event was taking place, he sang the same song that Lori, Fred, Cosmo, and everyone else sings: “Once I get everybody on board, then I’ll decide when it’s going to happen.”

Oh, sister-mother. That’s when I demanded that Henri set a date. It was January, and frankly, three months’ prep time, as far as I’m concerned, is always enough. Out of thin air, I declared, “March 31st will be the date of this event!” Just giving a date to it gave the whole event the key ingredient it was missing—the when.

And despite the fact that Henri was in complete fear, he took a chance, calling and emailing his contacts back with the specific date. Like the everlasting light of the eight days of Chanukah, a miraculous thing happened: There was a domino effect. The friends and colleagues who were available around that time began to come up with potential locations, sponsors, supplies, and more manpower. And those who were not, did not. No biggie.

Creating the date made the whole thing real. And while the event didn’t take place until sometime in the middle of April, it took place. And Jeff Koons is actually considering going to teach a class in Cambodia. Ok, maybe not. But at least the possibility is out there. Beat that. Without a date, you never will.

So, all you Spring chickens chirping to get into a top b-school, if you do one thing this hippity-hoppity season, stop pussyfooting around and commit to it—put a date on it. The Easter Bunny does. So should you.

Auntie Evan

David Thomas explains why being yourself really is the best approach to an admissions interview—no matter who your interviewer is.  

Andrew called my cell phone at an uncharacteristic hour, with an even more surprising nervousness in his voice. This tall, confident trader—a lacrosse star at his Little Ivy and a standout professional at his big securities firm—had just been assigned his interviewer for Wharton. "I googled him, and he's a pretty important guy; he's gotta be in his fifties at least," Andrew said. "How am I going to hold my own? He'll eat me alive."

I chuckled, because I've heard this fear a thousand times. Alumni interviewers come in every shape and size, age and experience level. Some schools try to match you with someone similar, others give you a list of people to choose from, and others simply assign an interviewer to you.

While you never know what your interviewer will be like until you're seated in front of her, I've noticed some definite trends. In general, I prefer my candidates to get older interviewers, not younger—the closer in age your interviewer is, the more likely he will see you as competition. He's more likely to test you, screw with your head, challenge you on your answers, play cat and mouse. You know, pull out the measuring stick. Older interviewers, on the other hand, are more likely to want to get to know you. I told Andrew he's more likely to be offered a drink by this seasoned alum than drawn and quartered.

Of course, that answer spun Andrew off onto another fear: "Is getting offered a drink some kind of test? I mean, if I accept it, I'm a partier, and if I decline it, I'm being rude!"

I told Andrew to trust those sharp interpersonal skills that had gotten him so far in his career already. "As soon as you walk in, while you're taking off your overcoat and adjusting to your chair, make some small talk: 'Have you been doing this long?' 'How about those Yankees?' Whatever usually works for you. Does he just grunt or dive into an answer? If he sits ramrod straight and his desk looks like Martha Stewart herself organized it, then play it a little cooler. If he props his feet up and doesn't even glance at your resume, adjust accordingly"

No matter what, however, be yourself, I cautioned Andrew. Calibrating your style is not the same thing as pandering to the audience.

A couple of weeks later, Andrew called me to report on the interview. "David, man, I'm so glad we had that talk, or that interview would have freaked me out!"

Turns out that the interviewer hardly asked a single question about Andrew's leadership experiences or five-year plan. After asking some questions about why Andrew wanted an MBA and why he was attracted to Wharton, the guy launched into a story about how much he loved his own time there—especially some of the "girls" he'd gone out with.

"Then he started peppering me with questions about, know, basically how much I got laid." I almost burst out laughing. "I mean, he wasn't creepy about it, it was more like locker-room talk, like we were old buds. If you hadn't kind of told me something like that might happen, I would have thought he was trying to trap me or something."

The interview did get back on track—Andrew got to tell his favorite leadership story we had whittled down to a tight narrative—but the tension had gone. He spoke with the easy confidence Andrew had when he first walked into my office eight months earlier—the same confidence that got me to say "yes, I want you as a Forster-Thomas client"—instead of the nervous nelly he had become after getting the interview. Once he relaxed, Andrew got to shine, flash his hundred-watt smile, even make a little fun of himself when answering a question about his weaknesses. And Andrew got the proverbial fat envelope from Wharton as well.

Be yourself. That's much more attractive than twisting yourself into a Stepford candidate—plus, chances are, you're not a great actor. You'll be fooling no one but yourself, and stripping yourself of all the individual quirks and traits that make you memorable.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How to Win the Admissions Waiting Game

Going crazy while you wait to hear back from the schools you applied to? Essay Coach Justin Marshall has just the medicine you need.

There's always a huge sense of joy and accomplishment the moment you submit your last application to your last school. The dreaded application process is over! Time to go out and celebrate with a few drinks and a few friends! (For the record, I believe the former is more important than the latter, but that's me).

Just one word of advice: Brace yourself for the next day. Even if you don't drink, you're going to feel something akin to a hangover. That's because the joy of completing your applications invariably gives way to the hardest part of the application process: the waiting game.

I know all too well how difficult the waiting game is.  I experienced it firsthand years ago when I applied to MFA programs. Every day seems to last an eternity.  Your body begins to ooze adrenaline every time you merely glance at your inbox. And it gets worse with each passing day.

If pharmaceutical companies could find a pill for ARAS (Application Response Anxiety Syndrome), I guarantee it would sell like hot cakes. But until such a pill is available, you're just going to have to cope with the waiting game. Here's how:

First, realize why the waiting game is so hard: You have no power. You were in the driver's seat of your candidacy for many weeks (if not months), and now you're a blindfolded passenger. Your fate is in the hands of others. Is it terrifying? You betcha. So acknowledge that you are powerless, and allow yourself to be nervous.  Bottling up your feelings won't help.

Next, replace your sense of powerlessness with action.
Rather than focusing on the one thing you can't control, throw yourself into something you can. If you are a runner, start training for a half-marathon. If you've always wanted to learn how to play guitar, start taking weekly lessons.  Whatever it is, set yourself manageable goals and stay focused on them. If you think you don't have any time, think again---you managed to complete your grad-school application, didn't you? Now all that essay writing time is free time.  Even if it's tough to work in a cooking class after work, the peace of mind you receive from achieving something (instead of waiting for something) makes it well worth the effort.

Finally: The best way to stop feeling helpless is to help others. So join a non-profit organization, or increase your participation in one you're already a member of. Yes, I know this one sounds obnoxiously "shiny happy people." But it works. And it has an added, strategic benefit: If you don't get in to the school of your dreams, you're already adding or enhancing an extracurricular activity that will make your candidacy that much more powerful next year.

The waiting game is almost never any fun. But once you realize that you're the one who gets to set the rules, you'll find that it's a game you can win. 

Forster-Thomas Editor and Essay Coach Kirsten Guenther provides her tips on how to answer Tuck’s MBA essays.

Essay #1: Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you? (If you are applying for a joint or dual degree, please explain how the additional degree will contribute to those goals.)

Fess up. You’re taking your Harvard goals essay and tweaking it. And that’s okay—as long as you Tuck it rather than tweak it.

As an editor, I have worked on hundreds of goals essays, and I can tell you that the most effective goals essays are specific and to the point. You’ve always been the class clown? It’s great that you want your personality to shine through, but that’s also why you’ve ended up with 800 words and pulling your hair trying to cut it down to 500. It can be tough to decide what to cut and what to keep.

It’s simple: keep the action. Keep the parts that outline your intentions, how you’re going to accomplish your goals, what you’ve done thus far, and why Tuck is a vital part of the plan. It’s important to know that a trip to Afghanistan helped shape your mission in life, but it’s not important to know that you sat in seat 14D on the plane ride over.

Here are four tips to keep in mind when writing a goals essay:

  1. Use sign posts. Let the reader know where you were, when your realization took place and what you were doing when you made the decision to pursue your goal. Throughout the essay continue to use signposts to organize it.
  2. Research Tuck. I cannot stress this enough. They want people who are excited to be there. Learn about the classes, who teaches them, and what clubs you will join if admitted.  If you’re an amazing badminton player and they don’t have a badminton club, talk about starting one. What will you contribute to Tuck?
  3. It’s not just about how Tuck will help you reach your goal but how you will contribute to Tuck. Yes, Tuck’s Center for Leadership will be a good place for you to hone your leadership skills, but what will you bring? How will you help others become great leaders?
  4. Short-term goals are important. They are your plan to achieve your long-term goal. Your plan for achieving your goal is equally important to what that goal is. You want to convey to Tuck that this is not a pipe dream but a well thought out plan that you are passionate about.

Essay #2: Discuss your most meaningful leadership experience. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience? (500 words)

“Easy— I’ll just turn one of my HBS accomplishments into a leadership essay.” Um…No.

Before you even think about doing that, you need to understand the difference between “Leadership” and an “Accomplishment.” As Auntie Evan says in The MBA Reality Check, leadership is when you have two or more people in the bed; an accomplishment, you can take care of with your right (or left) hand, for the same desired results.

Tuck is interested in leaders—professionally, personally and in the community.  So when you’re brainstorming ideas for your leadership essay, challenge yourself to come up with some examples of times you’ve acted in a leadership position in your personal life and in the community, as well as professionally.

Also, read the question. Remember that the question asks what your most meaningful leadership experience is. It asks for strengths and weaknesses. The question is NOT, “Tell us about a time you were an ideal leader.” You are allowed to talk about a time you failed as a leader and what you learned from it.

From an editor’s perspective, my advice with this essay is to write 700-800 words on your first pass, then spend time trimming the fat to arrive at, say, 525 words. With Tuck you’re allowed to go over word count 10%. But don’t go crazy with this and DO NOT go over 10%.

In all of these essays, always remember that you want to write more rather than less for your first draft. If you write 500 words, you’ll find through the editing process that you only have 400 words of real, useable content.

Essay 3: Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback. What actions did you take as a result and what did you learn from this experience?

Failure, adversity or setback. These are three different things.

If you choose “Failure”, for the love of God, please make sure it’s an actual failure. I’m sure you’ve read Auntie Evan’s book, so you know that getting a “B” in 8th grade Algebra is not a failure—no matter how much you wanted an A.  Make sure you write about an actual failure, please.

Adversity is a challenge. A setback is when an expectation isn’t met.  Either one can be in a professional or personal context. It’s important to remember that no matter which you pick, what matters most is the take away. What’s important is how you handled the failure, adversity or setback—how you responded and acted, how that experience shaped who you are today, the way you act in your present life, and the way you plan to act in the future.

I was hired to write a play about a hedge fund, and so I am working at one now for research—I can tell you from experience that on the trading floor, uncontrollable setbacks happen, and what’s important is how these traders and analysts react to them. The story is in your reaction to the events.

Essay 4: Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck?

Start with a value. A motto you live by. Something you learned as a child that helped shape your perspective and how you live your life. Dig deep and really think about how you choose to live your life, and why that is. Give examples of this.

Find places you live your life—both formal and informal—and then bring that to Tuck. Let’s say literacy is really important to you because of something you learned when you were younger, and so you’ve mentored children over the years. You can use this experience to describe how you’ll start a literacy club at Tuck or a charity that will help kids who don’t have the opportunity to learn how to read.

The important thing is to make connections between your past experiences and your future plans for involvement and participation in the Tuck community, whether inside or outside the classroom.

Essay 5 (Optional): Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere that may be helpful in reviewing your application (e.g., unusual choice of evaluators, weaknesses in academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes, etc.). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.

As is true of optional essays for most other schools, no new information should be present in this essay if you decide to write one. I don’t want to hear about how you were kidnapped in Brazil and thrown in a potato sack. If you find yourself writing new information, then you haven’t done your job on the other essays. The optional essay is not a “P.S.” or “Oh, by the way…”. It is a place to provide important context to aspects of your candidacy that the admissions committee already knows about because of its inclusion elsewhere in your application.

See our Tuck 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide for more information.  

Forster-Thomas Essay Coach Justin Marshall provides his tips on how to answer Haas’ MBA essays.

If Haas’s collection of essays were a meal, it would be Kaiseki.  For those whose knowledge of Japanese culture extends only as far as sushi, karaoke, and toilets that sing and flush themselves, let me explain:  Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal composed of seemingly countless courses, each one about the size of a walnut.  Because every course is so small, it’s easy to underestimate its powers. But sure enough, each one packs an amazing punch, from its nuanced flavors and textures to its beautiful presentation.

So yeah, that’s Haas: A whole lot of essays, most of them teeny tiny. But don’t underestimate them; like a Kaiseki chef, you’ll have to be an artist, delicately imbuing each and every essay with subtle textures and powerful flavors. Every word counts, and every essay should be able to stand on its own.


Essay 1: What brings you the greatest joy? How does this make you distinctive? (250 words)

In case you forgot that one of America’s top b-schools is located in Hippie central, Haas’ very first essay is here to bring you back down to (mother) earth.

But beware: Haas is looking for honesty here, not lip service. That’s why they changed the essay—for years, they asked what candidates were most passionate about, but they got tired of people writing about “helping others” or “the environment” or some other crap. So now they ask about joy, and that’s what you should talk about. If your greatest joy is helping others or the saving the environment, then talk about that—but you better be able to back up those words with evidence (action). More than likely, though, your greatest joy is something more “trivial”: cooking, kickboxing, playing guitar, running in the park. As long as it’s legal in the state of Alabama, that’s what you should talk about here, and the trick is to go deep—why is this your greatest joy, and how has it affected your mindset and perspective on life?

Essay 2: What is your most significant accomplishment? (250 words)

If you’re applying to Harvard, you’re in luck—you already have three accomplishments to choose from, each with a word count not much different than Haas gives you. But don’t overlook that four-syllable word: significant. Haas doesn’t want any old accomplishment here, they want to know what you see as the most important thing you’ve done—ever. So repurposing that essay about assisting in some M&A deal probably ain’t going to cut it. You need an achievement that either allowed you to grow and change (a defining moment in your life) or to have a profound impact upon others. Don’t be afraid to go back in time to your teen or even preteen years, as long as you can identify a defining moment that really changed your mindset, and then provide adult evidence of that mindset in action.

Essay 3. Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization. How did your actions create positive change? (250 words)

Here’s an important insight I tell all my candidates: Leaders are rebels. They don’t adhere to the status quo, they break from it, improve upon it, and make no apologies for doing so. That’s what Haas wants to see here. You need to find a time in which you thought and acted independently. It’s OK if you didn’t reinvent the wheel. Maybe you only added tires or treads. What’s important is that you explain how others thought, why you decided to break from that viewpoint, and how it turned out. It’s even OK if your initiative failed, as long as you successfully made people recognize that there was another way to look at things.

Essay 4. Describe a time when you were a student of your own failure. What specific insight from this experience has shaped your development? (250 words)

If most high-achieving young professionals have a weakness, it’s admitting that they have a weakness. As someone who is hyperaware of my own flaws (all 4,387 of them), this drives me crazy, and I enjoy nothing more than helping my candidates discover all the ways they’ve fallen on their asses throughout their lives. A true failure does indeed require you to fall on your ass, and if you blame it on the slick pavement, you failed to be a student of your own failure. You need to identify your own personal responsibility in the matter, even if you secretly think it was someone else’s fault (that in itself is a failure, by the way). Most importantly, embrace your failure. Don’t mitigate anything. Trying to make your failure sound not as bad as it really was is the biggest failure one can make.

Essay 5. Describe a time when you led by inspiring or motivating others toward a shared goal. (250 words)

If you think about it, every action of leadership requires you to inspire or motivate others in some form or another. The key to this one is that it must be a shared goal. That means this can’t be a story about how you got others to contribute to a cause only you care about. However, if you were able to inspire others to care about your own goal, thereby creating a shared goal, well then you get double bonus points. The important factor here is that you show how you did it, which demonstrates your personal leadership style. Did you push? Did you cajole? Did you make a trade? Did you nurture? There’s no one right answer—we just need to know that you know what works for you.

6. a. What are your post-MBA short-term and long-term career goals? How have your professional experiences prepared you to achieve these goals? b. How will an MBA from Haas help you achieve these goals? (1000 word maximum for 6a. and 6b.)

So much for Kaiseki. After all those little teeny essays, here’s a 1,000-word, American-sized, flame-broiled whopper. In the not-so-distant past, most schools had lengthy goals essays; these days only a couple still do.

Two important things here. First, unlike many goals essays, Haas wants you to talk about your past professional experiences. Don’t go overboard here (150-250 words is appropriate), and don’t just slip in all your professional achievements to make sure you squeezed ‘em in somewhere. Haas wants to know how your career prepared you for your goals. If you’re planning on making a career change, this might seem impossible, but it isn’t. Think about the skills, insights, and experiences you’ve gained that are universally applicable to any career—you’ll be amazed how many there are.

Secondly, don’t skimp on section b. If it’s less than 250 words, you won’t seem to have done thorough enough research on Haas. And since Haas knows they are often viewed as a second choice to other schools (such as their almost-as-crunchy neighbor, Stanford), you need to convince them that you really know the school and really want to go there. And no, using the word “really” a lot of times won’t do the trick. This requires research, folks, and showing that you know why Haas is just right for you. If you’re lucky, it will be—it’s a Helluva program.

See our Haas 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide for more information.

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