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

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This Is MBA Science (Not to Mention PG-13)

Auntie Evan, the alter-ego of Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster, teams up with the Queen Of All Written Media, Katie, for a scientific study of the relationship between writing MBA admissions essay and drinking...oh, and sex. 

A lot of you have been emailing and asking about how to create great candidacies. Last week, as Katie moved into her new self-proclaimed role as Queen of All Written Media at Forster-Thomas (aka “blog slut”), we received an email from Chase in Martha’s Vineyard asking, “Is it true that drinking and sex help you write better MBA essays?” At first, we just laughed and shrugged it off.  We were about to tackle another, more conservative question about timelines for choosing recommenders. But we just couldn’t get Chase’s question out of our heads, and a worthy question it is: Do drinking and sex really help with the creative process of writing?

So, Katie and I donned our lab coats and did some investigating (and experimenting). Here are 10 of our highly scientific findings on the science of drinking, sex and writing MBA admissions essays.

  1. Having sex releases endorphins. Endorphins help you write. This is science.
  2. Drinking low-end whiskey is bad for writing. Switch to single-malt. This is science.
  3. Drinking lowers your inhibitions, so you won’t be as worried about what the AdCom thinks, and you will therefore take more risks with your topics. Hence, your essays will be more interesting. This is science.
  4. Taking a stand and kicking your evil neighbor’s ass is perhaps even better than sex, and also releases endorphins. As we’ve discussed, endorphins help you write better. This is science.
  5. Some people don’t take MBA essays seriously. These people don’t get into top MBA programs.  These people also don’t drink. This is science.
  6. Katie can tell you if your essays are any good. She’s copyedited over 1,000 essays. This is definitely science.
  7. Research confirms that many people feel that they are better able to write in the morning when they are fresh and rested. Research also confirms that a lot of other people are more creative after 5 pm, when they are drinking and sloppy. This is also science.
  8. People who play drinking games are more competitive than those who don’t. Being competitive makes you a better candidate. This again is science.
  9. A lot of people get into top MBA programs despite their drinking problems. (Don’t give up.) This is science.
  10. It’s 5pm somewhere. Drinking makes essays better. This is science. 

 

--Auntie Evan and Katie


Since Wharton's new MBA essay question is bound to induce some head scratching, Auntie Evan and Uncle David are here to show you the way.

Reinventing oneself, one's business, or one's organization is the key to success. So when a school comes out with a host of new questions and shakes it up, as the Wharton School of Business did this year, it reaffirms my faith in the power and excellence of that school. Changing things up is one of the hallmarks of leadership. It creates a state of risk, of throwing caution to the wind, and it is in that construct wherein people reveal their true nature.

So let me begin by saying, there is no right answer. Do not try to "game" this question.

Certainly, do not question whether or not you're saying the right thing. For me, when I am presented with an opportunity of any kind-from dinner with friends, to job offers-I know I go into a complete tizzy. "What will I give up if I don't say yes?" is my usual question. Who won't I meet? What won't I learn? Where will I not go, and how will I not grow?"

Many of you are going to look at Wharton's "Opportunity" question as follows: What did I lose? What skill set did I not gain? What mistake did I make by not saying yes? But I love this question, because Wharton is giving you a possibility to explore something that many this year will overlook. The obvious way to tackle it is to talk about what you gave up. But the much more interesting, fresh, and mature way to look at it might be: What did I gain by saying "No"? While I may have closed a door, what door opened?

Years ago, I was given the opportunity to write my first feature article forNew York magazine. It was a big deal. The topic was gay/straight alliances and the high school students who launched them in New York City's elite private schools. This article would put my name on the map, taking me up and away from being the upfront writer of 200-word front-of-the-book pieces, as I had been for several years. So I went for it with gusto.

But after I sent in my first draft, a senior editor of New York Magazinewhom I will call Jennifer, called me and said, in so many words, "It's not trashy enough." I remember distinctly her saying "Aren't the straight kids involved really gay? Can't you get them to admit it? To come out?" I was stunned, although I shouldn't have been. After all, it was New York Magazine! What was I expecting?

Well, I was expecting an ethically based, balanced look at this new wave of civil rights and maturity in the world of New York City's teenage population. I tried to explain this to Jennifer, and she simply wasn't having it. Essentially, she drew a line in the sand-and this is an exact quote: "If you don't rewrite this story the way I am telling you to rewrite it, you'll never be hired by Caroline Miller to write for New York Magazine again." I'm not going to get into whether she was wrong or right. In fact, if you think about it, Jennifer was right. After all, that's what New York Magazine is all about-scintillating pop culture pieces that border on salacious. That's what makes New York Magazine such a success, whether you like it or not (you know you love it, and you know you would've picked up that magazine a lot faster had I done what Jennifer had asked. I know I would have).

But, given who I am, at the end of the day, I simply could not bring myself to do it. And anybody who's read my book or my blogs knows I'm happy to take a risk-there is simply, for me, a limit. In this case, the limit was "outing" already-confused and hormonally-challenged teenagers. I said no to the opportunity, and Jennifer hung up the phone, but not before repeating that I "would never write for New York Magazineagain." One month later, I was hired to do a story about the closing of a New York institution, the Barney's store downtown.

When searching for the circumstance, event, or relinquished and/or missed opportunity to write your essay about, ask not only "what did I give up?", but "what did I gain?" That's the key. That's going to reveal your ability to think, and ultimately lead, at a higher level. (I'm not saying ya can't write about the more obvious "what did I lose or give up by saying no?". I'm just saying that whatever you write about, you want to push yourself to truly examine it, and reveal your ability to consider it at a level higher than the next guy or gal. Anyway, that's the Forster-Thomas way.)

For a more nuts-and-bolts way of approaching this question, read what Uncle David has to say:

The new "Opportunity" essay question reads as follows:

"Reflect on a time when you turned down an opportunity. What was the thought process behind your decision? Would you make the same decision today?" (600 words)

I love this question! This year (in addition to a 300-word goals essay) you get to choose 3 out of 4 questions. I love this particular question because, at its heart, it's a question about how you make decisions. What is your analytical style? Do you make decisions based on data, your gut, the people involved, the nature of the opportunity, the time-frame, etc? There are a million variables that can factor into a decision-making process, and this essay will teach the Ad Com a lot about you based on which factors are important to you. So, as with the old ethical dilemma essays, I see a clear five-paragraph paradigm: 1) describe the opportunity; 2) what are the pros and cons of pursuing the opportunity and why are they meaningful to you; 3) what are the pros and cons of rejecting the opportunity and why are they meaningful to you; 4) how did you make your decision; 5) would you make the same decision today and WHY or WHY NOT. In fact, I'd go so far as to explore where you actually have been in a similar circumstance and what you have done.

Again, the most important thing is that there is no right or wrong answer. Opportunity always involves risk, so this essay could be about how you weigh risk versus reward, but I see this essay as potentially much more interesting than that if it pulls back the curtain and lets the Ad Com know how you think, what matters to you, and how you make decisions.

The worst mistake you can make is trying to figure out what they want to hear, and Auntie Evan I will continue to say this each time we give our thoughts on how to approach questions, new or old, from any school.


You don't have to be a mother to write great admissions essays. But as Evan Forster explains, knowing how to raise a critter sure is helpful. 

Uncle David once said in regard to good writing: “First you have to give birth to the baby. Then you can raise it to be President of the United States.” When I heard that, my first thought was, What does David know about having babies? My second thought was, What does this have to do with writing?

Since my dear friend Pia, mother of two perfect girls, had her own saying about birthin’ babies—something to the effect of “Get this alien thing out of my body!”—I asked her what Uncle David may have meant. “It means, ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself!’” she said.  “First you have to pop the kid out before you can make something of it. With that, Pia said, “I have to go. Lily will never be President someday if she doesn’t make it to her algebra tutorial THIS day!”

So, writing essays is like birthin’ babies...they don’t spring out of your forehead like Athena, perfectly formed: You have to raise them, guide them, nurture them.

As often as I tell my candidates this, they just as often forget it. The other day, I received an all-too-common phone call from Julia, a top-notch candidate with great writing skills. She was in a complete panic: “I’ve been staring at my computer screen for hours, and I can’t get past the first sentence of my leadership essay!” she whined.

Despite the fact that we had chosen the subject matter and gone over every detail of her essay about launching the first-ever Cornell Young Alumni Program, she could barely put the first words—“it was January of 2009”—on the page. She was pounding herself with questions. Should she start off with, “It was late on a Friday afternoon in January”? Or was it better to be specific, and write “It was 4pm”? Should she then follow it up with a description of the warring personalities in the group’s Executive Committee? And, if so, should she mention all of their first names, or just two? The list went on and on.

Julia is far from our only candidate who is overly concerned about being perfect, and who has second-guessed herself before putting a single word on the page.

“Should I… What if I… Would it be better if I...” are simply pointless questions at the initial stage of essay writing. They only serve to spin your wheels. Your essay is like that baby in the womb—it doesn’t have to be perfect right away. You actually have to give birth to something complete, with a beginning, middle, and end, before you can correct and re-correct (or edit and re-edit) all of the flaws that come with a newborn essay.

So, what’s the key to a great essay?

Steps:

  1. Throw caution to the wind.
  2. Ignore yourself.
  3. Push that first draft out of you.

NOW, you can edit.

So people, it’s essay season. Start writing, and whatever comes out, comes out. You’ll deal with whatever happens after you give birth to the first draft. But in the absence of a first draft, you cannot possibly raise it to be the President-of-the-United-States draft that you know it can be. 


Think your voting record could harm your chances of admissions at a top MBA program?  Evan Forster tells you why you've got nothing to hide (well, as long as you never supported Ross Perot) 

During the 2008 presidential primaries, I was speaking to Leslie, a staunch young Republican whose extracurricular activity was leading a group of twentysomethings in their effort to elect Mitt Romney for president. Despite the many raised eyebrows from her Northeastern liberal coworkers—and the knock-down, drag-out arguments Leslie and I had about the reality of climate change’s impact on the threat to the Spotted Owl and good vacation weather in Miami—I encouraged this candidate to be out and proud with her beliefs, particularly in the context of “Romney for President.” Similarly, I encouraged Leslie’s liberal counterpart to write about a successful effort to help Hillary Clinton win the New Hampshire primary. Interestingly, both were worried that the Harvard Business School Admissions Board would discriminate against them for their strong beliefs.

All viewpoints, perspectives, values, religions, and political leanings are not only welcome in your essays, they are encouraged.

One of the worst things a candidate can do is be watered-down or apologetic about who they are—especially if his or her beliefs do not fall in line with those whom they “think” are reading their essays. But admissions officers are people too—all kinds of people—and most particularly, they are people who want their College, Graduate, MBA, or medical school communities to be comprised of all kinds of thinkers.

All too often, candidates (not to mention their parents) hold the misconception that admissions officers are either left-wing academic liberals or, in the case of business and law school, old right-wing businessmen stuck in the fifties. The truth is, admissions officers are looking to build a well-rounded class made up of diverse individuals with unique backgrounds and opposing points of view. And this includes leaders who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in and achieve goals that make a difference.

So, in your essays, be who you really are. Don’t water them down by taking the advice of people who “flatten you out.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about equality, do you think he meant “now” or “when you get a moment”? I cannot tell you how many strong candidates have come to us the year after they were rejected by their top choices because they had taken the advice of a well-meaning father, older brother, current b-school student, or admissions consultant who projected their own fears onto that candidate’s great, edgy, and, yes, opinionated essays.

Tucked away in too many resumes, I have found a mention of the candidate’s having launched a Muslim Students Association at Brandeis, a Gay-Straight Alliance at Howard University, or an NRA chapter at Brown. And yet, these topics/accomplishments never ended up in any of their essays. 

“How is this possible?” I’d ask in that initial consultation. The answer was all-too-often the same: “I had it in there, but my father/mother/friend urged me to take it out.” And sure enough, the essays were all-too-often about a sneaker drive for inner-city children or the never-controversial association with Habitat for Humanity. These are fine. But consider the immortal words of my mother when my stepfather tells her she looks “Just fine”: “I don’t do ‘just fine.’” Neither do top admissions officers: They want the best leaders, thinkers, and achievers of all stripes.

So to those of you who are gay, straight, or yes, even Republican, and have supported gun control or the right to bear arms, come out come out (in your essays), wherever you are. 


Evan Forster talks about how to decide between business schools once you've been accepted...to more than one.

"Stop your crying!" I said to Arun, and later to Linda, not to mention a bunch of other Forster-Thomas candidates who were recently accepted to more than one of their top MBA program choices. That's what I call a high-class problem.

So you got into several of your top MBA choices—say, both Kellogg and Booth—and now you don't know what to do? First things first: You don't choose a school by its ranking in a magazine or because your mother wants to wear its name like that bright red Hermes scarf at her bridge game.

The first rule of thumb: Ask yourself what the school is going to do for you in the long run. Will it help you get the job you want, tackle the career change you want to make and/or, of course, ultimately help you, as Gandhi would say, "be the change you wish to see in the world"? Ok, ok, I know you rolled your eyes on the last one, but an Aunt can dream. For example, if you're relatively weak in the quant area, no one doubts that a Booth MBA received an extremely rigorous quant education. That said, don't make the choice based on upfront cost. The differences in tuition among MBA programs are negligible in the long run. After you've considered the long-term benefits the school has for you, go and re-visit. Attend admit weekend. Hang with the people. These people are not only going to be your classmates, but they are going to be your friends and contacts forever. If you don't like them now, chances are that's not going to change much.

Which brings up another point: Where are recent alumni now? Yes, yes, we know that Warren Buffett went to Columbia Business School. But really, how's that going to help you? Find out where the recent MBA grads are now—three years, five years, seven years out—and talk to them. Also, word to the wise: Don't drink too much at admit weekend, and do go home alone—you don't want to have a reputation before you get there. (Oh, we've heard stories ... also see "Admit Weekend Crashers" ... it's not exactly what we're talking about, but it's damn funny).

Back to decision-making in the light of day: Ultimately, the reason visiting is so important is that when you step onto the campus, you're going to get a feeling. It's unexplainable. It's just one of those things that you know. You feel it. After all your research is done, use your heart, not your head. On that note, consider that you might meet the man or woman you're going to marry. An Aunt can dream.

—Auntie Evan


Forster-Thomas's interview-skills specialist, Sarah Blanton, on the most important things to keep in mind when doing a school interview. 

If you have an admissions interview, rest assured that you've jumped the first major hurdle towards getting accepted. They already think you're smart, ambitious, accomplished and, most of all, qualified (otherwise they wouldn't be wasting their time).

Your challenge in the interview is to take about half an hour to an hour to make an impression that will match or exceed their expectations of you. At the end of the day, most applicants have competitive grades and scores, relatively similar accomplishments professionally, and strong personal qualities according to their recommendations. The interview is an opportunity to set yourself apart with your personality.

Share your thoughtfulness, your charisma, your sense of humor, your edge, your grace, your spirituality... but don't force it. The interview is not a stand-up routine, nor is it a potential soap box. Allow the interviewer to kick off conversation, but be able to guide it. A successful interview is one where the interviewer asks the usual formulaic questions and the applicant takes these bland questions in new and fun directions. Trust that your unique characteristics will come through.

Show some excitement—whatever it might be about—and be sure that the stories and experiences that have shaped you, are shared (regardless of whether the interviewer has asked the exact question you hope for). There's no better interview than the one where the interviewer hears a new twist on an old question. That's memorable.

In short, make the interviewer wish he or she could continue the conversation over a drink, or make him or her wish you'd been there in class when he or she was in b-school, but most of all, be that applicant who inspires the thought, "Wow, I met the most interesting applicant the other day...", for that is the final piece to the application puzzle: Are you someone they want in their community now, for the two years of business school, and into the future as a member of the alumni network?