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?


  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 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?

Wondering what undergraduate major best positions you for a successfuly career in finance? Evan Forster has the answer, and it might surprise you. 

This is a shout out to parents, high school students, and undergrads choosing their majors. Simply put, liberal arts majors can fare better in graduate business school admissions than finance majors do.

I deal with a great many undergrads and their parents who argue that getting an undergrad finance degree is the best way to serve them on their path to success, their track to getting into HBS, and ultimately having successful business careers. While certainly there are those who go from being undergrads at Wharton, Ross, McIntire, and a handful of other great undergraduate business programs to the most competitive jobs on Wall Street, another entire (and in some ways more competitive) group are economics, political science, and even English majors from selective schools like Amherst, Williams, and Colgate.

Not only do we see our own college candidates eventually get these jobs, we see the resumes of our legions of MBA candidates. There is a reason why these candidates get snapped up by the likes of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and, eventually, Columbia Business School. The reason is this: strong critical thinking and leadership skills. A strong liberal arts background develops leaders—people who can think across the board and are not limited to their understanding of spreadsheets and quarterly projections.

This is not to say that having great accounting skills is unimportant. Any Wall Street-bound or pre-MBA college student should take calculus, microeconomics, statistics, and accounting. But these classes are not enough. Understanding the human condition through Shakespeare signifies that the candidate is operating on a higher level—the analytical ability such classes develop improve your problem-solving skills and add intellectual nimbleness. Critical thinking skills come from writing a paper on comparative literature or comparative religion, not from comparing the bottom lines of year-end reports.

In short, and with all due respect, people who have really strong liberal arts backgrounds hire those who have the ability to run a calculator. That's the difference, folks. If your goal is to ensure getting a job just outside of college, then yes, you probably want to major in accounting. And if you want to get a really great accounting job, go to Ross undergrad. If you want to get into graduate school at Ross and eventually transform GM, take some good quantitative coursework. But major in French. 

Worried that the person writing your letter of receommendation might inadvertently do you wrong? Then take control and help him/her do right. Evan Forster tells you how.

There's nothing worse than having to write a recommendation. NOTHING. I speak from experience when I say that it absolutely sucks.

Here's the deal: If you want a really great recommendation, help your recommender help you. First, let's dispel the myth that you can't read your recs. When you go into the application to submit the names and email addresses of your recommenders, you are asked if you "waive your right to see the recommendation." Waiving your right is commonly misunderstood to mean that it is illegal or unethical for you to read your recommendation before it is submitted. This is not true. Waiving your right does not mean that you have never read the recommendation. What is means is that, should you be admitted to the school and therefore have the ability to look at your application file, you agree to let the recommendations remain sealed. This is supposed to make your recommender feel free to be completely honest with the committee.

With that out of the way, let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with helping your recommender as he or she prepared to write your recommendation. No one expects him or her to recall all of your great moments in history. So how do you help him or her? You provide your recommender with examples (bullet point format is great) of your growth, accomplishments, and moments of leadership. This will aid them in painting a fuller picture of you and giving insight into your candidacy otherwise not expressed anywhere else in your application.

So, in the case of college recommendations, make a list of great papers you've written, growth you had in grasping difficult material, large improvements in test scores, or an extracurricular activity for which that teacher was the advisor. For general graduate and law school admissions, do the same. In the case of an MBA, your recommender will have very specific questions to answer regarding the how, what, where, when, and why of you, and it would be really smart if you went thought the questions and gave possible talking points to your recommender. But whether its college, graduate, or business school, the overarching point is--one ultimate thing has to happen: specific examples! I cannot stress this enough: particularly examples of leadership!

So, if you launched a new chess club in your high school or led a volunteer day at Barclays Capital for elementary school students in Chicago's South Side, provide that in a list of examples to your recommender.

The last important thing to ask of every recommender, whether for college or graduate school, is to review his or her response to questions about a weakness that you had to deal with or overcome. You want to be careful that your recommendation is not a giant commercial. You're not Prince Charming, you're not Nelson Mandela, you're not the new iPhone. In the absence of some kind of weakness or criticism, your rec reads like a 30-second commercial and ultimately has less credibility. Remember, weaknesses are opportunities for growth, not candidacy killers.

The only topics to skirt completely are: bad leadership skills, shyness, bad verbal communication skills, fear of confrontation.