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.