By Evan Forster and Cyndy MacDonald, IECA

 In this moving and informative video, educational consultant and LBGTQ activist Evan Forster discusses his path to a complete gender identity. He also talks about college students he has worked with who have struggled with issues relating to sexuality, and gives advice on how to deal with those issues when they arise.

Are you concerned about whether your college is LBGT-friendly? Do you have questions about exploring your identity on campus? Contact us.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

So you want to be a Supreme Court Justice?



 Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Jeff Kubina

So you want to become a Supreme Court Justice, eh? Thinking about assuming the mantle Justice Scalia and others have so proudly worn? Well, hats off to you — it’s a noble profession (most of the time). It’s also the pinnacle of what a lawyer can become in America, unless he’s willing to debase himself enough to enter politics.

It’s easy to understand the appeal. With their lifetime appointments, brilliant clerk teams and challenging cases to evaluate, who wouldn’t want this awesome job? So how do you get to there from here? Make no mistake, it will be a difficult path — but if it’s what you want, don’t let that stop you.


You’ll have to be a spectacular student. It is very helpful to have an Ivy undergraduate degree (albeit not required). What is required is that you graduate at or near the top of your class. After that, you’ll want to go to law school within two or three years of graduating. Attend Harvard or Yale (Stanford, Columbia and Northwestern have also had recent alums placed on the highest court in the land, but those two schools are your best bet by a long shot). Again, you’ll need to be an outstanding student — graduate at or near the top 10% of your class and make it onto Law Review. Ideally, become the chief editor, but this isn’t a requirement.

Done all that? Good! You’re now officially in the running to become a Supreme Court Justice!


After you graduate with your JD, you have a few options.  You don’t have to pursue all of these, but you will certainly want to have at least three of these on your resume by the time you turn fifty to be seriously considered for the highest court in the land.

• Clerk immediately after graduating. Begin with the court of appeals and then make it to the Supreme Court in your second year. This positions you well to transition into government jobs and makes you very attractive to the Supreme Court in the long run, since you already have a good sense of how the court works and have (ghost)written many of their arguments and dissents.

• Enter private practice. While it doesn’t build prestige, it does make you some money and it has a charmingly blue-collar ring to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter that much what kind of private practice you’re doing, as long as you’re building and maintaining the key political connections that will ultimately allow you to get that appointment you’re after.

• Join academia. Five of the nine current justices (counting Scalia, RIP) taught law to undergraduates. Academia allows you to make a name for yourself (and carve out a niche) as a writer and a legal theorist, which makes it very relevant to a job where your opinions are going to be read closely at every law school in America.

• Work in government. Assistant to the US Attorney, Solicitor General, Office of Legal Counsel, and Associate Counsel to the president are some good positions to target for aspiring political operators (and make no mistake, the Supreme Court has highly very political appointment process). You’ll get in front of some of the politicians who are most likely to be making the next choice of who to promote.

• Become a judge.
Getting appointed to the Federal Court of Appeals is a great way to gain visibility and start putting out important opinions with your name on them. It’s also a good way for you to make sure that you actually enjoy being a judge (don’t worry, almost everyone does).


Okay, so you’re in that golden age range (remember, presidents like to appoint ‘young’ justices of about 45-50 years of age so that their choice will last for awhile), you’re in good health, you’ve had a dream career and the president’s got his eye on you. What will be the determining factors that lift you above your equally qualified peers?

• Are you diverse?  Adding some color to the court will always be an attractive bonus at this stage of the game.

• Are you moderate?
  Did you ever allow your opinions to venture too far out of the mainstream? If so, they will almost certainly be used against you during the nomination process. Remember, if you’re signing it, keep it bland!

• Are you well-liked?  Again, the Supreme Court is ultimately a political appointment. Attending the right DC cocktail parties and making friends on both sides of the aisle will hopefully be helping you during this stage of a contentious nomination process.


Hope you enjoy wearing long dark robes to work every day!

(and just in case you’re interested in a legal career that’s a little less lofty, we’d be happy to give you some pointers on that too)

Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Ah, the diversity essay. Prompts like “How will your academic background and experiences will help to contribute to the school’s diverse environment and program?” are an evergreen in the admissions world, and they have been popping up more and more frequently of late. Law schools, in particular, seem to love them as optional prompts, but MPH programs, architecture programs, medical school programs and a wide range of other graduate degrees ask variations of these questions.

So how do you answer it? There's no one size fits all answer, but here are a few important factors to consider.

Diversity doesn’t just mean skin color. Diversity is, at its heart, refers to the experience of being different, being in a minority, because of some aspect of your life over which you have little (or no) control. Think about that definition – it’s broader than it appears at first glance. Women are a majority of human beings on Earth – but female drill sergeants are a distinct minority, and have a diversity story to tell. Contracting an unusual disease, being born with a skin condition, spending a long time living abroad, traveling frequently for work (or because of your parents’ work) … Everybody has a story about being different.

What does it mean to be different? Once you have identified what it is that’s different about you, what makes you stand out from the pack, and described the experience in detail (write more than you think you’ll need, for every essay ever – get the story clear on paper first), the next step is to think about what it meant. What specifically changed in your behavior or your thinking because you had this experience? For instance, the female drill sergeant might write that her experience taught her how to use her unique voice to assert herself and demand respect. Someone struggling with MS might write about adjusting to the experience of feeling ‘watched’ all the time, of coming to terms with being many people’s worst nightmare come to life.

How will you contribute?  One very important component of any diversity essay (and one of the most commonly overlooked) is how you plan to use your experiences to enrich your target program. Schools, like employers, care more about what you’re going to do for them than what you’ve done in the past. Help them make the connection from your past to your present by citing specific examples of how you can improve their school if you are accepted. Talk about student-led clubs you will join, volunteer opportunities you plan to take advantage of, or anything else that catches your fancy.

Still have questions? Feel free to reach out to me anytime.


Article by Ben Feuer. Photo by english106.

The 2016-2017 common application questions have been released into the wild, and they're the same as last year's questions -- so our advice is the same as last year's advice!

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.


1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

If you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here!

3.  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach.  The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it was the turning point in your journey from boy to man or girl to woman.


So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!


Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Denis Denis

As the recent Financial Times ranking shows, the one-year MBA is growing in appeal for students. Let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a great name brand MBA and increased earning potential with less financial and opportunity cost? Programs like INSEAD, Kellogg, LBS and Columbia J-Term attract a diverse range of applicants, and each program has its unique strengths and weaknesses.

What they all have in common, however, is that they require a different mindset than 2-year MBA programs when considering essays, school specific research, recommenders and overall application strategy. While there are many nuances to consider (too many for us to cover in this lil’ ol’ article, sadly), here are some of the must-haves if you intend to focus on one-year programs.

One-Year MBA Must-Haves

1. A clear path to an attainable goal.  Career shifters, reformed literati or those who have recently left their job or taken time off are not strong candidates for one-year MBA programs. You should be employed. Furthermore, you should like your current employer and be comfortable with the prospect of returning to your job after graduation, since your recruitment options will be more limited in this environment. Your goals essay, recommendations, short answers and resume job descriptions should all reflect this attitude consistently.

2. Lots of relevant quantitative experience.  Successful one-year MBA applicants Your recommenders can point to this, but your GMAT, resume and undergraduate field of study will do most of the heavy lifting here. If you are weak in this area, bolster your GMAT score with more test prep or take additional coursework, like Macroeconomics, Microeconomics or Corporate Finance, at local schools with strong national reputations and earn great grades.

3. A History of building strong relationships quickly. The ‘accelerated’ nature of 1-year MBA programs favors sparkplugs over slow burners. Look to your personal history and emphasize past area where you were able to build meaningful professional relationships in short time frames, then emphasize those experiences in your essays (or have your recommenders do it for you).

4. Goldilocks age range.  MBA programs are notoriously age-ist, and the one-year programs are no exception. Older applicants will almost invariably be steered toward EMBA offerings — however, younger applicants are also not strong candidates for one-year programs since they are less well-established in their field and with their contacts.

5. A strong ability to manage your time(line).
One-year MBA offerings are geographically and stylistically diverse. European schools offer many-staged application processes with relatively less preference by stage. US programs sometimes use their traditional MBA deadlines and sometimes do not. Columbia’s J-Term Program is on a different timeline complelety, taking many of its students very early via a rolling admissions process. Successful one-year MBA applicants prepare early and manage their applications carefully to avoid pitfalls.

This article should give you a good general sense of whether you’re right for a one-year MBA program. If you have specific questions about your candidacy or if you want to talk to us about possible alternatives, including Masters in Management, Marketing, JD/MBA, MPM and EMBA programs, feel free to reach out to us anytime.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

An Idiot's Guide to the New PSAT

Photo by Jason Bolonski

The new PSAT is out, and it's making everyone crazy! Fortunately, we're here to help. In this article, Evan Forster and Ben Feuer of Forster-Thomas sit down with Megan Stubbendeck and Sean Quinn of ArborBridge Tutoring, masters of online standardized test prep, to answer all the lingering questions about the test in language so simple even an idiot could understand (hence, our title!)  If you're not super into the reading thing, you can also listen to this conversation in podcast format here.

LEGEND: EF = Evan Forster, MS = Megan Stubbendeck, BF = Ben Feuer, SQ = Sean Quinn

EF: What exactly is the PSAT?

MS: The PSAT is a practice test for the real SAT. For most kids, it's a chance to try out the SAT and see if it’s for you. For some of us, it also matters for national merit scholarship.

EF: So what about the National Merit Scholarship part?

MS: For the next couple of weeks, it’s all about National Merit. It’s a national competition to find the top PSAT performers in each state. So you might get a really high score in NY and be competitive and a sort of high score in Wyoming and be OK.

EF: Are you telling me that I’m in Wyoming, I don’t count?

MS: Actually, it’s almost the opposite!  But either way, The PSAT is just the first step. The kids who get the highest scores get a fancy letter in September saying congrats, you’re a semifinalist or a finalist, and you might get a scholarship depending on you submitting additional application materials.

EF: So depending upon how you score in the PSAT, you might get a chance to move forward in this money-getting process.

MS: Exactly. And it’s not just about the money. On your application, you get to specially designate to colleges that you were a national merit scholar. It makes you look really great and competitive!

EF: Oh, I gotta write that down!

SQ: And some colleges give scholarships specifically based on being a merit finalist. USC used to give half tuition off, and I think they still might.

MS: So for NSMQT or National Merit, cutoff scores are what matter. Only a handful of students who took the PSAT are going to get the letters saying, congrats you get to move on, and it's based on the cutoff. The cutoff, in turn, is based on your selection index, which is in your score report …

EF: So you know me. I have the brain of a fly, I’m all over the place. Explain that again?

MS: When a student gets a PSAT score report, you have two scores. Your total score, which is half math and half writing, and a second score, a few pages later. That is your selection index, which is 1/3rd math, 1/3rd reading and 1/3rd writing. It looks different than your total score, it’s a different scale, but it’s based on the same things.

EF: So what’s the drama about?

MS: For the really top scorers, top 2 percent of all students nationwide, they care about the selection index, the National Merit Competition.

EF: I am a top scorer, tell me who I am.

MS: You are probably looking at Ivy League colleges, a straight A student, taking AP courses. When you saw your percentiles on your PSAT score report, they were 98th or 99th percentile. Your selection index might be 215 or higher …

EF: If I’m in that top index of students, can I actually prep for the PSAT? Should I?

MS: You only get one shot at the test, in October, for national merit, in 11th grade.

SQ: If you are a high performing student and you think you might be eligible, it is important to do a little practice.  As a starting point, there are free resources on Khan Academy. You can take practice tests over the summer before the PSAT. There’s also practice for the new SAT up there.  Working with a tutor for a couple of hours before test day can be very helpful as well.

EF: What is national vs test user percentile and why do I care?

MS: When you open up your score report, right below your total score you’re going to see what’s called your nationwide percentile. It ranks you against other students, so if you’re in the 85th percentile, you performed better than 85 percent of students. This is where the numbers get a little wishy-washy, because they just changed all of this.  This nationwide percentile compares you to every single person in the 11th grade in the United States, including ones who didn’t take the PSAT. The College Board did this by taking a ‘representative sample’ of 11th graders and using them as a reference point. The test user percentile compares you only to people who actually took the PSAT.

EF: So we’re the guinea pig years for this new PSAT, they’re still figuring it out.

MS: There is still a lot of uncertainty, for sure.

EF: What might still be changing in the test?

MS: The College Board, who makes the SAT/PSAT, is making preliminary charts listing percentiles, which basically mean ‘we think this is how things should be scored, but we’re not sure yet’.  The percentiles might go up and down until May.  By May, they’ll have a couple hundred thousand kids taking the exam in March, then they’ll have thousands of kids taking the May SAT, and thousands of kids who take it in April on a special test day. Then they’ll be able to say either the percentiles are cool or they’re garbage.

EF: So I know I keep repeating myself, but I care about the percentiles why?

MS: For most kids, the 98 percent, you look at the percentiles to decide if you are a competitive SAT test taker.

EF: So I’m looking at percentiles and I’m saying I need help or I’m cool, or I might be better off with the ACT. Seems simple enough. I say, take the stress level down.

SQ: I agree. A lot of the anxiety here is unnecessary. What is important to know, though, is that the percentile may be off and may not be the best indicator in whether to take SAT or ACT this year.

BF: The percentiles are off? But if the PSAT isn’t currently a good predictor of how you’re going to do on the SAT, what’s the advantage to taking it?

MS: It’s not that it’s a bad predictor of how you’re going to do to on the SAT. It helps you predict your SCORE very accurately. They actually just tweaked the numbers so that if you took the PSAT on a certain day, if you had taken the SAT on the same day, you would have gotten the exact same score. But the percentile predictor is less reliable. That said, it’s still worth taking to get an idea of which test to take, which colleges you might have a shot at, and your eligibility for national merit.

EF: I, for one, would suggest taking the PSAT for all the reasons Megan just laid out plus one more – you’re going to learn how to take on some pressure and stress, and it gives you an opportunity to grow and take on the whole college process in a more powerful way.

BF: So I watched your video about how to read your PSAT score report, and it was great! You mentioned question difficulty ratings. Are higher difficulty questions worth more points?

SQ: No. They’re telling you difficulty level so you can better prepare for the SAT.

BF: Will there be the same proportion of difficult and easy questions?

MS: Sort of. There will be on the SAT some additional hard topics you didn’t see on PSAT because you have more time in school and should know more math and grammar.

EF: I’ve been hearing PSAT scores are higher now.

SQ: There’s no controversy over the scores, 800 or 1400. It’s all over the percentiles. The percentiles seem to be higher than they have been in previous years.

EF: Why do I care?

MS: Because not everyone is taking the same test.

EF: So this is where the money is!
MS: Students often use percentiles to decide which test to take. I got 85th percentile on SAT and only 72nd percentile on the ACT. I must be a better SAT test taker, I’m going to take the SAT!  If percentiles are inflated, it makes it harder for students to decide which test is better for them.

EF: Ah. Well, I can see the business reasons for that. What I have to say about that is, ‘be careful’.

MS: Yes. We actually have pulled and analyzed the first day of data from the test by taking all the College Board publications and following their formulas. It looks like at the very high end and low end, the percentiles are in a good place. In the middle, there’s a real bell curve, and you might be seeing 5 to 10 percentile points of inflation.

EF: So what can we do about it?

SQ: Always take an ACT diagnostic. The ACT’s scoring has not changed, so their percentile is reliable. You can use that as a point of comparison. This is a tough year for the SAT – we don’t know how colleges will view the new SAT scores yet.

EF: Yeah, but without being too Pollyannaish, I think colleges have done a great job handling all the recent changes – CA4, hidden supplementals, you name it. It seems to me that admissions offices are fair, they know where they’re getting their information and it’s more holistic than people realize.

MS: Yes, I agree. Even though there’s a bit of flux going on, colleges are smart. Admissions people know how to deal with this stuff. They’re going to iron it out. The most important thing is that you choose the test you’re most comfortable with and go from there.

EF: In fact, I think life is about constant change. As simple and as corny as that may sound, instead of looking at things that are new as one more hurdle, you should look at it as an opportunity to take on a challenge and be as powerful as you can be. When you swim in a race, swim in your lane. Stop looking to the left and the right and just move forward powerfully and take it on. You’re gonna be great.


By Ben Feuer, Photo by Susan Solinski

Top MBA programs are getting more competitive every year, and finance and consulting remain two of the most popular destinations for graduates. So what should you do if you are looking to transition into one of these areas from a startup, an engineering role or even a completely unrelated field?  It's a long road, but we're here to help!

The first step is to make the problem manageable. Break down your application into its four major components and think about each of them separately.

1. Your stats.
For those looking to enter finance from less quantitatively rigorous fields like marketing, Quant GMAT and demonstrated interest in key topics like Economics, Financial Accounting and Calculus are extremely valuable.  For tech nerds and Indian or East Asian applicants, it's equally important to show strong quant verbal and a dedicated interest in writing/literature topics.  In either situation, if your candidacy is weak in a core number (GPA, GMAT or GRE), consider taking outside courses or mini-MBA programs to boost your bona fides. Remember, stats show your ability to handle an MBA workload, and you can't get into school without them.

2.  Your essays.
Career shifters need to start working on their goals essays earl in the process. Why?  Because having a clear, concrete goal in mind is an absolute essential when you are looking to make a change. Schools want to see that you have thought your decision through carefully and that you are prepared to make the most of the contacts and education they can provide you with.
Another important reason? You need to be able to tell your recommenders why you want to get an MBA so they can know how to shape your recommendation letters accordingly.

For career shifters, goals should be --

Simple.  I want to go from branding to consulting. I want to go from back-room IT to finance. I want to go from trading to buy-side.  From A to B.

Specific.  You need to cite exactly what role you plan to fill and what firm you plan to do it at. Choose a firm that actually recruits at the school you are applying to, please.

EXAMPLE: Immediately after graduation, I plan to become a management consultant. My preferred firm is Bain, because in my view they are the best at balancing a thoughtful approach to charity work with traditional management consulting, and my background is in non-profits, so I would like to continue doing good even as I do well.

Achievable.  Don't say you want to go from a big law assistant right into a venture capital maven -- that's unrealistic and business schools won't want to take a gamble on you. Instead, say that your plan is to start out at a late-stage startup in a development role and then transition to venture capital.

3.  Your recommenders.
It is very important to prep your recommenders by having an extended conversation about your career plans and why an MBA is a necessary next step. They may not know (or care) about your future field, and therefore they may have no sense of what sorts of skills will be important in it. Your job is to explain that to them (and remind them of times when you demonstrated those qualities), so they can turn around and sell those qualities in your rec letter!

If you are getting a letter of support from a donor or prominent alum, make sure they know your professional plans as well. You don't want to risk putting them in an awkward situation!

4. Your resume.
There's an old saying that goes, "Dress for the job you want to have, not the job you currently have".  Never is that more true than on an MBA resume as a career shifter, where you are essentially selling yourself to the committee as a someone with great potential in a brand new field. Look at each job on your resume -- are you emphasizing the aspects of your job that relate to what you want to be doing, instead of the ones you happened to do a lot of in the past?

Often for a career shifter resume, the first bullet point under a job description will be something you did once, or maybe a couple of times, while your day to day responsibilites will be downplayed. That's because you're showing potential, not accomplishment, on this resume.

As always, don't underestimate the power of volunteering and school extracurriculars to boost your achievements and overall 'wow' factor.

*** *** ***

Career shifting isn't easy under any circumstances, but having a degree from Wharton or MIT in your pocket certainly can make it a smoother ride. Give yourself the best chance of getting into your top choice program by following these tips -- and if you want to know more, drop us a line!


By Ben Feuer, Photo by Marco Bellucci

Feedback. We all need it – if we’re smart, we’re always asking for it – but how good are we at actually using it? Here at Forster-Thomas our job is to give honest (sometimes brutal) feedback to people who are applying to school so they can do a better job of applying to school. Sometimes the job is easy – more often than not, it’s really hard. It all depends on what kind of guy (or gal, gender FTW) you have sitting across the table (or Skype-chat) from you.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know.

This is our favorite kind of guy to work with – he’s almost always smart, dependable and open because he knows who he is and why he’s here – he’s great at what he does, and he’s comfortable outsourcing what he’s not great at to others.

Think of it this way -- if I dropped you in the middle of a steel mill right now and said, send the hot slag into the vibratory tumbler to de-burr it, then use the lathe to shape it as it cools and make sure to respect all the standard factory workload requirements (PS don’t cut your right hand off), you’d say, um, a little help please, a little clarification? In other words, you’d know you didn’t know, and you would make smarter decisions because of that.

If you just said to yourself, yeah, but applying to school isn’t like that, then you are not this guy. Admissions is exactly like that. Who makes the decisions? What are they based on? What are the big turn-ons and turn-offs of adcoms? You don’t know. That’s because they’re secretive, and they change pretty much every year as new deans come in and new university strategies take hold.

This guy knows he doesn’t know. That’s why he almost always gets what he wants in the end.

The guy who knows he doesn’t know, but pretends he knows.

But because of ego or anxiety (or more accurately both, since they’re two sides of the same coin), certain candidates decide their job is not to complete the admissions process but rather to game it. These people fixate on the one or two crumbs of information they do collect and (never bothering to independently verify it) decide it’s the most important thing they ever heard. We sometimes call this the ‘shiny’ effect.

“Someone secretly told me who went to U Chicago that the University really likes people with marketing background – shouldn’t I go back and rewrite my entire history to make it look like I know a lot about marketing?”

“Um, no, because you’re a finance guy and everything you’ve ever done proves that. Your job is to be the best you – remember?”

“Yeah but – my friend said!”

“And how many years has he spent on the admissions committee? How many applications has he read?”


This guy is so busy pretending to be a newly minted expert that he forgets to focus on his real job – being and knowing himself.

The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know.

One real application-killer is lack of self-awareness. You run into it all the time when you get to the interview stage, as anyone who’s been on the other side of that table will tell you. People will walk in that door convinced they have themselves (and you) figured out. Sometimes it really gets ridiculous – I’ve had candidates recount interviews to me where I had to tell them, “You just told your interviewer who he was and how to do his job. How do you think he liked that?” Answer – not very much.

it can be a huge problem with essays and recommenders as well. The guy who doesn’t know he doesn’t know has zero introspection skills. He’s never really thought about why he does what he does and he sees no reason to start now. Instead, he pulls convenient labels off the shelf (I’m a natural leader, I’m a team player, I’m a smart, confident empire builder) that he thinks will appeal to admissions. It's not that he’s lying – it’s more like he has a massive blind spot. He really believes he never had a drinking problem, and that he loves every member of his family equally, and that all his peers willingly defer to him all day.

The reason this guy is so hard to help is because he feels so comfortable in his ‘not-knowing’ situation. Unlike the previous two guys I described, he doesn’t even think he has a problem! Yikes.

What to do?

If you recognize yourself in one (or more) of these people, congratulations! You’re not guy #3. But no matter who you are, you still need honest, unbiased feedback if you want to present the best version of yourself to the admissions committee. No guy is an island – so don’t put yourself on one!


By Ben Feuer, Photo by Gabriel Millos

So you picked your topic, you worked over your language until it's flawless, but your essay still doesn't have that 'spark'.  You have two choices -- continue to revise, or start over with a completely new idea.  Most people find that prospect so terrifying that they never even consider it, but it is a viable option.  Sometimes writers (particularly beginning writers) simply fail on their first effort.  It's not a personal shortcoming, it just reflects how challenging the process of essay writing really is.

How do you know if you're better off submitting what you have, or starting over?  There's no definitive answer, but there ARE some helpful things to consider.

Brainstorm Early and Often

How can you know you've written the right essay if you haven't even brainstormed what other topics you might choose to write about?  One of the reasons people find rewriting from scratch so scary is that they don't know what else to write about.  Having arrived at a topic they consider 'suitable', they immediately throw away every other idea they had.  This type of 'convergent' thinking is very unproductive when it comes to writing essays, or creative writing more generally.  Usually, what's needed are fresh new ideas -- even if they don't result in completely rewriting the essay, they can offer a new perspective on the essay you already have.

Written brainstorms should be one or two paragraphs long, and should focus exclusively on 'the story' -- what, who, where and a lot of why.  It's doubly important to write brainstorms when it's just you working on the essays alone, because it will force you to remember details you wouldn't have retained otherwise.

Use Your Readers Effectively

Whether they're professionals or friends, your readers play an important role in evaluating your essays.  They're the objective third parties you need to make the best decision.  That said, it is very possible to listen TOO closely to notes and get lost in the weeds.

The rule of thumb is this -- pay a lot of attention to the big picture of people's advice (How did the essay make them feel about you?  Did it inspire trust, confidence, affection?  Was it confusing or boring?) and take the little picture with a grain of salt.  You don't need to worry about whether 'that sentence makes you look weird'.  You need to worry about the overall impression the essay is making.  Consensus matters -- independent opinions are valuable (which is why, at Forster-Thomas, we have many layers of people read the essays!)

Another rule of thumb with readers -- the better they know you personally, the less useful they are.  They've already formed opinions about you -- when they read your essay, it's going to be with those opinions (and that knowledge) already in mind.

Have High Standards -- Good Isn't Good Enough

When it comes to a decision to rewrite an essay, often the final choice hinges on your personal taste and standards.  Too many people are willing to sign their name to 'just OK' essays, send them in and hope for the best.  

A better approach is to look at the process as a process.  You have a time limit, and a finish line, but there's no award for finishing first (although with certain schools, like Columbia Early Decision, there is an advantage to early submitters).  The prize goes to the strongest overall application.  So if you don't love your essay, and you still have time to try again, you should probably try again.  If worst comes to worst, you'll always have your old essay to fall back on.

Operating without a safety net is always intimidating, but in the end, your essays and your application will be better because of the extra effort you took.  Stay focused and don't give up on the process!  As they're fond of saying on The X-Files, the truth is out there ...

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Evan Forster: The Co-Founder Speaks

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Interview by Ben Feuer.

What did you do before Forster-Thomas?

At the very beginning, I was a screenwriter.  I earned my MFA at UCLA and wrote.  While I was doing that I worked a bunch of different jobs to make ends meet.  I was a personal fitness trainer for awhile, which is kind of funny to think about now.  After a few years of that I got into writing for magazines and became very successful at that – I edited Seventeen Magazine for a few years.  While all this was happening, I picked up some extra money on the side by helping people write essays for college.  This was before there was an educational consulting industry, although there were educational consultants – they were the people who hired me.  It was all word of mouth, friends of friends.  I had a three-step process, which for the life of me I can’t remember today.  All I know is it had three steps.

So, how did Forster-Thomas get started?

A kid, Dan, called me one day out of the blue.  He had heard I helped people write essays.  But he wasn’t working on college essays, he was applying to business school.  He asked if I wanted to help him with his application.  And I said, sure, sounds interesting.

So I went online and I checked out the essay questions – and it was kind of a revelation.  I felt like this was what had I been waiting for all this time.  I mean, I had done EST, hung out with the Dalai Lama, so it’s not like it was this spiritual revelation or anything.  But I thought the questions were really deep, insightful, challenging.  I thought, ‘there’s a real art to answering these correctly’.  So I said to Dan, take a risk with me.  Don’t just write some safe answers – answer these questions honestly.  Show them who you really are.  And that’s how Forster-Thomas, the oldest MBA coaching firm of them all, began!

How would you characterize Forster-Thomas?

We’re selective and we’re distinctive. Most people like us, but there’s a certain percentage who just aren’t interested in working hard to get great essays.  We always weed them out pretty quickly, one way or another.  Our free candidacy assessments are completely unique — that much we know.  Plus, we reallly get MBA applicants.  We should, we’ve been doing this for long enough!

What’s the most insightful thing a candidate has said to you this year?

I was working with this Olympic swimmer candidate for college. 1/10th of a second is the difference between winning and losing for this guy. And he told me he wanted to bring that Olympic level of effort to everything he does.  I thought that was beautiful.

What’s the craziest thing?

Auntie Evan, you’re wrong.  No … Auntie Evan, you’re right. 

The fact is, I’m not wrong or right — I’m just a collection of ideas.  it’s up to you to implement them in your own life.

Tell me a story from your childhood – the way you might ask a b-school candidate to open up about her past.

In seventh grade, I went to a sleepaway summer camp.  Every single night I heard all the kids singing a campfire song that ended, “Evan Forster is a fag.”  I lived through a lot of stuff like that. It sounds crazy to say this, but it taught me the value of kindness, how essential it really is.

What are some of your favorite books?

A Winter’s Tale.  Anything about a girl finding herself, I’m in for that.  But I like reading all kinds of different stuff -- stories, essays, tweets.  They all need beginnings, middles and endings or they’re useless.  And yes, that goes for your admissions material too.

Any final words of advice?

Be Olympic.