by Evan Forster

So you want to go to Columbia? You and everybody else. There are a ton of things you need to do amazingly well to have a shot. This is about perhaps the most important one – your essays. Don’t overcomplicate this advice, but don’t dismiss it either, after twenty-five years of a near-perfect success rate, believe me, I know of what I speak.

Essay #1: Through your resume and recommendations, we have a clear sense of your professional path to date. What are your career goals going forward, and how will the Columbia GSB MBA help you achieve them? (100-750 words)

College is for finding yourself. Grad school is for people who know what they want. So don’t tell me you’re “not sure yet,” “thinking about it,” or “going to figure it out while I am there.” That means pretty much game over at a place like Columbia Business School, or any b-school for that matter. Think about it. All things being equal—your grades, scores and experience—the only aspect of your candidacy that says “I have a vision that you and your community want to be a part of” is that specific long term goal, something bigger, better and bolder.

So when Steve began to see b-school as more than a mere opportunity to gain some skillz, a resume bump and a better job, he drew that much closer to the gates. Steve, who was in a large real estate management and investment firm, realized that after three years of seeing possible development deals in Detroit glossed over in favor of a quick transactions, he wanted to help transform communities in his backyard through real estate.(Note the little bit of background about himself.) Basically, he saw the possibility of Brooklyn and London’s East End everywhere. And that’s what he wrote about—how CBS would take him from one small rehabbed building to Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill or Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan neighborhood springing up in 8 Mile. I’m not saying you have to create a tectonic plate shift on the planet, but you do have to at least be up something greater than yourself if you’re going to stand out.

So sit down and figure out what you want to do long term, and make sure it’s not just working at a hedge fund. (Sigh) Look into your life and see what’s missing –at work or at play—and consider what you could do to fix it. Give us the context of why you want to be a part of this change and how it relates to what you’ve done in the past. It can’t come out of nowhere. It has to make sense.

Then, figure out the short term stepping stone you need in order to walk across the river without falling in. In other words, you can’t just go from CBS to world domination. There’s a middle ground. In Steven’s case, it was a year long internship with an NYC real estate development corporation at the Hudson Yards project to hone his skills.

After that, you’ll need larger representation of how CBS is going to help you gain the skills and the community you need to get to where you want to go. I am talking big picture, with an academic focus such as Real Estate, Health Care or management. Maybe mention Columbia’s various institutes, like the Lange Center for Entrepreneurship, that will be of help to you. Then get specific about the skills you need in order to reach your short and long term goals. Some soft skills like decision-making, negotiation, assessment and/or team-based problem solving. Some hard skills like you’ve been in Marketing and PR now you need to understand DCF or discounted cash flow. Mention the type of classes—two or three that CBS has to offer and, and, of course, who do you want to study under? Don’t just drop names. Get specific about who you’re excited to meet—all in to order reach your goals.

Essay #2: Columbia Business School’s students participate in industry focused New York immersion seminars; in project based Master Classes; and in school year internships. Most importantly, they complete a questionnaire taught by a combination of distinguished research faculty and accomplished practitioners. How will you take advantage of being “at the very center of business”? (100-500 Words)

Yup, Columbia has changed this second question up again. This year its simple -- how is Columbia’s NYC location going to help you reach your long and short term goals? This time we are talking VERY SPECIFICALLY about courses, professors, speakers, externships, etc. that are at your fingertips because you’re in the hood. What resources does Columbia have, thanks to its NYC location that you need to achieve your goals, as stated in essay 1?

Remember, if they think you’re running the old “hallowed halls of academia game, then two things are possible in the minds of admissions officers: 1. You’re BSing and didn’t do your homework or 2. If you’ve got really great stats, story and experience, you might not show up. In other words, if you’ve got that 740 GMAT, killer resume, and a 4.0, you really need to SHOW Columbia that you know how its program is going to help you get to where you’re going.

Figure out exactly what you’re going to take and who you’re going to study with each semester. Envision your time there and then break it down for them—courses, professors, and internships. Who will you meet—from fashion to finance, real estate to the art? How will Master Classes Executives in Residence help you and why? Use this essay to drill down even more deeply into the curriculum. Explain how Columbia will give you all the resources and advantages you need to achieve your goals.

Essay #3: CBS Matters, a key element of the School’s culture, allows the people in your Cluster to learn more about you on a personal level. What will your Clustermates be pleasantly surprised to learn about you? (100-250 Words)

This is so, so simple. Why do so many people love to make this complicated? Look, they even boldfaced the most important word for you. Pleasant. You know, like grandma’s doilies or a Kenny Chesney single. Don’t you dare take that as carte blanche to send me something boring, I hate boring. But don’t try to show off, don’t try to prove what a gold-plated bad boy you are, and don’t waste your precious time and word count writing about people and things that aren’t you!

Pick a hobby, or a habit, or something you love, that you can nerd out about. Write about your favorite Game of Thrones character, or an ode to Cherry Coke, or Havana Cigars. Write about your love for backyard baseball, or teaching your cousins to ski on the bunny slope, or setting up free Wi-Fi for your home town. Should your story reflect well on you? Well, you shouldn’t come away looking like a dog! But gloating is not the point. The point is relating.


So that’s what’s up, kids! I really hope that after my master class, you don’t have any lingering questions. But just in case you do, feel free to call. Always happy to scream in your ear until you get clear!


Auntie Evan

Are you ready to be the Queen Bee of GSB? Check out our tips to figure out how you can optimize your essays, recommendations and application.

Photo by Paramount, Article by Ben Feuer


Hopefully, everyone in the universe has seen Mean Girls. If you haven’t, go Netflix it. One of the most memorable characters in the coterie of teenaged back stabbers that form the core of the film is Regina George. Regina’s pretty, smart, and has everything going for her … except self-esteem. She’s insecure to the point of absurdity, and feels the need to smash anyone who looks like a threat to her.

Regina George didn’t go to Columbia GSB, but if she had, she would’ve fit right in. Of all the top business schools, Columbia is the one most afflicted with a Napoleon complex. Perhaps it’s because they struggle in the rankings compared to their somewhat loftier brethren in the Northeast. Perhaps it’s because their New York location makes them hypercompetitive. Whatever the reason, Columbia is the top B-school that is always looking for a way to belong.

You can get a great MBA education at Columbia, and it’s a fantastic feeder for all the usual post-MBA roles, including private equity, investment banking, consulting, and entrepreneurship. But in order to get in, you’re going to have to court Regina. She’s temperamental, but worth the trouble.

So what are the keys to success?

Apply early. Because of its unusual rolling admissions process and binding early decision, Columbia fills its class more quickly than its competition. This is one of the many ways they try to lock in top students. You can’t fight this, so it’s best to embrace it. If you’re considering Columbia, you give yourself the best chance by applying as early as possible -- August 1st is ideal.

Be powerful. Queen bees are drawn to self-confident people with obvious social standing and the ability to command a room. Think about how you can demonstrate transformative leadership in your recommendations, essay two, and essay three. And if you don’t know what leadership is, read our book.

Take action to understand her. The absolute worst thing you can do in a Columbia application is make it obvious to them that you’re just using them as a safety school for their competition: Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton. The best way to combat that impression, aside from applying early, is to take actions to integrate with and understand the Columbia community. Then, write at length about the research that you’ve done in your Columbia essay one and essay two, naming names and citing specific details. By showing you understand the unique appeal of the school, you make yourself more appealing.

Be pleasant. Columbia’s essay three asks what your cluster mates will be pleasantly surprised to learn about you. For whatever reason, a lot of people overthink this and try to make it into a referendum on their professional accomplishments, leadership, or general all-around awesomeness. By doing this, you reflect exactly the kind of insecurity that Columbia wants to avoid. Whatever you choose to write about, it should first and foremost be something pleasant. Not depressing, not impressive, pleasant. If it can be impressive as well as pleasant, obviously that’s great. But if you have to choose one, just make it clear that you’re an easy person to get along with, that you’re relatable, and that you don’t have an overinflated ego. There’s only room for a single Regina in a relationship.

So there you have it! These guidelines should help you prepare a top-notch application to Columbia. But if you have more questions, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll be happy to help.

Monday, February 09, 2015

How to choose between HBS and Stanford

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One of the most interesting parts of Bloomberg’s new poll analysis, which explores what students choose when trying to decide between two schools, is how much students are currently favoring Stanford over Harvard. This is obviously a huge change from 20 or even five years ago, and really shows how landscape is shifting. That said, the choice may not be as cut and dried as it seems from those numbers.

When you’re talking about deciding between offers from two schools as prestigious as Harvard and Stanford, rankings really should not enter into the debate. Both are obviously top programs, enough said. There are, however, some important factors you can use to decide between the two, should you be fortunate enough to get offers from both.

Go to Stanford if:

You are interested in entrepreneurship. Of course, this is the most obvious reason to choose Stanford over Harvard. This is also not as clear-cut a choice as it once was. Boston has an exceptional startup scene now, and the rock Center accelerator program offer substantial scholarships and in some cases loan assistance. But, Silicon Valley was and is the absolute heart of the innovation economy, so Stanford is still the best place for entrepreneurs.

You want to focus on your soft skills. Touchy-feely is not just a class a Stanford, it’s a way of life. Intense group therapy are not words you usually hear applied to business school classes. Stanford education will not simply teach you how to run a successful business, it wants to teach you how to be a better person.

You like the weather. Okay, obviously this is a little reductive, but hear us out, because the weather is not just the weather. A warm, welcoming, open environment, both physiologically and socially, is exactly what some people need to do their best work. On the other hand, people who are more introverted might not like that experience.

Go to Harvard if:

You want to work in a place or industry that recruits there. Again, this might seem obvious, or it might seem like a wash. After all, most top companies recruit at both Stanford and Harvard.  Yes and no.  The fact is, Harvard has been around a long time, and has been on top for a long time. The school has established relationships with certain companies, coming in and going out. So if you’re looking for that more traditional track to certain positions of power in Private Equity, banking or politics, Harvard is a better choice.

You want a degree that will travel. The old cliché about Harvard students (that they like to say they went to school in Boston) is true. There’s also a good reason for it. People treat you differently when they know you went to Harvard.  That is more true of Harvard than any other school. And while you might not want to intimidate friends and random acquaintances, if you do a lot of overseas work, or if you plan on changing jobs, careers or fields more than once throughout your life, it's probably the place for you.  Having Harvard on your resume changes the entire rest of your career in a way that no other degree does.

You are focused on achievement. Harvard is not known as a place to make close friends, although that can sometimes happen.  The cluster structure and the rigorous first-year curriculum mean that you will be working pretty darn hard, and you might not like all the people you’re working with. However, if you like working hard, if you’re at your best when you’re being pushed and challenged to get everything done, this can be the perfect warm-up for high achieving career. Just get ready to kiss a lot of free time goodbye, if you had any to begin with!

Those are the most important reasons we would suggest you choose Stanford over HBS, or vice versa. There are many many more, but they won’t all fit in a blog post, so feel free to contact us if you have questions.

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Repurposing a Stanford Essay for HBS is not as easy as it might sound, but it can absolutely be done -- sometimes. 


In order to do a great job at repurposing, you must first understand the fundamental difference between the two essays.

A great What Matters Most essay focuses on self-discovery and personal growth, with leadership material seamlessly integrated into the larger narrative.

A great HBS optional essay boldly differentiates you and establishes your credentials (and style) as a leader, while also including elements of self-discovery and personal growth.

To go from a great Stanford essay to a great Harvard essay, therefore (we’re assuming you already have a great Stanford essay), follow these steps.


  1. Define your defining moment.  You can’t really understand your WMM essay without being able to articulate clearly the defining moment.  Understand what happened and why this, rather than any other story, is the one you are telling.

  2. Look for HBS hooks.  The version of the story you wrote out is targeted for Stanford.  It probably has references to family and soul-searching that aren’t going to play particularly well at Harvard, which is more achievement-focused.  What are the concrete accomplishments you have to show?  What, if anything, was unique, or at least unusual, about what you did?

  3. Beginning and ending.  When you’re rewriting an essay of this kind, build around the middle.  The middle, the description of the moment, is usually mostly correct, needing only minor adjustments.  But the preamble and the way you talk about the outcome often need to change completely.

Think of it this way -- WMM is about the journey, and HBS is about the destination.  If you are a naturally introspective person who thinks a lot about the choices you make in life and why you make them, you will probably find WMM easier to write.  If you are more comfortable talking about leadership, accomplishments and professional life, the HBS optional will be easier.


No matter which essay you are starting from, the most important thing to think about is the focus of the central story you are telling – the defining moment.  You need to find that personal evolution or leadership slant that brings the essay to life.

BTW, if you are going from WMM to HBS, don’t get lazy. Make SURE to remove all references to the phrase “what matters most”.  It’s kind of a dead giveaway.

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Everyone likes the idea of saving time on an application by repurposing one school’s prompt for another -- but when it comes to HBS and GSB, the ‘big dogs’, is it a good idea, or a risky move likely to backfire?  Read on and find out.

Applying to business school is a time-consuming and difficult process, and it’s quite natural that applicants want to take shortcuts wherever possible.  One of the most commonly MISUSED shortcuts is to mindlessly reuse a Stanford essay for HBS.  


HBS does make it easy for you to do this – they don’t provide a whole lot of structure for their essay, and they don’t even give a word limit! In other words, HBS gives you just enough rope to hang yourself. Don’t worry -- we’re gonna make sure you do it right.  There are good reasons to repurpose a Stanford WMM for HBS.  Laziness is not one of them.


Instead, think about the defining moment (your WMM essay DOES have a defining moment, right?  If not, read our blog here on how to write an amazing WMM essay).  Is it personal in nature, or professional?  Almost all great WMM essays have a purely personal component to them – a change in thinking or attitude, a struggle or failure overcome.  The current HBS essay prompt doesn’t necessarily call for this, however. In fact, we’d say err on the side of leadership. It’s HBS, after all, AKA, MBA with an Attitude.  

So, say your story--be it Stanford or HBS--is one in which you evolve a lot?  Stanford WMM essays often focus on change, coming to terms with a difficult truth or finding a new way to attack a thorny problem. Your HBS essay may simply be recounting of an exceptional moment in your life. Both essays say “leader”, but the approach is different. After all, GSB is asking “What Matters Most…” HBS is asking you to reveal that you are HBS--or not. Up to you.

Stay tuned for our subsequent posts on HOW to repurpose your WMM for HBS, and vice versa.

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Stanford continues to have one of the toughest essays in all of MBA admissions.  Here are our tips on how to attack it. 

What matters most to you, and why? (750 words)

  • The best examples of Essay 1 reflect the process of self-examination that you have undertaken to write them.
  • They give us a vivid and genuine image of who you are—and they also convey how you became the person you are.
  • They do not focus merely on what you've done or accomplished. Instead, they share with us the values, experiences, and lessons that have shaped your perspectives.
  • They are written from the heart and address not only a person, situation, or event, but also how that person, situation, or event has influenced your life. 

My favorite responses to Stanford’s What Matters Most question are always the ones where the candidate really digs down deep and reveals a personal journey that he or she went on—one that created change in his or her life and the lives of those around them. 

The setting? On or off the job—it doesn’t matter. Why? Because the personal always affects the professional and the professional always affects the personal. They are inextricably linked and anyone who says otherwise has simply never been what I like to call “a 24-7 leader”—and that’s what Stanford GSB, or any top business school, is looking for.

Leadership is a way of being, something you come to through a challenging experience that you take on despite your fears or even because of them. And that’s how you zero in on what to write about for Stanford’s prompt:  What Matters Most to You and Why?

Search for SPECFIC moments in your life wherein you had to:

1)   Step Up—formally or informally, elected, chosen or volunteered.

2)   Stay the course -- despite everything falling apart around you or working against you.

3)   Race against the clock—be it three months, three weeks, three days.

4)   Organize and motivate a group—not just something you did all by yourself, because managing others is key.

5)   Leave something behind -- Change the way things go from now on with that circumstance. 

Out of these comes what matters most to you.  (Don’t forget to write “what matters most to me is…” You’d be surprised by how many people leave this crucial line out. Even if it’s obvious, writing these words in your response says “I respect the admissions committee enough to be clear and to the point.”) 

In short, my favorite—and most successful—“What Matters Most To You and Why?” responses are always based on a defining moment in your past that changed the way you think about yourself and the world. Then the essay pivots from that story to how the insight you gained from that defining moment has driven some recent accomplishment—personally or professionally.

Why Stanford?  (350 words)

  • Please explain why Stanford is your first choice of MBA program, and how you will make use of the unique opportunities it provides.

This is a classic 'why our school' prompt -- check out our previous blog on how to answer these questions concisely and effectively.