Monday, September 01, 2014

The no frills essay

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How is a big-box discount store like an application to a competitive school?  Read on and find out.

By Ben Feuer


In an intriguing profile, Businessweek analyzed the success of Costco, a company that pays well above industry average to its employees while charging much less than average for products.  How is this achieved?  The article goes on to describe a no frills approach from top to bottom at the company, with all the focus on delivering mission critical products to the consumer.  For a mature industry like brick and mortar retail, this is a great idea, focusing on what people care about the most -- quality and price.

Believe it or not, this is directly relevant to your job as an applicant to college, business school, medical school or law school -- you, too, can benefit from a 'no frills' approach, if you apply it to your essay writing.

So what is a no-frills essay, and why is it a good thing?  A no-frills essay focuses on the story or incident it is describing.  Like a great piece of reporting, the no frills essay gives all the necessary information to understand what happened in the story, and why it is important -- and nothing more.  This is much harder than it sounds.  It is depressingly easy to pontificate, generalize and speculate in essays, filling the word count without adding to the content.  Here are some powerful tricks that can help you trim the fat.

Are you describing simple things simply?  Think about your job.  I don't mean your title, your function, or the 8 million sub-headings and tasks it entails.  I mean the core, elevator pitch version of your job.  Do you make businesses run more efficiently?  Do you evaluate deals, judging them as good or bad for a company?  These functions are easy to understand, and described simply -- much better than company valuation in a mid-market private equity hedge bla bla bla, or operational efficiencies derived from careful analytics oh God please kill me now.  Think about it this way -- do you want to sound like a boring drone?  Of course not.  So simplify.

What are you talking about?  When did the event you are discussing begin?  When did it end?  Who was involved?  What were their names?  Why is it important that we hear about this story?  What did you think at the time, and what do you think now that it is all over?  These basic questions are so often ignored in essays.  Don't fall into that trap.

Get to the point -- now.  Does your first sentence have a date, place and a simple description of what is taking place in the essay?  If the answer is no, you're doing it wrong.  Don't open with a quote.  Don't ease us into the story.  Don't generalize before you start.  Remember.  No frills.  Now apply this to every sentence, everywhere.  Done.

The next essay you write -- make it a Costco essay and not a Gucci.  A no frills approach will make them love you in the end.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to write an awesome why mba essay

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Why Stanford?  What actions have you taken to determine that Stern is the best fit for your MBA experience?  Given your individual background and goals, why are you pursuing a Columbia MBA at this time?  These are examples of Why MBA essays -- here is a primer on how to answer them.


Photo by Lillith, Article by Ben Feuer

If there is one type of essay everyone moans and groans about having to do — it’s open-ended essays (HBS, NYU, Booth).  But the “why school” essays run a close second.  Everyone struggles with them.  Yuki, a stellar candidate (professional consultant, mid 700s GMAT, 4.4 Engineering GPA from a top school) recently confided to me that writing “why school” essays was one of the hardest things he had to do in his entire application process.  He said to me, it felt like hitting a single, not a home run.

Listen up, Yuki -- you can absolutely hit a home run with your “why school” essay — if you are willing to put in the work.  

Writing a great school-specific essay requires a very different set of skills than writing a great “What Matters Most” essay, but both types of essay are important, and school-specific essays are much more common.  In fact, this year in the top 25 business schools, they are more common than the goals essay.  So read on to find out how to ace these essays.  But first -- a burning question answered!

Why are schools so concerned with research?  

Don’t they already know what is great about them?  Of course they do (although it never hurts to hear it again).  These essays demonstrate your level of interest in the program.  Have you visited campus?  Have you spoken to alumni?  Are you familiar with the enviroment?  Class size?  Reputation?  Interest correllates to yield, and yield boosts rankings — and everybody likes high rankings.  Ultimately, it’s about fit.

OK, fine.  What am I even supposed to talk about?


Here’s a partial list.  There are many more.

Top professors (shared history, publications, work history, teaching reputation), student body (diversity, age, work history), recent alumni (willingness to communicate, quotes drawn from experience), advanced alumni (internships and placement), career services, industry strengths (sectors, disciplines), specialized majors, ability to cross-enroll, strength of cross-disciplinary opportunities, campus setting (proximity to family, friendliness, size, appearance), local opportunities (incubators, fellowships, internships, work-study, volunteering), clubs and organizations (duration, comparative strength, leadership opportunities, ways to grow or give back), conferences and campus speakers (relevance, reputation), entrepreneurial opportunities (competitions, incubators), classes (first year, second year, specializations), campus visits (info sessions, experience, sitting in on classes), family history (connections, early life)

How many points should I be discussing?

A common bad strategy for this type of essay is overstuffing it with poorly supported points — referencing three classes in a row without explaining why any of them are necessary (or particularly strong at your chosen school), name dropping professors without explaining how their book on Cannibal Theory changed your life, using alumni quotes but providing no context as to their relevance.

Instead, make a few well chosen points and back them up.  What are the two or three things you MOST need from an MBA?  (and if you say “a bigger network”, I WILL smack you in the face).

Okay, so I know my two or three general areas of growth.  How do I write about them in the essay?

Simple. You research what at the school you have chosen makes it an ideal fit for those areas of growth.  Say you’re trying to learn marketing — well, Kellogg has a great marketing program, as we know — but did you know that LBS does too?  Maybe you need a basic grounding in finance — a school like Columbia, with a universal first year curriculum, would have a lot to offer you.  But these are broad strokes -- to make really solid points, you need to do research.

Why research?  I know their ranking.  Isn't that enough?

No. 

Actions speak louder than words.  Every early draft of a why school essay shares the same pernicious flaw — blanket statements made without evidence (to back them up) or context (to explain why they belong in the essay).  So how do we fix these statements?  Watch the following bland comment transform into a great point — through action.

Booth’s campus is very inclusive.  Awful.  A blanket statement with nothing to back it up — not a shred of research or introspection.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited.  So-so — at least you spoke to (and quoted) an alumni.  But not much effort shown, nor much reflection on your own goals and needs.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was very excited — my four years at Ball State proved to me that I thrive when I am learning from my peers as much as my professors.  Above average — not great.  Action taken, related it back to your own experience.  This is what I’d consider “bare minimum” for making a solid point as to why you and a school are a good fit.

When John Smith ’13 told me about Booth’s inclusive campus environment, I was excited, but skeptical — after all, nobody trumpets their campus’s cutthroat vibe.  So I went to see for myself, visiting on September 9th, 2014.  The info session was intimate — more so than any other I have attended — and Bob Davis ’12, my tour leader, was extraordinarily patient, walking me through Booth’s outstanding Operational Management program step by step.   Outstanding.  The candidate walks us through his thought process — smoothly incorporating his actions taken (alumni interviews, campus visit, talked to tour guide for 1/2 hour) into a larger journey of how he came to fall in love with Booth.  We believe him.

Don’t fake it.  

I know, I know — you’re thinking, nah, that sounds too hard, or too expensive — I don’t want to Google-stalk a professor, or haunt an internet forum, or network on LinkedIn to meet alums from a school — I’m busy!  (as 1000 tiny violins play)  Campus visits, I have a job!   I’ll just make it up.  Ok, big boy, you do that.  And you might fool your parents, or even a peer reviewer or two.  But you won’t fool the experts, who have to read literally THOUSANDS of these things.  They know their own programs, and if you think you can generalize your way around campus — sorry, no.

You can’t have fit without a goal.

Your school may ask you “why us” but may not ask specifically about your goals.  Use one or two sentences to tell them about your goals anyway.  Why?  Because if you don’t, how are you going to show that you are a good fit on campus?  All professional goals require skills — some technical, some ‘soft skills’ — and opportunities, like networking and partnerships.  Your goal and your past experience dictates what you need from the school.

Your skills are not just your skills.  

So, you want to get an MBA to learn leadership.  OK.  What aspect of leadership are you looking to develop?  Small teams?  Big teams?  Collaborating remotely?  Speaking in front of groups?  Setting long term visionary goals?  Achieving short term objectives?  By better defining your growth areas as a leader, you can focus more precisely on what the school has to offer you.  The same thing applies to every discipline you wish to develop — precise thinking and precise language will set you apart.

The end -- and the beginning.

That's it -- everything you know to write a great "why school essay.  It's not complicated -- but it's also not easy.  It takes time, and thought, to get it right.  Still, as with everything in this process, practice makes perfect -- so get to work on those drafts!



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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Get to know London Business School

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Considering a trip across the pond?  London Business School is one of the most highly ranked in the world.  Here are a few highlights from a recent interview with the dean. 

 By Ben Feuer

 

Poets and Quants published a very interesting interview with the dean of London's business school.  We have reprinted some of the highlights of the interview below, and added our analysis.  For more on this interview, please read the extended version in the link above.

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THE QUOTES

The Americans hail from a wide variety of employers, ranging from Accenture, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Deloitte, to Fannie Mae, General Mills, and Wells Fargo. None of the American students in the Class of 2015 are from McKinsey, BCG, Bain or Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Sounds as though LBS is making a (rather pointed) point about American high finance.  This is a good reminder that while American business schools seem to still be dazzled by the name brands, overseas those brands have been tarnished considerably by the 2008 credit crisis.

Since a few years there are more students from the U.S. than from the U.K. enrolled in the school’s full-time MBA program.

Making London an attractive option for a highly ranked full-time program if your work history is slightly off the beaten path (or simply not conducted at one of the big names in finance.)

“In a typical study group, you’ll have group members from every part of the world. On top of that, London is now a truly global city in all aspects of life, where it used to be seen as mostly a global financial center.”

For Americans interested in working abroad or building their international network, this should be welcome news.

“The City’s financial jobs are back to where they were before the crisis.”

According, at least, to the dean who wants you to apply to his school.  Still, the article also states that applications from the EU are still down (new initiatives in China have helped to bridge the gap).

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Tired of so-called elite universities' obsession with yield, exclusivity and things that don't benefit you?  You are not alone -- and even better -- an alternative exists!


By Ben Feuer

As Jim Sleeper (an experienced commenter on the state of higher education) pointed out in his recent article, almost every year a graduate of an 'elite' institution like Harvard, Stanford or Columbia publishes an expose/tell-all about the teachers, the students, or both.  This year's model, William Deresiewicz, lovingly refers to his former charges (he taught in the Ivies for 25 years) as zombies and entitled little shits.

Maybe he has a point.  Maybe he's just trying to sell more books.  Maybe it's a little of both.  But if you are a 17 or 18 year old student trying to decide how to prepare not just for a great career, but a great life, you owe it to yourself to consider the alternatives.

The Washington Monthly has published a ranking of schools focused not on how elite or exclusive they are, but on how much good they do for their students and their surrounding communities.  For students prepared to see beyond the name brand, these schools offer excellent educations at more reasonable prices (particularly for in-state students) and can prepare you, in the whole life sense, to contribute to society.

If you are applying to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale and you get in, let's be honest.  You're probably going to attend Harvard, Princeton or Yale.  But the graduates of these elite schools are far outnumbered by the graduates of other schools -- state schools, liberal arts schools, and many others, including the top colleges on Washington Monthly's list.  If you attended any of these schools, it is in your own best interest (as well as the world's best interest) to trumpet what they do well and begin to level the playing field.

Case Western, UC Davis and Riverside, UT El Paso graduates -- wield your diplomas with pride, and let everybody know that in the rankings that really mattered -- you beat Harvard.
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Is diversity still a hot button issue at the top business schools?  The numbers tell the story.

 By Ben Feuer

For years, being a URM at a top business school was a silver bullet, guaranteeing better school options and more scholarships.  But the times, they are a-changing.  As far back as 2005, there were indicators of declining black enrollment at top schools -- particularly California schools like USC Marshall (1.5 percent) and Berkeley Haas (1.4 percent), where Proposition 209 has banned consideration of race and sex in the admissions process.

Today, the definition of diversity is shifting, according to Poets and Quants.   "Years ago, the word was commonly thought to mean blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Increasingly, admission officers think of diversity more broadly and include in their thinking international students as well as Asian Americans. That change in mindset has eased the pressure on many schools to more aggressively recruit traditional minorities." 

Taking the U out of URM does, of course, make recruitment a simpler process, but does it create the best learning environment for students?  There is no definitive answer to this question.  That said, the absolute top ranked schools (Stanford, HBS, and to a degree, Wharton) are still aggressively courting URMs and trying to create situations that make it possible for them to attend business school.

Other, lesser ranked schools are looking to close this gap by increasing their appeals to international students, particularly students hailing from Africa.  Oxford's Said school sees this as a definite growth area, and some international schools like CEIBS have set up campuses in Ghana.  This, however, will be scant comfort to Western minority students left out in the cold by globalization.

Some say that diversity should be added to the US News rankings as a counterweight to the 'drag' on GRE/GMAT numbers that schools face when they admit URMs.  Others say schools should devalue rankings -- but whether or not schools pooh pooh them, students will still use them.

So what does this mean if you are a URM applying to business school today?  Don't count on special treatment.  More than ever before, differentiation and a strong, well researched application strategy are becoming must haves for every candidate, URM or no.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Most Popular MBAs -- 2014

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 We check out the Financial Times's 2014 list of most popular MBAs, and assess what's surprising, and what is not.

By Ben Feuer


The Financial Times has released its annual list of most popular MBAs. The top spots are occupied (unsurprisingly by Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.  London, Sloan, Columbia and INSEAD are also well reviewed, although in the case of Columbia, it is a few slots lower in the reviews than in the overall rankings.  Other outliers in this department (ranked lower in popularity than overall) include Yale and Fuqua.  On the other hand, Ross, Tuck and Stern are substantially more popular than their overall rankings might suggest.

It is also interesting to consider how this list stacks up against Money's list of best value for money schools.  Babson has a strong performance in both lists, as does Brigham Young University.

Last but not least, several Indian schools rank quite high in student satisfaction, despite lower overall rankings, including IIM Ahmedabad and Bangalore.  Could this be a sign of Indian business schools continuing their inexorable rise in popularity and prestige?  Time will tell.

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Tuck's two prompts this year are fairly standard-issue.  Here are some strategies to help you attack them. 


 

Please respond fully but concisely to the following essay questions. There are no right or wrong answers. We encourage applicants to limit the length of their responses to 500 words for each essay. Please double-space your responses.

1. Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA fit for you and your goals and why are you the best fit for Tuck?

A standard "goals" essay -- see any of our previous posts on goals, or our book, for a sense on how to approach this. 

 2. Tell us about your most meaningful leadership experience and what role you played. What did you learn about your own individual strengths and weaknesses through this experience?

A standard "leadership" essay -- see any of our previous posts on leadership, or our book, for more detail on how to attack this question.


Friday, August 15, 2014

ABA Changes Standards for Law Schools

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The ABA has introduced new standards and altered some old ones. Here's how it might affect you.

By Ben Feuer

With law schools more embattled with each passing year, the ABA met on Monday to discuss possible changes to the way schools are accredited.

Students are now required to take a minimum of six hours in a legal clinic or other “experiential” environment.   50 hours of pro bono service are encouraged.  Students may take up to 15 credit hours of distance courses, up from 12. Students won’t be limited to 20 hours of outside work per week anymore.
To protect accreditation, law schools will have to shift toward assessments that focus on student outcomes—including bar-exam results and employment—rather than simply evaluating incoming students.

All of these changes are designed to help with the underlying issue of ballooning debt at top law schools.  Law students graduate with more debt than anyone, except med school students.  One long-sought after change that has not been implemented this go round is the option for law students to get credit for paid internships.  The board concluded it was too large of a conflict of interest.

While all of these developments are good news for students trying to finance a legal education, at the end of the day they are just a drop in the bucket.  While it would be a gross overstatement to call any field with 85% employment numbers struggling, the downturn since the credit crisis has certainly encouraged a shift to business, science and medicine, one which does not seem likely to reverse anytime soon.

 

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New schools are up on the Forster-Thomas website.  Check them out at the following links!

CMU Tepper (Carnegie Mellon)

LBS (London)

Cornell Johnson

UCLA Anderson


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The Spanish b-schools have released their applications, and with them, their essay prompts. Forster Thomas gives them the once over.

By Ben Feuer, photo by Yaniv Yaakubovich



IESE -- University of Navarra

1. "Tweet" your post MBA goals (280 characters)

In an attempt to be 'hip', a few business schools have recently reframed their short answers as 'tweet' essays.  Don't take the bait.  Seeing as IESE apparently doesn't know that a tweet is only 140 characters, they surely don't want your hashtags and abbreviations either.  Answer this as you would any other short term goal short answer question, focusing on practicality and immediate-post-MBA aims, given your past work history.

2. Describe a recent professional situation (1-2 years ago maximum) that demonstrates your fit with IESE's mission and values(300 words).

Developing leaders, strengthening organizations, improving society.  These are three primary facets of IESE's mission statement.   To answer this prompt, tell a short-form leadership story, ideally one that shows you transforming or improving an organization through communal effort.

3. I wish that the application had asked me... (200 word limit)

This is an open-ended prompt with a tiny word count.  As such, it might make sense to approach this as one might a "getting to know you" or "one thing to know about you" prompt, focusing on one intriguing, memorable aspect of your history or personality that is not covered anywhere else in the application, then finding a question that solicits that answer.

ESADE -- Ramon Llull University

Personal essays (each question is limited to 2000 characters including spaces, 30 lines approximately)
What makes you YOU?

Today there is a growing need for outstanding business leaders who excel in their field and adapt quickly to the changing needs of the market.

Companies look to us for future leaders - people whose expertise and entrepreneurial abilities are flexible and suit a variety of leadership roles. Your drive and motivation and the individual qualities that you bring to the table are your best selling points and are what will enrich your team members most.

It is this individuality, together with the diversity at ESADE and our commitment to leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship that make us what we are: a talent pool for the business leaders of tomorrow.

The following questions are designed to help us get a more complete picture of who you are and the impact that you will have both here at ESADE and on society after completing your MBA.

Please respond openly, explaining what makes you the person that you are and who you will become.

1. Which aspects have you improved on during your academic and professional career so far? Which tools or values have helped you achieve this?

This unusually worded prompt focuses on growth and learning, emphasizing the lesson as heavily as the story you intend to tell.  Begin by telling an important academic or professional story (including an extracurricular leadership story) and then take time to explain what important lessons you learned, and where you were able to apply them later on.

2. How will your background, values and non work-related activities enhance the experience of other ESADE MBA students and add to the diverse culture we strive for at ESADE? (Note: The goal of this essay is to get a sense of who you are, rather than what you have accomplished)

This is a background/diversity essay.  Successful responses to these types of prompts highlight important moments in your personal development (note that they ask that you avoid accomplishments and work activities), like a key relationship with a family member or a personal struggle of some kind.  It is also reasonable to discuss background, beliefs and upbringing in an essay of this kind, particularly if they show you to be a uniting influence of some kind.

3. What are your motivations in pursuing a full-time MBA at this point in your life? Describe your mid-term and long-term visions for your post-MBA career path. What is it about ESADE you think will help you reach your goals?

A standard "goals" essay -- see any of our previous posts on goals, or our book, for more of a sense on how to approach this.

4. Complete two of the following four questions or statements (1000 characters per response)
   a) I am most proud of...
   b) People may be surprised to learn that I...
   c) What has your biggest challenge been and what did it help you learn about yourself?

   d) Which historical figure do you most identify with and why?

Note that the limit here is 1000 characters, not 1000 words.  These are short responses.  A is natural fodder for a leadership story, B is another open-ended 'getting to know you' prompt (see above), C is a different approach to leadership, either through a setback or a failure, and exploring how you grew as a result of that setback or failure -- as with all stories of this kind, it is important to authentically 'own' and take responsibility for the setback/failure, and the potential impact on the organization, but it is also important to show how you have grown as a result of it.  Answers to D should use the historical figure as a jumping off point to discuss ways you seek to emulate that person, using concrete examples from your life, rather than focusing on the figure him/herself. ----

5. Please provide any additional information that you would like to bring to the attention of the Admissions Committee. This may include gaps in employment, your undergraduate record, plans to retake the GMAT or any other relevant information.

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