Coming up with an original and compelling short film idea is one of the most challenging parts of the process. It’s also one of the most important. If you don’t get the concept right, no matter how well you do everything else, you still won’t wind up with a great movie in the end.

I recommend that you begin by ‘scratching’ — appropriating things you like from successful short films, short stories, podcasts, radio plays, you name it. Notice that I’m NOT mentioning feature films or TV shows — why? Because you’re most likely going to appreciate what everyone else appreciates, which will make your short film less original in the end. The second reason is that from a storytelling perspective, features and TV are bad models for short film — the stories they tell are way too complex and involved.

Short film thrives on minimal story — in fact, in many cases, the best short films have almost no story at all.

Hellion - (Official 2012 Sundance Film Festival) from Kat Candler on Vimeo.


As for writing, anyone who knows anything about the subject will tell you this — it’s a process, not an event. Writing is a habit you must form for as long as you intend to be a writer; a habit of walking over to a keyboard and setting words down on screen.

That habit can be as fun (or as horrifying) as you make it. But unless you get into the habit, you won’t get out with a script.

Once you have a draft of your idea, be generous with praise and appreciation for those who take the time to give you feedback. Everybody likes writing original scripts, but almost nobody likes reading them. Listen patiently to the comments you receive and write everything down. Then walk away from the whole thing for a week and do something else. I know, you’re in a hurry to be the next Francis Ford Coppola, but distance will help you make better choices.

So how do you know when you’re finished? 

Simple — you need to be thinking to yourself, wow, there’s no way I can allow this script NOT to become a movie. It’s just that good.

Once you feel that way, it’s time to assemble your team and move on to pre-production, which we’ll learn all about in our next blog.

By Ben Feuer

Short films have been around for as long as film itself.  In the olden days, filmmakers used them as experimental laboratories, places to play with new cinematic techniques and technologies.


Frankenstein Goes to College, an early Edison film


Gertie the Dinosaur, the first keyframe animated film

Today, short films are used as industry ‘calling cards’. Much as a short story can get a novelist ‘discovered’, a fantastic short film can get a filmmaker her first opportunity to direct a feature.


Todd Haynes (Carol) got his start animating barbie dolls

So you’ve decided that you want to join their ranks and make a spectacular, award-winning short film of your own? Slow down, hero. Even before you brainstorm, you’ll want to run though a basic checklist to ensure that you’re ready to create your magnum opus.

• Watch 100 Short Films

This is not an exaggeration nor an approximation. This has, in fact, been scientifically proven to be the precise number of short films one must watch before making a great short.

Okay, that was obviously a complete lie. That said, you should watch at least that many short films before trying to make one. Watch recent festival successes on websites like these … they’ll help you get a sense of what people are looking for. Take notes about what you liked and what you didn’t like.  Keep a record of your favorite shorts and watch them three or four times — figure out how often they cut, how much dialog they use, what style of camerawork they employ.

• Attend a Local Film Festival

Sure, you can also go to film school or haunt your local art house theater (provided you still have one), but attending a film festival is a great way to meet other people who share your interests. Who knows? You might even find a few willing collaborators …

• Examine Your Life

Sure, but for what? What should you be looking for?  What are the stories, issues and themes that matter to you? Did something happen to you that was unusual or particularly interesting that you would like to share with the world?  Do you live in an unusual place, or are you part of a group of unusual people?  Don’t just copy successful filmmakers — think about what makes you stand out!

• Take Stock of Your Resources

How much time do you have? Money? Access to equipment? Willing friends? You’ll need all of these things to make a memorable short film. Figure out what you have plenty of and what you’re a bit short on, and start seeking out the resources you’re going to need.

** ** ** **

Okay! By now, you should have everything you need to get started on your short film!  Next time, we’ll talk about brainstorming the perfect short film concept.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

So you want to be a Supreme Court Justice?

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 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.

THE BASICS

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!

THE NEXT STAGE

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).

THE NOMINATION PROCESS

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.

CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT!

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.

THE QUESTIONS

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 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 ...

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Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Arvell Dorsey Jr.

For a few years now, the business school video essay has been on the rise.  Schools like Yale SOM, Northwestern's Kellogg School, Toronto's Rotman School and many others have incorporated some form of video into their applications.  
Here at Forster-Thomas, we've been ahead of this trend for years -- we work closely with every candidate to prep them for spontaneous and engaging interview and video skills, because we know how much the top schools believe in them. It's not hard to understand why.  Adcoms are human, and humans prefer to evaluate other humans face to face.  Plus, as the technology continues to improve, video essay providers are making big promises to schools about what their product can do.   

Kira Academic, the premier provider of video essay services, claims their product can accurately assess the communications and presentation skills of applicants, particularly international applicants, where interviews can be challenging.  Schools agree -- The dean of Rotman has praised Kira's 'three-dimensional' view of an applicant.

Schools also like these products is because they make applications quicker to review and harder to fabricate -- no one can buy essays from essay mills if they have to write them on the spot, after all!

It's now clear that only candidates with a deep and meaningful understanding of their own life stories are going to make it past the gatekeepers into an elite business school.  The game is changing -- making it up isn't going to work, nor will forcing someone else to 'figure it out' for you.  As the candidate, you are responsible for building a robust narrative from the inside out, and knowing it inside and out.  In other words, we were right all along -- as usual.

For all these reasons, we here at Forster-Thomas are convinced that video essays and video resumes are going to be major players going forward.

So how do you ace your b-school video essay?  There's no simple answer, and no simple checklist to help you get there.  Sorry!  That said, here are a few tips from our in-house video expert (and former MTV teen star) Tom Locke --

Your analytical mind is your enemy.  This is not a challenge you can 'prepare' for by memorizing a speech or revising a script -- you improve by practicing your presentation skills on your feet and honing your ability to be open and engaging.

Greet your anxiety.  Stanford (yes, GSB Stanford) also places a huge emphasis on the ability to extemporize well -- so much so that they created a mandatory seminar for all their incoming freshmen, then threw it on the web!  One of the best take-aways from this hour-long video is the idea of 'greeting' your anxiety.  Don't get anxious about the fact that you're anxious -- power through it and stay focused on the question the application is asking you.

Speak (and sit) naturally.  Do yourself a favor -- don't twist yourself in knots (literally) trying to answer these questions.  The mind and the body are one -- if you feel at ease, you will be at ease.

So you've reached the end of the article -- does that mean you're ready?  Sadly, no.  Practice makes perfect, especially when it comes to presentation skills, and no one improves without feedback.  To nail this one, you're just going to have to pick up the phone (you remember how that works, right?) and give us a call!  We promise not to make fun of your speaking voice.