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Intimidated by the 2014-2015 Common App Essay Prompts?  Don't be.

By Ben Feuer

So the common app has been out for some time now, but we continue to get questions on how to attack these prompts.  We posted the prompts themselves awhile back -- check here if you don't remember -- but now we have taken the time to go over these questions and offer some guidance on how to answer them.  Hopefully it'll be helpful!
And remember -- 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

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.   

To some extent, this is a so-called diversity prompt -- it is asking you to explain how your background, your life experiences, made you the person you are today -- one life experience in particular.  You could answer this question very effectively, and very legitimately, by simply focusing on that.  But the prompt is crystal clear that it is not ONLY referring to your background -- any kind of story that really defined who you are would do.  A story about your mother or father, or your best friend, or your worst enemy.  The hardest thing you ever tried to do.  The most amazing place you ever visited.  Whatever it was that really defined you.
Whatever you choose to talk about, write about it in a fast moving, narrative style.  Talk not so much about what happened as how you felt about what happened, and what you think about it now.  And leave enough space to give examples of how you have changed as a result of this -- prove that it really was an influential moment in your life.

2.  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

To write persuasively about learning from a failure is a deceptively simple AND difficult thing to do.  Why is it difficult?  Because the first step, the step that most people are unwilling to take, is ADMITTING YOU FAILED and explaining the nature of your failure.  After that, you must highlight the COST of your failure; who you hurt (you don't count).
Then, once all of that is done, you can talk about how you did better the next time you were faced with a similar problem.  But if you don't explain the failure first, it won't be of much use.  Remember, the more honest and direct you are when writing this kind of essay, the better off you will be.

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

Challenging a deeply held belief, yours or someone else's, shows character and leadership, and that is what you should focus on when you write about this topic.  Start by identifying what the idea was, then explain YOUR OWN thought process in understanding that the idea, whatever it was, was flawed.  After that comes the real meat of this kind of essay -- explaining how you went about challenging the idea.

Don't choose a topic where there was little or no conflict.  Avoid easy answers to easy questions.  I proved to my friend that racism is wrong.  Well, good for you, but everybody knows that.  Dig deeper.  Find a really challenging question and a really powerful answer -- or else choose another prompt.

4.  Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

This prompt is a bit of a trap.  By inviting you to talk about a place, and a pleasant place, at that, it opens you up to waste 500 words rhapsodizing about how pretty Walden Pond is in the summer.  Don't fall into that trap.  This essay, like every essay, is a chance for admissions officers to get to know YOU, and that won't happen if you spend all your time talking about some place they can see just fine from Google Earth.

Focus instead on the experiences.  Use them as a springboard to discuss your own growth, evolution, and maturation.  The place is just a place -- its meaning for you could be tied up in a loved one, or a key moment in your life where everything changed in some important way.  Ask yourself this simple question -- why am I choosing to write about this instead of anything else?  What does it say about me?

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

There is a term, bildungsroman, which came to be translated into English as "coming of age".  Three quarters of the books you were forced to read in middle school are coming of age stories, in one way or another.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lord of the Flies.  A Separate Peace.  Catcher in the Rye.  When you think about this prompt, think about those books.  How did their protagonists change, grow and evolve?  When was the moment that it happened?

You have had moments like this in your life.  All of us have.  The moment when you first understood that the world is not fair.  The moment when you first fell in love (or out of it).  The moment you realized your parents were only human.  The pride you felt when you earned your first paycheck.  Take one such moment and write an essay about it.  Knock my socks off.

Hopefully this was helpful.  If you have more questions, email us!

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Just as social profiles are becoming key tools for employers, your target schools are also considering your online presence when you apply.  Here's how to manage what they see.

by Ben Feuer

It's a weird new world -- just a few short years ago, a resume was the be all and end all of your professional life.  Now, nearly anything is fair game, and not just for employers, either.  Surveys show 30 percent of admissions officers are checking up on what you do online, and that number will only grow.  So here are a few Forster-Thomas-style tips to help you manage your online presence.

1.  Don't whitewash.  White's NOT your color.  In all seriousness, though, one of the first things you'll read online is to delete all sorts of pertinent, identifying information like your religious and social convictions and causes.  Well, don't.  Remember -- you WANT admissions to get to know you better, and seeing what you stand for is a great way to make that happen.  Of course, use your best judgement -- that keg stand you pulled off last week might NOT look quite so impressive to Harvard.

2.  Be logical, be consistent.  Wherever possible, purge irrelevant or misleading details or elements of style -- they may lead a reader who does not know you well down a rabbit hole you'll have trouble getting out of.  Consider what your TOP links on Google are -- are they representative?  If not, can you try to push up some content that is, by updating it or refreshing it?  Are your social media presences well managed -- do you have outdated or inaccurate information in some old profile setting you forgot about?

3.  Be lovable.  Love is a greater motivator than fear, and ultimately this process is about falling in love -- you with the school, and hopefully, them with you.  So don't post a lot of negative, flaming comments (especially if they're true), and don't get a rep as a can't-do person or a naysayer.  Project your best self -- an image that is active, engaged, thoughtful and caring.

4.  Friend means friend.  The last thing you want is to content with ridiculous wall posts or junk Zynga game invites all over your profile because you friended someone who doesn't get tha interwebz.  Keep your friends close and unfriend your enemies.

Don't wait until you apply -- start taking action NOW.  Some of this stuff may take time to filter out of internet search caches and the like.


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To commemorate Businessweek’s 2014 ranking of the top undergraduate business programs, Forster Thomas is profiling the top ten.  Today is the #4 school, Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. 

By Ben Feuer


It’s a top ranked Jesuit business school in the Northeast, where business opportunities abound for young graduates.

• One of the more expensive and larger programs in the top ten, at 2000 students and $44,870 annual tuition

• Top ranked Jesuit business school

• Over $17 million in need-based scholarships in 2014

• 38% of students go to work in Financial Services

• An average salary upon graduation: $58,000



98 percent of admitted applicants each year are incoming freshmen.  Simply choose Carroll as your undergraduate division when applying to Boston College. 

Boston College does have a common app supplement, choosing one of the questions below and writing an essay of no more than 400 words.

1. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, encouraged his followers to live their lives in the service of others. How do you plan to serve others in your future endeavors?

This question directly addresses the question of service.  Try not to define service too narrowly in your mind as you think about how to answer.  Remember that you can be of service to family, loved ones, friends – think about where in your life you have the deepest impact, not only on others, but on yourself, and factor that into your answer.

2. From David McCullough's recent commencement address at BC:

“Facts alone are never enough. Facts rarely if ever have any soul. In writing or trying to understand history one may have all manner of 'data,' and miss the point. One can have all the facts and miss the truth. It can be like the old piano teacher's lament to her student, 'I hear all the notes, but I hear no music.”

Tell us about a time you had all of the facts but missed the meaning.

This can be interpreted as a failure or setback essay with a very narrow range of scope.  (if you don’t know how to answer those questions … check out our book)  Although it is also possible to read this as a success story (after all, if you had the facts, missed the meaning, got the meaning and saved the day in the end, you’re still answering the question, technically) but to answer it in that way misses the spirit of the quote.  This essay is about the ‘soullessness’ of facts – which implies being misled in some way by facts.  Look for that quality in your response.

3. In his novel, Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann writes:

“We seldom know what we're hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is certain: we hear it as we will never hear it again. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.”

Tell us about something you heard or experienced for the first time and how the years since have affected your perception of that moment.

A rather artful and literary spin on a writing about a life-changing experience.  This experience might be transformative, like a powerful journey you would narrate in a personal statement, or it might be reflective of a value or a deeply held belief that stays constant over time.  It could also be a way to broach the question of diversity in an essay.

4. Boston College has a First-Year Convocation program that includes the reading and discussion of a common book that explores Jesuit ideals, community service and learning. If you were to select the book for your Convocation, what would you choose and why?

There are two components necessary to answering this question, each equally important.  One is a deep understanding of Jesuit ideals, and an ability to give examples of how they have shaped your choices in life.  The other is, of course, having read and been moved by a book.  Rather than describing the book at length, use points about the book to illuminate points about yourself – this is, after all, your application, and not the book’s.



If you wish to switch undergraduate divisions after your first year, you may apply for an internal transfer. However, transferring into the Carroll School of Management or the Connell School of Nursing has become increasingly difficult, and there have been years when these undergraduate divisions have not been able to accept any internal transfer candidates.


Each year, approximately 125 students transfer into Boston College. The majority enter in the Fall semester. A small class also enrolls each January.  Minimum GPA is 3.5, and students must spend a full academic year in school of acceptance. Calculus must be completed at time of application.


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Monday, April 07, 2014

MBA Jargon: Globalization

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This is one piece of jargon that is overused not just by MBAs, but by JDs, poll science majors and many others.

By Ben Feuer

In Robert Reich's new movie, "Inequality for All", he talks at some length about this noxious word.  As you can see from the chart below, it has taken off in popularity since 1980, when it was practically unheard of (literally).

Unlike some of the words we feature in this series, globalization does have a unique meaning and can be a very useful word -- in context.  However, that utility is very narrow indeed, and many essay writers attempt to wave the word around, thinking it makes them sound hip and relevant.  Globalization is forcing the world to be more competitive.  Globalization is making it easier for me to sell my doohickey overseas.  Globalization makes my getting an American MBA more relevant.

The sad truth is, globalization has become a catchall, 'dog ate my homework' justification for nearly any entrepreneurial or social ambition.  So take a moment to ask yourself -- does my proposed company, non-profit or initiative actually need to be global in scale?  Local is valuable too!  At Forster-Thomas, we always encourage our candidates to think about who benefits from their proposed idea or business, and to define that group as precisely as possible.  Global communities are, by their very nature, imprecise, and quite frankly, when it comes to 'the world', most of us don't know jack.

So eschew globalization in favor of a more targeted, precise demographic -- no matter what the scale, relevance is what matters.


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In today's culture, thoughtful debate is more valuable than it has ever been.  Aspiring essay writers should remember that fact.

by Ben Feuer

The debate has been raging for years now -- do college athletes have the right to demand payment for their athletic achievements?  Although we are no closer to a final answer, the debate took a sharp turn in the 'yes' direction yesterday with a key court ruling coming down in favor of the athletes' right to unionize.

As with most debates, there are strong points to be made for both sides.  Yes, the students do devote as many as fifty hours per week to their sport.  Yes, the demands of travel make it difficult to argue that the students are deriving the full value from their 'free' education.  And yes, certain teams in certain sports programs are big money earners for their universities.

On the other hand, many of the students admitted via athletic scholarships would never have had the chance to attend college without one, and many sports (and nearly all athletes) are net cash losers for universities.  Particularly in the case of private universities, is it really the government's role to place an additional financial burden upon them when many are already struggling?

The answer, as far as we are concerned, is not the point.  The point is the debate.

Arguments, in and of themselves, have real value.  That's why many schools still have essays that ask you to take a position on a controversial issue.  By doing so, you demonstrate your ability (or lack thereof) to make your point clearly and succinctly and support it with statements of fact.  This ability (AKA 'critical thinking') is not something schools take for granted, and is a valuable skill in a prospective student.

So if you know you will have to write a 'debate' essay or a 'take a side' essay in the near future, prepare yourself by formulating opinions on key issues of the day.  Marshal arguments and try to persuade those around you ... in writing, of course.  Develop a point of view -- it will help you in your life as well as in your essays.


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As the cost of attending an elite business school continues to rise, MBA students are shouldering the burden without increasing their personal debt ... for now.

By Ben Feuer

Remember how a couple of weeks ago, we took note of the rising costs of medical school, and, concurrently, the rising amount of debt held by medical students?

Turns out that is not a universal problem.

MBAs are more than happy to pay the increased fees for attending top business schools around the country, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.  This is a little depressing, but not really surprising -- after all, MBAs earn more than their pre-med counterparts, and some of them even solicit employer contributions to their education.

On a somewhat more disturbing note, the guys who commissioned the study claim that this should help policymakers distinguish between undergraduate degrees, which the study calls “a must for anyone who wants to secure a middle-class income,” and graduate degrees, which usually aren’t “the foundation for economic opportunity.”

Excuse me?  How do you get that from this?  We here at Forster Thomas see the exact opposite trend developing.  As college degrees become nearly universal, a graduate degree from a top school is THE distinguishing factor in allowing you to have the career you want.  All this proves is that some careers will always be more lucrative than others.


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Friday, March 28, 2014

Oculus Rift Bought by Facebook

This acquisition is yet another reminder of why nothing can take the place of a spectacular, original idea in business.

 By Ben Feuer


Remember three weeks ago when I told you about how awesome the potential of Oculus Rift's VR technology was?  Well, Facebook agrees with yours truly, and it's putting its money where its mouth is, to the tune of $2 billion dollars.  Forbes, which misidentifies Oculus as a "gaming startup", but Zuckerberg gets it -- "Oculus has a chance to be the most social platform ever, he says.  Darn right it does.

So once again, we come back to the same point, but it bears repeating.  If you are applying to a top business school this year, have a top business idea ready and waiting for them!  No one is interested in your pay bump or your promotion.  Take a community, small or large, that you know well, and find a way to transform it completely -- that is the path to success.

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Still struggling with your personal statement?  Take a tip from Buzz Lightyear on how to make it memorable. 

By Ben Feuer

Ed Catmull, a head honcho at the fabulous Pixar studios, has a new book out about management and creativity.  In an article for Fast Company, Ed discusses some of his management (and storytelling) techniques, particularly Pixar's reliance on their 'braintrust', a small group of professional storytellers who help the director hash out issues with the story.

 As you sit down to write your personal statement, your leadership essay, or even your cover letter, remember these three key tips -- Pixar-derived, Forster-Thomas approved!

1.  Be Wrong Faster.  Many candidates take far too long agonizing over a decision when, ultimately, there is no way of knowing for certain which approach is best.  Just write it and figure out later if it was the right choice.  If not, you can always go back and try again.

2.  You Don't Have Perspective.  When candidates are in the middle of writing their essays, they lose perspective.  It is inevitable.  When that happens, they need honest feedback to set them back on track.  Which leads us to #3 --

3.  Honesty is Everything.  Candidates who attempt to sugarcoat their personalities or inflate their accomplishments to score points on an application are only fooling themselves.  Just tell the truth -- to paraphrase Mark Twain, this will will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Simple, right?  Good rules of writing usually are.  The challenge is actually pulling it off, but it's worth the extra effort.  As Ed Catmull reminds us, great design is its own reward.



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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

3D Printing for MBAs and MEDs

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 Applying to medical school or looking for a startup opportunity in the medical devices field?  3D printing offers a range of possibilities.

 By Ben Feuer

Surgery is just the beginning. 

 Advances in 3D printing, an automated process of printing 'layers' of a material until a complete model is formed, have allowed small medical device companies to forgo the usual costs associated with outsourcing manufacturing. 

This is great news for MBA candidates with an interest in medical devices -- companies are already saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on specialized parts and tools through the use of these devices.  But the potential for 3d printing is nearly limitless -- they're talking now about printing the thumbprint of your dreams on coffee mugs.  How would you like to wake up to that every morning?

 Of course, as with any new technology, there are potential pitfalls.  One of the big ones is copyright -- it is more or less the wild west out there for the moment, but once serious money begins to enter the field (as it is already doing) lawsuits and battles for control of '3d representations of everyday objects' can be expected to follow.  Bad news for MBAs and MEDs -- good news for law students.


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MBAs interested in transitioning into the entertainment industry should take note of the continuing convergence of top business executives and entertainment personalities.

By Ben Feuer

More and more celebrities are looking to boost their profit margins by starting or purchasing businesses, and many of them are choosing to stick with what they know by becoming media moguls.  Although Jay-Z is by far the most successful figure in this space, others are looking to join the party, including a man perhaps most famous for his ode to Notorious BIG.

Sean Combs, or Diddy, as he is now known, has made a 200 million bid for the Fuse network, although experts say it may not be enough to actually close the deal.  It's unclear what specific innovations Diddy might bring to the network, which is primarily known as a hub for music videos.

At the same time, there is a rising trend of CEOs appearing in advertisements for their own companies -- Papa John being the most obvious example of this.  Just as celebrities enjoy the profit and status of entering the business world, prominent CEOs enjoy the limelight every once in a while.

So what does all of this mean for the average MBA applicant?  Simple.  Who you are as a person matters more than ever before.  No one expects you to be as famous as Sean Combs or as successful an entrepreneur as John Schattner.  But if you stand out in your workgroup, in your volunteer organization, or in your social circles, that can only support your candidacy to a top business school.

Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.