Evan Forster advises MBA applicants how to escape the waitlists at Columbia.

Last week, I received a call from my MBA candidate, Dylan. This is his second shot at applying to business school (when he applied on his own last year, it was a close-but-no-cigar). He was recently waitlisted/deferred at Columbia. Why? Probably because of his GMAT score. It’s only a 710. But we all know how Columbia operates when it comes to numbers. It’s like that date who only wants to know how big your bank account is. Regardless, he got waitlisted—not denied.

He’s an incredible candidate—an Olympic athlete, a successful banker, and gorgeous head to toe: blonde mop, piercing blue eyes, a lean, mean soccer machine. Put him in a Paul Smith suit and he has you at “Cheerio.” So you can imagine my bafflement when Dylan whined, “My admissions coordinator at Columbia is making time to meet me this Thursday—but she didn’t sound overly excited to have me come into the office.” Apparently, during their brief phone call his admissions coordinator went on to say, “There’s nothing really more we need to know about your candidacy. We’ll have our decision by February 1.”

Dylan was hesitant and asked me, “So…should I go?” His voice was meek. Where was the confident athlete I had been working with for the past few months? Apparently, it was stuck somewhere beneath a waitlist letter, under the paragraph that reads: “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” (Of course some programs offer the proverbial “the committee encourages you to let us know—via email or phone—of any significant new achievements since your application was submitted.” And you should.) But Dylan’s MBA letter was clear: “Due to the volume of applications we receive, we cannot accommodate individual requests [to speak/meet with candidates]. A member of the Admissions Committee will contact you if we have specific questions.”

So, Dylan wondered, should he actually visit? Put a face to the name?

My answer is simple: YES!

Let me put this into perspective: Thousands of people apply to the same schools and programs you do. Admissions officers are over-worked, underfed, and fed-up with every candidate trying to get a foot in the door. If you’ve been waitlisted or deferred, however, you have a foot in the door. So, buck up. Have a little self-confidence! Realize that one of your super powers is not mind reading: You have no idea what was going on in the moment you contacted that admissions officer about your candidacy. In the immortal words of Cher when she slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”

You don’t know what prompted the admissions officer’s seeming lack of enthusiasm. Was it a bad morning? A stop-and-roll ticket on the way into work? You simply don’t know. Nor do you need to.

What you need to do is be brave and bold and make sure you’ve taken every opportunity to let that school know how serious you are about attending—and how perfect you are. Because you are perfect. There is a 6’3” hot blonde soccer player in you somewhere. Even if you’re acting like a little wiry 14-year-old.

So if somebody gives you an opportunity to press the flesh and put a face to a name, take it. Don’t err on the side of, “Oh, maybe I’m overdoing it.” For example, if you’ve already visited campus, go visit again.

How to know if it’s time for another visit:

  1. You got waitlisted or deferred! This means the admissions office is serious about you. If they weren’t, you would have received a denial letter.
  2. Did you get a response to your email or phone call that agreed to a specific time to visit? If the answer is “yes” and a time was set, then ignore your inner weakling and summon your outer superhero. Go be your dazzling self.
  3. You’re still wondering whether it’s overkill to visit again because the response to your email or phone call was lukewarm? You don’t know what anyone is thinking. You are assuming that they don’t want to be “bothered.” This is your opportunity to pleasantly surprise them. Show them you know about the school by asking specific questions about classes, clubs and facilities. (I’m talking about questions that cannot be answered by looking on their website. Think “how” or “why” and nothing that can be answered with a “yes,” “no,” or a number. Because you are only a bother if you waste their time with questions you could get answered online.)
  4. You’ve never visited before? It’s a no-brainer. Get on a plane, train or automobile—now—even if you don’t get a response to your call or email. BTW—you live within three hours of campus, but you’ve never visited? You don’t deserve to be accepted. (If I were an admissions officer at that school, I’d certainly wonder whether you were actually going to say “yes” to an offer of acceptance if you had never inconvenienced yourself with a visit.)
  5. You Just Don’t Know – Stop making up reasons not to visit. Dylan did that for a while, and all it got him was fear and worry. But I guess we all need a little encouragement. I, for one, am frightened as hell of rejection. But you have an opportunity to do more than the minimum, to put a face to your name. Dylan had an opportunity to restate his goals and chat about his excitement about Columbia. As a result of doing so, he was so well-liked that the admissions coordinator introduced him to the Dean of Value Investing—his area of interest/goal.

Post-visit, when Dylan called me, he had that old Olympic tone in his voice when he said: “There are probably a 100 people vying for three spots, but now, at least when they decide, they will think of my face and not just my name or number—they’ll be thinking of me

And that’s why you go and visit. And Stay in touch after you do.

Read more about how to get off the waitlist.

We are waitlist experts:  schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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No MBA applicant should be without a clear professional goal for their essay or application.

Every top MBA program, with the notable exception of HBS and MIT Sloan, has an essay that requires you to discuss your future professional goals. Unfortunately, a lot of business school applicants don’t yet know what they want to do (around 50% of the b-school candidates we see at Forster-Thomas—and 70% of those from finance backgrounds fit this mold). All they know for sure is that they no longer want to be doing what they’re doing right now. And since we all have friends who got into top business schools with ambiguous goals, you might ask: why can’t I just say that?

You can – but it would not be a good idea. Specificity is one thing that can distinguish your candidacy and set you apart in everyone’s eyes—especially admissions officers. When applying to business school—ANY b-school—there are bound to be successful applicants who buck the trend (those who have a perfect GMAT and whose last employer was David Loeb) and do just fine. You know, people who ignore every piece of advice out there and somehow still get that coveted Stanford admit. We here at Forster-Thomas like to call them “Easy A’s” (for easy admits, of course). Actually, we call them the exceptions that prove the rule. And the other thing, when they’re not looking.

The good news is that that's OK; b-schools don't necessarily expect that you're going to have the same goal going out as you do coming in. However, they do want to see vision, passion, and direction. And that’s pretty tough to demonstrate when saying, “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do.” So yes, you do have to have a specific professional goal. Here are three points to help you get there.

1. Don’t worry—you’re not signing a contract with the future. This isn't a business plan, and you're not going to be forced to sign in blood (with a few exceptions, like Wharton's Healthcare Management program—read the fine print!). This means that you should feel free to write about a possible goal you might pursue, as long as you’re genuinely interested in it and can write articulately about it.

2. Your goal must demonstrate a specific direction and vision for your career. Like Christine Sneva, director of admissions at Cornell’s Johnson School, says (along with just about every other admissions director at every other top school): “Please show you have a clear direction for your goal post-MBA.” In other words, even if you aren't 100% sure what you’re going to be doing 10 years from now, you need to show that you know how to get there. Say it’s you’re Sarah Jessica Parker, and you’re going in for an audition for the role of Carrie from Sex & the City. You wouldn’t stroll into the audition and say, "Hey, I'm really good. Take my word for it!” No, you would do an audition to show off your acting chops. Even if you had never seen a word of the script, you’d have a some other monologue memorized and prepared. If that monologue blows everyone away, the director will hire Sarah because if she can do that well, she can do his script well. The goals essay is an audition for your vision—can you conceptualize and plot out a long- and short-term career arc? Top B-schools want to see you think in concrete career terms.

3. Your goal has to make sense and be organic with who you are as a person. Sticking with our acting theme, Chris Colfer (the gay kid from Glee) would NOT be auditioning for Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. You got that, Stella? If you're a Quant Jock who has never cared about the triple-bottom line, don't rhapsodize about social entrepreneurship—your goal should inspire real passion in you. You need to love the concept of your goal and be able to talk with passion and persuasion about it—both in your essays and your interviews.

The goals essay is nothing to fear. In fact, once you write it, you may find yourself liking it so much you want to build your whole candidacy around it … an approach we heartily recommend.

--Ben Feuer

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For the first time ever, Forster-Thomas reveals the data behind its HBS applicants to provide a snapshot of what a successful candidate looks like.

HBS has spoken. Now that the b-school has announced interview invitations on two back-to-back Wednesdays (along with those dreaded dings and deferrals), a picture has quickly emerged as to what the school is looking for in its new, sole admissions essay. So what kind of essays is the school responding to?

In a word: Personal.

At Forster-Thomas, we spent the last week crunching the numbers to determine who got interviews and who didn’t—and what set the yeas apart from the nays. While there are many factors that determine a given applicant’s candidacy, one clear trend emerged with regards to essays: a full 75% of the essays written by candidates who received interview requests were personal in nature.

Instead of beating their chests about their accomplishments, these candidates spoke from the heart, reflected upon challenging experiences, and talked about how they think, not just what they’ve done. In some cases, this meant exploring how overcoming a challenging situation in the candidate’s youth provided them with the outlook and perspective to succeed later in life. Other candidates spoke about a current passion of theirs, and why it’s so important to them. Still others reflected upon an attribute or value that has defined their decisions throughout life. In many of these cases, candidates spent up to 75% of their word count (which averaged around 700) describing these defining experiences, then related how these perspectives have driven personal or professional success.

Forster-Thomas has always embraced the notion that the best essays are introspective, insightful, and focus on the candidate’s journey (rather than just the destination or result). It’s one of the key messages in our book, The MBA Reality Check: Make The School You Want, Want You. Our candidates’ Round 1 success at HBS proves just how powerful this approach is.

“Snobbery” not a factor

Another metric we uncovered—though one we’ve long been aware of—is that HBS will not turn up its nose at candidates lacking in “prestige” brand names. Among our Round 1 applicants who received interviews, only a quarter attended Ivy League universities. Meanwhile, those remaining split almost perfectly between private and state schools—including second-tier state universities. In other words, despite a reputation for the contrary (see here, here, and here for three pretty funny examples), HBS is not wowed by prestige—it is wowed by great candidates.

The GMAT sweet spot

Over our 17-year history, we’ve helped candidates with a vast range of GMAT scores get into the b-schools of their dreams. In a recent Poets & Quants’ feature, we even came the closest among a number of top admissions consultants to identifying 2012’s 570 GMAT admit into HBS (having helped numerous candidates with sub-600 GMAT scores over the years helped us greatly). However, we have always maintained that the optimal GMAT score is around a 730-750: high enough to raise (rather than lower) a school’s average GMAT score, but not so freakishly high that admissions assumes you are a socially awkward bookworm (Big Bang Theory characters don’t belong in b-school). Our HBS Round 1 findings support this perspective, with the average GMAT score being…drum roll…a 740. We expect the average GMAT of our interviewed Round 2 candidates to be more like a 720 (Round 2 is generally more accepting of less conventional candidates in our experience).

Candidacy is King

Ultimately, all other factors aside, what our successful candidates all possessed were great candidacies. As Evan Forster wrote in a blog right after HBS announced the move to one optional essay, “[HBS is] really going to be evaluating you more on who you really ARE, not on who you SAY you are. Candidates can’t just talk the talk anymore. They have to walk the walk.” In other words, HBS is still looking for the same qualities they’ve always valued: A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship. A great GMAT score and powerful essays can help a strong candidate stand out from the pack—but a weak candidate can’t gussy him/herself up at the last minute and hope to be taken seriously. That’s why we have our Leadership Action Plan—and why every candidate needs to be a strong candidate from the get-go, not at the eleventh hour.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How to Answer the Kellogg Video Essay

Forster-Thomas video expert Tom Locke tells you how to respond to Kellogg's 2014 video essay prompt.

This year, the Kellogg MBA program has introduced a new component to its application process: The video essay. This has caused plenty of business school candidates to race to the MBA forum-sphere, desperate for any advice. On one forum, a candidate proudly posted about how he “got out” of his interview by telling Kellogg he didn’t have access to a webcam.

Big mistake. You shouldn’t be grumbling about this new element or trying to figure out how to get around it. You should be grateful: this is a tremendous opportunity to introduce, differentiate, and endear yourselves to the admission committee.

While most MBA interviews are “invite only”—and thus only open to the most top-tier candidates—Kellogg (and a few peers like Yale SOM) has introduced video essays in an effort to meet the human beings behind the essays and recommendations. Even for a candidate who gets that coveted interview invitation, he or she may never meet an admissions officer, as many are conducted by alumni or even second year MBA students. This, then, ensures that every single applicant will get some valuable face time with the admissions committee. My advice to you, therefore, is to MAKE THE MOST OF IT! IT IS NOT AN OBLIGATION, IT’S AN OPPORTUNITY!

Before we dive into the kind of questions you can expect, let’s walk through the Kellogg video essay process: 

  1. Towards the end of the Kellogg application, you will find the “Video Essay” page. There, a video featuring Kate Smith, Kellogg’s Assistant Dean of Admissions, explains the logic behind the video essay. After watching the video, you can click on a link to test your computer’s Internet connection and software compatibility. 
  2. Next, you will need to click a couple of boxes that give the school permission to record you. 
  3. Now you have the opportunity to do a condensed “test run,” which runs you through a shortened version of the actual video interview process with blank prompts. After completing the test run, you will be asked if you are ready to move on to the actual video essay. 
  4.  When you click “ready,” the video essay begins. A prompt will appear, selected randomly from a bank of questions. You have 90 seconds before recording begins to read the prompt and decide how to answer it (you can also click a button to bypass the 90-second timer and start recording). Once the recording begins, you have 90 seconds to answer the question. After your 90-second answer (remember, you have the option to answer more briefly), your recorded response will be entered as part of your application. 
  5. Finally, keep in mind that you have three “chances”: if you don’t like the first prompt, you can “reject” it and you will receive a second prompt. You can reject that prompt as well. However, the third prompt is the last one you will receive, and must be answered.

Now, as to the questions and how to answer them:

Although it is a new platform for candidate assessment, the video essay is quite consistent with the rest of your application process. There will likely be no curveballs. Expect all the prompts to tap into one of the following common MBA categories: 

  • Passions / Interests 
  • Challenges / Accomplishments 
  • Professional goals 
  • Leadership experiences

Since these are the same kinds of topics you brainstormed to write your essays, you’re actually more prepared for the video essay than you might think. No matter what the actual question is, you can tap into your many stories to answer it. Before doing the video essay, simply create a list of 3-4 stories in each category. When you do the video essay, use the 90-second prep time to identify which area they are asking you about, and then choose the best answer.

So, why not just give you another essay, or refer to your other essays touching upon those broad topics? Two reasons:

  • They want to know if you can think on your feet. It’s one thing to take month to write several drafts of an essay; it is another thing to organize and articulate your thoughts in mere seconds. This is your version of your “elevator pitch”. 
  • They want to see how you’d fare in a recruiting event or boardroom. How you present yourself if as important as what you say. The school’s first impression of you is likely similar to a prospective employer’s, and—let’s face it—as much as a school might want you to study with them, the really want you to go into the world as an alumnus/ae and get a terrific job, which reflects upon the school.

Finally, a few key suggestions: 

Dress for success! Like in any interview, be the best-dressed person they meet.  

Look them in the eye (or, rather, the webcam). Treat this like a conversation. Don’t look down too much at your notes, and don’t allow your eyes to wander around the room. You are having a conversation with someone you want to like you…don’t talk AT the computer. Talk TO the person. 

Make your argument. Don’t ramble on or digress into a dissertation to show how smart you are. This is your chance to show that you are clear-thinking, persuasive, and can formulate a cohesive argument for your candidacy through your answer. 

The school WANTS you to succeed. Admissions officers are not looking to “trip you up.” They are simply recognizing that the only thing you can bring to the table as a candidate is YOU, and they are giving you that opportunity to do so. Remember, they WANT you to be terrific. That makes their lives easier. So take a deep breath, and give them YOU!

--Tom Locke

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Architecture personal statements can be challenging. Here's how to write one the admissions committee is never going to forget.

There are so many fantastic architecture schools out there -- check out our deep dives into Harvard and Yale for two specific examples -- but one thing that they all have in common is the requirement that all applicants write an admissions essay.

No matter what name it goes by -- statement of purpose, statement of interest, or plain old personal statement -- architecture school statements are challenging.  They often want you to cover a whole lot of information in only 500 words. For instance, Columbia University’s prompt this year was: In a statement of approximately 500 words, describe your background, your past work in your intended field of study, and your plans for graduate study and a professional career. All of that in only 500 words or less? Oy.

“So…by ‘background’ do they mean my entire life story plus all of my work, school and internship experiences?” my candidate, Kara, an aspiring architect, asked. “It says ‘personal’ – does that mean I should tell them about my parents’ divorce?”

Here’s the thing: It is important that after the admissions committee has read your statement of purpose, they feel that they know who you are. They need to know what you want to do (your goal)—Kara’s was opening her own architecture firm one day—why this is important to you, what you have done thus far in regards to pursuing your goal or taking an interest in the subject matter, and what you still have left to learn and/or explore. And right there is the outline for your entire 500-word, statement of purpose.


Paragraph 1: This is where you get personal. No, this doesn’t mean empty the contents of your diary. This means write about the moment you realized you wanted to pursue your goal. For instance, perhaps it was when your family moved from a sprawling home in Greenwich, Connecticut, to a 1200 sq. ft. apartment in Manhattan. Perhaps you found yourself wishing you could move the walls around, and reconfigure the space to be more open. There, you have your “ah-hah!” moment—the moment you realized that architecture would be a part of your life. Write about that. Be specific.

Why? Graduate programs want students who are passionate about what they want to do, not students who are just looking to avoid the real world for another few years. This is your opportunity to show them why you want it.

Paragraph 2: What have you done thus far to pursue your interest in architecture? Did you explore classes in college? Did you take art or art history classes? When you studied abroad, did you take an active interest in the city’s architecture? This is an opportunity to discuss specific classes you’ve taken as well as experiences—talk about a particular professor you learned from, clubs you started or joined. Discuss internships or observation hours. But do not simply list them; you don’t want to regurgitate your resume (remember, they have it!). Tell them what’s not on your resume. For instance, discuss specific moments within your internship where you learned something significant and how you plan to apply what you learned.

Why? Graduate school want students who have already been seeking knowledge; show them what you’ve learned so far.

Paragraph 3: Why do you want to go to grad school? What do you still have left to learn? Discuss skills that you need to obtain, improve or expand. For instance, you might be looking to strengthen your foundation and design skills with a Masters in Architecture. You might be interested in expanded your knowledge of technology and how one can use it in the design process in order to achieve greater innovation. Look at your goal, and then ask yourself, “What do I need to get better at in order to improve my chances of achieving my goal?”

Now here’s the part where Kara asks, “But don’t I want to appear confident? Won’t it make me look weak to admit that I still have stuff to learn?”

No. Schools want students who are self aware–they know their strongest and weakest areas. You want to show the school that you know what you need to work on and what experiences you need to gather in order to accomplish your goal. This also demonstrates that you actually will benefit from graduate school—and proves to the school even more that you are a serious candidate.

Paragraph 4: The school-specific portion of your essay. Why Columbia, specifically? Here, it is important to be extremely specific in order to show enthusiasm for a particular school. Research classes, professors and clubs, and discuss how they will help you accomplish your goal.

Why? You must prove that you want to go to the school. By getting specific about the school you also demonstrate your ability to research and gain knowledge—good traits for a prospective student. Additionally, when you get an interview—you’ll have lots to discuss.

Last paragraph: Your conclusion. A few short sentences about how Columbia is going to help you, and you are going to help them, change the planet (by using your masters in architecture).


Need more help?  Just ask -- we're happy to answer any questions you have about your application.

Or, if you prefer, you can check out more details on the services we provide for graduate students, advising them on overall application strategy as well as essay prep.

How do you write the perfect personal essay for film school?  Admissions experts at Forster-Thomas have the answers.

By Justin Marshall

USC film school calls it a Personal Statement.  So does NYU Tisch.  To UCLA, FSU, and the University of Texas, it’s a Statement of Purpose.  It’s a Narrative statement at AFI, an Artist’s Statement at CalArts, and an Autobiographical Essay at Columbia University.  Whatever the name and regardless of length (anywhere from 500 words to six pages), the personal essay is one of the most common application documents MFA film programs request for admissions.  

What few realize is that it’s also the single most important item you’ll submit. Richard Walter, professor and co-chairman of UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting program, told me: “The single best way to get into our program is to give us a great statement of purpose—one that’s personal and well written.”

Surprised? Sure, filmmaking experience is an important element.  So are good grades in college. And if you have a strong reel, that absolutely increases your chances of getting in.  But the personal essay is king for three key reasons:

  1. It sheds light on how you think. OK, you have a good GPA and a killer music video under your belt. But do you have the life experience, maturity, and unique voice necessary to tell a career’s worth of amazing visual stories? Are you capable of working in a fundamentally collaborative process? Do you have the tenacity of spirit to survive the film industry? These are all crucial qualities, and the personal essay is the only opportunity you have to showcase them.
  2. It puts your reel into perspective. In the personal essay, you can explain the influences behind the films on your reel, what you were trying to say, and what you learned through the creative process. If we understand what you were going for, we will appreciate your films more.
  3. It tells the school if you’re the right fit for their program. USC wants Hollywood players. CalArts wants artists. NYU wants something in between. The personal essay allows you to explain which one you are—and why.

If you want a cheesy analogy, think of the personal statement like an online dating profile or a personals ad (don’t act like you’ve never read them). If you’re looking for true love, a couple of cute photos and a matching Zodiac sign aren’t going to cut it. You want to know that you’re compatible at the core, from musical tastes to hobbies/interests to political views. The personal essay does just that: it shows the school the person behind the images.  It allows you to communicate who you are and how you think.  It’s where sparks fly and true compatibility emerges. And at the end of the day, as good as your reel might be, the schools aren’t admitting a film to a program; they’re admitting a person to their program.  So use the personal essay to showcase who you are—the real you.

Now that you understand what the personal statement is and why it’s so important, read Part 2 of this blog, where I provide three do’s and don’ts for writing the personal essay.

Read more on our MFA Film School consulting process or request a free candidacy assessment.

--Justin Marshall