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 Susan Solinski

Top MBA programs are getting more competitive every year, and finance and consulting remain two of the most popular destinations for graduates. So what should you do if you are looking to transition into one of these areas from a startup, an engineering role or even a completely unrelated field?  It's a long road, but we're here to help!

The first step is to make the problem manageable. Break down your application into its four major components and think about each of them separately.

1. Your stats.
For those looking to enter finance from less quantitatively rigorous fields like marketing, Quant GMAT and demonstrated interest in key topics like Economics, Financial Accounting and Calculus are extremely valuable.  For tech nerds and Indian or East Asian applicants, it's equally important to show strong quant verbal and a dedicated interest in writing/literature topics.  In either situation, if your candidacy is weak in a core number (GPA, GMAT or GRE), consider taking outside courses or mini-MBA programs to boost your bona fides. Remember, stats show your ability to handle an MBA workload, and you can't get into school without them.

2.  Your essays.
Career shifters need to start working on their goals essays earl in the process. Why?  Because having a clear, concrete goal in mind is an absolute essential when you are looking to make a change. Schools want to see that you have thought your decision through carefully and that you are prepared to make the most of the contacts and education they can provide you with.
Another important reason? You need to be able to tell your recommenders why you want to get an MBA so they can know how to shape your recommendation letters accordingly.

For career shifters, goals should be --

Simple.  I want to go from branding to consulting. I want to go from back-room IT to finance. I want to go from trading to buy-side.  From A to B.

Specific.  You need to cite exactly what role you plan to fill and what firm you plan to do it at. Choose a firm that actually recruits at the school you are applying to, please.

EXAMPLE: Immediately after graduation, I plan to become a management consultant. My preferred firm is Bain, because in my view they are the best at balancing a thoughtful approach to charity work with traditional management consulting, and my background is in non-profits, so I would like to continue doing good even as I do well.

Achievable.  Don't say you want to go from a big law assistant right into a venture capital maven -- that's unrealistic and business schools won't want to take a gamble on you. Instead, say that your plan is to start out at a late-stage startup in a development role and then transition to venture capital.

3.  Your recommenders.
It is very important to prep your recommenders by having an extended conversation about your career plans and why an MBA is a necessary next step. They may not know (or care) about your future field, and therefore they may have no sense of what sorts of skills will be important in it. Your job is to explain that to them (and remind them of times when you demonstrated those qualities), so they can turn around and sell those qualities in your rec letter!

If you are getting a letter of support from a donor or prominent alum, make sure they know your professional plans as well. You don't want to risk putting them in an awkward situation!

4. Your resume.
There's an old saying that goes, "Dress for the job you want to have, not the job you currently have".  Never is that more true than on an MBA resume as a career shifter, where you are essentially selling yourself to the committee as a someone with great potential in a brand new field. Look at each job on your resume -- are you emphasizing the aspects of your job that relate to what you want to be doing, instead of the ones you happened to do a lot of in the past?

Often for a career shifter resume, the first bullet point under a job description will be something you did once, or maybe a couple of times, while your day to day responsibilites will be downplayed. That's because you're showing potential, not accomplishment, on this resume.

As always, don't underestimate the power of volunteering and school extracurriculars to boost your achievements and overall 'wow' factor.

*** *** ***

Career shifting isn't easy under any circumstances, but having a degree from Wharton or MIT in your pocket certainly can make it a smoother ride. Give yourself the best chance of getting into your top choice program by following these tips -- and if you want to know more, drop us a line!

 

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.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Kirsten Guenther: From Broadway to Essay

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Interview by Ben Feuer.

Tell us a little bit about your professional background.

My first professional writing job was as a Paris correspondent. I did the city guide for USA Today and eventually graduated to covering a whole range of topics, including travel, restaurants, dating.  Anyway, I had always been interested in playwriting, and I had written a couple of plays in college, so I applied to to NYU’s Tisch School and I got in!

That’s the top playwriting program in the country!

It was a great experience!  Anyway, I was fortunate enough to get paid work as a playwright, book writer (for musicals … ed.) and speechwriter out of school, and I’ve done that kind of work ever since.  I have a play running in LA right now, and I had two shows last year in San Francisco.  I also have an upcoming one in New York, but that won’t be until 2017.

What do you like most about working as an essay coach?

For me it’s this fantastic combination of the work I did in journalism and playwriting!  I get to ask questions like a journalist, listen to the answers, and help candidates turn their responses into stories with arcs. I also love that you see the results immediately – it doesn’t take 5 to 10 years to do an essay with a candidate.  Finally, education is really important to me. I wasn’t starving in Africa growing up, but I did have to work 40 hours a week to help my Mom support our family.  I am where I am today because it was important to my Mom that I get an education.  Fortunately I grew up in an affluent community and therefore a lot of people helped me with my college essays and applications, among other things. This is something I will always do. I can’t imagine not doing it.

What have you learned from your candidates this year?

Aaron Sorkin gave a fantastic commencement speech at Syracuse – basically, he said that when you graduate with a degree in theater or communications, you often have to work jobs that have nothing to do with your major, at Starbucks or something like that.  And he just said that wherever you are, it’s important to bring your passion. If you make people coffee every day, make the best cup of coffee that they ever had.  Anyway, this candidate I had gave up music, which he really loved, to focus on his business career.  But just because he became a businessman, he didn’t suddenly stop being artistic.  He is better at his job now because he was once a musician.  It really taught me something about the value of being my whole self all the time.

What is the craziest thing a client has said to you this year?

I asked a girl why she was working in finance.  She told me that originally she wanted to be a doctor, but she decided that doctors were selfish because they only help their patients.  On the other hand, she could potentially make millions of dollars at a hedge fund and then help lots of people through charity.  I thought that was pretty insane.

I agree.

In her essay, she wrote about keeping hundred dollar bills on the corner of his desk and handing them out to people as she walked by.  That was her idea of charity!

What’s your favorite book on writing?

Other than The MBA Reality Check, you mean?  I make all my clients read that book before I’ll work with them.

Yes, other than that.

Stephen King’s On Writing.  That is one of the most useful books for writing essays because it doesn’t even attempt to teach someone how to write – as if that was even possible.  It just shows usable examples of how to pull disparate ideas together and create stories.  I prefer approaches that are not formulaic.

Take us through a typical hour with a candidate.

Sometimes I give them brainstorming homework.  I like journal entry things.  for instance, I might have a candidate fill an entire page of an MS Word document with one-sentence answers to the question, What Matters Most to me and Why?  Then I’ll go through the document with them on the call and highlight all the ones that are basically the same.  Usually it’s about 75 percent – which really tells us something about what is genuinely important to them.  I give lots of creative writing type assignments.  I also just like to chat -- ask them questions about where they went out on Saturday night, et cetera. Sometimes we get great stories that way – one guy told me about writing a political contribution check for the wrong candidate!  Then for about 20 minutes I give them an outline of what they’re going to write -- I outline each section with them. I try to save room for questions at the end.

Tell us a story from your childhood – the way you might ask a candidate to write an essay.

When I was thirteen, my best friend didn’t show up for school one day and I had no idea why.  It turned out her Dad had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.  It really disturbed me.  I remember asking my mom repeatedly on the way to their house to bring them some stupid casserole, “Why did he do it?”  And she just told me he must have felt really alone.   And I remember thinking that was so ridiculous, I could’ve told him he wasn’t.  It seemed so simple to me.  After that, it became very important to me to be there for people, especially when they fuck up. 

In high school I had an arch nemesis who hated me because I got the lead in the play over her.  She was very popular, I wasn’t – at least until she faked having a brain tumor.  She lost all of her friends. I remember I inviter her and her Dad over to my house for dinner one night after it happened.  It’s part of why stories became so important to me.  Everybody’s got one, you know?

What do you think is the hardest part of the admissions process for most candidates?

Constantly measuring themselves against the competition.  I get so many quant-heads obsessively analyzing the statistics, you know, just like they do in their job all day.  And it’s hard on them, because wherever they are they’re used to being one of the best and brightest, and all the sudden the whole pool of people they are competing with are special. So they obsess over how his GMAT is a little higher than mine, but I’m a little funnier than him.  What they don’t understand is that the process is more holistic.  They take individuals, people who are fully themselves, at these top schools.  This is especially true for interviews, I think.  You know they’re going to be good to go if they’re the kind of person who can just be themselves on a date.  I also I think it shows a lot of confidence to be able to joke about yourself.  Last year all of my HBS candidates got interviews, but one of them didn’t get in, and I think it was because she was just trying too hard and obsessing in the interview.

Any last words of wisdom?

I always tell people, especially for Harvard and Stanford, but really for all the top schools, that the essay they want to turn in is the one that, if they printed it out at work and accidentally left it there at night, there’s no world in which they would just leave it on the printer till the next day.  They would run back and try to break into that office to get a hold of it because they would be so afraid for someone from work to it.  To transcend the typical resume nonsense it’s got to be completely personal and pretty magical.

Thank you so much!

Thank you!

And if people want to work with you, or talk about their candidacy with you, what should they do?

Just contact our office and they can set up a call with me – I’m around!


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Harvard Business School's prestigious 2+2 program is attracting more qualified applicants every year.  How can you stand out from the pack?

The HBS 2+2 program has only been around for a few short years, but it is quickly becoming one of the most attractive destinations for ambitious young scholars.  It has evolved a lot in the few years it has existed, but its mission remains the same -- to attract the best and brightest young students who wouldn't otherwise consider business school and bring them into the Harvard fold. HBS takes these students 'sight unseen', as it were, without work experience, and requires them to work for two years before joining their Harvard Business School class.
The program is highly selective, with acceptance rates hovering around 11 to 12 percent every year -- but if you want to go, here are a few things you have to do in order to prepare yourself.

1.  Have a great job -- in your chosen field.  It is incredibly important to have a post-baccalaureate job lined up before applying to HBS 2+2, even if it means waiting until Round 3 instead of applying Round 2.  Furthermore, it can't just be any old job -- working at the Starbucks isn't going to cut it!  The most competitive applicants will have landed jobs that show their potential in their chosen field, while also leaving the door open to improve themselves with a business education.

 2. Have great test scores and GPA.  Even more than HBS itself, the 2+2 program is intensely competitive and numbers-driven, since there's less work experience for adcoms to judge. You can take either the GRE or the GMAT, although GMAT is the more rigorous test and therefore adcoms will be a little more forgiving of a 'weak' GMAT score than a weak GRE score.  A student applying to 2+2 should have at least a 730 with at least 75% score on the quant section to be competitive, and a 3.7+ GPA.

3.  Have a STEM background. HBS 2+2 loves STEM applicants more than anything.  62 percent of the incoming class was STEM, dwarfing all other backgrounds COMBINED.  Engineers, mathematicians and data scientists' skillsets are always in high demand at business school, so this probably comes as no big surprise.  That said, liberal arts and business majors do have a real shot at getting into the program -- just less of a shot.

4.  Have a compelling story.  Although numbers tell a big part of the story, they don't tell the whole story.  The fact is, recommendations and essays are the "X factor" that can overcome slightly weaker numbers -- and unfortunately, this is the part of the process most candidates spend the least time on!  All of the advice we give to B-school applicants in general goes double for HBS 2+2 applicants -- finding a meaningful reason to go to business school, an exciting life goal the committee will want to engage with, and being able to talk about your personal background and life history in a way that really illuminates who you are.

If you have questions about your chances at getting into HBS's 2+2 program, contact us! ; We'd be happy to handicap your chances and give you a few pointers.

Happy hunting!

Photo by Niklas Tenhaef.

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Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by John M. Quick


For years, the MBA has been one of the most valued degrees in the American pantheon — and one of the most expensive.  Not anymore — at least not at Arizona State University’s Carey School of Business.  Today, Arizona State announced that it would offer free tuition for ALL of its MBA candidates this coming year, and that it hopes to continue this practice into the future for as long as it can afford to.  The plan is backed by a 50 million dollar gift to the school, and as far as we know, ASU is the first school ever to do this with an MBA program, traditionally a cash cow.

Unsurprisingly, the dean refers to diversifying inputs as one of the main reasons for taking this unusual step.  And that makes a lot of sense; after all, just about every highly ranked business school out there is trying to attract a more diverse student body, but the problem with diverse students is that they tend to have lower test scores and shallower pockets -- this should help bridge both gaps.  That said, the Dean's comment about diversifying outputs is much more interesting.  She makes the point that a lot of industries don’t yet value the MBA, for various reasons, which makes ROI justification tougher for a prospective student.  By lowering the cost of a highly ranked MBA to zero, the ROI changes, and students can afford to consider a much wider range of jobs when they graduate.

The dean views this tuition transformation through the lens of a pay it forward model — by giving the education away for now, she’s hoping for bigger, better donations down the line.  If the program makes anywhere near the waves it seems capable of making, she may well get her wish, and perhaps not only from students — other rich donors may take note of the move and try to do something similar at their alma maters.  One of the most interesting parts of this program will be seeing how far it spreads from here, and whether other schools try something similar.

Of course, there is a rankings play in all of this — Arizona State will most likely shoot up to the top of the value for money rankings, and since student reviews of their experience also strongly affect rankings, Arizona State’s spot in the US News should go up as well.  But truthfully, that’s beside the point.  The point is that, for a few short years at least, Arizona State is going to become one of the best low-cost MBA options on the planet, and there’s absolutely no reason not to take advantage of that fact.  We have been encouraging people to apply to this program for years -- now I have a feeling they're going to start listening.

Want to build a competitive Arizona State MBA application?  We can help you with that!