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Photo by English106, Article by Ben Feuer

 The new common application questions are out for 2015-2016 -- students and parents everywhere are wondering how to answer them.  This guide will help you get started!

The brand-new common application questions have been released into the wild!  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.

And now, without further ado, 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!


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For all of you prospective MBAs about to send in those applications, we made a list and checked it twice to cover all of the little things you might have overlooked.  Check it out and make sure that you haven't left any opportunities on the table.

Do all of your schools have all of your transcripts and your GMAT or GRE scores?
Have you taken the TOEFL, if necessary, and submitted your score?
Are your transcripts official?  Do they have to be?  
Are your transcripts in sealed envelopes?  Are they in English?
Have you converted your high school and college GPAs to 4.0 standards?

Do all of your recommenders know all of the schools you are applying for?
Have you provided an up-to-date resume and bullet points about your strongest characteristics?
Have you followed up to courteously remind them about deadlines and answer any questions they may have?
Have you coordinated any special letters of recommendation you may be receiving, and made certain they are only going to your top choice school?
Do you have a recommendation from your current, direct supervisor?  If not, have you explained why not in your optional essay?

Are you sure you have answered all the essay questions?
Did you answer them at the correct word, page and character counts?
Have you fully answered every question?  Read each prompt closely and address every aspect of every question.  Leave nothing out.
Are your essays too long or too short?  Do you need to add or subtract material anywhere?
Do you need to write an optional essay explaining away grades, test scores or gaps in employment?
Have you double-checked your schools’ formatting and uploading requirements?
If you are repurposing material from one school for another, have you double-checked to make sure you did not accidentally leave in another school’s name?
Have your essays been proofread carefully?

Have you visited every campus you possibly can?
When you visited, did you take careful notes of names, dates and places for later use?
Did you make good use of all your salient research either in your essays or elsewhere in your application?
If you were not able to visit, did you attend an ‘info session’?  Did you ask questions?  Did you take note of who was offering the info session?
Have you spoken to current and former students, received specific and revealing quotes about each of your target schools, and made use of them in your essays?


Have you scheduled an interview for schools that allow you to interview, like Tuck and Kellogg?
Have you begun to practice your interview answers for basic questions like career goals and leadership experiences?
Are you familiar with the common prompts for video essay questions?  Have you thought loosely about answers?  No scripting!

Are all the dates, times and job functions accurate and clear?
Are your descriptions of your work appropriate for b-schools?  Do they highlight leadership and accomplishments rather than job functions and experience?
Is your resume one page?
Are there any formatting inconsistencies?  Has it been proofread?
Do you need to adjust your resume for different schools to account for certain factors (like working with an alum or on a particularly relevant project)?  Have you done so?

Have you skipped over any portions of the application?  if so, return to them now.

Did you answer every short answer question with complete and satisfying detail?  Did you include all the necessary names, dates and places?

Did we miss something?  Let us know!

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A great educational consultant doesn’t do the work for you. He (or she) pushes you—like a tough athletic coach—to go from good to GREAT in all aspects of your candidacy.

By Evan Forster

Lebron James has undeniable natural talent. He couldn’t be less than “good” at basketball if he shot the ball from his couch with his other hand wrapped around a Pringles tube. But if you want to be Major League, you need someone outside your own mind and body to push you to a new level.

Sammy’s application to MIT Sloan’s MBA program is an excellent example. I enjoyed Sammy’s optional personal expression essay. It was clever, well-produced, and bold. And yet it was missing something crucial.

MIT Sloan’s optional essay allows the applicant to create something original, something that reveals his or her personality.  Sammy made a video, a clever takeoff of Apple’s “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials, explaining that he was no typical finance guy in the way that Macs aren’t typical computers. In making good points about who Sammy is, it did exactly what that essay is supposed to do, no more and no less.  AND THAT WAS THE WHOLE PROBLEM.

At Forster-Thomas, we refer to the upper echelon of elite schools as the Major Leagues of Admissions—Harvard College, Columbia Medical School, Haas B-School, Stanford Law, USC Film.  We do that for a reason.  It takes something special to make it to the major leagues.  Talent is a given.  Most people applying to those schools have talent.  Effort matters—a lot—but not all effort is created equal.  Some effort is wasted on things that don’t count.  That’s why major leaguers need COACHES.  You know, that guy on the sidelines in a suit or uniform (or in the case of Bill Belichick, a grungy hoodie) screaming at you to slide or bunt or whatever it is you do in baseball.  You need someone to take your clever essay ideas, your interesting interview responses and your competent resume from “effective” and “polished” to “authentic” and “compelling.” 

In Sammy’s case, his optional personal expression essay was missing that one, teeny-tiny, indispensable ingredient: HEART. While the Forster-Thomas crew enjoyed and nodded at the video when we saw it, a day later, none of us could recall a thing about Sammy—other than the fact that he’s not a PC.  And that is a BIG, BIG problem. If I don’t remember Sammy, neither will the adcoms.

While Sammy had worked with us on his applications to other schools, he did MIT Sloan on his own.  Imagine if he had had someone there to push him, to make him sweat the small stuff.  Imagine, if instead of a perfect Mac, we saw a guy who showed off two amazing things about himself like his academic ability and a great club he led. And then imagine Sammy stops. He looks down, and then back up at the camera and says, “Wait. I don’t wanna put anyone else down—not PC or anyone.” And then he reveals something not so great—like his struggle organizing thoughts, a truth about his insecurity about transitioning from law to business. And then he asks MIT for help giving him the life his really wants. And maybe he cuts to this part when he’s “backstage,” setting everything up. See?  It not only takes it past the clever “Mac/PC” commercial, but it humanizes him. Now MIT doesn’t just like Sammy. MIT remembers Sammy. We all do.  

That’s what a strong, experienced, savvy educational consultant does. He or she takes you from D-League to Major League—by helping you find and express your HEART, not just your resume.  Odds are, Sammy considered doing something personal and warm—but rejected the idea. Without someone to give him permission to get real, he backed off because admissions is scary. The more your put yourself on the line, the harder it is if you get rejected.

You may be Superman, but you have Kryptonite buried somewhere in your candidacy, and it will suck all the power out of it if you let it.  We all have a blind spot—you, me, everybody.  We all need a coach to be great.

I have a confession to make: I have a bit of an ego.  That is why it is extra hard for me to admit what I’m about to admit: I’m not a Mac.  I’m not slick, or polished.  I wake up every day and ask myself, “Was I a phony yesterday? Does anyone really care what I have to say today?"

That fear is not “slick” or “polished”—it’s just the truth.  My media consultant, Hank, otherwise known as my personal pain-in-the ass, is my secret weapon that never lets me merely be good. He helps me be great. That’s why I hire him.  And that’s why you should hire us, or another educational consultant that is the right fit for your personality and needs.

You worked hard to give yourself a shot at a top program or school.  Why settle for second best in your candidacy and your applications, the final and most telling stage of the entire process?  That’s why you need a GREAT educational consultant.  The good news is, I have a couple suggestions about where to start looking.  HECA, IECA ... I'm looking at you!

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Are you struggling mightily to finish an essay for a particular prompt or school?  Sometimes the problem is not where you wound up, it's where you started.

There comes a moment in every writer's life (usually fairly early on) when she is forced to step back, assess her work with a cold, dispassionate eye, and say, calmly and confidently, "This is crap."  This is usually a bittersweet moment, coming as it does after hours (days?) of staring at a screen, fighting to make the words on the page suck less.

Sometimes the revelation comes in a more public (but equally upsetting) context -- you show it to your mom, or your best friend, and that doe-eyed, pitying look comes over her face -- oh, sugar, really?  That old story about the lawnmower again?  I hated that when you wrote about it for COLLEGE!

Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat it because it's kind of my job not to.  You wasted a bunch of time.  In your defense, it probably wasn't your fault.  But still, you might as well have spent that time listening to "All About That Bass" on repeat.  Because that's a thing people do.  Anyway, what's done is done.  The question is, what do you do now?

There is a simple way of doing triage when your essay is on life support -- vital signs that can tell you if your idea needs CPR or a shallow grave.

1.  Does it have juice?  Is there any actual emotional resonance to the idea for you?  Do you care about the subject matter, the people involved, the revelations?  Even with the most technical and business-minded essays, this is still a vital component, and if it isn't there for you, it certainly won't be there for anybody else.

2.  Is it honest and revealing?  Did you wind up contorting a few too many facts to make yourself look good?  Are you making a big deal of something that -- really, truly -- wasn't that important?  Are you showing the committee who you are, or who you want them to think you are?  And if you are applying some spin, is it at least convincingly backed up by evidence?

3.  Does it answer the question?  This is a simple one, but important nevertheless.  You'd be amazed at how many essays take on a life of their own independent of the prompt they are supposed to be answering!  So before you sink more hours into your magnum opus, be sure it is actually giving the school what they asked for!

If your answer to more than two of these questions is no, it's time to start over with a brand new brainstorm.  If you don't know how to do a brainstorm -- well, we'd be delighted to help.  But you can't start the future until you let go of the past.  Yoda said that.  I think.

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A fascinating new Poets and Quants article explores the best and worst things about top MBA programs from the point of view of perspective students.  How can this help you with your applications?

Poets and Quants released an interesting article last week quoting students' real impressions, positive and negative, of their schools.  We here at Forster-Thomas decided to translate that into all-important "fit",  which many schools consider one of the most important factors in a candidacy.  How can you present yourself as a good 'fit' for a target school?  Use these helpful tips!

HBS.  HBS is a great fit for outgoing, self-confident, diverse students with proven leadership ability, either in their workplace or extracurriculars.  Harvard is looking for exceptionally strong academic performers, partly because their quantitative coursework is considered questionable by some, and partly because they can.  HBS is very large, so you have to prove that you have the ability to stand out from the pack, or at least be comfortable getting lost in a crowd a little bit.

Stanford.  GSB is looking for people with diverse work backgrounds (IE not just entrepreneurs ...) and inclusive, humanist personal attitudes.  Stanford is extremely academically rigorous, and although entrepreneurship is far from the only thing to do at Stanford, the large amount of available opportunities mean that self-starters, team-builders and natural leaders with warmth and kindness are bound to be looked on favorably.

Booth.  Chicago is a top-notch conventional business school, feeding a lot of banking and consulting, but very interested in out-of-the-box thinkers with unconventional backgrounds and ideas looking for a fresh start or a new direction.  Creativity is important, as is the ability to make friends quickly and securely.

Wharton is the oldest and most academically rigorous of the top programs, with an excellent (if occasionally a bit stodgy) reputation.  Wharton's quantitative demands are high and it focuses on finance, although entrepreneurship is on the rise there.  A strong Wharton candidate will present a stellar work and academic history and a reasonable ability to 'make nice' socially.

Kellogg.  Northwestern is a friendly school with a true Midwestern feel, a strong marketing reputation, and a collegial and supportive student body.  It can be a bit slow paced and does not have the fanciest facilities, but there are tremendous experiential learning opportunities for self-starters and a tight-knit alumni network for glad-handers.

Columbia.  A top-notch school with unparalleled industry access.  Driven students and strong multitaskers fit well here.  There are a wealth of opportunities, but this can overwhelm certain students.  Columbia has at times been seen as stern and a bit unwelcoming, and is consciously making efforts to counter that impression.

Tuck.  Dartmouth is perhaps the most close-knit school among the top MBAs.  There is a certain sense of cloistered isolation from the world, which strengthens that impression even further.  Ability to play nicely with others is tremendously important here.  Academic requirements are a little more relaxed than at some other top schools, with more allowance given for interesting work history and overall fit.

Duke.  Fuqua is an approachable, slightly easygoing MBA experience, a particularly strong choice for future consultants.  Emphasis is placed on gentility and the ability to fit in with the relaxed, thoughtful culture.  The '25 Random Things', in particular, is a strong indicator of a prospective student's ability to laugh at himself a little.

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

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Looking for that coveted 'admit' from your top MBA program of choice?  You'll need great essays.  Here are the five most important tips to remember.

By Ben Feuer

So, we here at Forster-Thomas have useful info all over our site about prompts, deadlines and best practices for particular schools and MBA essays.  But what if you're looking for something more basic, like how to approach MBA essay writing in general?  Well, we did write a book.  But say you're impatient -- which considering you're reading this on the internet, is a safe bet.  Here's the Cliff Notes version -- what you really MUST remember when writing your MBA essays.

1.  Show leadership.

So simple to read, so complicated to pull off.  There are two components there.  The first is leadership -- which means getting people other than yourself to work in conjunction with you toward a shared goal that you came up with.  One specific time when you transformed an organization or created one, a time when you were the first or the best at something important.  It can be professional but it does not have to be.  What it does have to be is SHOWN.  Walk us through leadership experiences step by step.

2.  Assume you are worthy.

Too many candidates try to use their essays to make up for perceived weaknesses in their candidacy.  Don't bother.  Schools will reject you outright long before they read your essays if they deem you unworthy of attending -- in fact, that's how the first 30-50% of applicants get cut.  If they are bothering to read your essays, it means you're worthy.  So focus on differentiation.

3.  Speak plainly and concisely.

Don't try to impress people with your fancy words and 'smarty-pants' writing -- you will just end up annoying them.  This is not a business document, and it is not for your boss or your savvy client to read.  Write as you would to a 7th grader who knows nothing about what you do except the absolute basics.  Spell out all your acronyms and define all your unusual terms.  Avoid run-on sentences, weasel wording (google it) and irrelevant horn-tooting.

4.  Read and answer the question.

Another simple one that oh so many candidates whiff on.  Read the prompt, word for word, and then read it again until you are SURE you know exactly what it is asking of you.  Don't be a politician, twisting their words to fit your agenda.  Answer honestly and directly, then use that answer as a springboard to tell an interesting, relevant story.

5.  Proofread your essays -- out loud.

This is an awesome trick that almost nobody actually does.  Print your essays out, stand in front of a mirror and read them to yourself.  I guarantee you will catch at least 4 typos.  Plus, if you stumble over a sentence or a concept confuses you, rewrite it.  If you're having trouble saying it, it's because you're having trouble reading it.


So there you go, essay writing 101!  For much much more information on this topic, including answers to specific questions and prompts, check out our blog or contact us directly!

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Forster-Thomas takes a peek inside this year's LBS application and gives you insight on how to answer their questions.

By Ben Feuer

What are your post-MBA plans and how will your past experience and the London Business School programme contribute? (500 words)

This is a textbook 'goals' essay. Check out our previous posts on goals, or our book, for a sense on how to approach this. 

How will you add value to the London Business School community? (300 words)

This is another part of the same goals essay, focusing on your contributions to the school. Read our previous posts, and remember to use specific stories drawn from your life to support the points you make about yourself.

Is there any other information you believe the Admissions Committee should know about you and your application to London Business School? (400 words)

The prompt is completely open-ended, which means you can discuss anything you have not discussed elsewhere.  One strong approach is to focus on a 'defining moment' and how it shaped you as a person – it can be something that happened on the job, but often the strongest examples of these essays come from digging deep and getting personal – talking about real, meaningful challenges you face with family or friends. You can also consider using this for additional leadership material, or discussing diversity experiences, or talking about your values.


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

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Now live on Forster-Thomas's website are the prompts and deadlines for these four schools.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Stanford's evolving priorities

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Stanford is overhauling its curriculum and its approach to teaching business.  Here is why that matters.

By Ben Feuer

Those of you currently writing "Why Stanford" essays, take note of a new article published over at Poets and Quants.  The entire 4-page article is an intriguing read, but I think we both know that is not going to happen.  So in the interest of saving you time and effort, your good friends at Forster-Thomas have combed through the article to determine what the most important takeaways are in terms of your application strategy.

No more "cod liver oil" and "chocolate cake".  For those of you who still think of the first year as a grind through basics you already understand, and the second year as a chance to spread your wings, Stanford is trying to change all of that -- so you better be on-board.  Stanford now offers advanced options right off the bat–seven core courses taught at three different levels, basic, accelerated, and advanced, and three more courses offered at two levels of difficulty.

Advising is a work in progress.  Stanford has been experimenting for several years with different approaches to mentorship, recently shifting from formal advising relationships with faculty to staff advisors who can consult with students about what classes are best to take.  You should bear this in mind when discussing how you plan to get feedback on your curricular choices.

Video dominates classrooms.  An interesting tidbit for those trying to figure out how Stanford stands out from its peers -- they now employ video in a large number of their lectures and make the actual class time more about discussion and leadership development, also increasing interactivity.

Global is good.   "Our applicant pool is very global, with incoming classes of over 40% international. China, India, Brazil and Mexico have become big markets for us. We want to have a global pool of students coming in."

Entrepreneurship?  Kinda.  Last year, nearly one in five graduates–a record 18%–launched their own firms.  But Stanford wants to be seen as a strong general management program.  The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, huh?

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

Friday, September 12, 2014

Weird essays

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 Weird essays.  We have all read them -- not so much in terms of the structure or approach, but in terms of the content.  So are they a good thing or a bad thing?

By Ben Feuer



I had an interesting conversation with a client, Louie, the other day -- a typical I-banking/PE guy.  I was spending my time (as I so often do) trying to wring more personality out of his essays, which read like they were written by committee.  Louie, of course, fretted over every little trait I wanted to highlight, no matter how mild.  "Won't this make me look childish?"  "Won't this make me look goofy?"

"Of course it will," I answered.  "That's the whole point.  This is a personality game.  You can't win with your whole self tied behind your back."  Louie, like so many others, had worked long and hard to excel in his professional life, and he did not want to throw it all away by seeming out of step with the other lemmings -- while simultaneously fretting endlessly over differentiation, a prized bugaboo for nearly all applicants.

Well Louie, you can't have it both ways.  Hide if you must, but don't be surprised when you fail to make it out of your 'bucket' -- a little personality goes a long way.

A Darden professor, Martin Davidson, has been studying the effect of oddballs and outcasts on business for quite some time, and he has a new article in Businessweek discussing some of his findings.  He concludes that we undervalue oddballs in corporate environments.  Business school, in this regard, is very different.  B-schools WANT the mavericks.  They want the leaders.  So the same lockstep behavior that served you well in your previous life will not serve you well here, in your applications.

You can be like everybody else -- or you can set the building on fire.  Your choice.


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