Evan Forster, founder of Forster-Thomas, provides his tips and advice on how to answer the HBS essay question for the class of 2016.

Now that we’ve all gotten over the shock that HBS only has one essay (which, for the record, is all you need), let’s look at how to actually answer that question. Here it is:

You’re applying to Harvard Business School. We can see your resume, school transcripts, extra-curricular activities, awards, post-MBA career goals, test scores and what your recommenders have to say about you. What else would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy? (no word limit)

First, notice there is no word limit. But don’t take this as an invitation to test the limits of HBS admissions board’s patience. Exercise self-control. Don’t babble or give an expanded laundry list of every achievement you’ve ever been a part of. Our rule of thumb for this essay is 300-600 words. If it takes more words than that to make a case for why HBS should take you, then you’re probably not HBS material.

As for what to write? Something new!! Something not in your other application materials, just as the prompt says. Your essay also needs to demonstrate that you have those essential HBS values and attributes: “A habit of leadership, analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.” (FYI, we didn’t make those up ourselves. They came from a recent HBS info session, during which HBS admissions board member Kelly Ward stated that those would be excellent attributes to discuss in the essay).

There are two ways you could communicate these qualities. The first would be to give three stories, each of which demonstrates one of the attributes. But the more sophisticated method—the one Forster-Thomas prefers—is coming up with ONE story that demonstrates ALL THREE qualities. Think you don’t have such a story? You do. You just have to find it. Chances are it’s a story you don’t think of often, because it’s not “impressive” enough. But it is impressive—it’s that defining moment that made you realize that you could learn to be a leader in a community. It might be a bit old, or even be embarrassing, but it shows how you think and how you became the person you are today, with the attributes to do the great things you have done.

If you’re struggling to find your story, here are some hints:

  • What’s that story your family loves to tell about you—the one that embarrasses the Hell out of you when they recount it each year during Thanksgiving dinner? What does that story say about you and how you operate…or how you’ve changed? 
  • “What if” questions—or the kind of kooky questions other MBA programs ask—are great areas to mine for stories that express you as a leader: What would you do if you had the afternoon off from work? What are you most passionate about? What is your favorite song and what does it say about you? Such questions might seem like odd places to look, but they can unearth powerful stories. 
  • Embrace those defining moments in your life—the powerful moments where “a way of being” was altered, a moral changed, or an emotional muscle grew. Focusing solely on what you do now fails to show HOW you’ve developed as a person. You need to dig deeper by going back and figuring out what experiences led you to be who you are today. Those are the stories that demonstrate your ability to adapt, learn, and evolve. 
  • Let your family help you. They know your secrets and they’re not afraid to remind you of them. They also know what your greatest qualities are. Ask ‘em. They’ll share. And then ask when they’ve seen it in action. Mother does know best… 
Warning! Warning! Whichever story you come up with, don’t oversell it. Don’t tell us you’re the “only person who has ever done something like this.” Remember, it’s HBS you’re applying to—your competition is filled with “Firsts” and “Bests.” Let your accomplishments speak for themselves.

--Evan Forster

For more information, check out our HBS Essay Guide for the Class of 2016.

You just got waitlisted.

“Lucky you!”

That’s exactly what I said to Todd when he called to give me the news about Columbia Business School. He was really confused by my remark. His face looked as if he had just slammed on the brakes at 50 mph, leaving a skid mark. It was that kind of moment.

Todd didn’t understand my congratulatory tone until I reminded him that he could have received another kind of notice: one that said, “Better luck next time; you’ve been rejected.”

So, you’ve just been waitlisted. The first thing you need to do is stop the panic and start realizing that it could have been worse. Schools don’t waitlist people who are not solid candidates. You end up on a waitlist for a number of reasons, not the least of which is very simple—they had five other guys just like you. The quota for you got filled earlier.

In other words, you are just like Todd. You had all the right parts: He got a 720 on his GMAT, he was a leader, he had extracurriculars, a great hedge fund job, and phenomenal grades at his Ivy League school. So why didn’t he get in? It might be as simple as five other people just like him were already accepted, and Columbia reached its hedge fund quota this year. It’s very likely that the only reason you got waitlisted is because Columbia is waiting to see if the other “you”s are going to say yay or nay. And when they do, and the space opens up, don’t you want Columbia to choose you?

Of course you do. And here’s how:

Stop whining and start planning your strategy for making sure that you are their number one choice. You need to find out who the waitlist manager or the admissions officer in charge of your candidacy is. How? Just call the school and ask. Oh, wait, the letter says, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Nonsense. I’ve been doing this for years and it’s like a dirty little secret. It’s not that business schools admissions people don’t want you to call them, it’s the way in which you call them.

If the school did not provide the name of the waitlist manager or admissions officer who is handling your candidacy, call the school and ask. I know you’re scared that you’re going to annoy them. The way to ensure you don’t annoy them is to refrain from begging for acceptance. When you contact them, you want to contact with authority. Take control of the situation. Be the answer, not the question.

Once you’ve called and gotten the name of the person in charge of your candidacy, you know who your champion is. That’s the person you want to become good friends with. How? Let me break it down:

  1. Write them a letter in which you remind them who you are, let them know that you know they are overwhelmed, but you want to let that admissions officer know that Columbia remains your number one choice. Don’t come out and say you’ve been accepted to other schools, even if you have—it’s inferred by the way you are saying “Columbia still remains my number one choice.” Less is more. This is also an opportunity to inquire about what you can do to improve your chances—in the letter, ask if there’s a way you can bolster your candidacy.
  2. Update them on something new: Something great that happened after you submitted your application—an organization launch, a CFA exam you passed, a promotion you received, or a project you led. Choose one or two things, max. It’s not a laundry list, and it better be BIG. If you have nothing to say here, you probably just found out why you were waitlisted.

  3. Next, tell them when you are going to revisit campus. Make the request to meet with them. (I’m assuming you’ve already visited campus or maybe you just figured out why you got waitlisted.) You’re making a request here, to stop by to put a face to your name. Nothing says, “pick me” like a visit to the admissions office. Even if it means you have sit there in your best suit all day and all you get is a quick handshake. Remember every time you meet an admissions officer, no matter how brief, it’s an interview. Dress your best, and be ready to give that elevator pitch.

  4. If you don’t get a response, don’t freak out. Follow up two weeks later. The thing about waitlists is that you have to be prepared for this to go on, all the way until the first day of classes begins. I once had a student named Drenna who was literally on her way, in mid-August, bags packed, to UVA when Chicago Booth said, “We want you.” So she turned the car around and went north to Chicago.

  5. Yay! You heard back. You’ve stuck gold. Now you have a friendship. However it’s not an opportunity to hound this person, take it SLOW. Put the brakes on yourself. Follow the admissions officer’s lead. Either way, there’s a next step.

  6. Enlist other people’s help. If you know someone incredibly influential involved with the school, then have that person contact admissions on your behalf. Choose wisely. Pick carefully. Because nothing makes an admissions officer crazier than to be told what to do. So if you’re going to pull that card, then you better be sure it’s really powerful. If you know someone that is donating millions to add a new wing at Columbia, have this person make a call, or write a letter on your behalf. You know a professor? I’m sorry to say that won’t help. So if you don’t know someone giving millions to the school...

  7. Find two people to write character letters about you, preferably people who either went to the school or are already in the program—someone who has reason to say why you are a good match/fit. These letters should be really short—200 words max. They should explain the following: How they know you, WHY they are in support of you (like one of the things they know you’ve accomplished—hopefully a new piece of information), and finally, have them tell the admissions officer that they are available to talk in more detail by phone if necessary. (Don’t worry, that will never happen.) The letters should be spread out over several weeks. The goal here is to keep you on the admissions officer’s mind. You are planting a seed, so when it comes time to make that choice, your name is the one they choose. You’re the guy or gal you want them thinking of. It’s hard to say “No” to someone you feel like you know.

Side note: You heard from the admissions officer, and the problem was your GMAT. Take the GMAT again. In fact, if you know from day one it’s the GMAT, prepare to take it again and you let them know in that letter. If the problem is your grades, enroll in your local community college quant course in accounting. You might need to build your GPA the Forster-Thomas way.

If nothing else, if you still don’t get in, I promise you that you have set yourself up as the best re-applicant of all time. You will be the first of your kind to be accepted next year. If you do all of this, and you still don’t get in, and you’re really passionate about going to this school—then none of this was a waste of your time. There’s always tomorrow. It’s only a day away.

A lot of people are complaining about the College Board these days and the fact that in the recently announced 2013–2014 application, the personal statement word limit of 650 is strictly enforced. In previous years, you could upload your essay in a word document, allowing you to slip in an extra 50–100 words without anyone noticing. Guidance counselors and colleagues of mine, including educational consultants, are in an uproar about this, as I’m sure are you.

To be honest, however, I am thrilled by these changes. I want to say, “FINALLY!”

You too should be EXCITED that the personal statement is now 650 words or less—now you have an opportunity to show how creative you are. In fact, limits are a good thing—and not just for admissions officers who have to wade through the hundreds and hundreds of essays filled with lengthy babble just to find the gems. This is an opportunity for you to make sure you are one of those gems.

This is a test of how effective you are in communicating and how you use your 650 words; you still have more than enough to tell a story. Story being the operative word here. The personal statement is not a place to regurgitate the activity resume—it’s an opportunity to show or reveal a level of maturity through the choice of topic and the way you write about it what you learned—concisely. And about those clever uploads your younger child got to do—you know the one where he uploaded that cartoon from the New Yorker to make his point? You should not have to rely on props. The essay is about your ability to WRITE—you know, that thing one has to do all of the time in a land called college!

I understand that this is difficult, that you have so much that you want to say, and that you think that everything you want to say is so important. There’s no one more full of himself than I am—and I think you need every detail, but that’s just not true.

One easy example of how writers cut out the steps for the sake of storytelling is on the show Friends, when Ross picks up a girl for a date. He always shows up at her front door—even though everyone in New York City knows that this is impossible. You have to get buzzed in to a building first. Yet we just go with it, because it’s not important with respect to the story they are trying to tell. The writers EDIT out extraneous details like getting buzzed in first (unless that’s part of the joke). This makes the story BETTER.

Creativity is the picture you create with eight Crayola crayons, not the one you make when you use the box of 64. Creativity is about limitations and boundaries.

So calm down. This is a GOOD thing that the College Board is doing. Mom, Dad, students—there is power in brevity and editing. So, don’t even use your full 650 words: Try to keep it closer to the 500-550 that Common App is actually requesting..

Also, I practice what I preach: After re-reading this blog, I went back and cut it down from 662 words to 550. 


Auntie Evan

P.S. For your reference, here are the 2013-2014 Common Application essay questions:

Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

    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.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Attitude is More Important than Getting In

As eager as you are to get into the school of your dreams, remember that no college, grad school, or MBA program is a silver bullet.  The key to true success lies with YOU. Evan Forster tells you why.

Right now, so many of us are struggling with our New Year’s resolutions. I know I am: The Medifast diet (“Dutch Chocolate Shake”—disgusting). Goodbye, Tequila. And of course, spend more time with friends and family.

At Forster-Thomas, however, our candidates are too stressed to grapple with these high-level resolutions, because they are in what we call the “Waiting Season”—waiting for colleges and graduate programs to say, “yay,” “nay,” or, “congrats—we’d like you to come in for an interview.” As anyone who has gone through it knows, the waiting season is terrifying. Crippling. Even worse than sitting through a Celine Dion concert. And sometimes, you just need to vent, which is exactly what one of our candidates did.

Justin Marshall, one of our coaches, recently received an email from a Forster-Thomas MBA candidate I'll call Kathy. Like so many others, Kathy is freaking out in her Pradas. She just had her Wharton interview. And it went well. She thinks. Or did it? Yes! No! She just can’t tell.

Like you, she’s driving herself crazy. Fortunately, Justin has personal experience waiting for admissions results (and he’s read The MBA Reality Check, which addresses this very topic). His response was brilliant, so let me share it here:

The good news is that you’re very competitive at Wharton. Therefore, I’m not surprised at all that you got an interview. You’re remarkably intelligent and authentic, and I always found you to be charming in our conversations, so I’m sure you did great with the interviews.

Here’s the BETTER news: As eager as you are to get in, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you do. I know that sounds, crazy, but it’s true.  A Wharton degree guarantees you nothing [same goes for HBS, Stanford, etc.]. Sure, it’s a great education, and a great name. But there are THOUSANDS of top-tier grads out there that are in a job they hate, doing fairly “functionary” work. They don’t necessarily regret their education, where they went, or how much they spent, but it didn’t magically turn them into heads-of-state or company CEOs.

Meanwhile, there are THOUSANDS of people all over the world who went to a second- or third-tier MBA program, or didn’t even study business at all, who are amazingly successful business people.  Look at Apple, one of the world’s most successful companies. Steve Jobs was a college drop-out. The current CEO, Tim Cook, went to Auburn University for undergrad and then Duke for his MBA. Neither of them needed Wharton, or HBS, or Stanford. Ditto Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc. The list goes on and on. As Auntie Evan reminds me all of the time: ‘A top MBA program can make your path to success easier, but it can’t CREATE the path to success.’ Only you can do that, and if you have the personal strength and ability to be successful, you will get to where you want to go—no matter what.

Kathy, I don’t say this to DE-VALUE Wharton, or any school. I truly hope you get in—because that's where you want to go, and I think it will provide you with an amazing education. But I also know—both from personal experience and a lot of wisdom gained over the years—that the key is never a school, a job offer, a fancy title, or anything else. The key is YOU. Once you get that and embrace this way of thinking, you will kick-ass in everything you do. As the MBA REALITY CHECK says: “Invite Wharton or any program or potential job to be part of YOUR journey, not the other way around.” That’s what gets you accepted rather than rejected…from ANYTHING in life.

Justin is DEAD RIGHT. And THAT should be your New Year's resolution: Invite the world to join YOU in your journey to reach your personal top-tier.

--Auntie Evan (and Cuzin' Justin)

So you know better than to tell Stanford GSB that “what matters most” to you is your iPad. And you managed to figure out that Wharton’s admissions committee will swiftly reject you if you go 4,000 words over the maximum word count. But could you still be dooming your business school candidacy with less egregious blunders?

To quote everyone’s favorite Alaskan: You betcha!    

Common sense will help you avoid the biggest b-school admissions essay mistakes, so we’re not going to waste your time with those. After all, if you’re smart enough to be reading our blogs, you’re smart enough to avoid using one of those birthday-cake fonts for your essays. Instead, I reached out to one of my intrepid essay coaches (fondly referred to as Cuzin’ Justin), and we put together a list of the five most common MBA admissions essay mistakes we’ve seen over the years:

1. Not answering the essay question. You’d be amazed how often we see candidates make this mistake, especially when it comes to two- or three-part questions. Remember, the admissions committee spent months deciding exactly what questions to ask and how to word them. There’s no better way to piss them off than blatantly disregarding all that effort.

Example: an MBA program asks, “What are your long-term career goals and why is now the best time for an MBA?” If you spend 100 words telling them how much you love their school without ever mentioning why now is the best time for an MBA, well, game over. You lose. It’s that simple.

Some people don’t answer the question because they’re too smart. You know what the school really wants to hear, so you write about that. Or you figure out how to turn the question into an opportunity to showcase your awesome accomplishments. Bravo to you. You’re the reason safety schools stay in business.

2. Trying to write like Noam-freaking-Chomsky. Or Susan-frickin-Sontag. Or anyone else besides you. We know you’re desperate to sound intelligent, but if your own voice doesn’t come through in your essays, the admissions committee won’t connect to you… and it’s a lot easier to reject someone you don’t feel connected to. So put a "face" on your essays. Inject some of the real you into those words. If you quote a conversation with a friend, don’t write, “Would you like to venture to an eating establishment?” Write what you really said: “Dude—wanna get something to eat?” You will not get rejected because you say "dude." In fact, you’re more likely to be accepted because you have the confidence to admit that you say "dude." And guess what? When admissions people were your age, they said "dude." Some of them still say it now. Dude—trust us.

3. Using vague platitudes like "giving back to the community” and “making a difference." The biggest way you could "make a difference" would be to stop promising to do so in your essays. We don’t believe you anymore. First, it’s making admissions officers’ eyes roll, and roll to the point of spinning. Second, it’s like that famous Shakespearean line: “The lady doth protest too much.” The more you talk about it, the less we believe it. Just do it by giving examples. Stop talking about your commitment to "transform the planet" or "create access to opportunity for those less fortunate." Show it to us—through your actual examples. Describe the time you got your friends to build that playground in Crenshaw or the way you organized the mentor team to show up even during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. You get accepted when there’s less talk and more walk.

4. Baffling your reader with jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo. Stop going from the sell side to the buy side or describing that SWOT analysis following the divestiture. You’re smart. We get it. But you’re also confusing and worse, you’re boring.  Insider phrases and ten-dollar words do not get you accepted. What they do is get you thrown into the "Gotta-read-that again later?" file. Here’s the rule of thumb: If Granny gets what you’re talking about and little Tommy doesn’t scrunch his face and walk away, you’re probably writing a "readable" essay—one that makes it easy for admissions officers to understand what you do and what you’re talking about. Remember, admissions officers are people too—and often, they have a masters in education, not business. So, EBITDA to you. I’m going back to playing Minecraft!

5. Essays by committee. We mentioned this in our book, The MBA Reality Check, but since you’re stubborn, we’ll mention it again: don’t ask for feedback on your essays from all your friends, family, and colleagues. Yes, we know how smart they are. But if you incorporate all their notes, you'll start to sound like everyone else (because everyone else helped you with your essays). You’ll also drive yourself crazy when you get back conflicting notes ("I love when you say dude" / "You can’t say dude").  Spare yourself the frustration—put your big-girl panties on and keep your essays to yourself.

Bonus mistake: last-minute essays / putting off essays in favor of endless test prep. We’re not saying ignore that GMAT. You need to knock it out of the ballpark. But we are saying give your essays the same level of respect and effort or it won’t matter how many 760s you get. You’ll just be a great test-taker and have proven your command over math and reading. But that’s all IQ stuff. What makes a great, accepted candidate—one who’s got something to add to that diverse class at HBS, Haas, or USC’s IBEAR—is your EQ, or emotional quotient. The deep down, who you are: your failures, your defining moments, and your surprises.  And none of that’s getting revealed by writing “last-minute” essays. So get to writing now—not after you get the test score you want—cuz your essays are what will up your chances after your immutable numbers just keep you where you are.

--Auntie Evan & Cuzin' Justin

Evan Forster, founder of Forster-Thomas, provides his tips and advice on how to answer the HBS essay questions for the class of 2015.

When you've been doing this as long as I have, there's one proverb you know is always true: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And this couldn't be truer than with the new Harvard Business School essay questions.

Hidden deep within essay 1, "Tell us something you did well," is your basic accomplishment and/or leadership question (see chapters 9 and 10 of The MBA Reality Check). The choice is yours, but I'd go with leadership. This is HBS, so it's all about leadership potential. The obvious default is to find a great professional moment in your work history, but if you don't have one, don't despair. After all, you're barely 25. What did you expect? (If your answer is, "to rule the world" you're a perfect HBS candidate). What you need now is to—dare I say it—dig down deep and find a great moment in your not-so-distant past wherein you led the charge, faced a challenge, and got others to row that boat across the Delaware with you at its prow. (No white wig unless there's a drag aspect to your triumphant tale).

But if not at work, then where? Leadership is everywhere: in your family, with your friends, and in your extracurriculars (or as we like to call them at Forster-Thomas Inc, your Power-curriculars ©2012—things you do that change a community). This means anything from throwing a really great surprise bachelorette party to launching a college mentor program. The key is in the lesson you learn that you can and do apply to every part of your professional life. Remember, you need to demonstrate a strength or, as we like to call it, a super power!  

Essay 2: "Tell us about something you wish you had done better." What's behind that door, Vanna White? Well let's pull the curtain back and what do we find—yes, it's another failure or mistake question in disguise (see Chapter 13 in The MBA Reality Check). In this essay, you need to communicate a weakness, or at the risk of overdoing the metaphor, your personal Kryptonite. Again, this means digging down deep and really telling the truth about something you screwed up and what you learned from it—not how you fixed it or saved the day in the 11th hour. Remember, in this reality show, you do not get immunity. You must face the music, no holds barred. Admit the truth about yourself: something not so great; something you wish no one knew; something you would love to take back, but can't.

Does this flop come from your personal or professional life? It does not matter. (That said, it cannot be a bad grade. That's a different essay entirely—see Optional Essays in Chapter 19 of The MBA Reality Check). What matters here is that you see your weakness and change your behavior as you move forward. And when you see it and come out with it, admissions is gonna love you. They're gonna see what your good friends, lover, wife, partner, frat brothers, and teammates love about you—your ability to face the truth about you.

Finally, it's all about what you learned from this personal or professional error. How have you grown? How, when faced with subsequent similar circumstances, do you take your life/profession on now? That's what makes you an awesome leader—now and in the future.

Tip: If you're not a little worried about sharing this story with the committee, you are not HBS material. In fact, you're not top ten material—and the Tribal Council will definitely vote you off the treacherous Island of Harvard.

This year, if you make it to the HBS interview, you will encounter Question 3, "The Last Word," as Dean Leopold refers to it (I like to call this one Survivor: HBS, The Final Round).

Should you make it this far, just think talk radio. Nothing is more difficult than having to figure out the "underlying issue" in 8 minutes or less when Uncle David and I host Job Talk. So, what do you do? Well, you can't prepare for this one since the topic of the essay is the interview, and until you've had it, you won't know what was said.

What I can tell you is that you need to be authentic. Real. Ask yourself what you really wished you could've told that interviewer. What do you truly think needed expanding? Or what burning question did you have—after you walked out. We all get 'em. Hindsight is 20/20. This is your opportunity to show your ability to dance in the moment and zero in on the underlying issue—just like we have to do with our callers. So, be your own radio talk show host and, no matter what, say what you are thinking. Identify the elephant in the room during the interview and go for it. It's not a time to be careful. Ultimately this is about taking a huge risk. Doug Flutie, throw that Hail Mary pass!

For more information about the HBS essay questions and deadlines, see our HBS essay guide.

The new Harvard Business School questions for the class of 2015 have set most of the MBA blogosphere to screaming.

Sigh. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The new HBS questions are still asking what the old ones did—just in shiny new words. And, because of my age, I’ve seen this happen a number of times: from six, to four, to now two questions with a possible third one required to be answered in 24 hours or less should you make it to the interview (or, as I like to call it, “the final round”—does anybody else see the similarity to the G4 Network's American Ninja Warrior show?). Harvard has whittled their process down to two tough but great thought-provoking questions about how you see yourself, the ability to think on your feet in a high-pressure interview, and an insightful, memorable, sound byte-style post-interview essay.

Here’s the truth: This new essay strategy is tough. But it’s not different. All it means is that, once again, you have to have a strong candidacy. When taking on HBS, just as with every other school, don’t think in terms of essays, think in terms of your whole candidacy—the entire “who you are.” That’s how you take this on, and take it on powerfully. To quote Talking Heads: “Same as it ever was.” And, now more than ever, you need to take that candidacy on as soon as possible. Whether you plan to be part of the graduating class of 2015, 2016, et al, think in terms of your entire candidacy, not just the essays. To be powerful, you still have to:

  1. Have a great resume
  2. Be the first to raise your hand and take on projects at work
  3. Take on extracurriculars
  4. Face the essays…which I will talk about in next week’s blog.

It’s a candidacy as a whole.

The whole HBS frenzy is about essays, but your whole MBA candidacy is not really about essays, and it never has been. The frenzy is, at its core, a conversation about fear. Dealing with fear—your own fear about being accepted—in life, or at HBS, or at any business school. Taking this on is to be able to embrace challenge. And you must take on the challenge of approaching HBS, or any candidacy, powerfully.

So, how do you take it on powerfully?

First, take a deep breath and be the leader you are. This is about dancing in the moment—which leaders have to do all the time. The unexpected comes at you, and you have to hone your skills to be able respond to anything, at any time, under any conditions. How do you do this? Like an American Ninja Warrior. A ninja is strong, agile, fast, and skilled, but the winning element is his focus. That’s what enables him to be powerful and to not allow fear to dictate his responses. The same goes for yours, if what you want is to take on an HBS, a Stanford, or any top-level candidacy.

Hence, all this hullaballoo about the HBS questions is much ado about nothing—just a different path to the same result: being part of an amazing community of likeminded visionaries/leaders who will change an industry, community, country, or the whole damn planet. That’s all I care about and that’s all you should care about. If you take on your candidacy in this way, it will not matter what they throw at you, or the changes they make.

--Evan Forster (Auntie Evan)

Listen up, Peter Cottontail, it’s Spring—a time of revitalization. Starting over. Starting fresh. So let’s get hippity-hoppity (Yeah, I said it) with your b-school candidacy and plow a new trail, create an innovative project, and commit to making a difference through your extracurriculars (or, as we call them at Forster-Thomas, “Power-curriculars”).

But whatever you’ve decided you’re going to do—whether it’s launching a microlending organization in Guatemala or a new mentoring program for at-risk teens, becoming a Big Brother or Sister, or helping yourself and everyone around you lose weight, the only way it’s ever going to happen is if you put a date on it.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great that you’re coming up with all those ideas, but no matter how ambitious your plans, if you don’t put a date on them, none of them will come to pass. Trust me on this. I’ve seen it happen too many times to count.

I heard Lori swear that she and her friends were going to lose 20 pounds each. Fred went on and on about how he was going to organize a reunion for his high school basketball league, and Cosmo was convinced he was going to launch a holiday food drive in his old neighborhood. Let’s just put it this way: Lori’s boyfriend still can’t fit a ring on it, there never was a reunion for Fred’s basketball league, and nobody ever helped Cosmo collect a single can, let alone a hill, of beans.

Why? Because none of them put a date on it. Putting a date, or “the when” on something, makes it real—not just for you, but for everyone. You can’t get a team or group to commit to an event if you don’t tell them when the event is. They can’t make plans to be there, they can’t fit it into their schedules, and frankly, they don’t really see it as something that’s ever going to happen, so they never rally around your cause. In the absence of a date, it’s just a fantasy. Not only will you be unable to organize your life around it, but nobody else will be able to, either.

This brings me to the tale of Henri, a Frenchman living in London. A very fine Frenchman, I might add. A steamy baguette, if you will. It was January of 2010, and he was doing his ever-amour-ing best to bolster his extracurricular prowess (Yes, just his extracurricular prowess, you slimebags). The prior summer, he had spent several weeks in Cambodia, where he stumbled upon a non-profit arts organization for poor and orphaned children. It’s a place with little funding, limited art supplies, and no ability to hire the Jeff Koonses of the world. Henri wanted to change all of that. So he came up with an idea: “Let’s do an art show in London. We’ll fly the students’ artwork in, invite all the twenty-something finance MBA-bound people we know to help us, and make sure the school gets the funding it needs to put its students on the map.”

Faaabulous, right? Wrong. Everybody seemed to love the idea, but no one actually called him back a second time, or committed any time, money, or logistical help to the project. When I explained to him that it wasn’t “real” because nobody knew how, where, or when the event was taking place, he sang the same song that Lori, Fred, Cosmo, and everyone else sings: “Once I get everybody on board, then I’ll decide when it’s going to happen.”

Oh, sister-mother. That’s when I demanded that Henri set a date. It was January, and frankly, three months’ prep time, as far as I’m concerned, is always enough. Out of thin air, I declared, “March 31st will be the date of this event!” Just giving a date to it gave the whole event the key ingredient it was missing—the when.

And despite the fact that Henri was in complete fear, he took a chance, calling and emailing his contacts back with the specific date. Like the everlasting light of the eight days of Chanukah, a miraculous thing happened: There was a domino effect. The friends and colleagues who were available around that time began to come up with potential locations, sponsors, supplies, and more manpower. And those who were not, did not. No biggie.

Creating the date made the whole thing real. And while the event didn’t take place until sometime in the middle of April, it took place. And Jeff Koons is actually considering going to teach a class in Cambodia. Ok, maybe not. But at least the possibility is out there. Beat that. Without a date, you never will.

So, all you Spring chickens chirping to get into a top b-school, if you do one thing this hippity-hoppity season, stop pussyfooting around and commit to it—put a date on it. The Easter Bunny does. So should you.

Auntie Evan

Forster-Thomas founder Evan Forster provides his tips and suggestions on how to answer the HBS MBA essay questions.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. In the nearly twenty years I’ve been coaching people on how to approach their MBA essays, I’ve seen all the schools, from the top echelon to the bottom of the barrel, pretty much stay the same at their core. Sure, sometimes schools ask for your “long-term goals,” and sometimes they call them “career expectations.” Sometimes schools call a mistake a mistake, and sometimes they call it a setback. But essentially the approach is always the same: Be specific, tell the truth, dig down deep, and take risks. That said, here we go with Harvard Business School’s 2011-12 essay questions.

Tell us about three of your accomplishments (600 words).

Yeah, I know, it’s not exactly the same as last year, but its damn close. Here’s the deal: all they took out was “tell us why.” The likely reason? Because no one ever bothered to answer it—except for Forster-Thomas candidates. So we say tell them anyway.

What should you write about? Firsts and bests. “I launched the first ever…” “I was rated the best in my….” Whether it’s a first or a best, you better have overcome a hurdle. Some big-ass Goliath better have stood in your way. But remember, it’s all about context. What’s big for someone else might not have been a big deal for you. For example: completing the Ironman isn’t such a big deal nowadays. Unless, of course, you have one leg. After all, we are talking about Harvard.

And of course it’s the biggest deal when what you’ve accomplished lives on without you. Like that training manual for the telecom group, or that college-bound program for inner city kids you no longer run.

Here’s the structure, kids: you get 200 words for each of the three accomplishments. Each one goes like this: about 100-125 words for what you did, and at least 75 for why it’s so significant, as in what did it teach you, how did it change you, what’s the impact you made on yourself or that organization? In a perfect world, one accomplishment is personal, one is professional, and one is about an extracurricular act of service.

Tell us three setbacks you have faced. (600 words)

This year, HBS changed “failure” to “setback.” This is a big distinction. They are not the same. Like it says in Chapter 13 of The MBA Reality Check, a failure is something you screwed up, or that went wrong because of you. A failure is something you take responsibility for.

Whereas, while you might be responsible for a setback, you are not always responsible for a setback. It can be something you have no control over. For example, we had a client who had a brain aneurysm. That can be used as a setback. But there can be no more than one of these.

One of your setbacks should definitely be a failure or a screw up—something you can’t take back. In this type of setback, the failure causes the setback. For example, your low-income mentee missed his early decision or first round college application deadlines because you missed two sessions of the mentoring program due to last-minute work conflicts. What’s the failure? Work came first, even though you made a commitment to that kid. (Please note: I realize the mentee should take responsibility as well, but you’re writing about your part in the matter, not his.) A straight up setback with this topic would have been that the wireless system at your mentee’s high school went down hours before the deadline. How did you help meet the deadline or get the deadline pushed back?

The question for all of these is how you handled it moving forward. And the key to all of these is being really honest.

Structure? Don’t use more that 50% of your word count describing the actual situation. You want to save half of it for analyzing and synthesizing the situation and how it defined or matured you.

Why do you want an MBA? (400 words)

One word: KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. Harvard’s gone back and forth with this question. For many years they asked it, then they made it optional, and last year they got rid of it altogether. But, like Herpes, it moves around and eventually comes back. Here’s how it goes: like all great goals essays, you need to be really clear about what you want to do (see Chapter 8 of The MBA Reality Check) in the long term. Is it okay to have more than one long-term goal? Yes. While your goal doesn’t necessarily have to be groundbreaking, it needs to create change (that’s the HBS watchword) and make a difference. If you don’t believe us, read the HBS mission statement. What has shifted a little bit since our book was written is the economy and the relative importance of a short-term goal. Harvard, and every other school, wants to make sure you know how you’re going to make your dream happen. What’s the road map?

What is NOT important for Harvard is why you want to go to Harvard. While you might mention a specific HBS attribute (and not just the tired old Case Method), why you want to go to Harvard in particular doesn’t need to be explained. That’s right, the place has an attitude. But remember, the key to getting in is that yours better be bigger. In this essay, be up to something big, and invite Harvard to join you.

Answer a question you wish we’d asked (400 words).

This is a Forster-Thomas favorite. It requires the ultimate in creativity. Don’t just read Chapter 15 of The MBA Reality Check, imbibe it. To get this one going, use the right side of your brain. Questions to ask yourself would be the following: What’s something really surprising about you? For example, do you play hockey and tap dance? What’s the worst thing people would say about you? (No really, the worst thing.) What’s the best thing people would say about you? When people make fun of you, what story do they tell? Who do you really look up to and what do you have in common with that person? Most importantly, what negative attributes do you share with that person? This essay is an opportunity for you to show how in touch with yourself you are. It is not an opportunity to show how big your junk is. That should be self-evident. Rule of thumb: if you have to talk about it, it’s probably not all that.

On that note, is any topic sacred? Probably not. It’s all about the grace and maturity with which you handle it, with a small side of self-deprecation.  One last thing: never use this as a space to write about your bad grades!!!! This is not an optional essay. And, of course, only write an optional essay if absolutely necessary!

For more infomation, see our HBS 2011-2012 MBA Essay Guide


Forster-Thoms founder Evan Forster on how to get the most out of your b-school campus visit

So, now you’ve done your research on which schools you probably want to apply to: You’ve read all the rankings, looked at all the websites, gone to the World MBA Fair in your locale, even made an Excel spreadsheet detailing the strengths, weaknesses, and stats of each program. That’s great, but now it’s time to pack a bag. Until you get on that campus, you really never know.

It may sound wonderful to go to INSEAD and be in France for a year, but remember, INSEAD is not in Paris; it’s in Fontainebleau, a beautiful, quiet suburb. It’s sort of like assuming that Kellogg is in Chicago. It’s close. Real close, in fact. But it’s not in the city.

Researching schools is kind of like online dating. At first, that picture looks really good. It’s like the school is smiling at you with that “come-hither” stare that promises everything. But until you’re actually face-to-face on that first date at Starbucks and have spent some real time with that school, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Seriously, would you sign a two-year lease with Brooklyn Bombshell23 or Papa Motown24 without spending a little real time with ’em first? That’s why campus visits are so important.

There are two kinds of campus visits:

A) The Guerrilla Method: You just show up. Certainly, if you’re in the area, and you’re just reading this now, there's no reason not to drop in and hope for the best, but you can’t expect to get the same level of information you would with a more structured visit.

B) Planning Ahead: We recommend you call the school, and that way, at the very least, you can find out when they typically host information sessions, tours, when it's closed, when it’s open, et cetera. For example, certain schools, like HBS, do not allow visits at the start of the semester, while others, like Vanderbilt’s Owen and Emory’s Goizueta, have overnights or weekends ( Discover Weekend, Super Saturday) specifically devoted to everyone and anyone interested in business school.

But ok, you’re special! Gay, African-American, female, Latino—or a little bit of each! Most MBA programs—especially top-tier ones—have niche events geared toward all sorts of groups. For example, Chicago’s Booth has an LGBT weekend in the fall. (If you don’t know what LGBT stands for, then you’re probably not in that group ... or in marketing ... or an employee at JetBlue.) Some, like Indiana’s Kelley, have events geared specifically toward women. If you're thinking about Stanford, check out the “XX Factor: Women Changing The World.” Are you part of an ethnic minority? Check out The Duke MBA Workshop for Minority Applicants or the Ross Up-Close Weekend.

Now You’re There: What to Do

  1. At the very least, go to an information session and take the tour.
  2. Do your best to meet the admissions officer who reviews candidates from your part of the planet.
  3. Get your butt to the student union or wherever students hang (ask your tour guide) and schmooze. People love to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
  4. Do your best to attend a class and meet a professor.
  5. Check out clubs and organizations. Where can you help? What can you add?
  6. Bring business cards. Get business cards. You want to stay in contact with current students (like the head of the soccer or wine organization or Women in Business), not to mention that admissions officer.
  7. What’s the curriculum like? Is there a core? Or is it flexible? What does this mean for your intended study plan? You should not leave the school without having good answers to all these questions.
  8. Check out the surrounding community and city. Do you see yourself there, or are you gonna go stir crazy at Purdue’s Krannert when you have to live in West Lafayette, Indiana?
  9. Take notes the whole time you’re there. You’re going to use all of this info in your essays.

Your head is probably spinning right now. How am I going to remember all of this? But don't worry. Even a journey of a thousand miles (say, from NYU Stern to Chicago Booth) begins with one motivated candidate and a bushel of hard work. Happy trails!

--Auntie Evan