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If you want to attend a top school, ditch the spin, dig deep and find your story.

By Kirsten Guenther

The only good kind of spin

Every year, I have one client that I have to remind myself I love, even when they make it very, very hard. This year it was Tony.

I knew Tony was trouble at our first meeting when he told me about how he had been let go from his last banking job. It wasn’t his fault, of course—it was his manager’s fault—and he asked me how we could “spin” his having been fired. (Did I mention he was also fired from his job before that? Oh yeah, that wasn’t his fault either.)

Then, Tony told me how he had volunteered at an after school soccer program for inner city kids—by which he meant he had showed up to one meeting—and asked if we could “spin it” so that it seemed like he had done more than he had. “I just need you to make me sound interesting,” he informed me.

Around this point, I told Tony to stop talking.  Then I broke the bad news.  He was NOT getting into Kellogg (his first choice). Not if he put a “spin” on his application. Not if he wanted to “sound more interesting.” Because when you’re applying to business school you don’t put a spin on it. You don’t try to sound interesting. You be interesting.

And that’s when Tony said, “But maybe I’m just not very interesting.” He looked at me as if he expected me to pat him on the back and tell him, “It’s OK”.

I didn’t.  “Here’s the thing Tony, it’s actually really easy.  Kellogg is interested in who you truly are.”

As obvious as that sounds, it really freaked Tony out. He had spent his whole life spinning things. And being asked to actually just be clear and honest about who he was terrified Tony.

But here’s the truth: If you are the guy that got fired from your fancy banking job because you really messed up—then tell Kellogg about that. Failure stories make some of the very best essays. Talk about your mistake, talk about what you learned from it—talk about how you went from being a guy who thought he had to spin everything to someone who found success after he found himself. Because there is power and leadership in that.  It’s interesting.

Tips for taking yourself out of the spin cycle:

  1. Don’t “sound” interesting. “Be” interesting. Take a hard look at your life — at the moments where you experienced a significant change — and ask yourself why you got so angry, or sad, or happy? When you get to the root of the feeling, you find the story.
  2. Write your own origin story. Have you noticed how many superhero films tell the story of how Spiderman became amazing, or how Superman became, uh, super. Figure out what YOUR super power is—compassion, focus, intensity—and reverse engineer how you became so great at it. It might be one event or it might be several. For instance, you might be a great consultant (not naming names) because you are excellent at putting yourself in other people’s shoes.  Maybe your grandmother instilled in you the importance of understanding where other people are coming from at an early age.  The point is: what is important to you DOES make you interesting. So, don’t spin it, write it.
  3. Stop worrying about what Kellogg thinks. If you’re the guy that always worries about what other people think, you are probably also the ‘spin’ guy. There’s no need.  Believe it or not, when you control the story, you have the power to shape the world’s opinion of you.  Kellogg is not cross-checking your accomplishments against a secret checklist – they just want what everybody wants – to be moved, inspired, shocked, or excited.

What happened to Tony? He took my advice—he wrote a moving obstacle essay about getting let go from his banking job and realizing that it was all HIS fault. It was not easy. He fought me on it. But eventually he stopped spinning. And guess what? It was really interesting.  And his first choice, Kellogg, agreed.


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