Why Financial Analysts Shouldn't Analyze Their Own MBA Admissions Essays

By Justin Marshall

Joseph called me at 1:00am. “I finally got it,” he announced, almost breathless with excitement. “I figured out what’s wrong with my essays!” It was two days before the Wharton MBA deadline, and Joseph, an investment banking analyst I had been coaching for a month, had been re-reading his completed essays over and over for days, certain there was some problem we had failed to catch throughout our many revisions.

Once I had stumbled groggily from my bed to my desk, Joseph unveiled the “fatal” flaw: “In paragraph two of the leadership essay, I describe myself as ‘assertive’. But in paragraph four of the failure essay, I say that I was ‘too aggressive’ as a first-year recruit. And that happened a year before the story in my leadership essay! See…? I’m basically saying I didn’t learn anything from my own failure!”

I work with many financial analysts, and I’m always in awe of their skills. Just as Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound and use his X-Ray vision to see through people’s garments (an ability he underutilized, if you ask me), financial analysts have genuine superpowers. Armed only with an Excel spreadsheet and pages of data that look like ancient Hieroglyphics to me, they use their powers of analysis to precisely gauge just how much Company X will make in 10 years’ time if merged with Company Y.

But when it comes to writing essays, financial analysts often make a grave mistake: They assume that their superpowers work in the world of admissions, too. They dissect their essays like they would a company headed for a merger, scrutinizing every word, and ensuring that no aspect of their work could be deemed too risky. In short, analysts work themselves into a frenzy trying to apply quantitative analysis to something that, ultimately, is not fundamentally quantitative.

This is where I often have to tell them: “Sorry, Super-Analyst. Your powers don’t work here.”

The simple truth is that admissions committees don’t think like analysts. I would know—I worked in admissions at an Ivy League university for two years. I’ve been on the other side of the table, and I know how things look from over there. Admissions committees don’t scour every last detail of your essays, looking for facts that don’t add up. There is no formula such as: Essay X + GMAT score + Freshman year Anthropology grade + misspelling by peer recommender = acceptance. And they never (I repeat, NEVER ) consciously compare individual words in one essay with another in an attempt to “catch” you. When you have to read and evaluate hundreds of applications in a period of one-to-two months, who has time for that?

Perhaps a more accurate analogy is how you would look for a new apartment. You carefully weigh all the important elements (location, price, closet space, natural light, kitchen amenities), but you never check each and every outlet in each and every room to make sure it works and is within a satisfactory proximity to where you intend to place an appliance. That’s just overkill, no matter how you slice it.

Most importantly, though, remember that admissions committees are composed of real live human beings. For all the quantitative analysis they do, it is another consideration that will always factor most prominently in their minds.

That consideration is this: “Do I like this person?”

This is the X factor. It’s why the best singers don’t always win American Idol. It’s why inane Adam Sandler movies do well at the box office. It’s why Obama beat McCain. Like it or not, it’s much more important than any amount of quantitative analysis.

And that’s why I coach financial analysts to surrender their professional training at the door when it comes to essays. It’s not easy—when you do something 80 hours a week, you become brainwashed; you eat, breathe, and sleep your skills. So sometimes I have to do some heavy deprogramming. But eventually I get them to realize that if they focus on just being their likeable selves instead of agonizing over every possible way a word could be interpreted, they’ll fare much better in the long run.

As for Joseph, I have to admit I don’t know that I ever quite got him to completely abandon his analytical ways. True, he did eventually agree to keep the wording as we had it (after we talked about it for an hour—twice). But even after he got accepted to Wharton, he couldn’t help but wonder aloud to me over the phone: “I guess they must have read the leadership essay first, and then didn’t connect the dots to the failure essay.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe they just really liked you.”

--Justin Marshall, Forster-Thomas coach and Super Analyst