Admissions Advice and Commonly Asked Questions
The following are articles mostly from my blog (http://mbaapply.blogspot.com) as well as magazines that I wrote for. I have also produced the video series Interview Don'ts. Enjoy!
What kinds of people get into HBS, Stanford or Wharton?
One of the most common inquiries I get is "what are my chances at Harvard/Stanford/Wharton? What kind of people do they look for?" The mythical "HBS, Stanford and Wharton" trifecta represents the epitome of what many applicants view as the Promised Land, or the quest for the holy grail (or maybe their own version of the 72 virgins in heaven).
These schools look for the same things as any other school - strong academics, quality work experience, strong interpersonal skills, and "depth" (i.e. no androids or worker drones). The difference is, these schools can afford to be more picky simply because they have a stronger pool of applicants to choose from.
There are essentially three kinds of people (regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.) at the Sweet Sixteen schools (see my prior post for what I mean by Sweet Sixteen):
Blue Chips - these are folks with pedigree. They went to top undergrads and worked at highly sought after jobs (by those at the top undergrads). There's nothing particularly special about them as people, but they have a strong blue chip background. They are the Princeton undergrad to McKinsey kids, the Westpoint grad who serves in Iraq, Wharton undergrad to Goldman kids, and so forth. They didn't just work in IB, but they work at Goldman or Morgan Stanley. They didn't just work at no-name private equity fund, but they worked at Carlyle or TPG. They didn't just work in consulting, but at McKinsey/Bain/BCG. They are smart and accomplished kids who did as well as they could taking a traditional and well-trodden path.
Vagabonds - these are folks who went to the same colleges as the Blue Chips (i.e. top undergrads), but rather than work at Goldman or Bain, they decided to take the road less traveled. They did the Peace Corps, worked as a theater producer, played on the PGA tour, became a clergyman (of whatever religion), worked in nonprofit, etc. Or they may have spent a year at Morgan Stanley, hated it, and decided to work as a personal aide to a Senator or Congressman.
Average Joes -- they went to okay colleges, worked in decent jobs (IT, accounting, some random corporate job, 2nd tier consulting, etc.). Or they went to top undergrads, but ended up in decent but unremarkable jobs (i.e. a lot of the IIT folks who are applying, or the Harvard undergrad who works at a Big-4). Or they are they went to okay undergrads, and worked at no-name hedgefunds. Or they went to a state school and ended up in IB or MC. And so forth.
The difference with HBS, Stanford and Wharton is that you'll see far more Blue Chips and Vagabonds (and by extension, less Average Joes) than you'll see at other schools, and particularly at HBS and Stanford. That's partly self-selection (a good chunk of the Blue Chips and Vagabonds apply only to these schools), but also the fact that they are more sought after by all b-schools. Schools outside of these three will still get their share of Blue Chips and Vagabonds, but not to the same degree. And by extension, there are quite a few Average Joes at these three schools but not to the same degree as other schools.
One other thing: age range matters too. A Blue Chip who is more than 5 years out of undergrad sees his/her chances at these three schools diminish. Most of the Blue Chips you'll find at these schools are roughly 24 - 27 years old (but you can get away with being a little older at Wharton, and it's not really an issue outside of H/S/W). With Average Joes, there is also a limited window where you have a fighting chance -- around 2 - 5 years experience (and outside of H/S/W it's less an issue). It's only with the Vagabonds and US military personnel where age is less an issue (and if you look at the older folks in these classes, most are Vagabonds and US military officers (and if you're thinking that being in the Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Israeli military for the 1 - 2 year stint as part of your mandatory service is seen in the same light - it's not; they dynamics are simply not the same as choosing the military as your career path in a volunteer army). While schools like to talk about getting "all kinds of people from all age ranges", the reality is at HBS, Stanford or Wharton, the window of opportunity is a bit narrower, and if you're an outlier (especially on the older side), you better have something special and unique to bring to the table.
Of course a lot of people don't fit neatly into one of these three buckets, but it's a good rough way to determine how an adcom will see your profile.
One way to look at it is that at H/S/W, if you are a Blue Chip or Vagabond, you are competitive so long as you submit a strong application. However, if you are an Average Joe, you need to be very lucky as well in addition to submitting a strong application (because of your Average Joe background, it becomes a far more subjective and random process).
Also, one thing to keep in mind is that for most of the Blue Chips and Vagabonds, going to HBS or Wharton or Stanford isn't the best thing that's happened to them - they have a long enough list of pedigree and/or accomplishments in their lives already that it's not that big a deal for them whether they have the HBS name or not. They don't dream about having a prestigious degree, because many of them already have one (their undergrad), or have done some pretty interesting things in their lives that it trumps whatever brand name they have on their resume. That's why you'll see that the biggest proponents of "brand" and what it does for your career on this board (and to some extent in real life) are people who didn't go to these schools (i.e. they don't get it) - brand doesn't come before achievement and talent; achievement and talent comes first, and "brand/pedigree" is a nice dessert that may or may not result.
Adcoms tend to admit people who don't need the "brand" on the resume - they would've been successful without it. It's like health insurance where they provide insurance only to the superhealthy, or banks lending only to those who don't need the money.
The real acid test for applicants is this: if getting into HBS or Stanford would be the best thing that's ever happened to you professionally or personally, your chances are probably pretty slim (because you don't have enough to bring to the table, which is why HBS/Stanford/Wharton would be the best thing that's happened to you).
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Does age matter for business school admissions?
One of the common themes I hear from applicants these days is why schools are going younger. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I understand why they're doing it. Here's some of the reasons why:
THE MBA, JD or MD?
Historically, the MBA was the ugly sister of the big three professional graduate programs at most universities. The top science graduates tended to go to medical school, whereas the top liberal arts graduates tended to go to law school. And while this is certainly changing, it still holds true for many of the best and brightest college seniors. Using GPA as a crude proxy for "raw potential", the incoming GPAs for students at the top medical programs and law schools is around 3.7 - 3.9. For the top business schools, it's around 3.4 - 3.6. In other words, the top med/law schools are full of "A" average students, while the top business schools are filled with "B" average students.
You may think that comparing business, law and medicine is silly. And in some ways it is. But here's an interesting stat to consider:
The average age at matriculation for many of the top med and law programs is 24-25. If most people enter college at 18 or 19, they graduate by the time they're 22 or 23. Unlike the prior generation (1990s and earlier), folks aren't going straight into med or law school anymore - but are taking a break from school for a few years before going back (and the kind of kid with a 3.9 GPA and a super high LSAT/MCAT isn't going to be working as a greeter at the local Wal-Mart, but is likely to find some interesting work). Visit any top law or med school, and you'll likely find that a good number of these students already have 1 - 3 years work experience. For example, at schools like Harvard or Stanford Law, the majority (54 and 69% respectively) did not go straight from undergrad.
So business schools know that these college graduates are ripe for the picking. Since at least half of the kinds of people who get into these top law or med programs aren't fresh college grads (but have a few years work experience), they want to encourage these kinds of people who wouldn't normally consider business school to apply. They want to be competing for the "best and brightest" that normally would be applying to law or med school - which only increases the caliber of applicants and therefore the caliber of incoming students.
The US Minority Factor
Going younger also may have an impact of attracting more high caliber US minority applicants. Traditionally, minorities in the US have seen medicine and law as the primary means for social and economic mobility. In other words, whether you're Asian, Hispanic or African-American, it's the one thing that can make your parents beaming proud. Law and medicine within most US minority communities still holds a certain cachet that a business career doesn't yet hold (even to this day, although that is changing).
Why it holds cachet comes down to opportunity. Law and medicine has always been perceived to be more meritocratic than the business world - they are professional services professions that are less hierarchal compared to the "traditional" business world of patronage, "relationships" and bureaucracy. Traditionally, business careers (particularly big business, Wall Street, etc.) have been an upper crust white man's world. Business isn't about merit. It's about money, power and contacts. Prior to the 1980s (or some say even 1990s), graduating with an MBA didn't grant you the same access to the business world that a white male would've had - particularly on Wall Street or in the executive suites in virtually any industry (or whether you'd be groomed for upper management) except for perhaps the technology sector. Corporate America has certainly made progress in the last 20 years, but these deep-seeded attitudes with the US minority communities of what professions hold "cachet" that go back generations don't change easily or overnight - even though today, an African-American male wouldn't be out of place at Goldman Sachs. Reality can often change much faster than the perceptions of that reality.
More often than not, the overachieving US minority guy or gal is therefore more likely to go to law or medicine than to business. And for business schools to boost (or maintain) enrollment (particularly with rumors that minority applications have decreased in the last few years) of US minorities, it has to go after the minorities who are considering medicine or law - to encourage them to consider a business career, and apply for an MBA instead.
So the hope is, by going younger, the natural byproduct will be an increase (or maintenance) of applications from US minorities.
Women, The Glass Ceiling, and The Biological Clock
Unlike their medical or law school counterparts, business schools have had a tougher time attracting women applicants. While around half the med or law students are now women, only one-third of business schools are women (or less at some schools). Some of the main obstacles that discourage women from applying for an MBA are:
(1) The glass ceiling - while the global workplace has become far more diverse in terms of ethnicity and nationality, it's still largely a man's world at the top. Women aren't dumb. They see so much of the business world as an old boys club (but now with some more color). The glass ceiling is even more extreme outside of North America (curiously, with the exception of China, where everyone is too preoccupied with making money that they don't care whether you're a guy, girl, hermaphodite, etc. so long as there's quick money to be made). Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of women in an MBA classroom are either from the US or China. Compared to law or medicine, why bother getting a business degree if you have to work in a profession that stacks the cards against you?
(2) Biological clock - with the average ages creeping up to the late 20s and early 30s, women become discouraged from applying because it happens to coincide with family planning considerations. Most working women tend to have children in their late 20s and early 30s, so it makes less sense to go back to school, only to go straight into a maternity leave situation right after business school (and particularly in a profession such as business which isn't friendly to women anyhow as mentioned above). Encourage women in their early to mid-20s to apply, and the calculus makes a bit more sense, as it gives women the opportunity to work for a couple of years post-MBA before having children.
Business schools can't do much about the glass ceiling as mentioned in (1) nor can they do a whole lot to bring about better gender parity amongst international applicants, but they can at least try to encourage more North American women to apply. Not only does going younger help with "biological clock" considerations, it allows the business schools to dip into the pool of high caliber women applicants who would be considering law or med school.
That's one of the reasons why business schools are touring undergraduate campuses and making a push to seek out "early career candidates" - to plant that seed in these college juniors and seniors that an MBA is also a possibility sooner than you think, particularly amongst women and minorities.
Recruiters Want Young Meat
Particularly at top schools, two-thirds of the class goes into financial services and management consulting. Both these sectors employ MBAs starting at a relatively junior level in the organization. Given the nature of these jobs, they want them young and single. It's harder to attract a married 33 year old to investment banking and have him/her excited about working 80 -100 hour weeks. It's harder to attract this same person to maintain the hectic travel schedule of a consultant. Sure, there are some that will do it, but many at that stage in life won't or will do so more reluctantly than a young and single guy/gal who can afford to put his/her personal life a distant second. Again, this is two-thirds of the class (including HBS and Stanford).
And let's face it. Younger people are easier to exploit and manipulate. It's easier for a manager to ask a 27-year old single person to go the extra mile, come in on a weekend to do "non-essential but helpful" work. It's harder to do that to a 33 or 35 year old parent with kids - because he/she won't fall for that kind of BS, or the manager will feel too guilty to even ask.
Financial services and consulting will continue to be major MBA feeders - because they are the only sectors that will consistently hire armies of MBAs to staff their deals and projects.
And as a result, these two sectors tend to be the primary benchmark for MBA starting salaries - which then factors into some of the rankings and let's face it - the perceived "prestige" of the program. In other words, MBA recruiters tend to benchmark their pay packages based on what the banks and consulting firms are paying - and not the other way around.
So for business schools, it pays to go younger.
As early as fifteen years ago, most business school students had around 2 - 3 years experience. Twenty-five years ago, most went straight from college. The average ages and years of post-college work experience climbed steadily in the last fifteen years, and largely went unchecked.
Remember that business schools also run very lucrative executive programs and part-time programs. Call it product differentiation. The closer the applicant profiles are to the executive MBA programs, the harder it is for business schools to justify why they can charge a huge premium for the executive program.
Also, the full-time MBA (at least in the business school's view) was designed for those early in their careers. The overwhelming majority of post-MBA jobs are not executive or senior management positions. Most are junior to middle management positions.
For business schools, they want to position the full-time MBA as a program designed for young professionals looking for a early boost in their budding careers, as opposed to an insurance policy for a risk-averse bureaucrat trapped in a profession they want desperately out of.
The Irony of It All
The irony of business schools "going young" is that they are going after one piece of the pie while ignoring a potentially larger piece that is only growing.
As an admissions consultant, I don't see a decrease in older applicants enquiring about MBA programs and "switching into business". In fact, it seems to be increasing.
Unlike prior generations, we don't live in a world of linear career paths anymore. And given how accelerated everything is these days, it's safe to say that most people will hit a plateau or peak within 5-15 years in a career. The 20-year career path for most people is dead -- it's more like 10 year cycles. So that means college graduates these days should expect to switch careers about 3 - 5 times in their lifetime - a huge change from the prior generation where 1 - 2 careers in a lifetime was the norm.
And these career switches likely won't be linear. With the way so many career paths are structured these days, your knowledge, skillset and contacts quickly become obselete. Or the job is so demanding that you are destined to burn out within 10 years. Once you hit a plateau where you don't think you can do much more or move up the chain any further, you have the choice of either staying in that plateau, or finding something else to do. And most probably won't have a choice. So chances are, it means having to (and wanting to) start over. Being able to reinvent yourself and your career(s) every decade or so.
The investment banker in his 30s who then opens a restaurant in his 40s, and then becomes a school principal in his 50s, and then a writer in his 60s. The corporate marketing professional in his 20s who goes back to med school to become a doctor in his 30s, who then becomes a realtor in his 50s. The actor in his 30s who goes back to law school to become a lawyer in his 40s, who then starts a business in his 50s. The CEO of a telecom company in his 50s who starts a shrimp farming venture in his late 50s.
In many ways, business schools have to think beyond the MBA if they want to truly stay relevant. Because there will be plenty of highly accomplished 30, 40 and 50-year olds in the future who will be looking to start over on their 2nd, 3rd or even 4th careers. And this group will dwarf the early 20-somethings looking to dive into their first careers.
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Why do career goals matter for the application?
One of the most common refrains I hear from applicants is "why do adcoms want us to be clear and specific about our career goals?"
Isn't that what business school is all about? Spending two years figuring out what you want to do. MBA students know that. Adcoms know that. So why is articulating your career goals such an important part of the application?
Put it this way. Every adcom knows that most candidates haven't *decided* on a career path. But they just want you to discuss *one* such path for the purposes of the application -- a path that you would seriously pursue amidst of other alternatives that you may be considering.
In other words, there's a difference between being "clueless" and being "undecided". When most b-school students say "I really don't know what I want to do," they are usually undecided, not clueless. They have an idea of the two or three paths they'd like to pursue -- but they just don't know which path to take (and they have given each path some thought and research). The clueless on the other hand simply don't know anything.
Asking you to articulate your career goals helps the adcom weed out the clueless, with the implicit understanding that you as the applicant may be undecided.
So while it's not really important to have decided on a career path (or to even follow through on what you wrote in your essays), it's important to at least get a clue.
It's important because from the moment you step foot on campus for your first day of classes, the signs of recruiting season for the upcoming summer already begin. The campus will be plastered with more company logos than NASCAR, and more trinkets and swag than an industry convention. Company recruiting presentations begin within the first month or two of school - just as you've barely begun to adjust to student life again. In this kind of environment, it's one thing to be undecided, but it's another to be clueless.
Most importantly, being able to articulate *one* career plan you would like to pursue in your application also reveals a bit about who you are and what you value. Sure, few people know *exactly* what they want in the long-term, but your ability to envison *something* specific at the least shows you have the ability to imagine beyond your immediate reality, while showing that you have some heart and conviction for something (and a plan on getting there) - that you're not just another worker drone who sleepwalks through his/her life.
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Is a full-time program really what's best for me?
Some of the frequent enquiries I get are from mid-career professionals in their 30s (and beyond) looking to make a career transition. And the sentiment tends to be, “I’ve done all I want to do with [insert career here] and frankly looking to move on.”
I get it. Adcoms – many of whom are in their thirties and beyond – also get it. Careers these days have a much shorter lifespan than they did in our parents’ generation. We will likely switch careers every 10-15 years from now on.
However, is a full-time MBA program really the best way for you to make that career transition? It’s a question that I believe is taken for granted across the board, but if you are a mid-career professional, it’s especially important that you have really answered this question for yourself in as informed a way as possible. And I stress INFORMED – because it’s one thing to constantly think about the MBA as the “way out” in your own mind and another to form informed opinions based on comprehensive research and inquiry into what a full-time program can and can’t do for you. That also goes for post-MBA careers, which is the real goal – not the full-time MBA.
Too often, it’s easy to make the full-time MBA the “end game” rather than just a transition point to get you from A to B (with many other equally valid ways to get you to Point B). The best thing you can do as a mid-career professional is to invest most of your energy into researching the career goals you are aiming for first and foremost. Some questions you may want to ruminate on:
Why are you so interested in this new career path? What is it that attracts you to it? You can never be too specific (and 99% of the time, people answering this question are rarely as specific as they need to be – perhaps because they are afraid of their own insight and introspection).
What are you hoping to get out of this new career path that your current job/career isn’t giving you? Conversely, what tradeoffs do you think you’ll need to make – in other words, what are the good things you take for granted now that you will miss in your future career?
Is your dissatisfaction with your current job limited to the specific circumstances of the job itself, or would you be equally unhappy at a comparable job at a competitor?
These are just some of the questions you should be really contemplating and answering for yourself. They are big and broad questions, and more often than not, it’s very easy to keep it at a very superficial level without a lot of thought.
The more specific you are about what it is you want, the better you can figure out for yourself what you need to do to get there. And when you do, you’ll likely look at part-time programs, executive MBA programs, or simply forgoing the MBA altogether as equally valid alternatives to full-time programs that you may have irrationally (and perhaps naively) pinned too much of your hopes on.
This doesn’t mean that the full-time structure and curricula in theory isn't beneficial to people of all ages, but in reality they are structured for 20-something kids with a few years’ experience who are still very early in their careers. Until business schools have full-time degree programs like what Harvard’s Kennedy School is doing with their Mid Career Master in Public Administration, you will be trying to stick a square peg in a round hole by focusing on full-time MBA programs as a mid-career professional. Moreover, my guess is that 80-90% of mid-career professionals who had originally looked at investment banking or management consulting as entry points into a business career would not do so when they become truly informed about these career paths in the first place.
There are many ways to get from Point A to B. There is no template.
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How do I best position myself for business school?
Another common enquiry I seem to get on discussion forums are from recent college grads who wonder how to best position one’s self for business school in a few years’ time.
If there is one thing, it is to become talented and accomplished at something other than studying or academics.
If you haven’t already since childhood, get actively involved in something else other than academics – arts, sports, politics, entrepreneurship, nonprofit, religion, etc. Getting involved in these activities and becoming reasonably accomplished not only is good for your soul (as well as your overall well-being and feeling like you’re part of a community), it will give you something that academics cannot – street smarts. The “real world” (however you want to define it) rewards street smarts more than book smarts.
Folks who are preoccupied with window dressing their resumes don’t spend their free time nurturing their talents. These window dressers are more preoccupied with what looks good on a resume than they do actually pursuing something with a remote sense of sincerity. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the window dressers from the bona-fide overachievers, but usually it’s easy to tell. If you spend your time window dressing, chances are you aren’t fooling anybody (other than yourself).
Build a life, not a resume.
When you’re young and just out of college (or even a few years out) it’s hard – many of us get it. We’ve been there. There’s lots of pressure (either external or internal) and people telling you “what to do.” The best thing you can do for yourself is to do what’s best for yourself (even if you're not entirely sure what that is!), rather than giving up all your decision-making and choices to gatekeepers (adcoms, future employers you would give your left nut to work for, overbearing parents, peers/classmates/friends, etc.). You may not have the full confidence in your decisions because you feel you’re still a little green. But you will learn more from your own mistakes and regret far less later on if you made those decisions for yourself rather than planning out a career/life based on someone else’s terms (whomever that “someone else” may be – peer pressure, parents, imaginary adcoms, etc.).
Other than that, there is no real template, other than being as accomplished and talented as you can at whatever it is you do. We all wish there was some cheat sheet or formula for success – that if you do “A” and “B” will get you “C” – how we navigate our careers and lives would be so easy, predictable, and boring.
No one can teach you or show you how to be an overachiever, or how to be exceptional at something (whatever that “something” is). You either do, or you don’t.
It’s about making the most of your talents – whatever that talent is – believing in yourself, and then having the discipline, thick skin and heart to recover and get up from the many setbacks and failures you will experience along the way to that one notable achievement.
Most things that are hard or worthwhile to attain usually take a few years of you hauling ass before you start to see results. Real leadership positions, relationships with important people, exceptional achievements, and so forth all take time to earn.
Career choices, what to do with your free time, and so forth aren’t all about “what looks good for adcoms” or “what looks good for a resume.” Children worry about how to impress others. Adults do what’s best for themselves (and the offspring they're responsible for) -- irrespective of what others think.
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Building a profile for business school (there's a Forrest Gump in all of us)
One of the most common questions I loathe to give advice about is how to build a profile that will improve one’s chances for getting into a top b-school. Especially when it's coming from folks who are more than a year away (and sometimes years away... I've had *high school* students ask me!).
The reason why is this. Getting advice on what you should do with your career and life choices is limiting yourself to the advice being given. It has a tendency to limit your imagination for what is truly possible for you. Especially when getting advice from a complete stranger like me, no matter how much of a novel you want to write to me about your entire life story.
Simply put, no one knows you as well as YOU.
I hate life coaching, because I really don’t think I’m better or wiser than anyone else. I have my hands full with in my own life, let alone trying to give a paint-by-numbers recipe to others for what they should do with theirs.
So this is the only “life coaching” thing I will say based on my own limited experience and what I believe. I guess it could be considered some broad advice that is meaningless on its own, but hopefully meaningful if you are able to find a way to incorporate it into your own specific circumstances.
The reason why I hate giving “what can I do to improve my profile” advice is because some of the most accomplished and amazing applicants I’ve ever worked with were people whose history and career choices I could not have ever imagined or envisioned in the order or manner in which it had evolved. And I can safely say so for many if not all of them, I doubt they could have envisioned it turning out the way it did.
Facing the unexpected and surprises is where life and careers are made. It’s when you’re faced with situations where the script you had written becomes irrelevant, and you have to react in the heat of the moment. That’s where a lot of the most interesting career progressions and lives are built.
In short, for some (or even many?) of you MBA types or those who are attracted to do an MBA - you tend to over think and over plan. You don’t take enough risks because you psych yourself out by over thinking it. You don’t trust or you’re unwilling to trust your own instincts, so you want to follow other people or “templates”. Basically, you’re almost too willing to follow some cookie cutter recipe you think exists as long as it gets you the result you want - because you (falsely) believe that when it comes to building a career and a life, the results are all that matters (and where hopefully you’ll learn over time that while results aren’t irrelevant, the journey or the process is just as important if not more important, depending on who you talk to - because the only true result for all of us is death; everything else is a journey or process and the struggle to understand it).
Focus on working your ass off on whatever you feel is most meaningful to you at this time, *assuming* you're not going to b-school at all. It's about being your most overachieving self - adcoms really don’t care what it is. They really don't. What they care about is whether you are a dynamic and compelling individual who is accomplished in his/her chosen profession. It’s not about being perfect, but about being intriguing. And there are endless permutations on what that can be and what that means. Make life/career choices that you want to do, regardless of what others think. And of course that is “riskier” if you aren’t sure what you want, and there are plenty of “template lives” out there for you to follow. But the journey itself in taking that leap of faith is worth it for the self-knowledge you’ll gain, and if opens up even more doors than had you taken the “template”, that’s a bonus.
Don't just start volunteering at the local charity for the sake of resume building or make job/career choices for the sake of resume building, because you're not fooling anyone. Do it because you f*cking believe in it. Otherwise the only person you’re trying to fool is yourself into believing that “if I do X, Y and Z, then I will get A, B and C and everything will work out.” Even if you don’t believe in the “follow your dreams” mantra, there’s still a huge difference between “I chose this career path because it’s a realistic compromise” and “I chose this career path because others are doing it, or I am afraid of being different, or my parents forced me to.” The former is based on a negotiation you have with the world around you, whereas the latter is simply giving up the right to your own life. Now, that may sting some of you whose parental pressures are oppressive, but that only makes the struggle to overcome and defy them that much more meaningful - because it will teach you more about who you are than anything else (because no matter how much you love your parents, you are still your own person if you give yourself that right).
Nothing ever really works out - not just in your personal life, but also in your professional career (or careers). Welcome to reality. And it’s how you cope and react to the unexpected (setbacks or triumphs) that help define who you are, and give you a much more profound understanding of what you’re made of. Whether you succeed in overcoming setbacks is not as important as your willingness to take on those obstacles in the first place. Because that willingness is what success is ultimately built on even if it doesn’t happen right away or how you had envisioned it.
There are those whose goal is to minimize the unexpected. And there are those who live. Who you are is not defined by fantasies of who you hope to be, but by how you cope with the realities of today.
More applicants screw up their b-school applications because of their attitude more than their actual profile. Adcoms smell the "please like me, I did this all for you" faster than you can even build it. It’s a profile based on premeditation, and not one built on living. Desperation and an eager to please attitude may be endearing in children, but is a death knell for adults. That’s the real struggle more than anything else for those of you early in your careers.
So do what makes you feel confident, not what you think pleases others. There are folks who get in with no extracurricular achievements to speak of and nothing special other than a solid work resume. And there are others with a crapload of everything and don't get in anywhere. More often than not, what separates those who tend to succeed and those who don't (whether in admissions or anything else) are those who don't need the permission to succeed - those who say "f*ck it, this is who I am, take me or leave me.” They may lose some of the time and maybe even a lot of the time, but they will win more than those whose attitude and vibe comes across as trying a bit too hard to please others.
Some of you have gotten it ingrained in you that getting into b-school is important enough for you to have big life/career decisions dictated by gaining admission. The deeper problem however is believing that you need some external permission to succeed - that without getting X, Y or Z, you’re not going to get what you want. It’s this lack of self-belief that is the problem. As some of you may have heard me say this before - a lot of the folks who are at these top b-schools really don’t need the “credential” or “brand” of the b-school to succeed. In the end, they would’ve gotten to a similar place or level without the degree. The only difference is that they had a good time in those 2 years, and they may have had an easier time moving up the ranks, but the difference isn’t night and day to the point where it’s worth ignoring your instincts and values for it.
And while it's harder to live by that principle of “trust your own instincts” when you're younger and being pulled in a gazillion directions by your peers, your family, your colleagues, and yes even those “b-school adcoms” that you have put on a pedestal -- sometimes it's just a matter of faking that confidence and self-belief even when you don't have it.
Ignorance can be bliss. There’s a Forrest Gump in all of us. Sometimes what you don't know can give you the dumb guts to accomplish bigger things than you would have at an older age where you realized how f*cking lucky you were to have achieved it in the first place. That delusional self-belief, that foolishness, is harder and harder to hold onto as one gets older, so don’t be so willing to throw it away so soon. It may be the greatest asset you have right now.
In short, rather than asking others what you should be doing, let ignorance be your fuel and ask YOURSELF what you feel you should be doing... you may surprise yourself when you're older that you managed to pull it off.
Now, I’m not saying any of this is easy to live by, but it’s worth it to at least try.
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What can I do to improve my chances in the next few months?
One of the most common questions I get from readers is "What can I do to improve my chances in the next few months?"
In short, there are really four things:
(1) Get a "good enough" GMAT score. Your GMAT needs to be within range: for top 16 schools plus INSEAD and LBS, you realistically need at least a 700 or greater for it not to be a significant handicap. If it is below 680, your chances at a top 16 are going to be slim. However, trying to eke out 10-20 more points when you already have a competitive score (700+) is a waste of time. For top schools, a below average score is a liability, but a high GMAT is not an asset. Or to put it another way - the GMAT can only hurt your chances if it's way below the school's averages, and can never help you if it's way above average. Focus on "good enough" and move on. However, if your score is below average, do whatever it takes to improve it, even if it means taking it multiple times (although after 3 attempts, chances are your score probably isn't going to get better).
Again, the magic number for the top 16 + INSEAD/LBS these days is 700 or greater. Move down a tier to the top 30, and the magic number is around 670-680 (in other words, there isn't much of a difference in GMAT scores amongst applicants to any decent schools these days).
I think the GMAT is a silly way to evaluate career professionals, but it's a necessary evil. If you can't get a competitive score for your target schools, then you will either have to reassess your list by including lower ranked schools, or go into it rolling the dice knowing that your GMAT score will be a handicap.
(2) Visit 2 or 3 schools. You don't have to visit every single school you're applying to. However, visiting a few of them can give you a real feel for what business school is all about in a way that no website, blog, magazine or second-hand information can do. There really is no substitute for sitting in on a class and seeing how b-school works with your own eyes and ears, talking to current students "off-the-record" about their experiences, and just spending a few hours to a full day just soaking in what it means to be a student at that particular school. This will not only help you with your essays and interviews, but will also give you a stronger reality check for where you feel you stand compared to asking strangers on the Internet for validation on "my chances". It's worth the time and money.
In a subtle but important way, when you've visited some schools, there's a tone of authority and confidence when talking about what you want and why you want it in a specific way that just naturally comes through in your writing which others without that experience can fake.
And this is ESPECIALLY important for those applicants who aren't surrounded by post-MBA colleagues in their workplace.
(3) If your undergrad GPA sucked, take a few extension classes. This is more important for those who went to US colleges. Those who studied outside the US are given way more leeway, and practically a free pass on their GPA, since it's harder to benchmark and assess -- so for those who studied abroad, it really comes down to your GMAT and to some extent the prestige of your undergrad institution in your country. Anyhow, if your GPA sucked and you went to a US college, take 1-2 extension classes, either locally at an accredited college/university or online from an accredited institution (doesn't matter which one). If your GPA was below 3.1, definitely consider taking 1-2 classes. If it was below 3.3, only do it if you have time. As for what classes to take, so long as it's a freshman level or 100-level quantitative course (calculus, stats, accounting, algebra, etc.), you're fine. You won't get extra brownie points for taking advanced classes.
One last thing. If you studied engineering, adcoms will be more forgiving because they know that engineering programs tend to grade on a much harsher curve. So long as your GPA is above 3.1, you probably don't need to take extension classes so long as your GMAT is competitive.
(4) Do the best you can on your written application. In short, aside from getting a "good enough" GMAT and visiting a few schools (and taking extension classes if your GPA sucked), all you can do beyond that is wait for the applications to come out in June, and do your best on the essays and coaching your recommenders.
If you're only a few months to a year away from applying, all you can do is to tell your story about what you've done to date. You don't really have time to create "new" stories that are substantive enough. Avoid window dressing because you're not fooling anyone. The reason why is that you can't fundamentally change who you are in just a few months. Real change takes years, not months. If you "start" something, you will have nothing to say about it other than you "started" something, because any significant achievement usually takes time, and doesn't happen overnight.
If you've known anyone who has achieved extraordinary things or are "outliers" - it was often years if not decades in the making. Becoming a nationally ranked athlete is a culmination of years or a full decade of work. Getting admitted to an Ivy League undergrad isn't some casual thing, but a culmination of healthy school habits and focus since elementary school. No matter what it is (athletic, artistic, academic, career, political, etc), doing something you're truly proud of usually is a culmination of a LOT of blood, sweat and tears (literally and figuratively), which isn't something that you casually pick up on the fly. Don't be arrogant to think you can just turn on "exceptional" when you want it, on demand.
A lot of business school websites now emphasize that they want to know who you really are, they want you to be authentic, sincere, and genuine. Its basically code word for "we have seen so much bullsh*t over the years from applicants. We are not easily fooled - we can detect bullsh*t faster than you can write it." Keep in mind the fact that while the adcoms are typically not that much older than you (mostly in their late 20s to late 30s), they are still older than you and likely have more life experience than you - they aren't absent-minded seniors who will believe everything you say. Don't bullsh*t them.
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Why MBA admission is like getting six-pack abs
As an admissions consultant, what I do in a nutshell is to coach people on their applications – the essays, resume, recommendation letters, application forms, interviews, and just about any issue under the sun that pertains to business school: career goals, business school life, and whether even to bother applying to school at all.
In many respects, what I do for business school applicants is analogous to what a personal trainer does for fitness clients.
One of the most common queries I get from prospective clients is this:
“I have a GMAT that is much lower than the averages for my target schools. Can you help me overcome that?”
The quick answer is, no. Is there a chance you can get in DESPITE a lower GMAT? Absolutely. But that doesn’t involve “essay magic.” It’s luck and highly unusual circumstances (you’re sleeping with the adcom, you have the President of the United States backing you, your parents have a building in the school named after them, and so forth).
Believing that somehow a low GMAT can be easily mitigated by an exceptionally executed application assumes that there are enough of your fellow applicants who will have crappy applications. The thing is, regardless of GMAT score, just about all applicants will be putting in their best effort. A lot of applicants with GMAT scores that are average or above average are going to be putting in great applications. Gone are the days where the majority of applicants were submitting in crappy essays. With all the resources and knowledge out there that are just a few Google searches away, most applicants have the savvy and know how to put together specific, clear, organized and polished essays. And yes, quite a number of these folks who have average to above average GMATs are also getting help – from consultants, MBA alums, colleagues, and other people who are giving them feedback on their applications.
So any consultant who claims that they can somehow pull the wool over an adcom’s eyes and get them to admit you in spite of a low GMAT is akin to those TV infomercials selling abdominal machines with the promise of six-pack abs.
To claim that using their abdominal exercise contraptions can give you six-pack abs isn’t outright lying, but it’s misrepresentation. Yes, you can get six-pack abs with exercise (crunches, sit ups and any form or combination of abdominal exercises). But all the exercise in the world won’t give you those six-pack abs if your diet and genetics aren’t already putting you in a position to make those exercises effective.
And that’s what the GMAT is – it’s like diet and genetics. All the “essay magic” in the world won’t really help to fundamentally change your chances if your GMAT is out of range.
So this may seem like I am working against my own interests – I mean, as an admissions consultant, I should be telling you that “hey, if you sign with me, I can help you overcome your GMAT score!”
But that would again be akin to a personal trainer telling you that your diet and genes are not important – so long as you follow his/her patented “transcendental metaphysical crunch!” method, you will get ripped in just 45 days or less. Would you trust someone who is more focused on sales than on giving you honest advice that serves your best interest? In other words, are you looking for a sales person, or an advisor? There’s that old saying that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is (or they are giving you a sales pitch).
In other words, I can certainly help make sure you’re doing the best you can on the applications so as to maximize your chances – but you’ll still be a stretch if your GMAT isn’t competitive, plain and simple.
I know that the GMAT is a pain in the ass. I hated it myself. I have a greater aversion to sitting still figuring out multiple choice questions than the average person. But it’s one of those necessary evils. And if you have tried all you can, taken it multiple times and still cannot hit the ranges of your target schools, then it’s something you have to simply man up and live with. This doesn’t mean you should just give up and not apply at all – but that if you do apply with a significantly lower than average GMAT score, just have some realistic expectations of where you stand. That may be hard to hear, but it is the truth.
Before embarking on the actual applications, you need to do whatever it takes to score within range for the schools you’re targeting.
The irony is, those who care least about the GMAT are those who probably need to boost their score, and those who obsess over their GMAT probably need to relax and focus on the applications.
In short, here’s the rule of thumb:
You need to be within 20 points of your target school’s incoming GMAT average, and ideally at the average or more. That’s it. A much higher than average score will not help, but a score that is 20 points or more below the average will be a significant handicap.
In sum, the GMAT isn’t the ONLY factor for admission, but it is an important first hurdle. In other words, having an average GMAT is just the starting point to determine whether you are even in the running or not for your target b-schools – much like a great diet and genes are necessary before even determining whether exercise can even get you the six-pack abs you want.
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What is good writing (at least for business school)?
Over the past few years, I've gotten some questions about what makes a good essay.
Good writing first and foremost is not about style or polish. I think that's the biggest disconnect for many people whose office environments are overwhelmingly focused on polish and style that it messes with their notion of what is deemed "good writing." When asked to write outside a corporate context, it can be completely disorienting -- right becomes left, up becomes down.
What makes good writing?
The most important quality is CLARITY. Unless you're writing a diary for your eyes only, you write to be understood. Your main thesis, opinion, and intentions have to be absolutely crystal clear to a reader. Oftentimes, it's scraping away all the double-speak, buzzwords and cliche phrases learned over the years in an office. When in doubt, use the simpler word because it's likely closer to the heart (which is what an essay with a subjective voice is all about - you are writing in the first person after all).
Another important quality is SPECIFICITY. Without being specific about what you're talking about, you can't be precise in your insight. And if you're not precise, what you say has no substance, leaving no impact on a reader. Oftentimes, stripping all the shit away from one's writing into plain English can really reveal what you *really* know because you can't hide behind language.
ECONOMY is also paramount. Even award winning novelists (or their editors at least) strive for this. You cut out as much fat as possible - both the words and the content. The more succinct, the greater the impact.
And the last one for writing from a subjective viewpoint (first person narrative) is SINCERITY. Tonally, it's got to sound like a real person, not a robotic PR release. Aim for a lack of formality without being casual.
Your essays may not sound like the stylized writing you are used to at work, but believe me it will be miles better than the overwhelming majority of shit you'll see in powerpoint presentations, website copy and business correspondence. Corporate speak makes it harder to separate the clueless, incompetent, and spineless from the knowledgeable, talented and ethical - that's why it can be an invaluable "cover your ass" dialect in a bureaucracy.
One last thing. All of this doesn't mean that style is irrelevant. Highly stylized writing can certainly be fun to read especially in the hands of a talented writer with keen insight, but only if such writing is clear, specific, concise and sincere. In the context of b-school essays however, it's unnecessary and distracting. That's the underlying problem with language used in many office environments - it's a highly stylized form without the clarity, specificity, economy or sincerity one will see in truly good writing.
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Why does diversity matter for business school admissions?
I originally wrote the following on the Businessweek forums in response to some understandably emotional private equity guys who just received their dings.
I'll try and explain from the b-school's point of view how this admissions process works on a macro level - which may give some of you some insight into how it impacts you as an individual applicant.
B-schools are looking to build a dynamic and diverse incoming class. They're not doing this necessarily for politically correct or social engineering reasons, but for one very practical reason: The greater the diversity of the class, the greater the diversity of career choices amongst the students, which means the greater the likelihood of attracting a wider range of recruiters, which then mitigates the risk of becoming a one-trick pony school, especially during tough job markets.
Think about it. No matter how disparate the "career goals" are in the essays of individual applicants, in the aggregate you can make some reasonable assumptions. For example, as a group the private equity dudes will more likely than not stay in finance - it's just horse trading from one fund or bank to the next. Those who actually end up in something completely different like nonprofit or marketing are a minority, no matter what they say on their essays.
So if you fill up the class with a bunch of private equity dudes and finance types, you're going to have a class that is even more skewed towards finance jobs than before. And this doesn't even count all the IT dudes who want to get into finance. And this can be harmful for a school's ability to attract a wide array of recruiters over the medium- to long-term because it will be known as a one-dimensional school. Moreover, it will have a harder time attracting a wide array of applicants from different backgrounds to apply because of its reputation of skewing towards one kind of applicant.
Of course in reality there's going to be skew -- both in terms of the applicant pool and recruiters -- but b-schools do want to minimize the skew as much as they can.
You may care about PE recruiting, the *current* crop of students may get "j*zz in their pants" (sorry, had to make the SNL reference) at the sight of a PE fund, but the school really doesn't care. They've seen trends come and go. And PE being a "hot" sector for MBAs is simply a trend.
That's why they want to extend as many branches to the widest possible array of industries and recruiters, because it allows them to hedge their bets on which is going to be the next "hot" thing without having to predict which is the next "hot" thing. Having your recruiting and alumni reach across the broadest spectrum of industries and job functions is how they build up an enduring reputation.
I'll tell you a brief anecdote. When I was in school during the dot-com mania, certain recruiters like Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson stopped recruiting at Wharton and only accepted resume dropoffs. Why? They couldn't hire anybody, and their recruiting sessions were poorly attended (in the end, they still hired a couple of Wharton grads from my year, but no dog and pony show). The school was extremely concerned about this because it's not good for the long-term. Everything goes in waves and the school didn't want to be stuck having crappy marketing recruiting in more "normalized" time periods where marketing will attract a dedicated segment of the class (not to mention turning off potential applicants who hear about the lack of marketing recruiting). In the end, they kissed and made up, and things as far as I know are going well. Stanford went through the same issue with investment banking, Fortune 500, leadership rotational programs, etc. for a while because the "yield" for these recruiters was so low that it wasn't worth trekking out to Stanford. Of course, the arrogant dweebs would say "well who wants to work at those crappy jobs anyhow, they're all starting new companies" -- which isn't really true. An administration with foresight can't let the arrogance or selectiveness of the current student body that is based on some "trend" dictate the skew and reputation of the school with future students and recruiters. Stanford's admin was genuinely concerned about this and have tried to reach out with varying degrees of success.
It's why schools like HBS have been so successful in the past because of their ability to send their grads to virtually every nook and cranny in any industry. I don't have proof of this, but at least from my personal experience they have the most diverse alumni base in terms of job function, geography, and industry. Their alums were the first to get into VC in the 1960s (not Stanford). Their alums were the early entrants into PE (before it was huge). Their alums were the first to get into medial/entertainment. Their alums were also one of the early entrants into nonprofit and social enterprise. Entrepreneurship as a career path for MBAs was something that HBS and Stanford grads were into well before it become a buzzword amongst all b-schools. They have a longstanding tradition of sending grads into all kinds of established industries. It's about reach, and it's something that other schools have tried to emulate (copy). Even schools like Stanford try really hard, which makes it even harder to get in because they do have to work extra hard to ensure a diverse class -- their alums skew so heavily towards working in tech/VC *and* Northern California that the admissions results can sometimes be downright bizzare - because they are hoping that you all don't stay in Palo Alto - it's Stanford's biggest achilles' heel is the lack of geographic diversity. Wharton also has issues - it's alumni base (particularly those who graduated pre-1992) are overwhelmingly finance. Even though it's less of a finance school now compared to say Chicago or Columbia or NYU, they are also actively building a more diverse alumni base. Because it's that diversity that gives it the real edge when it comes to overall reputation - because you never know where the next big thing will happen. If HBS has one guy in Bhutan, Wharton wants to be there too. Even Chicago is catching onto that (as each year progresses, you will see that the "finance nerd" stereotype to be more a thing of the past as Chicago tries really hard to broaden its applicant pool).
That's why they don't want to fill the class with only PE dudes, IT engineers, bankers, and management consultants - even though at most schools they will still make up a healthy chunk of the class. Again, the greater the diversity, the greater the chance of minimizing the skew of post-MBA career paths.
So what does this mean for PE applicants?
If you come across as a traditional PE dude in terms of profile *and* orientation (everything about you screams "I'm a finance guy through and through" no matter what you say in your applications), it can become more random simply because there's other people who have such similar profiles as you will. And they are NOT going to take all of you in, especially since there's a lot more applicants with PE background now than there was 5-10 years ago (simply because the industry has grown -- more headcount overall means more potential applicants).
Anyhow, you can take this as you will - you may not agree with their philosophy, but then again you're the applicant looking out for your own individual career, wheras the school administrations are looking after the reputation and reach of their respective schools - for the current crop as well as future generations. Just keep in mind that universities don't operate in calendar quarters or even fiscal years - but as educational institutions they can afford to operate with their longer-term interests in mind.
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How do I best prepare for an interview?
Now that some of you folks are getting your interview invites, one of the common things I get asked is how to best prepare for an interview.
It's quite simple, if a bit unconventional.
Practice talking about your candidacy OUT LOUD. Either talking about it to someone (friend, family member, spouse, dog, cat, hamster, etc.) or to yourself (yes, it will sound strange and weird at first).
Interviews aren't intellectual exercises. They aren't carefully rehearsed speeches. A great interview is one where BOTH the interviewer and interviewee are fully engaged in conversation (but obviously with the interviewee doing most of the talking). Conversation = talking.
You don't get "good" at interviews by reading books, writing notes, or doing anything where it's all in your head. You have to get used to hearing these very themes coming out of your own voice - your career goals, why "b-school X" is the right place for you, what you've accomplished, your strengths and weaknesses, and so forth.
If you're not used to actually talking about this out loud - it's going to come across as awkward no matter how much you've "read" your notes or "written down" stuff or memorized complete threads of "monologues" in silence. The interview room is NOT the best place to be vocalizing this stuff for the first time.
It's got to be in your body, not just in your head -- so that it comes across as natural and engaging. If it's all in your head and not fully in your body (i.e. so that your body language responds to what you're actually saying), you WILL come across as disconnected, disengaged, distant, and dull.
Talking is a physical activity. Nervousness is a physical condition. The more comfortable you are talking OUT LOUD about these things we normally don't talk about everyday in our lives (why MBA, goals, accomplishments, failures, etc.) the less nervous you will get no matter how big the stakes are because YOU are the expert on yourself, and you are used to talking about it.
It's not about coming up with carefully scripted answers to specific questions - because an astute interviewer will pick up on the fact that it's carefully scripted. Insincerity or lack of authenticity is what KILLS you in an interview more than a stumble of a word here or there. No one, including the adcom or interviewer, likes to feel that they're being played or that you are putting on an artificial front - no matter how substantive you think you are, if you come across as insincere or "scripted", it is death.
So how do you "prepare" for something where you're supposed to come across as spontaneous and authentic as if you were answering their question for the first time? You do so by practice, practice, practice -- until you're so used to talking about it out loud that you can improvise around it.
Anyone who has done sales will know what I mean. An interview is basically a sales pitch - with the product being YOU. A great sales pitch isn't one that sounds carefully scripted, but one where the sales person knows the underlying sales points and product so well that he/she can respond in the moment without thinking and improvise -- the more one physically talks it out, the smoother and more comfortable one becomes with the material.
Interviewing is a physical activity - treat your preparation as such (and this goes with MBA recruiting as well -- i.e. you get better at case interviews by physically talking it out - being good at case interviews isn't purely about your "thinking process" but about being good at "verbalizing" your thinking process).
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How do cultural differences impact admissions?
I don't often write about admissions geared towards specific cultural groups, since the admissions criteria for business schools transcend any nationality or occupation -- an applicant needs to have a combination of strong leadership potential (career progression and extracurriculars that over time suggest greater responsibility for teams of people), exceptional communication/interpersonal skills, and analytical aptitude (with GMAT, GPA, and other quantitative-oriented responsibilities in the workplace).
However, after seeing the same sorts of questions and recurring themes particularly from Indian and other Asian applicants, this subjective process to admissions seems to be a particular blind spot, due to cultural differences (note here that I mean those whose were raised in and attended high school in Asia). This may be a sensitive topic, but it needs to be said rather than whispered behind closed doors, after seeing so many applicants and MBA students over the years from many backgrounds.
Why would knowing this blind spot be useful? If you are an Indian or Asian applicant, even being aware of such a blind spot may at least help you avoid some huge pitfalls in the application process, the business school classroom, recruiting and your post-MBA career. (But then again, the irony is if you're reading this article and you "get it", then I'm preaching to the converted, to those who are already aware of it and may not have such a blind spot; and those that really need to be made aware of it are the ones who may not understand what I'm saying here).
Frankly speaking, while there are still a lot of Indians and Asians in business school, as a whole it seems that they are having a harder time getting in -- in spite of the fact that they have reasonable to even high GMAT scores, solid work experience and so forth.
For many Indians and Asians, they've spent their entire lives being bench marked almost exclusively on their academic and analytical abilities. In plain English, its one big math competition with exams and certificates being the arena of competition from a very early age. And with an almost exclusive focus on math and sciences (especially for the boys) where there is often a "right" or "wrong" answer, there is little opportunity to develop that ability to voice interpretive (or subjective) viewpoints that are often the focus of humanities and liberal arts subjects - subjects which are simply taught to a greater degree in the West.
So it would seemingly make sense for Indians and Asians to come into the b-school admissions process expecting to be judged in the same way. If I were in your shoes, I'd probably think the same way too because that is all I would know or all that I have been judged and evaluated on to date - by schools, employers (for technical jobs), peers, etc and maybe even by friends and family.
For many Indian and Asian applicants, business school admissions is a completely different (and perhaps entirely new) world. It will likely be a bigger re-orientation in terms of mentality, perspective and approach for many Indian and Asian applicants compared to those who have grown up in Western countries.
B-school admissions isn't a math competition. The technical stuff - your GMAT scores, your GPA, etc. matter only up to a certain point -- and once you've reached that threshhold (which is actually not very high), no exceptional GMAT, GPA or academic/technical/analytical achievement will compensate for mediocre or even poor interpersonal and critical thinking (i.e. imagination, lateral thinking, etc.) skills.
Being able to communicate and articulate a *subjective* point of view in a compelling, engaging and persuasive manner is what it's about -- not just for the business school application, but also in a case method class (and all schools use it to some degree, and even lecture-based classes have that collaborative, discussion-oriented ethos ingrained in the learning experience). Moreover, it's likely THE most important skill to have for one's business career - it's how you convince the Board to approve a merger. It's how you get a key customer to commit to your new beta product.
On the surface, "being able to convince someone of my opinions where there is no clear right or wrong - just opinions" may then appear to be a personality contest, a test of one's creativity or imagination -- when to others who grew up in the West who are more accustomed to this in their lives would see this simply as "having my own opinion" without the validation of right or wrong. Being conditioned to cram for exams from an early age can certainly create a blind spot to this sort of frame of mind.
Now, one may say "well why does all this personality, interpersonal stuff matter?!?!" -- because b-schools are looking for future managers. Future bosses. And a great boss to work for isn't necessarily the smartest (academically speaking) person in the room. But they have 'street smarts' - the ability to influence people's behavior. Managing people isn't a math competition - it's about your people skills. Your ability to settle people down when they are in a pissy mood. Getting them riled up and motivated to do something where the chances of success aren't high, but are still worth a shot. In essence, influencing other people's behavior. The curricula you learn in b-school is really there to support you in that -- when you learn all the technical things in accounting, finance, operations, etc. it's not for the purposes of you actually having to do that analysis in the real world, but to help you *understand* and *interpret* this sort of analytical work that your subordinates do so that you as a manager can make more judicious and informed decisions where there often is no "right" or "wrong" answer.
So it's this entire aspect of yourself that you have to be able to portray effectively and compellingly to an adcom, professor/classmate, recruiter, and hopefully as you up in your career - a Board member, politician, or other leader. That is what will make or break you - and not all the computational and analytical skills you may have focused on all your life.
In a sea of other exam- and academically-obsessed Asian applicants who simply don't "get it", the best chance you as an Indian or Asian applicant have (regardless of your "test scores" in college, high school, on your GMAT/GREs, etc) is this:
Dare to be different. Dare to stand out. Chances are, you're simply not going to win the "my grades/GMAT is better than yours" competition against a lot of other applicants (and again in an admissions process that doesn't care as much about academics beyond a certain basic threshhold). Be able to convey that you're better with people than numbers - because ultimately in business your ability to lead, manage and supervise people is what will make or break your career -- not your ability to do math.
Here's another way to put it in economic terms.
With a continent that is highly focused on analytical skills, Asia is creating a labor force that is effectively making such analytical skills a commodity. There is simply a much greater supply of this than there are those with strong leadership, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills ("right brain" activities) in *any* country.
For many of you, I assume you're applying to business school so that you can get to a point in your career *soon* where other people are doing the math for you (and unfortunately get paid next to nothing for it because their math skills are a commodity), so you can focus on being the "decider". Math skills gets you to middle management, but people skills gets you into the executive suite.
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Race, prestige and admissions: what is the elephant in the room?
You walk into a college classroom where most of the faces are Indian and Chinese (or “South Asian” and “East Asian” for the more broad term – and in this context, it’s not really a question of citizenship i.e. Indian-American vs Indian but of race).
If you were a recruiter for Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Apple or any global company, would you perceive this school to be MORE or LESS prestigious? If you were a recruiter where post-MBA jobs are managerial and become more relationship-based (not analytical/technical), and where the key contacts your company corresponds with (investors, Board members, clients, customers, government officials) are mostly white (American or European), or at least a sprinkling of various nationalities and cultures (but still mostly white), would you be more willing to hire students from this classroom, or would you be more inclined to recruit from a similar caliber of school where there were more white faces in the class?
Now, if you were an applicant and walked into this very same classroom, would you perceive this school to be more prestigious or have an “exclusive” brand compared to a class that is more diverse (or where at least half were white)? As an applicant, would your opinions be different depending on your own race or nationality (which gets into the ugly truth that even in non-white countries, the perception of prestige and exclusivity is still defined by whether white people will buy it). And if b-school classrooms looked more like MS-Engineering programs (where the overwhelming majority are Indian/Chinese), would that increase or decrease the likelihood of you applying to a highly selective business school? (Note that “highly selective” and “prestigious” can be related but are not synonymous.)
And herein lies the ugly truth of race, prestige and admissions.
For business schools, and especially those in the very top tier like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and so forth – a big part of ensuring that their MBA programs stay relevant is to maintain their perceived prestige (exclusivity), because as we all know – while having an MBA can be of value, it’s not necessary for success in business, as amply shown by countless examples of incredibly successful entrepreneurs and executives out there without any formal business education. The perception of exclusivity for b-schools is rooted in the assumption that blue chip white males/females are the people others (regardless of background) want to be associated with. And that feeds on itself – the more of these people who apply, the more it will attract others to apply (including Asians), which creates a “network” which b-schools will then trumpet as something invaluable to its students (who are then networking with each other).
That’s why b-school admissions is more like the selection process for a private club: a country club, the freemasons, a hot nightclub (bring in all the hot girls, groups of guys are left standing in line), motorcycle club, or any sort of private organization. They can admit and reject whomever they want, and constantly change the parameters for admission to suit their needs (which isn't to graduate the "best and brightest" but to maintain that perception of prestige). Business school admissions is NOT a meritocracy, and it never really was, since the admissions process by nature is subjective and a "black box" if there ever was one.
When it comes to race and admissions, it’s not about trying to marginalize white or Asian applicants in the name of diversity – that seems to be a common refrain from many detractors who feel that adcoms are on some socialist, pinko, leftist agenda to admit as many “blacks, Hispanics and lesbian paraplegics” (of course, all mentioned in a derogatory tone by these very detractors) into b-school over more qualified white and Asian candidates –which is simply not the case because that is not what recruiters want, and it’s not what will ensure that applicants see these b-schools as “prestigious” (which will ensure that these schools continue to receive a crapload of applications each year).
In short, top MBA programs want their schools to be *diverse* (read: mostly or at least half white) rather than *ethnic* (read: mostly non-white) – that helps to ensure perceived prestige and exclusivity in our current culture of how we view the relationship between race and status symbols, which then helps to attract the maximum number of applicants as well as the most “exclusive” (read: highest paying) corporate recruiters. That is partly why they also are looking at younger candidates: it’s a way of reaching into the blue chip American pool (white kids with Ivy/equivalent backgrounds) to ensure that their numbers don't drop off to the point where b-school has to start looking like an MS-Engineering program – the less white people in the applicant pool, the more “ethnic” they have to go. This is ugly to say, but it's what is bubbling underneath all of this.
The one big silver lining to all this is that how we perceive race changes over time – it’s not static, but fluid. Even now, for many b-schools, the incoming classes are no longer overwhelmingly white, but again, the schools are “diverse” and not “ethnic”.
One example of how perceptions changed is that of the Jewish community – from “ethnic” to “mainstream.” Ivy League schools in the post-WWII era had a reputation for an unspoken two tiered admissions standard as a way to stem the influx of Jewish students for the very same reason: the perception of prestige. Many of these Jewish kids had as strong if not stronger credentials than their white counterparts to the Ivy League’s law and medical schools (b-schools back then were a bit of a backwater), but would still be underrepresented in these classrooms relative to the applicant pool. And yet, within a generation, that bias (at least when it comes to university admissions) has all but disappeared by the early 1980s.
With race and prestige today, I am confident it will change as the economic and cultural input of non-Western communities is considered mainstream, but this is where we’re at right now. So who knows, maybe in 10-15 years time, these biases may disappear altogether at least in this context of university admissions.
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What are the ultimate business school essay questions?
Over the years as an admissions consultant, I've worked with all kinds of applicants and seen all kinds of essay questions from a wide array of schools. Some of the questions are certainly enlightening ("what matters most to you and why") and some are unintentionally comical and ridiculous ("if you were to choose the school mascot, what would it be and why?"). And other times, the essay questions tend to be more relevant or insightful for certain kinds of applicants vs others ("what are your career goals and why" may yield more insight from someone who isn't a banker/consultant).
But the point of these essays (as well as the recommendation letters and interviews) really is to get a sense for who the applicant is BEYOND the resume. In other words, adcoms really hope to gain more insight into who you are as a person that may not be immediately obvious or reasonably inferred from your resume (i.e. if you're an engineer, it's reasonable to assume that math and analytical skills aren't a problem for you compared to most non-engineering b-school applicants).
Some schools ask too many questions. Others don't ask enough. Some ask too many questions that overlap. Others simply don't ask questions as directly as they should. And yet others ask a mix of questions that may reveal more from certain kinds of applicants vs others.
If I were to come up with the essential list of questions, it really would be these five things (sort of a condensed "best of" or rewording of some of the "best" questions from various schools):
(1) Introduce yourself to the admissions committee in a one-minute (or less) audio or video recording (mp3, mpg, mov, wmv).
UCLA is the first to introduce an audio/video essay, and I personally think it's a great idea. Most if not all b-school applicants will have video cams or audio recording capabilities in their laptops or desktops, so there shouldn't be any technical constraints.
In my view, having a one-minute "elevator pitch" is a great way to get a sense for who the applicant is that perhaps 1,000 written words can't fully capture. An adcom may not be able to get an in-depth understanding of the person in one minute or less, but they can certainly get a sense of the person's essence, personality, and most importantly - their speaking skills.
Given that managers spend most of their day in meetings talking to colleagues, vendors, customers, investors, Board members, and so forth - speaking skills are essential in business. In addition, business professionals (in any industry or job function) are constantly introducing themselves (or their companies) to new people. Being able to succinctly introduce yourself in a clear, specific and succinct way is an invaluable skill - that's how people remember you.
Moreover, this one-minute elevator pitch gives the applicant the chance to distill and synthesize who they are (sort of an "executive summary" of their entire application or what some may call a "positioning statement") in a dynamic and personable way.
Also, it could even help the adcom cut down on the number of interview invites as well.
(2) What is your biggest accomplishment to date and why? (400 words)
I personally think asking for three accomplishments is unnecessary. Asking for just one accomplishment allows the adcom to understand what your biggest talent is -- and what aspect of your life you've worked the hardest at, because no substantive achievement happens overnight. It's usually the culmination and the apex of many years (if not decades) of sustained commitment and dedication. In other words, is there at least *one* thing in the applicant's life that they have really dedicated time, effort and passion towards - with the accomplishment being the byproduct of all that.
Also, one "showcase" accomplishment is less prone to "positioning" -- with three accomplishments, it becomes very cliche to "mix it up for the sake of mixing it up" by including one work example, one extracurricular achievement, and one personal milestone - when for a lot of applicants they may be exceptional in one area (i.e. a decorated military officer). Whether they have a variety of accomplishments or not is really besides the point. For example, is it more impressive that Michael Phelps could write three accomplishments about all the swimming medals he's won, or the random person who "positioned" his essays by writing a variety of notable but non-unique achievements? What is more "impressive" or compelling is finding out through their ONE biggest accomplishment how high they've reached - to what degree are they an outlier or not.
(3) Describe a time when your choices, decisions, actions or behavior cause the entire group to fail. What did you learn about yourself? (400 words)
A lot of b-schools ask variations of this theme - describe a time you failed, screwed up, made a mistake, etc.
It's a great question. The reason is it reveals a person's true character. Some will come across as defensive. Some will avoid the subject by turning the essay into something else entirely. And others will come up with a bona fide screw up, own up to it, and describe how they responded to it or recovered from such a disappointment.
And forcing the applicant to talk about how their mistake caused a group to fail ensures that the example has stakes (if the applicant answered the question at face value) - by describing a time where their failures had real consequences for others.
Character is about how one responds to a crushing or humiliating disappointment. And this essay can help to reveal that (or reveal that the person isn't mature enough or unable to admit his/her own flaws).
(4) Based on your own experiences, what do you think are the differences between being an effective team member vs an effective leader? Reference examples from your professional or extracurricular history. (600 words)
This is really a distillation of the various questions that many b-schools ask.
In short, every single business school is a collaborative environment. Students go there to network and make friends. A lot of the projects are done in groups. Many students study for exams together (or help one another out during informal tutorial sessions). What makes the business school experience overwhelming or difficult isn't the actual work itself, but the sheer volume. There are simply way more readings, problem sets, spreadsheets, etc than one can possibly do alone. And that is just the academics. On top of that, there are way more extracurricular activities, speaker events, recruiting presentations, and so forth than one has time for. Students at virtually every b-school learn very quickly that one can't get through business school alone. Which in many ways mirrors life, career, and any business. Everything is done in teams.
And an essay like this asking for an applicant's experience with team work and leadership (whether formal or informal) can help reveal whether the applicant is ready for a highly collaborative environment like b-school.
In my view, it's certainly more effective than asking "how can you contribute to b-school?" because it's easy for that kind of question to become a cliched narrative and laundry list the applicant cherry picked from various websites and forums.
Asking for the applicant's prior history and experience with team work and leadership is certainly a stronger indicator of whether they will be an active contributor - because if they are used to working in highly collaborative teams AND they are highly accomplished and willing to admit their flaws -- they will get involved without the adcom having to read through a random list of things. The applicant will figure it out once they're in school - so long as based on their past they have the capacity to do so.
(5) Is there anything else you'd like to tell us that will yield more insight into who you are as a career professional? (i.e. goals, personal history/backstory, etc.) (400 words)
A lot of b-schools are giving applicants a choice (i.e. choose 3 of 4; choose 2 of 5, etc.) because applicants come from so many different backgrounds - certain questions or themes reveal more about that person compared to other questions. An open-ended question like this just distills it further, without having to list a bunch of questions to choose from. Give the applicant the blank canvas to "fill in the blanks" so to speak - they aren't children, but working professional adults after all who should have some opportunity to choose what they want to talk about, rather than being so constrained by questions that don't always yield what the adcoms may really want.
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