Monday, April 22, 2013
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.
Monday, November 28, 2011
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.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
HBS is like a British exotic car of varying quality – Rolls Royce, Bentley, and Aston Martin. They are Establishment, top hats and all. Like British exotics, HBS is really known for its heritage and prestige (with sport performance and classic styling to back it up). Some drivers are able to break the "unapproachable" mold and will take their cars for a bit of a joyride, but some are trapped in the pomp and circumstance of their cars. Only drawback is that they are incredibly high maintenance (more reliable than Italian exotics, but the repair costs are astronomically high) and insist on being noticed. And watching an HBS alum “fail” a la Jeffery Skilling is like seeing a Bentley stranded on the side of the road – everyone else can’t help but gloat.
Stanford is like an Italian exotic – from iconic marques like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Alfa Romeo, to super exotics like the Pagani Zonda, as well as the “all style and no substance” that are the Maseratis. In terms of styling and performance, they are bold, distinctive, and anti-authoritarian much like Stanford – built as if to be a complete counterpoint to the British exotics. They aren't the most reliable cars, but they sure look good, and they are the ultimate joyride car, risks be damned (few cars can replicate the exhaust note of a Ferrari). If HBS is about prestige, Stanford is about rebellious sex appeal. Just like not every Stanford GSB alum is of the same caliber, knowledgeable “car guys” know that there’s a huge difference between Ferarri and Maserati – the former is a real sports car, while the latter is a piece of sh*t. But to the uninitiated, they draw attention in equal measure.
WHARTON (UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA)
Wharton is like a German exotic – Porsche, AMG, Maybach, Alpina, and Ruf, which represents a long history of performance that is analytical, clinical and precise, with styling that has always maintained a sporty middle ground, in between the conservative or even stodgy styling of the Brits and the more extreme elements of the Italians. They combine the quality/reliability of German engineering that the British and Italian sports cars don't have, with the cachet that rivals only the British and Italian luxury cars. The styling for the most part hides some of the best engineering under the hood, so the cars tend to draw less attention on the road. For example, most people may not even know the difference between an AMG or a regular Benz, much like most people may not have heard of Wharton, but when you say “Penn”, they respond, “oh, Penn State.” Moreover, they don't quite have the same cachet of the British and Italian luxury cars, even though many drivers would still kill to say “I drive a Porsche” even if it’s just a Cayenne (i.e. a Toyota SUV with a Porsche stamp).
BOOTH (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO)
Booth is like Mercedes-Benz – one of the preeminent luxury car brands, but without as much of the sex appeal and prestige of an exotic car. Underneath the hood, the performance is as good and sometimes even better than its more “prestigious” counterparts in the UK, Italy, or its neighbor in Zuffenhausen. In fact, while a Ferrari, Aston Martin or Porsche owner will talk about the driving experience as “fun”, “raw” or “holy f*ck yeah!!!”, Benz owners will whip out spreadsheets of performance statistics to quantify how their cars are just as good as the others. Styling wise, it’s even more conservative than its German counterparts, perhaps a bit stodgy, boxy and awkward at times (and some models are just downright ugly). But hey, it's built like a tank - impenetrable to any kind of criticism.
KELLOGG (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY)
Kellogg is like a Volkswagen - they aren't the most reliable cars, but they are sure fun cars to drive. They also have a very young, hip and aspirational image - but one that is within reach of many people. When you think of the Beetle, Golf GTI, Jetta, Cabrio, Rabbit, Vanagon/Westfalia (hippie van!!), Passat or Touraeg, you think of a hip young couple who shop at farmer’s markets on their way back from CB2 to pick up funky kitchenware to decorate their so-hip-it-hurts exposed brick loft space – in the suburbs. They are very good at promoting and managing its reputation as a “cool and hip” car to drive. Oh, and they are always smiling, showcasing their Crest Whitestrips ™ bleached teeth. But damn, they are a good looking bunch of people who manage to out party every other school and still look good doing it.
Sloan is like an Audi - more people have them than you'd expect, and for a German car, they are a bit younger and hipper – and more accessible. They are mentioned alongside the other great auto manufacturers, but still fly under the radar in most discussions. They are reliable workhorses that hide its performance and luxury behind a very understated and unassuming exterior – much like Sloanies and their abilities. Even their sportier versions (S-series, R8) are understated compared to its direct competitors. If its peers are a combination of style and substance, they are almost focused entirely on substance, if at the expense of style (if you have ever been to the MIT campus, you’ll know what I’m talking about).
COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL
Columbia is like a BMW - an amazing machine that combines performance, quality and cachet, but it also attracts a disproportionate number of overly aggressive drivers who believe they own the road, and act accordingly (blasting horrendous techno music, cutting people off in traffic, honking their horns, etc.). Like the BMW, the “New York advantage” of Columbia has a Jersey Shore element to it. Cheesy club music, overpowering cologne, and drivers who love challenging every single luxury/sports car at a stop light. Or if you happen to drive a Honda (Stern), the BMW driver will rev up his engine and give that look of disdain. I’m sure there are some laid back and friendly BMW drivers, but they seem to be drowned out by the sheer number of a**holes – much like the loud minority at Columbia that give the school a bad name. But hey, across the board, they are still amazing machines and an astute person will know it’s not the car, but the driver behind the wheel. Just don’t get the X5, which is known to explode for absolutely no reason, much like a few loose cannon Columbia alums out there.
TUCK (DARTMOUTH COLLEGE)
Tuck is like a Swedish car, from the pedestrian (Saab and Volvo) to the exotic (Koenigsegg). It's quirky, relatively small in number, but has a fiercely loyal following of aficionados. Not many people know about these cars, but those that do rave about it. Some Tuckies, like the Koenigsegg, are truly exceptional and can stand toe to toe with any other exotic in terms of performance, styling and cachet. Beyond that, if there is any reputation it has, it’s the family-oriented cars for hippies. Volvos and Saabs like Tuck seem to scream “I am a liberal outdoorsy vegan who collects bumper sticker slogans!” Strap some skis and bikes on its luggage rack, and you’re off camping! Don’t forget to bring your weed and Phish paraphernalia.
LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL
LBS is like Jaguar and Land Rover. A luxury British car that is high performance, but with some reliability issues that vary from one car to the next. Styling is decidedly refined and sophisticated, much like how LBS grads see themselves. They have that muscular feel of American cars with more European styling and refinement, much like how LBS has that American-style 2-year MBA structure but with a decidedly European student body. Also, when you think of Jaguar and Land Rover owners, you think of upper middle class blokes of all ages (including the geriatric) who love to drink, and drink lots of anything alcoholic – much like LBS which might as well own a chain of pubs for its students.
INSEAD is like Peugeot-Citroen. Not because they are both French, but because they are both very well known everywhere in the world but the US. Similar to how Peugeot-Citroen is one of the world’s largest car makers, INSEAD is one of the largest business schools – but if you lived in the US you’d never know it. While they have a reputation amongst the public as “the everyday car for Europeans,” to those in the know they have the reputation for building supercars that have dominated the Le Mans (which again means nothing to the NASCAR/Indy centric US). Similarly, INSEAD grads are found in all sectors of industry from middle management upwards, but that has a reputation as Europe’s preeminent business school, and one of the most respected names within those who know business schools.
ROSS (UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN)
Ross is like General Motors. A bit of everything for everyone, but not really anything in particular that makes them really stand out, other than the fact that it has the feel of a quintessential college town. When you think GM, you think America. When you think Michigan, you think Americana. And like GM cars, quality will vary, but for the most part the cars are down the middle when it comes to styling, performance, and reliability. It’s a solid, good choice for a buyer with a modest budget and who isn’t interested in flash or being super urban and hip – much like how Ross is a solid middle-of-the-road top school for those who want some of the prestige of the other top 8 schools, but who aren’t too fussy and caught up in keeping up with the Joneses. It’s a utilitarian choice that gets you from point A to point B – a degree that helps you get a decent job so you can enjoy your family life. And if you want a bit of flash, you get their Cadillac.
FUQUA (DUKE UNIVERSITY)
Fuqua is like Chrysler, because it’s hard to tell the difference between GM and Chrysler cars, just like it’s hard to separate out Ross and Fuqua, and they seem to be interchangeable amongst applicants anyhow. Sebring or a Buick? Which one is Chrysler and which one is GM? I thought the PT Cruiser was GM? I’m confused. Just like Ross, Fuqua is a solid middle-of-the-road choice when you see the MBA for what it is (get a better job) while you get on with your life. It’s for people who don’t have hang ups about what school they go to, but want a good school – and unlike NYU and Haas (see below), for people who want a more quintessential American college town experience. Basketball. Football. Cheerleaders. Suburban Americana.
DARDEN (UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA)
Darden is like Ford because it prides itself on being “built tough”. From the Mustang to the F-150 to the Crown Victorias, their bread and butter are cars that can withstand all kinds of grit, grime and abuse – much like how Darden students pride themselves on their ability to survive their infamous workload. Just like the Big-3 US automakers, applicants tend to apply to Michigan, Darden and Duke (below) collectively because they are similar to one another. The difference is, Darden is the macho brother of the three. Not known for their refinement, but the cars most likely to withstand nuclear war. Don’t mess with Darden, because they will grind you up, spit you out, and crush you with their boots of steel. Boo-yah!
Stern is like Honda – similar to Duke/Darden/Michigan, it’s a solid choice for people who want a good program that gets them from point A to point B in relative comfort, but whose style is a bit more fun and peppy than its Detroit counterparts. From the Civic to the Accord to the Pilot, it’s about practicality first and foremost. However, there are obnoxious owners of all marques, and Honda is no different – there is the minority of folks who constantly proclaim in that smug way that they could’ve gotten a BMW or Benz, but chose a Honda because of blah blah blah, just like a few Sternies here and there will claim they could’ve gotten into Columbia or Booth, but chose Stern instead. I don’t doubt that it’s true, but methinks the lady doth protest too much. Going to Stern is just like buying a Honda – no one is ever going to fault you for it, and for many who go there, they are happy with it being an enjoyable means to an end.
HAAS (UC – BERKELEY)
Haas is like Toyota, much like Stern is like Honda. It’s for the practical minded who simply want to get a good degree so they can get a better job. Nothing more or less than that. And Haas fits that bill, much like a Corolla, Prius or a Tacoma. While some may be curious about why you would buy an American car, no one will question why you bought a Japanese car – just like many internationals may have more explaining to do when it comes to “why did you go to Ross/Fuqua/Darden?” but fewer if any outside the US will question why you chose Haas. Or Stern. In other words, Haas and Stern are like Toyota and Honda because they are all very well known worldwide, whereas American cars have more limited traction, especially outside of North America.
And don’t even start on the supposed luxury brands such as Lexus or Acura – as good as they may be, they’re just “nicer Toyotas” and “nicer Hondas” – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
JOHNSON (CORNELL UNIVERSITY)
Johnson is like Subaru – a high quality and practical car, for those who know about it. The marque is typically not on the top of people’s minds at first, although if you were to ask them to track how many Subarus they see in a day, chances are there are more out there than they ever realized. You see, Subarus don’t like to draw attention to themselves, they simply get on with their business, and they attract buyers who want a reliable import/Japanese car, but want something different for the sake of being different (and something a bit more rugged). In a way, they are quirkier than the other Japanese marques, using boxer engines instead of an inline or V. Similarly, Johnson is sort of out there in rugged upstate New York – there’s more of them working amongst you, but you wouldn’t realize it unless you actually asked people where they went to school.
Yale is the Mazda of business schools. What causes a person to go to Yale over NYU? It’s a toss up, really just like a Honda versus Mazda. Oftentimes, it comes down to who gives you the better deal and better financing. Similar to Honda, Mazdas are known for being fun and sporty economy cars that don’t take themselves too seriously. For example, who chooses Miatas? While I’m sure some could afford the more expensive European cars, most want a comparable quality experience that is within their reach. Again, if given the choice with no constraints, I’m sure most Miata owners would rather drive a German or Italian sports car, but few if any are complaining about driving that zippy little Miata around town. Similarly, while few would choose Yale over other top 8 schools, it’s a place where people seem pretty happy about being there – they could certainly do a lot worse.
Anderson is the Nissan of business schools. Like Nissan would be compared to other Japanese marques, Anderson tends to fall under the radar, even though it’s known worldwide and they’re everywhere. Similar to Toyota and Honda, for the most part they are solid cars that appeal to the practical minded buyer who just wants to “get on with it.” Likewise, Anderson attracts students who simply see the MBA as a means to an end, and want a high quality school that will help them get a good job – it’s the practical choice for many who want or need to stay in California for their careers. While it doesn’t get the same level of exposure as Toyota or Honda, no one is going to fault you for ever getting a Nissan. At worst, it elicits no opinion, and at best, a positive one.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
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.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
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 environment 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.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
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.