5 Tips for Applying to MIT Sloan in 2016/2017

Note: we have updated our best tips for applying to MIT Sloan based on a number of changes the program has made.

MIT Sloan is one of "those" schools - the ones that seem to slip into the nooks and crannies of the admissions process. People don't talk about Sloan as much as its elite counterparts. Nobody immediately thinks about it in terms of being a top 5 program until you start digging and realize, whoa, this program is insanely good.

In the past, we have chalked this up to its unique end-of-October deadline and equally unique two-round admissions process. We even went as far as to say that we would bet on the application quality at Sloan is far lower than on other top business school programs. Candidates would not even even start on their Sloan apps until after the October 3-16 gauntlet of deadlines and then they race to finish because they fear waiting until the "last" round.  Simply put, a lot of applicants have viewed Sloan as an after thought, and we've done our share of walking clients back from making mistakes associated with that mindset.  Well, all of that has changed.

In 2013, MIT Sloan moved their round 1 application into the month of September (23rd) and joining the parade of top MBA programs who have sought to leapfrog competitor programs by inching days or weeks ahead. In 2015, MIT Sloan moved their deadline up to September 17 and added a third round that hit in April 2016.  Clearly, the powers that be at MIT must have read our original 5 tips blog post. Riiight. The reality is that no one likes to play second fiddle, and the school like MIT Sloan made the move to be taken more seriously by applicants. In our opinion, a change that was a long time coming.

Here at Amerasia, we take pride in offering our clients advice that is based on our experience and that stands the test of time. Although we have updated the MIT Sloan 5 Tips post we first made back in 2013 (to account for the addition of a third round and a September deadline), we still stress the fundamentals of good application writing. Sloan's cover letter and optional essay are not an afterthought.  Even if you write HBS and Stanford GSB first and then Sloan second, you have to suck it up, maintain your focus and keep your eye on improving the quality of your messaging; moving with both intent and speed. In fact, let's start with this idea of "speed": 

1. "Be quick, but don't hurry."

Coach Wooden's advice applies to winning basketball and winning admissions applications.

The late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden had many fantastic, quotable expressions ("never mistake activity for achievement" is our favorite), but this is one of the best for business school applications. Getting something done in a timely fashion for round 1 is important, but not if you are hurrying through the process. We have always believed that Sloan's round 2 was just that - round 2 - and not a de facto round 3. With round 2 still being he most popular round of admissions at pretty much every MBA program, you can forgo round 1 if it is going to be a fire drill to get your application done. Please, don't rush it. Just wait. And in case this isn't clear at this point, if you are just trying to throw one more round 1 dart, don't. Again, just wait for round 2. It's okay to be quick and efficient and certain in your efforts, but don't hurry. Our rule of thumb is don't try to apply to Sloan Round 1 if you don't have your Cover Letter done by September 1. This is especially important because…

2. You should Know that MIT Sloan is an execution-dependent application.

With Sloan, there’s nothing magical about the questions. It’s all about how you execute the answers.

To borrow from another industry, there are two dreaded words in Hollywood when a producer or executive hears your movie or television pitch: "execution dependent." It means that the concept alone isn't enough to start making plans around; you are going to have to write the script. And it's going to need to be good!

Well, in the b-school environment, these words don't carry the same negative connotation. In fact, it's often a good thing, because it rewards excellence. But what do we mean by this phrase? When you are an expert trying to break down various applications, there are pretty much two ways of viewing an essay set. One is strategy-dependent, where just knowing how to attack the questions - where to put X and where to put Y - is half the battle. To us, Wharton is this way. We have a very specific strategy for how to get all of the "right" content into the tricky Wharton questions, which takes the pressure of the actual execution. With Sloan, there's nothing magical about the questions. It's all about how you execute the answers. So take the time to do it right! Surely you can just copy and paste from other apps though, right? Not so fast…

3. Understand that MIT wants a different kind of answer.

We don’t often put a lot of stock in school branding slogans, but MIT Sloan has always had a great way of summing up their action learning approach: “Thoughts, Feelings, Words, and Actions.”

By the time you get to Sloan, you might have 3-to-4 sets of essays in the bag. Lots of cut and paste opportunities, right? Nope. MIT Sloan is a different animal than these other programs. They want to know how you think, act and reflect, they want to know how you have been both principled and innovative. They want to know what you internalized and feel about things. It's not just Situation, Complication, Action, Results as so many stories are. That "tell us anything you want" essay from HBS or "what matters most" essay from Stanford GSB probably isn't going to be nearly as on-point or succinct enough. It might get there, but once you go from 750 words ("what matters most") to a different kind of 250-word "cover letter" that's no cut and paste. The leadership story you used for Tuck might be really deep and focused on thoughtful examination, but Sloan admissions knows that, and they are forcing this format upon you to make sure that it if so choose to cut and paste, it's going to read like a pure cut-and-paste (which it is).

We really believe that Rod Garcia and his committee are looking to eliminate those who cut and paste right out of the gate (thank you for your $250 MBA application fee BTW and have a nice day).  Remember the "recommend yourself" essay question from 2014? Our belief is that that was an attempt to see if you "cut and pasted" on your own recommendation - that is, if you wrote it yourself and handed it to your boss. If you want more evidence we could go on and on, but you get the idea. MIT requires that you step back and really put some thought into this. There's going to be some trial and error. You are going to want to have someone really smart on the other end of an email connection or phone line so you can bounce ideas off them and search for the right stories. We don't often put a lot of stock in school branding slogans, but MIT Sloan has always had a great way of summing up their action learning approach: "Thoughts, Feelings, Words, and Actions." Notice that actions come last, meaning that equal or greater value is given to the ability to think, feel, and articulate. Most applications are loaded with brute force actions that drive the narrative forward. Not MIT Sloan. Repeat: not MIT Sloan! 

4. Embrace the Cover Letter.

The cover letter is not a hard essay - it’s a gift from the MBA gods. You get to sit down and say “here is who I am and what I want.”

For many, when they think of Sloan, they think immediately of the infamous cover letter essay assignment. Like the other infamous MIT admissions tradition - the behavioral interview - the cover letter is a great way for Sloan to figure out who has dexterity of skill and intelligence, rather than just rote portrayal of those traits. Rod Garcia, the man to whom the cover letter must be addressed, has often stated that MIT Sloan is looking for that which has predictive value. End of story. If they can't learn something predictive, it's not worth anything. It's part of the reason they don't have a goals essay - they find little predictive value in you merely telling them what you plan to do. They want to know WHAT YOU HAVE DONE. They want to know WHO YOU ARE. So tell them! The cover letter is not a hard essay - it's a gift from the MBA gods. You get to sit down and say "here is who I am and what I want." Don't try to turn this into your goals essay. Don't turn it into a love letter to MIT. Can you briefly allude to your goals? Sure. Can you mention why you want to go to Sloan? Of course (and you should!). But this letter should sum you up and tell the admissions committee what you bring to the table (i.e. past experiences that show you are in sync with Sloan's learning culture). It should tell them what you want (a spot in the class) and it should tell them who you are (let's say principled and innovative) and what you have done (focusing on making an impact). Our rule of thumb is this: if they would not be able to admit you solely off the cover letter, you don't have a good MIT Sloan cover letter. Oh, and all of this must be done in 250 words. Not hard if you understand the program, impossible if you don't. 

5. Remember the not-so-distant past, when Sloan actually had more traditional essays? 

We felt that was one of the most beautiful essay questions that any school has introduced in quite some time. Why? Because the entire process of applying to b-school is an exercise in navigating ambiguity.
— 5 Tips for Applying to MIT Sloan in 2016/2017

Yes, we know that this year's cover letter essay is a bit of a recycle from year's past. But what we are advocating is looking to the past to gain insight on what this year's cover letter and optional essay could be looking to get from you. You can learn a TON from prior year's essays, one of which read: Please describe a time when you had to make a decision without having all the information you needed. Translated: show us you can navigate ambiguity. We felt that this was one of the most beautiful essay questions that any top MBA program has introduced in quite some time (and we also felt the "recommend yourself" essay that Sloan put out in 2014 to be about the worst essay ever.) Why? Because the entire process of applying to b-school is an exercise in navigating ambiguity. There are not easy answers to everything. You can't go on a forum and gain certainty through consensus of opinion. You can't float your career goals at a dinner party and group think it. You can't know for sure that you are always making the right decision. The people who succeed in this process (and I'm referring to people who work with us, so in fairness, they have already added an expert to the equation) are the ones who can plant their feet, stand tall, and make a decision. They can ultimately say "yes, this is the right story for this essay" or "thank you for presenting me with X, Y, Z, now I am going with my gut here." They are the ones who roll with the punches in an interview, understanding that it won't be perfect, but it can still be good. They set their recommenders up for success by sitting down for coffee, sharing information, and then trusting that person to do the job (rather than getting involved and turning the rec letter into a essay with someone else's name on it). In years of doing this, what we have noticed more than anything is that some people have the courage of their convictions and some people are just leaves blowing in the wind. You can guess which group does well. Embrace the spirit of this essay prompt from year's past, and this application (which is still loaded with ambiguity), and this whole process with the courage of your convictions. Show that you can navigate ambiguity. Share with Sloan - and with everyone, for that matter - that you can survey the landscape, do your best to acquire info, and then charge forward with passion, confidence, and determination. It will be your gift to the school, to your admissions consultant, and to yourself.

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