Business school applications are all about laying out how you have exhibited the qualities of a leader. After all, this is the quality that b-schools, in general, desire the most in their applicants. A lot of my admissions consulting clients struggle with a succinct definition of leadership. That is, one that they as the applicant can use as a succinct model.
Every so often, we like to put an excerpt out there from one of our school-specific Strategy Memos. Full disclosure, the main reason to do this is to show off how we approach the process and to give potential clients a sense of what they might get (across the board, with all their schools and all the questions) if they become clients. But we also try to coordinate these with moments where we can get some really helpful strategy out there - basic, core ideas that will help people avoid pitfalls, even if they don't have help in executing perfectly. In this instance, Columbia Business School's Essay Question 2 is a nice overlap that allows us to do both. So let's dive in.
The simplest and most important thing you can do to improve your Why School X portion of career goals essay is to personalize any and all content.
What do I mean by "personalize?" Simple: make anything you write about the school specific to you, your experience, your desires, or what you require from a program. Never just state absolutes, generalities, or even known truths and facts - always make them personally-held viewpoints. Examples are the best way to understand this (after the jump):
One question that we get a lot from clients is "what does the adcom want to hear?" Not only is this the wrong way to approach the process in terms of being an authentic, introspective, and interesting candidate, but it also completely misunderstands who is reading your file. We don't believe in trying to play pin-the-tail-on-the-admissions-officer when it comes to your essays, but we do believe to writing to your audience.
With the trend towards shorter essays, There has been a phenomenon in the applications which can only be described as “redundancy.” Shortening the essays has resulted in more questions and even mini-essays or micro-essays within the application itself, where often applicants end up repeating information about themselves that is found elsewhere in the application.
Today we want to talk about arguably the biggest and most common mistake we see on MBA applications, which is failing to market transferable skills. More importantly, we want to talk about how to fix that problem.
In working with clients of all age, gender, nationality, and industry, one thing we're always trying to do is identify things that connect everyone - common elements that become and remain true, regardless of differences. To be honest, there aren't many such elements. Almost everything about the MBA admissions process is a contextual exercise. You can almost never divorce a unique applicant or a specific school from your analysis. It's part of the reason this is such a difficult endeavor for people, part of the reason why so many admissions consultants do a horribly incomplete job of advising candidates, and a huge part of the reason why admissions consulting even exists. You have to do a lot of things right and you have to do them with great contextual specificity. If you confront "one size fits all" advice, typically you can sprint away from that as fast as possible.
That said, there is one universal truth that we have uncovered that seems largely overlooked by the rest of the MBA admissions landscape and that is how enormously important it is to abide by what we call the Art of Transferability.
One of the most important profile characteristics for any b-school applicant is their work history.
Unlike Law School, Medical School and just about every other terminal degree or master’s level program, business school requires students to come with some kind of work experience under their belts in order to “qualify.”
Many schools have become extremely restrictive on how many essays they allow you to submit.
The crushing numbers of applicants has forced schools to streamline the evaluation process and they simply do not have the staff or time to read 1000 word essays from everyone. Of course, whether you're applying there or not, you likely know that Harvard, as an extreme example, actually has no required essays as part of their application! They allow you to submit one essay if you like, but it's not technically a requirement for consideration as an MBA applicant. While we don't recommend you submit to HBS without leveraging the essay, this approach from schools highlights the fact that every word does indeed count.
I just saw a whole lot of MBA essays over the past few months and now that Round 1 is (mostly) finished, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to jot down the most common mistake I saw for each of the most common essays I worked on with clients. Round 2 clients can get a leg up by simply avoiding these traps.
With the release of the 2016 HBS application, it is clear that shortening the number of essays is a trend that is here to stay for now. With only one essay on the HBS application again this year, it is becoming more important than ever to not only communicate effectively and concisely, but also to leverage the balance of the application (and of course the interview) to stand out from the crowd.
Time to go full PSA here. I'm talking all alarms ringing, sirens, whatever it takes to get your attention. By "you" I mean: anyone applying to business school. You need to stop doing something immediately. Here it is:
Stop trying to "differentiate" yourself.
Or at least, stop doing it without a professional by your side. Let's dive into the 4 Rules of Differentiation before someone gets hurt.