There are times when things feel so crazy, out of control, and even hopeless that our own individual pursuits start to feel trivial, selfish, and even misguided.
I can remember vivid moments over the past 10+ years where I had a distinct feeling of living the wrong life, given what was going on around me. When the financial collapse took hold in 2009, I thought to myself "why did I leave corporate law - where I could be part of the solution - to instead help people apply to business school right in the teeth of a recession?" I watched "Making a Murderer" on Netflix and kicked myself for not remaining a lawyer ... but this time not a corporate lawyer, but instead a constitutional attorney like the individuals portrayed early in that documentary series. And now, as police/citizen animus and race problems in America reach new heights, as the EU teeters, as a sitting US President remains clouded in controversy, and as [seriously, enter any of a dozen paralyzing issues] I sometimes am not even sure what I should be doing. But I do know it doesn't feel like enough; it feels to insular and self-absorbed and small. But then it occurred to me: I bet a lot of people feel that way, including my past and present clients pursuing an MBA. So let's talk about that.
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.
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.
Rule #1 - Do not "differentiate yourself" with a panicked career change.
Rule #2 - Listing a hard job to get as your short-term goal is not "differentiating."
Rule #3 - The "quick and easy" place to differentiate is in the WHY of your long-term career goal.
Rule #4 - The real, pure way to differentiate yourself is to do the app right.
If you read our editions of our “How to Apply to Harvard Business School” and "How to Apply to Stanford GSB" guides, you already know that cultivating a real reason for applying to an elite MBA goes week beyond the school's name, rank, and prestige. But more than any other MBA program in the world (yes, even HBS), GSB looks beyond having a great GMAT score, a summa cum laude GPA and a blue chip name as your employer. While these are respectable measures of a person’s perceived worth, they are not good enough reasons to apply to GSB.
Why is this?
Simply put, you could someone with a mis-calibrated moral compass or worse, what your colleagues might call an "asshole" (more on the asshole test here and the true cost of being an asshole here). That's right - more than any other school in the world, Stanford has a visceral aversion to those who define themselves by their accomplishments, as opposed to the innate values and beliefs that drive those accolades. Apparently, Stanford has their pick of the litter and they can afford to stand absolutely resolute in their aversion to those whose moral compass points true south.
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.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite HBS featuring the most publicized changing of the guard in admissions that I can remember, they are basically keeping their "open-ended" question style intact. In fact, more than keeping it intact, they have reverted to the more straight forward version they used in 2013 and 2014, rather than the more clever (but probably ultimately less effective) "introduction" prompt from last year.
And because they are staying in this lane, it means that my three thoughts need to stay in the same lane they have been in for years - because understanding the psychology behind this essay goes a long way to explaining how you might solve it.
This is a post I write basically every year because it comes from what I'm seeing each round, every day, on basically every application. That drum beat is really rigid, hard-to-read Why School X sections on essays.
I give the same note to every single client so now I'm giving it to everybody: 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. This is a great way to avoid writing something off-putting, as well as a quick and easy method for making your essays warmer, more personal, and easier to connect with.
It's never easy to wade into troubled waters such as those present at Stanford GSB right now. And truly, we're not here to report any detail on the unfortunate scandal involving the faculty and administration of the world's most selective business school. If you want the down and dirty on exiting Dean Garth Saloner and professors Deborah Gruenfeld and Jim Phills, be sure to read the initial reporting by Poets and Quants and then the deep dive by David Margolick of Vanity Fair. Needless to say, it's a sad story that doesn't appear to be getting happier anytime soon. And it certainly leaves a bad taste in your mouth and invites all sorts of questions about GSB. But what should you actually worry about here? That's what we want to tackle.
We did this last year when breaking down the new Ross essays, so let's run it back. We thought it would be helpful to post the decision tree I am going to be asking my clients to use this year.
Why would I just share this with the public, you might ask? In part because the real value of our services with Ross (unlike with some other schools) is going to be in implementation rather than in the setting of strategy - so I don't feel I am cheating my clients at all. Further, we just don't have that many clients select Ross, to be honest. This is confusing to me, as Ross is an amazing school and a true value pick ... but that's a column for a different time. Today, I want to present a really simple way to work through Ross' seemingly wide open "what are you proud of" essay. I'll be using one part common sense and one part program knowledge, but both are born out of lots of experience just being someone in this world (by "in this world" I mean working in "higher education" and with "people trying to maximize their lives and abilities"). Let's get into it.
As with last year, CBS is using three essays and for the most part, they follow the same general format: 500 words, 250 words, 250 words; goals, Center of Business, Cluster. But I only have to look at the massive changes I made to our Columbia Strategy Memo to know that these things changed a ton at the center.
Let's dive into our 3 Key Thoughts: