5 Tips for Applying to MIT Sloan

Rod Garcia runs a tight spaceship over at MIT Sloan.

Rod Garcia runs a tight spaceship over at MIT Sloan.

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, wow, this program is insanely good. Most importantly, because of its unique end-of-October deadline and equally unique two-round admissions process, we would wager that application quality on Sloan apps is far lower than on other top programs (which is a *massive* problem if you want to be admitted there). Candidates often don’t 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. Indeed, since today is October 4th, it’s something of a “last call” for Sloan interest. If you want to be serious about getting into MIT, you had better get started – and that includes bringing on a consultant. Many top consultants find themselves freeing up and breathing again after getting through the flurry of HBS/Wharton/GSB/INSEAD/Booth/Columbia and they can actually take you on. For instance, both of our owners, a few of our super duper all-stars, and our MIT specialist all have room to take on 1 or 2 people right now … but we haver to move fast. Which leads to our 5 Tips posts, with an eye toward improving the quality of Sloan applications and moving with intent and speed. In fact, let’s start with this idea of “speed”: 

1. “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” 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 is important, but not if you are hurrying through the process. Just because Sloan only has two deadlines does not turn Round 2 into a de facto Round 3. It’s still Round 2, which is the most popular round of admissions at pretty much every MBA program. If it is going to be a fire drill to get your application done, don’t rush it. Wait. If you are just trying to throw one more Round 1 dart, don’t. Wait. 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 October 15. This is especially important because…

2. Know that MIT Sloan is an execution-dependent application. To borrow from another industry (my main industry, in fact), 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. 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. They want to know what you feel about things. It’s not just Situation, Complication, Action, Results as so many stories are. That accomplishment essay from HBS probably isn’t going to be nearly deep enough. It might get there, once you go from 400 words to a different kind of 500 words, but that’s no cut and paste. The leadership story you used for Tuck 2 better be really deep and focused on thoughtful examination, or it’s going to read like a pure cut-and-paste (which it is). 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 (you can search and easily find our thoughts on Kellogg’s new Frankenstein marketing slogan), but MIT Sloan has always had a great way of summing up their 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. 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 mention 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. It should tell them what you want (a spot in the class) and it should tell them who you are 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. 

5. Remember the not-so-distant past, which is last year’s Essay 3. MIT had a new question for Essay 3 last year, which has been jettisoned in favor of … nothing. There is no Essay 3 now, as they went with a Cover Letter and two essays, probably to spare the eyesight and sanity of their reads (MIT doesn’t farm out a lot of work). That said, we can learn a TON from last year’s essay, 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. This 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. 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 last year, 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 consultant, and to yourself.

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