December 5, 2012
While admissions officers want to know that you are interested in their schools, they are not interested in reading about your love for their school at every single turn. Some candidates mistakenly believe that they need to tie in aggressive and enthusiastic statements about how they will improve their skills at their target schools in each essay, regardless of whether the school asks for it or does not.
Let’s consider this (entirely fictitious) example of an individual who writes about how he started a small business for the Yale SOM essay question, “What do you consider to be your most significant accomplishment? Why?” Consider the following hypothetical conclusion:
“In starting ABC distributors, I learned a great deal about entrepreneurship and I hope to formalize this knowledge at the Yale SOM. Only with Yale’s vast entrepreneurial resources and profound alumni connections will I be able to take my next venture to a higher level. At Yale, I will grow my business skills and potential.”
While there are many problems with the two sentences above – they are cloying and there is no real substance – the most egregious aspect is that Yale never asked for the applicant to discuss how the school will affect his/her abilities going forward. So, the “Why Yale” component is just empty pandering.
As you write your essays, you should always focus on answering the essay questions as they are written and should not try to anticipate unwritten questions. So, if your target school does not ask an explicit “Why us?” question – Harvard Business School does not ask “Why HBS?” – you should not find a way to sneakily answer that question in other essays. The admissions committee is not asking this question for a reason. (And, yes, we have helped many candidates succeed in their applications to HBS without addressing this unasked question at all.)
Of course, if your target school explicitly asks a “Why us?” statement, then you should certainly do your homework and answer it. Again, it is all about the question itself.
August 4, 2009
Many of you are just beginning to tackle your b-school application essays. Writing these is no easy task–expect to spend many long hours drafting and retooling your essay responses to get them just right.
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to take some of the most common b-school application essay questions and give you my advice on what to consider as you craft your response, and what b-schools are looking for in your response.
First question up:
“What have you learned from a mistake?”
If your answer to this question demonstrates maturity, thoughtfulness, and self awareness, then you’ve responded beautifully to this question. And more than that, you’ll have distinguished yourself from other applicants.
Let’s review the history of this question from HBS. At one point, the question was describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced and discuss how you handled it. This was a provocative question, but over time, it became apparent that candidates had such disparate experiences, that it was hard to calibrate their responses. The question then morphed into Describe a difficult situation you faced, and discuss how you handled it. This removed the ethical qualifier and provided insight into what candidates considered to be difficult decisions.
Now the questions has evolved into a mistake question and, as such, is a great test of candidates ability to acknowledge and identify mistakes they’ve made. For some, it’s no problem to come up with myriad examples to write about. But for others, it’s a real challenge, because they’re just not wired to think along those lines. But to answer this question effectively, you’ve got to be introspective, even if it’s really not your nature.
The admissions committee is less concerned with the actual mistake and more concerned with, as the questions asks specifically, what you learned from it. The best way to approach this question then is to outline the mistake itself, and then quickly move on to the lessons learned. Try not be trite or overly bland. Again, it’s your ability to demonstrate maturity, thoughtfulness and self awareness that matters here.
Are any mistakes off limits? In a perfect world, I might say that any whopper of a mistake is fair game to discuss; the bigger the better. Realistically though, mistakes that call into question your ability to exercise sound moral and legal judgment are ones you should probably avoid discussing.
Back in the middle ages (the late ’80′s actually), HBS began a multi-year experiment during which the school no longer accepted GMAT scores. The rationale was that the school’s commitment was to admit the best future leaders, not necessarily the best students. One primary goal was to broaden the student body by encouraging applications from those with appealing backgrounds but underwhelming GMAT scores. Although it may have had the desired impact in terms of diversifying the class, it also led to the admission of some students who were in the process of being rejected from what many would consider to be less prestigious programs. A case could be made that during this period, the gap in perceived reputation between HBS and other top programs narrowed.
With the GRE decision, the school is following rather than leading the trend, but is HBS dipping its feet into the very same murky waters? Will this move help attract more non-traditional applicants? Likely, it will, and that’s good. But the GMAT and GRE are very different tests, and for a reason.
Call me a standardized test elitist (on second thought, don’t), but the GMAT has the benefit of being designed to predict performance for a single discipline (graduate management education), while the GRE is designed to predict performance over a virtual ocean of graduate programs. The GRE feels so much like the SAT because by design, it has to. Put bluntly, GRE math is quite a bit easier than GMAT math and therefore is a cruder measure of quantitative ability.
Should business skills sacrifice insight into applicants’ quantitative skills to re-engineer the student body? That question is above my pay grade, but more importantly, what does this mean for you as an applicant? How can you turn this to your advantage? Once I catch my breath, I’ll share my thoughts…