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3 Unconventional Steps to Writing Great MBA Essays

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. The essay component is arguably the most important piece of your business school application. After all, a compelling story can help counterbalance weaker aspects …

MBA essay brainstorm

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

The essay component is arguably the most important piece of your business school application. After all, a compelling story can help counterbalance weaker aspects of your candidacy.

Before you start working on your MBA applications in earnest, first think through and articulate your career objectives, assess your strengths and weaknesses and make sure you have done as much research as possible on the business schools that seem like the best fit for you. Through our work with applicants, we’ve learned that it’s best to begin the brainstorming phase by sifting through an array of life experiences to see what emerges as a core strength.

But what can you do if you’re seriously stumped on what to write about? When you feel blocked, don’t panic. Inspiration is everywhere in your daily life. Try these unconventional approaches to help spark a great MBA essay.

1. Ask people around you for their insights: Sometimes it’s hard to see what makes each of us special, so ask a coworker, mentor or friend for inspiration. An invigorating or profound conversation with a good friend can really stir up new ideas and get your creative juices flowing.

To jump-start this process, gather friends and family and have them share what they think is most interesting and memorable about you. Ask what values they see you demonstrating in your life and career or in your personal choices.

Dig deeper and ask yourself how you would want your future classmates to see you. What are some of the personal stories you would share with a new friend?

What would your future professors want to know about you? How might you contribute while in school and after graduation?

2. Record your first thoughts: What do you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about? When you look back at your life, what will you admire and regret about your choices?

These are the kind of questions to ask yourself as you approach a variety of common MBA essay topics. Keep a notebook by your bed so you can record your first thoughts or dreams upon waking up – these might help you understand your passions.

Here’s another strategy to try: Set your alarm for an odd hour, wake up and read an essay question. Contemplate the first things that pop into your head.

Often, the act of doing something simple in a new way or just at a different time will get you out of your rut and allow you to see things from a fresh perspective. Take a new route to the office, switch up your workout schedule or skip the nightly Netflix binge and end the day with an intriguing novel instead. See whether these simple changes boost your essay ideas.

3. Keep a journal: In the weeks leading up to writing your application essays, keep a journal and jot down moments that impact you, such as a great meal, an amazing sunset or a funny video. Then when you begin to write, look through your notes and see where inspiration strikes.

For convenience, you may prefer to dictate your thoughts into your phone while you are out and about. Often, casual speaking tone translates into a more authentic and personable version once written on paper; this can be a great launching pad for the first drafts of your essays.

Another useful technique is documenting your life as it is now on a storyboard with various categories, such as personal, professional, extracurricular and academic. As a starting point, you may want to think about the choices that have led you to your current career path.

Focus on the inflection points that have inspired you – whether coursework in college, early exposure to running your own business or watching a family member pursue his or her dreams – to help clearly outline the reasons you have made certain life choices thus far.

Once you’ve tried one or more of these unconventional but effective exercises, you should start to develop a few intriguing ideas. Then no single piece of the MBA essay writing process should seem intimidating.

And remember to plan ahead and leave plenty of time for rewriting – truly great essays aren’t crafted overnight.

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Avoid Choosing the Wrong MBA Recommenders

As part of our month-long anniversary celebration, I’m highlighting some of my favorite blog posts from along the way that I think will really resonate with applicants who are gearing up for submission this fall.  …

As part of our month-long anniversary celebration, I’m highlighting some of my favorite blog posts from along the way that I think will really resonate with applicants who are gearing up for submission this fall. 


RecommandationYou probably already know not to ask the CEO of your company to write your business school letter of recommendation – unless of course he or she is  someone you work closely with and who knows you very well.

Below are three more potential pitfalls when it comes to selecting a recommender. Avoid these mistakes or you may find your chances of admission crushed despite having an overall compelling application.

• Don’t select someone who can’t answer the questions: In other words, you may feel tempted to choose someone who knows you inside and out, but not in a professional setting. He or she can speak to your love of soccer, your compassion and your integrity, which are all great attributes. But this person cannot answer the specific career questions recommenders must address.

Business schools typically ask recommenders to evaluate how the candidate’s potential, performance or personal qualities stack up against those of other individuals in a similar role.

We worked with one client, Mike, when he was applying straight out of college. He had done a few short internships during college, but had no full-time work experience to draw from or a supervisor to tap for a traditional recommendation.

Mike had a stellar academic record, but a choosing a professor is rarely a good choice for a business school reference, no matter how cordial the teacher-student relationship. However, once we learned that Mike had worked as a teaching assistant for one of his professors, we knew we’d found someone who could better speak to the types of questions asked. Though unconventional, the recommendation from a professor became the right choice for Mike.

• Don’t select someone who is not an advocate for you going to business school. This may sound strange, but plenty of successful and well-positioned professionals won’t understand why you would want to go to business school. They may even be actively against it. Maybe they don’t want to lose you as an employee for two years, or maybe they aren’t really your biggest fan.

Our client Todd worked in finance in an office that didn’t require the MBA degree for promotion, and many higher-ups scoffed at its value. While his boss agreed to write the recommendation and had plenty of good things to say about Todd, he sort of laughed it off and clearly would not act as a true advocate for him going to business school.

Todd worried about what might happen if one of his target schools called his boss to discuss the reference, and that uncertainty was just too stressful. He decided instead to choose his supervisor from a prior position, someone with whom he had kept in touch and discussed his graduate school plans with quite a bit.

Choose people who like you, who care about your success and who think you’re good at what you do. Choose capable writers who can express their opinions clearly. If a potential reference seems less than enthusiastic in any way, keep looking. That person’s ambivalence will likely come through in the letter.

• Don’t select a person who doesn’t know who you are and where you stand now: If you worked with someone four years ago and have not done a good job of staying in touch, that person really cannot comment on your progress and skills today.

We worked with one client, Guillaume, who was reapplying to business school after receiving a series of setbacks the previous season. Upon reviewing all of the components of his previous application, it quickly became apparent that a feeble recommendation letter had likely weakened his otherwise strong candidacy.

He had gone to a supervisor from a previous position, and while he left on good terms personally and professionally, Guillaume had never felt fully comfortable at the firm, which was why he resigned to find a job he felt more passionate about. Unfortunately, it appeared Guillaume’s supervisor had also perceived his lack of enthusiasm for his job.

Having few years of distance from Guillaume’s work, the former supervisor wrote a recommendation that would appear polite and generally positive upon hurried review, but a closer read revealed some deliberate omissions and even a few veiled criticisms. In this case, the recommender’s letter was actually damning with faint praise. 

When considering potential references, ask yourself whether the person has worked closely with you, thinks favorably of you, and will put in the time to write a thoughtful, detailed endorsement of your candidacy. If you can’t answer yes to these three requirements, move on until you find the person who fits the bill perfectly. Your chances of admission to the school of your dreams may well depend on it.

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

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3 Ways to Offset a Low GPA When Applying to Business School

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. When your business school application lands on an MBA admissions committee member’s desk, the member takes a hard look at two important metrics: …

fix a low gpa

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

When your business school application lands on an MBA admissions committee member’s desk, the member takes a hard look at two important metrics: your GMAT or GRE score and your GPA.

Your GPA matters because it tracks your performance over four or more years and demonstrates your ability to execute in an academic environment. Unfortunately, by the time you apply to business school, it’s too late to do much about a low GPA.

According to the most recent Kaplan survey of business school admissions officers, 32 percent said a low undergraduate GPA is an application killer. A GPA below 3.0 could be hard to come back from, but that said, if you have your heart set on attending one of the best business schools in the world but worry your undergraduate GPA could harm your chances, know that you generally still have a chance.

This is a holistic process – every piece of the puzzle matters. When one aspect of your MBA application is weaker, you want to maximize other areas.

Keep in mind that there’s no specific cutoff for a GPA or test scores. Every year we work with clients who have had sub-3.0 GPAs and they are still accepted into their target MBA programs.

If you do have very low numbers, you’ll need to address this somewhere in your application. You don’t want to sound whiny or make excuses; just confront the issue head on.

Take a look at these MBA application tips for offsetting a spotty academic performance in college.

Explain extenuating circumstances: Use the optional essay to let the admissions committee know if your grades suffered because of extenuating circumstances, such as when you had pneumonia in your sophomore year. If a death in the family drew your attention away from school or if you also worked during college and had to divide your time between studying and supporting yourself financially, note this.

If in all honesty your academic performance suffered because of excessive social and extracurricular commitments, you can explain in your optional essay that you have since learned better time management skills and have continued your community involvement without sacrificing your work performance.

You don’t want to get too personal or detailed here. Rather, show awareness of the reasons for your lower GPA and any lessons you have learned. Then reassure the admissions committee that this will not characterize your performance in business school.

Show strong GMAT or GRE scores: High test scores offer you two advantages – they prove you can handle the quantitative work in the program, and they are a more recent example of your academic abilities. Many admissions committee members agree that a strong GMAT or GRE performance offsets a low GPA.

For example, the average GMAT score at schools such as Stanford Graduate School of Business and University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is around 730. If you can hit or exceed the average test score at your dream program, you know you have a chance at admission. However, if you aren’t happy with your test scores, weigh whether retaking the GMAT is a prudent option.

Excel on the job: When making their admissions decisions, business schools place a high value on an applicant’s relevant professional experiences. As such, showing strong recent work performance will go a long way toward convincing committee members that you have what it takes to succeed in an MBA program.

If your work experience is at a nationally or internationally known company, that’s even better – the admissions team will feel more comfortable knowing that Proctor & Gamble, Credit Suisse or McKinsey & Co. felt confident enough take a chance on you first.

When you ask your supervisor for a letter of recommendation, ask that the individual specifically address your quantitative abilities and your ability to multitask in order to further mitigate your low GPA.

Other considerations: Finally, the level of your major’s rigor could be an important consideration when evaluating your GPA. For example, you may receive more leniency for a mediocre GPA as a physics major than if you studied theater. The admissions officer may also look to see in which specific classes you struggled.

If you had trouble in quantitative subjects, that’s more problematic. You should address this by taking – and acing – a college-level calculus or statistics course through your local community college before you apply. This will show that you are ready for graduate school.

Every part of your MBA application is important. If your low GPA is keeping you awake at night, shift your energies toward killing the GMAT, getting stellar letters of recommendation, writing compelling essays and –fingers crossed – wowing your MBA interviewer. Your admissions success depends on your ability to knock it out of the park in every other way.

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Turn Failure Into a Great B-School Essay

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. It’s the dreaded failure topic: “Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed.” MBA applicants often freak out …

failure essay MBA

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

It’s the dreaded failure topic: “Describe a situation taken from your personal or professional life where you failed.” MBA applicants often freak out when faced with this common admissions essay question because they fear that showing any weakness will torpedo their admissions chances. However, at one point or another, everyone faces adversity, failure or setbacks, whether at work or in life.

Your response to these situations demonstrates your character, and business schools understand that failure represents a learning opportunity.

This essay is your chance to demonstrate your maturity, flexibility and leadership qualities. Leaders aren’t always successful; rather, they are willing to admit to failure and find motivation in their misfortune.

So how do you tell the business school admissions committee how failure has truly affected you?

First, start with some real introspection. It’s important to use a failure that is emotionally important to you.

Your failure should also be real and something that led you to gain some insight about yourself. The negative situation could have led to a transformative experience for your team, a positive opportunity for someone else or a chance for you to better understand another person through a team challenge.

The admissions committee will easily see through an accomplishment that you frame as a failure; furthermore, that will not demonstrate your maturity or ability to grow. Think creatively about this aspect – do your best to describe how you have changed your approach as a result of the failure.

When brainstorming for this essay, think first about what you learned from the situation you plan to detail; then work backward to describe the circumstances and the initial challenge or hurdle. That will help you more optimistically view the whole situation. What did you learn from the experience and how did it impact your life or demonstrate a specific aspect of your character, goals or accomplishments?

Think honestly about all the emotions you felt. As ugly as they may have been, be honest and write them down.

From there, try to more eloquently describe your feelings in your essay. Remember, even the most difficult situations often lead to personal growth and likely have contributed to the individual you are today.

For example, one of my clients was caught plagiarizing a term paper during college. He was very lucky the school did not expel him, but he did fail and have to repeat that course.

This startling wakeup call became a valuable life lesson. It spurred him to join student government, help develop for the school policy guidelines on cheating and speak publicly about his plagiarism experience and the importance of respecting intellectual property. When he applied for business school, his transformative experience resonated with the admissions committee and he ultimately attended one of the top-three MBA programs in the country.

The key here is detailing not only your actions but also your feelings. Another client I worked with chose to write about her layoffs at three different companies over a five-year period. Although the layoffs had nothing to do with her job performance, each experience devastated her, and she struggled both financially and emotionally until she finally landed a position that allowed her to flourish.

She turned those low moments into a powerful admissions essay of resilience and problem-solving. She showed how the experience ultimately taught her waysto better evaluate career opportunities. Demonstrating this type of humility and self-awareness made a positive impact on the admissions committee, and she ultimately attended the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania – with a scholarship to boot.

As you finalize this essay, focus on embracing the positive aspects of your past mistake and demonstrating the ways you have used the incident as an opportunity to learn and grow. This may just be the factor that makes your candidacy stand out amid a sea of so-called “perfect” applicants.

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Show International Experience When Applying to Business School

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News. The ability to work well with people from other cultures has never been more critical. More companies than ever are conducting international business, …

study abroad

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.

The ability to work well with people from other cultures has never been more critical. More companies than ever are conducting international business, and business schools everywhere have spent the past few years deepening their own focus on globalization through coursework and study abroad programs.

Business school admissions committees look for applicants who are open-minded, curious, adventurous and eager to learn about the world at large. Though not an explicit requirement for admission, having meaningful work, study or travel experience outside your home country makes you more desirable as an MBA applicant.

These global experiences are especially appreciated – after graduation, they translate into marketable job skills, such as adaptability, leadership, cultural awareness and communication and language abilities. Here are two key reasons why international experience matters when applying to business school.

Diverse perspective: If you look at the demographics of any elite MBA program, you will see a considerable percentage of non-citizens enrolled. Having students from a wide array of backgrounds, cultures and languages strengthens and enriches everyone’s experience.

Whether you are applying to a program in- or outside your home country, having a broader perspective of global business issues in your arsenal means you bring a unique viewpoint to class discussions and team projects. It also expands your network as you tap into professional associations with your contacts in other countries.

MBA applicants should highlight any experiences traveling, studying or working outside their home country. The admissions committee wants to ensure these candidates can actually thrive – not just survive – in the program and work well with a diverse group of classmates.

• Adaptability and vision: If you have already logged significant international work experience or education prior to business school, you are three steps ahead of the game. Think about it: When you immerse yourself in another language or culture, you likely encounter some form of culture shock that ultimately becomes a valuable learning experience.

You are demonstrating real leadership skills when you break through communication barriers, learn how business practices work in the new environment, adapt to new social and business norms, work with diverse teams, solve problems or go beyond your comfort zone. These skills are a crucial differentiator in a competitive MBA applicant pool.

International travel and work experience can also offer a wealth of material for your MBA essays. Often such experiences will spur new career goals and a broader vision for your life.

Perhaps your travels shaped your views about health care or education, inspired a passion for Spanish literature, introduced you to the thrill of mountaineering or helped you become more outgoing and confident in unfamiliar situations. Whatever the effect, you can explain what you learned about yourself and others and in turn convey your uniqueness to the admissions committee.

Even if you haven’t traveled extensively, you can still highlight any applicable experiences you have had working with individuals from other countries and cultures. If you have the time and resources to travel in the months before applying, research international volunteer opportunities or continuing education study abroad programs. If these options aren’t feasible, consider taking on a project at work that puts you in contact with international offices or teams.

Rest assured, your application likely won’t be rejected due to a lack of international exposure if every other component is compelling and strong. In your essays, reference your enthusiasm for the school’s diverse culture and your plans to take advantage of study abroad programs, as well as your desire to participate in any clubs or student groups that will increase your cross-cultural awareness. As long as you can show your intent to expand your mindset and increase your international exposure during business school, you should be fine.

Image credit: Flickr user Fedecomite (CC BY 2.0)

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3 Reasons for Rejection From a Dream MBA Program

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com If you’ve been feeling down since receiving a rejection letter from your dream business school, I want to offer some insight into why …

rejection MBA admissions

This post originally appeared on Stacy’s “Strictly Business” MBA Blog on U.S.News.com

If you’ve been feeling down since receiving a rejection letter from your dream business school, I want to offer some insight into why it happened, and remind you why you should keep your chin up.

First off, all of the top MBA programs are notoriously selective. It may be that out of every 100 people who submit materials, only seven to 12 are accepted. Harvard Business School – ranked No. 1 among MBA programs by U.S. News – rejected more than 8,000 applicants for its class of 2017. In other words, it’s very much a numbers game when you’re applying to such competitive programs. There are only so many spots for an overwhelming number of extremely talented candidates.

That may be hard to accept for people who have reached every goal they’ve ever gone after. So, here are three possible reasons why your target b-schools did not offer you admission.

Overrepresented demographic: Each program strives to put together a diverse class of impressive people. However, no one knows the magic formula that any given admissions committee uses to fill open spots.

The very elements that typically make up a strong candidate for business school – solid academic background, stellar test scores, work experience in investment banking, engineering or consulting – may not have strengthened your case because too many other candidates shared those exact same characteristics in this application cycle.

Everything from your gender to your industry to your nationality to your career aspirations, community service and personality comes into play when an admissions committee attempts to build a graduating class.

While you can’t do anything to change your basic profile, if you do apply again try to hone in on elements of your background, interests and experiences that set you apart. Even the most typical MBA candidate can find something that will enhance the experience of fellow classmates.

Lack of self-awareness: They say high self-awareness is the strongest predictor of overall success. Business schools love to admit applicants who appear dedicated to their personal development, which is why the “tell us about your greatest weakness” question is so popular in both essays and interviews.

There’s no such thing as a perfect MBA applicant, however. Everyone has weaknesses, and if you don’t acknowledge them, the admissions committee will make a judgement on how introspective and self-aware you are.

If your essays or interviews contain any excuses-making, passive-aggressive comments, outright bragging or rambling answers, they will question your maturity and fitness for their program. Any doubts will likely lead to a hard pass, so answer those questions honestly, but always with a positive tone focused on continual improvement and reflection.

Low stats with no explanation: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard members of the admissions committee express dismay over applicants who don’t make use of the optional essay to explain the common red flag of low quantitative stats or proof of quantitative proficiency. This isn’t the time to cross your fingers and hope for the best, no matter how many stories you’ve heard of applicants getting into the Stanford University Graduate School of Business with a 650 GMAT score.

If you plan on reapplying, you have a few options. The surest route is dedicating more time to studying so you can strengthen your score; then it won’t be an issue next time. If your stats still hover below the median at your target programs, take a college-level course in statistics or accounting and prove to the admissions committee that you know your way around a spreadsheet.

Yet another route requires more of that self-reflection I mentioned earlier. Make sure you’re targeting programs that line up well with your stats. Look at programs outside the top 15 and see if there’s a better fit with higher acceptance rates that will get you where you need to go, career-wise.

Once you’ve pulled together a strong application and submitted it, the process is out of your hands. You will never be able to do anything about who (or how many people) you were truly competing against for a spot, who read your application or what kind of mood they were in that day.

Developing resilience is incredibly important if you need to reapply, but it’s also essential in life. Even when you put your best out there, you might still fail. However, to be successful, you need to learn how to bounce back and try again.

Image credit: Flickr user Anne-Lise Heinrichs  (CC BY 2.0)

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