What you thought, felt, said and did

By Jeremy Dann

Many applicants note that MIT-Sloan’s essays possess a bit of a unique wrinkle.  In addition to asking you to describe your leadership experiences, accomplishments and other managerial highlights, Sloan requests you recount “what you thought, felt, said and did.”

Some MBA aspirants are perplexed and bewildered.  They hate having to describe their innermost thought processes.  Personally, I love it.  I recommend that applicants take this approach to the essays for all of their schools.  MBA programs are not looking for management automatons that are programmed from birth to calculate every NPV correctly and navigate every human resources crisis with aplomb.  They realize young leaders are figuring it out as they go along.  And this struggle makes for a more engaging story.

It’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger approach vs. the Bruce Willis approach.  Both are action heroes.  Both kill their fair share of bad guys.  Both have clever catch phrases they utter throughout their adventures.

But all we know about Arnold is what he does.  I mean, the man literally played an automaton in Terminator.  Even where he’s supposed to be a little bit more human, like in Predator, he barely shows a hint of fear.  Bruce Willis, on the other hand, always makes mistakes on his way to saving the day.  We see the momentary look of fear in his face before he strengthens his resolve and goes back to face the terrorists who took over Nakatomi Plaza.  Bloody feet be damned!
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Though this is a bit of a simplistic example, I hope this illustrates the strength of the “thought, felt, said and did” approach.  A Cliff’s notes version of a strong applicant’s essay might read something like this:

We contacted our largest customer to renegotiate our contract with them.  We stressed the improvements in our product and our high levels of service as reasons why they should sign on for an even bigger order.  They agreed and we expanded our deal.

Nice achievement, Arnold.  Solid execution.  But the story is a little more compelling if the reader can see behind the scenes.

In spite of the risk I saw to our core business, we contacted our largest customer to renegotiate our contract with them.  We stressed the improvements in our product and our high levels of service as reasons why they should sign on for an even bigger order.  It seemed like an eternity as we waited those few crucial minutes for them to analyze our proposal.  But they agreed and we expanded our deal.  We breathed a sigh of relief: our start-up would make payroll for another month.

Now, we know more about you and the context and importance of your achievement.  Leaving space in your essays to delve into your thoughts and emotions will strengthen your credibility as a maturing future business leader.

Hasta la vista.

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