Days of Whine and Neurosis

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Part II: The Essays and Interviews (For Future Applicants)

Here’s part two of my re-cap on the business school application process. Sorry for the 2 ½ month delay between parts one and two…it’s been a fun-filled, crazy summer.

On this day, one year ago, I was sweating the MBA application process. I was studying for the GMAT, and simultaneously wondering what on earth I was going to write about for the required essays. So, for those in the same position, I feel your pain – but remember that anyone can get over the hump with the proper amount of dedication and well-directed effort. Also remember that if you plan to give a half-hearted effort during the process, save the $200 application fees.


The essays were the most important part of my application process. I had a GMAT score right near the mean for all of the top schools, but it wasn’t going to distinguish me in any way. And, my personal opinion of the GMAT is that it’s just a hurdle – once you get over it, the admissions committees don’t give it a second thought. So, if you get a 670-740 you’re probably over the hurdle and then it’s on to your essays and resume for the adcoms. The only way your GMAT will kill for you is if you get a freakish score (like a 780) with a quantitative section score in the 98th percentile. Know this: b-schools love the math geeks.

There are three basic types of essay questions, IMO.

1) The “describe your goals essay:” This essay always bugged. It’s the equivalent of the “where do you see yourself in five years” interview question, i.e., generic and boring but unavoidable. The fact is, you have to present a solid case for why you want to go to business school, and this is really the place to do it. Ultimately, this essay should really address why each individual school you’re applying to is the right school to fit your goals.

In other words, do your research and apply each school’s strengths in your area of concentration to your essay. If you want to be an entrepreneur, talk about school x’s center for entrepreneurship. Look into the course offerings, meet people, and look into unique pieces of the curriculum unique to each program that can help you get there. For instance, UCLA has an academic internship program whereby you can start interning at a local company during the school year to gain extra expertise. This is particularly useful for career switchers who want to make a fairly drastic career change. Adcoms love to see that you actually care about their school.

2) Some version of the “what makes you unique essay:” Sometimes this deals with a description of you, and sometimes it deals with your personal ethical and moral base, but it always requires introspection. I say, really pour it on thick here, but do so with real examples. As I wrote in an earlier post, make sure you give real-world examples to make your points. These have a way of staying with the reader. It’s not enough to simply make the reader feel like, “this is a nice person.” They need takeaways. Give them some meat. As with any essay, make it entertaining. Admissions committees read between 5,000 – 10,000 versions of the exact same essay each year. I think you’re really writing short stories, not term-papers.

Don’t be afraid to stand-out, so long as you stand out due to quality and not flash. Say you ran track in college. Instead of saying, “I ran track for four years,” try starting your essay with a present-tense account of climbing into the starting blocks as the sweat drips off your face and the butterflies in your stomach fly like moths to a light bulb. That’s the beginning of a story I want to keep reading.

3) The “optional essay:” This was a big one for me. I had a rather unsavory grade on my transcript that stuck out like a sore thumb. I used this essay to tackle it head-on. I also explained one of my favorite hobbies/passions in great detail in this essay. If you have anything in your past that you think might raise a red flag for admissions committees, address is here!

Interviews:’s interview feedback database is a great resource. Review it for each interview at each school. If you're reading this because you have an interview coming up, congratulations! You've made it past the first-cut. Your scores and grades qualify you as an acceptable candidate -- now you just need to show that your goals are realistic, and that you will fit in with the school's culture.

All the interviews I had were different. Some were very laid-back, others were unbelievably intense and probing, and some brought-up highly unexpected questions that made it really cool. One thing to remember: even if it’s one of those laid-back, we’re both getting to know each other types, it’s still an interview and they’re still forming opinions about your candidacy. Take it seriously. That doesn’t mean you should be stiff and overly formal for the situation, but it does mean that you should be interesting, on top of it, and forthcoming with examples, ideas, and personality. And by the same token, if you get grilled and pushed around, stay focused and realize it’s probably part of that interviewer’s approach to see if you’ll crack under the pressure. Never let ‘em see you sweat!

I found it very helpful to move one topic into another by myself. In other words, you know that they will always ask you, “why MBA, why now, why here, what do you plan to do with it,” in no particular order. It seems very logical that a social person can seamlessly blend those topics together from a jumping-off point anywhere along the line. I think you really need to show that you’re passionate about what you want to do and what you love to do. Who wants to sit in a room with a milquetoast personality? And, you can always ask them questions to keep the dialogue going or to find out about their experiences at school x.

At the end of the day, you need to be yourself and relax once the questions start coming. You’ve been in a job interview before, and these will be almost exactly the same. You know you can handle it because you’ve done it before, so don’t stress out too much.

That’s it for now. More later. Good luck!