Feb 02 2014

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Avi Gordon Downshifts But MBA Studio Services and Resources Remain Active

After 12 years helping prospective MBA students understand and improve their admissions prospects in applications to international top-20 business schools, I’m shifting focus to allow me to do more things in the business writing sphere. For example, I’ve been approached to write the books of a business celebrity that I’d be a fool to turn down.

When starting MBA Studio in 2002, and in writing MBA Admissions Strategy, I was singularly driven to help deserving MBA applicants cut through the vague and sometimes disingenuous blather that business schools put out to “guide” candidates.

I set out to be the savvy voice in an applicant’s head, to raise understanding what actually really works, and what would work in their own specific case, to open the admissions door and I offered MBA admissions advisory services to back this up.

I’ve done this countless times now, and the sample of feedback you see alongside from applicants whose career trajectory and earning prospects I have (for fear of overstating it) dramatically enhanced, has been my reward and testimony. Along the way, yes, I’ve made a reasonable living, including the value of the freedom to work for myself and set my own schedule.

Going forward I will still be available to talk to applicants one-on-one, where relevant, that is, where I feel my experience and expertise can make a difference in “cracking” an applicant’s admissions core value proposition — around which a successful b-school application rapidly falls into place. I will also be doing some text review and editing.

I will however no longer be a “full-service shop” in reviewing all submitted application materials. I cannot commit to this level of client availability, and would never cut corners on client delivery.

The free resources of the MBA Admissions Studio, particularly my years of MBA admissions advice blog posts here on this site, will remain active.

Where fees apply, costs of MBA Studio service are still modest by the standards of high-quality admissions advisors, and you can find them on the Services tab.

 

Responses

Dec 12 2013

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Nelson Mandela was “a Sinner who Kept on Trying”

Much as been written in the past week about the leadership virtues of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela. I certainly endorse the sentiments, and tip my hat at the passing of one of the truly great leaders in human history.

From an MBA Admissions perspective, what I found particularly useful was what President Barack Obama said at the Mandela memorial service in Soweto, Johannesburg, which was:

“Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I’m not a saint,’ he said, ‘unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’

“It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still.”

The lesson? To be a great leader or executive manager, you don’t need to be a model of human perfection. You don’t want to be a fallen character either, let’s be clear, but it’s certainly more than okay to be a fully rounded human being with lots of ordinary human failings that you are working on.

As in executive life, so in MBA admissions. You should not present yourself to MBA Adcom as a bust of marble perfection, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. That’s hard to believe, and it’s not even interesting. You can and you should share your doubts, fears, and miscalculations, along with your victories. That speaks confidence and maturity.

 

Responses

Oct 17 2013

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How HBS Writes. Write Like That.

Have a look at the message Dee Leopold, MD of Harvard Business School Admissions, sent last month to HBS R1 applicants. The mail confirms receipt of application (heading off the inevitables who call to ask “did you get my application?”) and gives a brief description of the way forward.

What’s important here is not the content, but the writing style. Check it out:

Dear [    ],

This message confirms that you’re a Round 1 HBS applicant. All of us here on the Admissions team are pleased that you’d like to be a student here.

Let me tell you what will happen next.

Within a day or so of our Round 1 deadline, we begin to review all submitted applications.  We have a senior team who reads and makes decisions as to who moves forward and who doesn’t.

“Moving forward” means being invited to interview.  We expect that interview invitations will be issued in early October.  Interviews will be conducted from mid-October through November.  All of the necessary details will be in the invitation.

“Not moving forward” means that we are unable to admit you.  We want you to be able to move ahead with other plans so we will send these decisions out in October.

Some Round 1 applicants will be asked to remain under consideration and be reviewed again with Round 2 applicants.  We call that “further consideration” and the details will be communicated to this group in mid-October.

Regards,

Dee Leopold
Managing Director, MBA Admissions and Financial Aid

Now… if YOU were writing a letter to the thousands of HBS applicants, would you write like this? Or might you have done the following…

Dear Applicant,

The Harvard Business School hereby confirms receipt of your application for admissions in Round 1. We would like to thank you for your application and advise you of the forthcoming process…

Sound familiar? Ouch.

You get the difference. If you don’t believe me, believe Dee: it’s not only fine, it’s good to write simply and unpretentiously, as you would normally talk. Mind that you don’t fall overboard into slang and half-sentences. Just be practical and personal, using words and phrases you would normally use, and you will get it right.

 

Responses

Sep 23 2013

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MBA Resume: Look To Your Future

Business schools ask for a resume as part of the application package because they are professional schools and they want to see your professional record. But MBA admissions resumes are subtly different from ordinary work resumes and it’s important to distinguish the different requirements — see below.

Much is also identical in a normal resume and an MBA admissions resume, so you should start by getting yours as good as it can be as per conventional requirements. There many guides to this, free on the Web. I won’t dwell on the principles at length here, but be certain to take note of at least these basic points.

A resume should:

  • Be in reverse chronological order, education last
  • Contain tight clauses rather than full sentences, and not use the first person singular
  • Start items with the verb: Say “Managed team of…”; “Assigned priority to …”; and so on
  • Contain evidence, particularly quantitative records of budget managed or people supervised, etc.
  • Not contain obvious age, gender, race or other similar bio-data
  • Be easy on the eye (text at readable point size; layout not too dense)
  • Be absolutely, completely error-free

Those are the basics. And this is first base for Adcom too. They want to see you can do this common business communications task effectively.

Once you have that, then it’s time to adapt it to the needs of MBA admissions particularly. Adcom wants to be sure you are recruitable at the end of your stay on their campus, so your resume is the part of your application pack that most directly reassures on this. Good resume builders advise you to show as much experience relevant to the job you are applying for as you can, to reassure recruiters, and this it true of an MBA admissions resume too — only doubly so, because doing an MBA heavily implies that you will be transitioning to or accelerating quickly along a management path. Your resume needs to look forward to this (or to whatever you plan to do on MBA graduation.)

Look to the Future
The mistake that many of my clients make on their first draft is to proudly present their past experiences and achievements, which are very often technical or specific to the field they are exiting. Success is always good, but MBA Adcoms don’t really care whether you cracked a complex software conundrum or isolated a biological compound or developed prefabricated housing units. What they care about is whether you will make a good manager or leader, that is, the management portion that is there (or is implied potential) in what you did.

So that is where you should focus: the management, leadership, organizational (teamwork) or innovation implications of your past experience, that suggest future recruitability as a manager. Don’t say: “Developed molecular compound BN2P4R in 3 months using ‘BitsProDev’ software analytics.” Say: “Was part of team that developed unique molecular compound; led presentation to the Board; liaised with PR in media announcement.” And so on.

Augment don’t Repeat
The other key part of making your resume an MBA admissions resume is to work carefully with the knowledge that, unlike a typical employer, Adcom has various overlapping sources of information about you — not least all your file data. So you want to augment that rather than simply repeating it, in order to get your file data, resume, and essays to elegantly dovetail rather than simply overlap.

Your resume should not leave out basic resume attributes: dates, places, company names, and so on, even if this is already in your file data. But there are often ways to cut out repeating subsidiary information — names of products or service units and so on — that often just “jam up” a resume. This should leave space to go longer on quantitative evidence of management-oriented experiences and successes. In fact, I counsel admissions clients to put as much quantitative data in the file data and resume as they realistically can which, in turn, frees up the essays to be a little more personal and reflective.

Responses

Aug 20 2013

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MBA Adcoms: Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?

To be a successful MBA applicant, one key thing to get clear on is who you are talking to when you write MBA admissions essays.

Getting your head around who your reader is, is a crucial part of creating a winning communication and therein getting admitted.

One iconic profile is revealed in this now-somewhat-classic introduction to a Business Week interview with then-UCLA Anderson Director of MBA Admissions (now UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Director of Admissions) Mae Jennifer Shores. See: UCLA Anderson: Admissions Q&A – BusinessWeek.

“The Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions … says she ended up an admissions officer the way most people do—unintentionally. She went to Russia to teach public policy, but was assigned to teach negotiations at a business school at the last minute. After two years, she wanted to continue her Eastern European stay and almost took a job teaching in Kazakhstan. Her graduate school loans, however, forced her back to the U.S. There, Shores’ international and business-school experience eventually led her into the admissions department.”

Every MBA admissions officer is different of course. But what they have in common is that it is unlikely they planned and studied for this career. Most come to it “sideways.” They typically have broad interests, are people-focused, and are good communicators. They have lived life in more than one industry and often more than one country. They are generally not business trained, although many have some background in HR or marketing.

This makes the MBA application essay writer’s job harder and easier. It’s easier to engage an interesting person. Almost anything topic you raise will be “valid” for them.

But it’s harder if all your stories are highly technical, or closely work-oriented or if your ability to reflect deeply and persuasively on your life and career path is limited. You’re not going to interest the likes of Mae Jennifer Shores unless you can extract the human interest and personal journey from your life story.

Responses

Jul 23 2013

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Applying for an MBA? Show you know the MBA Classroom Experience

It’s not easy getting into an elite MBA program. The odds are stacked against you. But you do have resources, and none is better to get acquainted with at the start of the admissions season than the many freely available videos out there that take you inside the MBA classroom. Here’s one from Darden (University of Virginia Business School) that focuses on the case method.

The value in watching videos like this is the raw insight you get as to what actually goes on in a b-school classroom. This gives a very good idea of the kind of applicant MBA Adcoms are looking for.

Particularly note how much the emphasis is on discussion, communication, questioning, argument, and independent thinking. Yes, this a case study class, but not only are case classes very common, but even non-case MBA classes are less about absorbing facts or calculating answers than about navigating complex situations and marshaling sound judgments.

If you show you know what it takes to learn the elite MBA way, and position yourself as the kind of student that will succeed in this open-discussion “evaluative” learning environment, you’re on your way to being a successful applicant.

Responses

Jul 01 2013

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MBA Essays: Your Bud Becomes a Jack, but Nothing Changes

So, July 1 it is, and the 2014 MBA admissions season is definitely now upon us. Having been in this industry for 11 years now, I feel it might be useful to open this season’s posts with a few short thoughts on the fads and fashions in MBA admissions, and how while lots of things change nothing fundamental changes.

Let’s start with what doesn’t change, which is that an MBA from an elite school is, for most, a dramatic career boost both in terms of opportunity and earnings. What also stays exactly the same is that the incremental relative career boost from an elite school (global top-15, more or less) is far greater than merely a good school – and everyone knows this, including recruiters.

Therefore what also doesn’t change is that elite schools are massively oversubscribed by admissions-seekers, and so MBA Adcoms are forced to screen out most of the hopefuls (which is of course exactly what they want. This is how they create “classes of the best,” which attracts recruiters for top jobs, an obvious reinforcing cycle.)

What does change is how Adcoms go about screening. But even this has not changed much over the years. File data, GMAT (or GRE) score, MBA resume, recommendations, extra-murals, and allied personal and professional boxes to check stay effectively the same from year to year (with some test score and general achievement inflation, undeniably).

The application element that is constantly in motion is the way MBA Adcoms ask you, the applicant, to talk about yourself via essays, or what stands in for the essays.

Time was you had to write a long description about yourself —something like the INSEAD application remains to this day. But then two things happened. First it became not-so-clear that applicants were doing their own writing, which led to Adcoms shortening the writing obligation.

Second, technology got more sophisticated, allegedly offering multi-media or social-media ways of capturing the quality of an applicant, which also led to lower word counts on average, while the more adventurous admissions committees such as those at Georgetown McDonough or Chicago Booth experimented with offering the opportunity to submit PowerPoint presentations, tweets, audio uploads and the like. NYU has long invited creative expressions of self, but famously had to draw the line when they were faced with two-week-old sushi…

The jury is out on how well this alternative communication works, not least because it judges applicants’ “flashness” with social- or multi-media rather than what Adcom really needs to judge, which is how good a b-school player, and subsequently how great a manager you will turn out to be.

Don’t let the tapering off of overall essay text-length obligation lull you into a false sense of security. As I’ve written in my book, and here on this site in previous posts, the essays play a singular role and this is not usurped or ursurpable. Essays package you for the admissions committee. They bring your file factoids to life. They provide the juice that gets the committee to notice you specifically from among a mass of competitors who present similar file achievements and scores.

So less bulk doesn’t mean less important. In fact, less space makes the essays harder. Now more than ever, every single word matters. Think of it like exchanging a beer for a tot of Jack Daniels. Less space, not less kick.

 

Responses

Jun 02 2013

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Cost Accounting the INSEAD Way

Although it is still the off season for MBA admissions, and I keep a low profile at this time of the year, I couldn’t help myself from posting this piece of balanced “what-it’s-all-about” thinking from an INSEAD class:

 

The MBA admissions angle: as go professors so go admissions committees, and be assured on this particular topic that MBA Adcoms don’t offer places to one-dimensional workaholics. While you, the applicant, are frantically seeking to prove yourself professionally, they on the other hand are looking for applicants who can balance work, leisure, family and community (both while at school and after.)

From the video:

“It’s a cost to not be home to support your spouse when they are ill.
“It’s a cost to not be able to see your child taking the first step.
“It’s a cost to losing your health while you climb the corporate ladder.
“It’s a cost to not spend enough time with your parents while their clock ticks away.

“Money falls from the sky! It will find you. (So don’t fixate on it.) Be generous with your time, energy, ideals. Do the right thing. Be decent. Create value.”

 

Responses

Apr 07 2013

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Good Results (and Enter the Slow Season)

It’s slow season again in MBA Admissions — there is still some work incoming, and long-range questions directed at next year, but mostly for MBA Studio, as for the industry as a whole, we draw breath at this point ahead of the helter-skelter beginning in July.

Readers of this site over years will know that I don’t update much at this time of the year. But I can report overall delight at results. There have been a few exceptions — there always are in the massively competitive arena of elite MBA admissions, and MBA Studio does not turn any credible applicant away — but on the whole MBA Studio clients have got in everywhere they hoped to, including every one of the top-15 schools. You will see some of their testimonials newly posted alongside. (I don’t have space to post them all.)

I’ll sign off for now with a screen grab of a recent tweet endorsement by Ivey MBA Admissions of some of the content to be found here on this site:

Iveytweet Good Results (and Enter the Slow Season)

Responses

Feb 24 2013

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MBA Admissions Interviews and the Art of the 45-Second Story

It’s interview season and I’ve been fielding a lot of questions, ranging from the specific (most commonly, how to prepare for the Wharton “team-based discussion” interview) to the general “what questions should I focus on?”

A lot of MBA admissions ink has been spilled on Wharton’s team-based discussion, so let me just say this: the form is different to a classic interview, but MBA adcom’s goal is the same. That is, they are looking for the same things they always were – the bright, personable applicant who stands out as a communicator and a beacon of good values, while being highly driven and achievment-oriented.

As they are looking for the same thing b-schools have always looked for, it is a bit of pouring old wine into new bottles. You prepare yourself in all the same ways as before, but in this case an additional familiarity with the team-discussion format is no bad thing.

The Wharton interview format is part of the cat-and-mouse game between MBA adcoms and admissions advisors, where adcom seeks a format less prone to preparation and admissions advisors respond by adjusting their menu. See this Wharton Premium Interview Preparation service ($500) from Accepted.com which I’m happy to be associated with.

More generally, how should you prepare for the interviews? Here are some bases to cover:

Look across the interview reportbacks that are freely available on the Web. This will give you a flavor of what to expect. But don’t over-focus on a specific question that appears to “come up” a lot for a particular school. By all means prepare yourself for it, but don’t bank on it.

Do, however, focus on the questions most candidates are asked most commonly. This is the 80-20 rule in action: a few common questions are asked again and again, and these questions are not a secret. They are ones you should be able to recognize by now: “Walk me through your resume; Why do you want to do an MBA; Why here; Why now; How will it help you towards your (What is your) career goal, short term and long term; How will you contribute to the program; What do you bring to the program that is unique?

There are many other common questions, but these are the basics. If you are deeply prepared on these, for the rest as long as you don’t roll over any landmines (aka red flags) you will do well.

What’s a landmine? Space doesn’t permit me to go too deeply into this here, but I’ve blogged about it consistently here over the years. Suffice to say, if you say something that moves you towards social prejudice or personal badmouthing or psychological instability or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to know, you’re probably too close to a landmine.

Anyway, to the points I wanted to make today. This is

(a) be ready to bring facts and

(b) 45-second stories.

Notice any persuasive politician, President Obama for example. When he talks he doesn’t say “average household food costs were better this year.” He says national food retail prices dropped 1.6% year-on-year, following 2.2% improved harvest yields in six breadbasket states despite a $12 per-barrel hike in the global oil price.

Likewise, when talking about yourself, don’ t say “I have made rapid career progress recently.” Give the interviewer good reasons to believe you.

Your other go-to proof device is use of story form. Don’t say you “faced many dangers” on a project. Say say you were off-site, starting at 6am with a rig inspection and ending at 10pm with your explosives assessment call to the Montana office. Stories naturally supply facts. They bring your real-world experience to life. And they are also easy on the listener. Everyone likes a good story.

MBA admissions interviews are 30 minutes on average, so you don’t have a second to squander. It’s likely the admissions value from any story in your life can be captured in the first 45 seconds if you tell it right. So, prep yourself around short, illustrative career and life stories you can tell in under a minute.

 

Responses

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