Below is a list of simple, straightforward tips. This list is not exhaustive nor organized in any particular way. Just scroll through, scan the headings and read what’s useful to you. Also, be sure to check out the video page for a live explication of this material.
Comments on Writing in General
Brainstorm—it is easier to evaluate your ideas when they are on a page or computer screen than it is when they are in your head.
When writing the first couple of drafts, ignore the word limit. The key is to develop your ideas without worrying about editing yourself or fitting into a tight word limit. Breath and let the ideas flow; edit them afterwards.
Details are essential. One of the main weaknesses in most essays is that they do not contain enough concrete details for the adcom to understand what you’ve done, how you think, how you feel in certain situations or the impact of your actions. Yes, the big-picture is important but without details the adcom will never really be able to differentiate you from others.
Your audience is the admissions committee of a business school. If you are giving them information that is not relevant to their evaluation of you for this environment then you are wasting space.
Don’t concentrate narrowly on writing what you think a school wants to hear. This is a fool’s game because there is no prescription for this and essays that are written with this approach are painfully dull, formulaic and usually miss the mark. Be strategic but remember that it’s very difficult to fake passion and sincerity.
Instead, concentrate on articulating who you are, what you want, what you’re good at, what you need to develop and, basically, what you bring to the world and how much more you could bring to the world if you had the chance to attend b-school.
Philosophers of art and literature across virtually all cultures from the earliest of recorded time have all cautioned against falling in love with one’s own creation. My clients work very hard and often they do the best writing of their lives with me. As such, they become attached to what they’ve written. This is perfectly natural.
Keep in mind, though, that as a draft evolves an idea that made sense before might no longer apply; some ideas are mere scaffolding and must be pulled down once the main structure is set. Similarly, when recycling essays from one school to another, there’s no guarantee that everything will remain relevant. Finally, given that virtually every school has word limits for the essays, you will have to rephrase, reorganize and cut to meet these limits. As painful as it sometime is, this has to happen. Do not fall in love with your own creation.
And…the Golden Rule…You are the star of each and every essay—in fact, you are the star of each and every sentence of every essay. The spotlight should always be on you. You are applying to the school—not your company, your family, your country, your team, your clients. You might use all of these other actors in your stories but they are supporting actors and you are always the star. I love Sly Stone’s song, Everybody is a Star but Sly never applied to b-school…
And…the Other Golden Rule…start writing as soon as you can and expect to do a lot of revising. While I believe in the supremacy of spontaneity in music and certain other art forms, it is rare that a person’s first draft of an essay is his or her best. The best writers are the best re-writers.
Avoid jargon. You are writing for an audience of highly intelligent generalists. Respect this and they will appreciate it. It will also dramatically improve your writing. As Harvard advises, “Don't overthink, overcraft and overwrite. Just answer the question in clear language that those of us who don't know your world can understand.”
Selecting A school
I’m always amazed at how many people ask me which schools they should apply to. There are two reasons why I’m amazed: 1) If you don’t know then how do you know that going to business school is your best option?; 2) Most people already have a very good idea of what schools they want to apply to; they just want me to validate their choices. Nonetheless, I’m happy to help.
With that in mind, here is my basic advice:
1. Do your own research. If your goals are within marketing, apply to schools with strong marketing programs. If finance, then…you get the idea…
2. Balance the point above with location and size. If you are a city person, you might freak out if you go to, say, Tuck. Most city people do not want to be stuck out in the woods, far from an urban environment. Tuck is a lovely place to visit but living there for two years could drive some people crazy. The same point goes for size; some people will thrive in a small program while others will start to feel claustrophobic. In my own case, I chose Columbia because I wanted to stay in New York City and liked the idea of being part of a large university.
3. If possible, visit the schools you are curious about. If you can’t visit, attend info sessions. Contact alumni groups in your area. Contact current students (Schools often have a link for this on the Admissions homepage; if not, email the Admissions office and ask for a contact.) In short, learn as much as you can about the school’s culture from people who actually went there, go there or work there.
4. Consider the school’s brand power in your company/industry/country/region. Of course, if you are going into a family business after graduation or the school’s name has no influence on your success for other reasons then don’t worry about it. However, keep in mind that you (or someone else) are going to pay a small fortune in tuition, living costs and lost salary to attend a business school. Its name should be an asset to your future. On the other hand, don’t be blinded by branding, either.
5. Ask yourself if you really want to go to a certain school. If not, then don’t bother applying. Many people apply to “safety schools“. However, if the school doesn’t match your criteria and you can’t imagine spending the time and money to get your degree there then cross it off your list.
6. Take online forums with a grain of salt. Personally, I avoid them. If I’m going to listen to someone’s opinion I want to either meet them or at least hear their voice on the phone. Everybody has an opinion, but not everyone’s opinion is worth listening to.
7. Similarly, draw conclusions from several data points, not just one. Many people tell me that they like/dislike a school based on the presentation an admissions officer did in their city. These sessions are important but they are only one window into the school’s culture. Maybe you simple fell in love with/didn’t like the admissions officer giving the presentation. Maybe you like/don’t like the school’s website. Maybe you like/don’t like the school’s mascot. Impressions and emotions are mysterious and often fleeting; gather as much information as you can before making a firm decision.
8. Know yourself. If you know yourself then you will know what schools will satisfy your needs. I can certainly guide you and but you are your own best judge in this regard.
Essays that ask about personal qualities or ask “What made you who you are?”
Over the years, different schools have asked this question in different ways but since I began doing this work in 2001, the mother of all questions in this genre is this one:
What matters most to you and why?
Surely, these are interesting questions but, on the other hand, why does a school care? Well, because human beings are more than management or leadership or marketing or finance or product management machines. We are flesh, blood, emotion and hormones—hopefully a good balance of all these things. Since you are going to be part of an academic community and, beyond that, a vast alumni network a school may well want to know about you personally. There are plenty instances in history of effective leaders who were awful, soulless people. Who needs more of that?
In this sort of essay, be honest but be strategic. Always remember that your audience is the admissions committee of a business school.
Good essays often (but not always) describe how applicants formed their moral foundation or their work ethic. Others describe how an applicant formed her persistence or optimism. There are many directions in which you can take this essay and it is an excellent opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants.
Keep in mind the Golden Rule—you are the star of the show, the subject of the essay, not the events or people who helped you become who you are. Don’t let the spotlight drift…
A few more points on Stanford’s What matters to you most and why?
This is a difficult and time-consuming essay in part because it is so introspective or, as some clients have said, philosophical. Here are a few ways of getting started if you are stuck:
1. As philosophical as this question appears, this is not an exercise in philosophy; it is an essay for a business school application.
2. As a general rule, I discourage you from choosing “My family”, “My country”, “My company” as the main answer. Yes, I suppose there are exceptions and I would be happy to discuss these case-by-case but, for the great majority of applicants, I recommend that you look elsewhere for inspiration.
3. I always recommend brainstorming but for this essay I REALLY recommend it. The last thing you want to do is go through the torture and time to make a full draft only to hear me say, “Meh…any other ideas?”.
4. So, make a list of possible answers to “what matters” and then brainstorm a series of vignettes, examples, anecdotes — whatever you want to call them — that examine your choice in more detail. These examples should range from the personal to the professional. Be creative. Have fun. Remember, it’s only brainstorming so it’s not going to hurt you or anyone else.
5. Some people find that they already have a body of information they want to present in the essay. That’s great — all that’s needed then is to find the correct “what matters” as the guiding idea of the essay. Other people might know “what matters” immediately (or, at least, they think they do) and then they have to brainstorm a load of supporting information. Most people are somewhere in between.
5. No matter where your are, as you brainstorm, keep your goals in the back of your mind. You wouldn’t want “what matters” to be something that contradicted your goal or made the adcom wonder if you had a split personality.
6. Begin writing. A few horrors to expect while revising: A) My comments (haha…); B) You will likely need to eliminate some of your ideas, painful as that might be; C) You will likely need to reorganize the flow of your essay; D) You might end up changing “what matters” to suit the body of information in the rest of the essay. This last point is especially frustrating but also fascinating; a good essay takes on a life of its own and sometimes it will, in its own mysterious way, make suggestions . In general, I recommend heeding the voice of your essay. There is a common saying among investors, “Don’t fight the Fed”; for our purposes, I recommend “Don’t fight the flow”…of course, if your flow is going in the wrong direction then you’re going to have to stop it as quickly as possible.
7. Keep in mind that many applicants end up enjoying the thought that goes into writing this essay. Many people have simple never sat down and thought deeply about this topic. Try to view this essay as an opportunity to clarify your thinking and become a better person. If you let it, this essay will lead you to a much better understanding of yourself.
Goals / Why school X? / How will you contribute?
Applicants who cannot articulate clear, logical goals are a nightmare for b-schools. If you can’t articulate clear goals that make sense given your background, the school will reject you out of fear that you won’t find a job upon graduation. It’s as simple as that…but, for most applicants, this is the most difficult essay.
There should be a clear, direct line of logic that runs through your past experience, your reasons for wanting to attend a particular school, your short term-goal and long-term goal. In other words, the adcom should never say to themselves, “I just don’t understand what this person wants to do or why he wants to do it.” Instead, they should say, “Ah! This makes perfect sense!”
The goals you write about don’t necessarily have to be your real goals. In fact, you might not even have real goals. Many people attend business school to decide what they want to do next but, in your essay, you must have a clear and logical vision. If you don’t one, you’ll have to manufacture a sensible vision.
If you are changing careers, it is essential that you discuss your transferable skills and explain why you are changing careers. From a b-school’s perspective, it would be unwise for them to bet on someone who wants to transition from, say, marketing to investment banking—unless there was some very compelling evidence that this made sense for the applicant.
Explaining why you want to go to a particular school is easy but it takes some research and thought. This is an excellent format to use: To learn X I will take advantage of Y. X = The skills and knowledge you need to accomplish your goals; Y = Specific resources at the school (i.e.; the student body, the location, specific clubs/courses/internships/lectures series or anything else that appeals to you.
When describing why you want to go to a particular school, avoid sentences like, “Harvard’s world-renowned case study method will allow me to strategize solutions to a variety of real-world situations with a highly accomplished team of other students.” The adcom already knows this. That’s why the school invented case studies.
Instead, state, clearly why the case study method (or whatever you are writing about) will help you acquire the skills and knowledge you need to accomplish your goals.
In other words, don’t describe the school to the school. Tell the school how you intend to use their resources to learn what you need to accomplish your goals.
As you review what you’ve written, remember that any sentences that sound as if they could have been written by another applicant are wasted space. Yes, many people go to b-school for the same or very similar reasons. Nonetheless, you must make your reasons very clear and find a way to connect them with yourself–i.e.; your goals, weaknesses or strengths that you want to refine further. Put another way, most people who go to a restaurant all want to eat and they all have to choose off the same menu. However, this does not mean they are all hungry in the same way or that they will chose the same dishes.
It is essential that you can explain how and what you will contribute to the community of a school. Think about what you are really good at and then imagine your life at the school—in what classes/clubs/social events/etc. will you be able to offer what you have to others? While there will be some decent professors at your school, you will be amazed how much you learn from the students around you. Since you’ll be one of these students you, too, must have something to give.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I should also remind you that colleges and universities are conservative institutions that are interested, first and foremost, in their own self-preservation and advancement. If you can show that you can advance their interests they will surely take note.
Essays that ask about culture shock
Sadly, Insead has pulled this question from their application…however, it was always one of my favorites so I’ll keep this info up here as an homage.
Have you ever experienced culture shock? What insights did you gain? (250 words maximum)
Culture shock is a very disorienting experience with several stages that usually lead a person to spiral into depression, frustration or some other highly uncomfortable state before tossing them out the other end a more mature, culturally savvy and hopefully open-minded person. Culture shock is not going to a place and finding that the people there eat spicy food, do/don’t use chopsticks, do/don’t take their shoes off before entering someone’s home, or appear happy even though they are very poor. For more information on the stages of culture shock, I recommend reading this.
Leadership, Accomplishment, and Teamwork Essays
After reading one of these essays, an admissions officer should say, “Wow! This person really knows how to lead through challenging circumstances!” They should not say, “Ugh…yes, now I know what this person did but I don’t know why it was impressive…”
A common weakness in these essays is that they describe process too much and avoid the very interesting topics of how an applicant handles conflict and difficulty. Life is not easy. Offices are crazy environments with all sorts of conflicting motivations and emotions. The different departments of a company are not always unified in their goals. Let this into your essay.
An essay in which an applicant describes his or her success simply as series of steps (First, I established trust with the client…then I motivated the team by explaining how valuable their contributions were…then I made a work plan with timely benchmarks….then I zzzzzzzzzzzzz….) is painfully boring. Yes, process is important but you must also make it clear why it was not easy to accomplish what you did, or that it wasn’t simply a matter of following a series of steps.
At the risk of being redundant…essays that describe process too much are dull and don’t tell the adcom much about the applicant. “I did this, and this, and this and then this and then…SUCCESS!” What’s really interesting and useful to an adcom is showing how you overcame tough situations—how you thought, what you considered doing and what you ended up doing. Remember, working environments are confused, conflicted emotional places; how do you navigate all this?
While not all applicants have been in a position to have a major impact on something, the top schools are most interested in people who are able to operate at a high level or, if not, have been able to maximize the influence of their abilities and suggest that they have serious leadership potential.
There are many ways to define leadership and teamwork. Do not feel confined to traditional definitions.
Avoid sounding like a selfish person.
Failure & Weaknesses
There are few things more depressing than people who make the same mistakes over and over again. Similarly, people who don’t learn from their mistakes are a disaster waiting to happen. Schools ask you to write about failure so they can weed these sorts of people out.
In the essay, don’t dwell on the failure. Set it up as quickly as you can and move on.
Discuss, in depth, what you learned from the failure. This is extremelyimportant.
If possible, show the reader how you applied this learning to a subsequent instance.
Failure is a great way to learn. Everyone fails. Show the adcom that you A) Don’t quit when you make a mistake or are rejected; B) know how to learn from your mistakes and apply this learning to future circumstances.
While we’re on this cheery topic, let’s discuss weaknesses. Some schools ask about your weaknesses in an essay question while others save this awkward question for the interview. Virtually any school will probe your weaknesses before admitting you. Why? Are they trying to verify that you have none? That you are perfect already? Hardly. Everyone has weaknesses…even those people admitted to Harvard.
When they make their first attempt at articulating their weaknesses, most applicants offer either hedged weaknesses or strengths in disguise. Here are two classic examples:
My biggest weakness is that I’m sometimes impatient with others because I have higher standards.
Sometimes I take on more much work than I can handle during working hours because I’m very curious and ambitious. This means I often have to stay late or work weekends.
Few things will make an admissions officer roll his or her eyes more quickly than hedged responses such as those above.
Why be honest about your weaknesses?
Everyone has them—and weaknesses can be overcome. In fact, one reason why you are going to graduate school (hopefully) is to overcome some of your weaknesses. Also, discussing your weaknesses shows self-awareness, a characteristic that is highly prized by admissions officers.
Naturally, you don’t want to reveal weaknesses that will kill your chances of being admitted. For instance:
I’m impatient and shout at my colleagues when they do dumb things.
I’m a bit sloppy and often add the wrong attachments to emails.
I get drunk at company functions and act out scenes from Eyes Wide Shut.
As with any other part of your application, be strategic when writing about or discussing your weaknesses. How can you discover your “good” weaknesses?
Brainstorm. Write down all your weaknesses, even the really crazy ones.
Choose a few that you should be able to overcome in b-school.
Choose a few that you will overcome with experience and time.
Narrow this list down to three or four that are meaningful but not deal-breakers. Run this list by a friend or relation. Modify if necessary.
That’s your list. Embrace it, become comfortable discussing it and look forward to crossing these weaknesses off your list in the future.
Details and High versus Low conteXt - essential especially for Asian applicants
One of the strangest things about application essays is the level of specificity required to do them well. I spend much of my time pushing people for more–and the right–details. There are many reasons for this but one of them is that American society is extremely “low context”; (I could generalize this characteristic to business school admissions offices worldwide, not just American society). In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, even very important things, letting the culture, context or the listener’s intuition, rather than words, explain the meaning. In a low context culture, like the United States, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and explain important points in detail.
In other words, most Americans need to have everything explained to them in great detail or else we don’t quite feel like we understand, or we worry we’ll misunderstand. We do not deal very well with ambiguity, which is one reason (but only one) why so many people in the US like politicians who describe the world in very basic, black and white terms. Similarly, in an application essay, the adcom does not like to have to think very hard or “find” the meaning; they want essays, letters of reference and interviewees that are clear, direct and detailed.
You may have noticed Americans abroad, especially in Asia, feeling very overwhelmed and confused. People from high context cultures tend to think we’re thick-headed because we’re always asking, Why? Why? Why? I don’t get it!–unless we’re talking with Germans, of course, who are also quite low context. By contrast, when Americans encounter Asians (or Arabic speakers and, to some extent, the French and southern Europeans), it’s not unusual to mistake their “high context” style of communication as being evasive. In fact, many stereotypes come from different communication styles and the misunderstandings they create.
Letters of recommendation
The other day I was talking with a client who said that his previous counselor had told him that admissions officers know that “in Asia 80% of letters of reference are written by the clients themselves and, in the United States, 60% are” and therefore, admissions officers don’t take the letters seriously. This is absurd.
Do admissions officers know that some, even many, applicants write their own LoRs or, at least, create drafts for them or influence them in other ways? I will assume that they do, even if they won’t admit this publicly or even semi-privately. Admissions officers aren’t stupid and since most of them have gone to graduate school there’s a good chance they wrote at least one of their LoRs. However, to suggest that because of this they disregard the letters is an absurd leap in logic.
Letters of recommendation are very, very important! If you can, you should try to influence the people who write them for you. You can do this by:
Asking them if they need any help choosing material for the letter
Giving them an outline of what could go in the letter
Giving them a list of bullet points that helps them fill the letter with worthwhile content
In some cases, your referee will simply say, “I’d love to be your reference but can you write the letter for me?” In such cases, you will have to decide how to handle this but, really, your decision shouldn’t be very difficult to make. You need the letter.
What’s in a good letter of recommendation?
Details. Lots of them.
The single biggest flaw with most letters is that they are fluffy clouds of pretty but generic meaninglessness. The referee praises the applicant in very general ways that do little to differentiate the applicant from others and, moreover, fail to paint a clear picture of what the applicant is really like. A good letter is like a window through which the adcom can spy on you and see what you are really like.
Among other things, a good letter of reference will:
DIRECTLY answer any questions the school has provided in the instructions
Tell the reader what characteristics the applicant has and give detailed examples that demonstrate the applicant putting these characteristics into action
Directly compare the applicant against other people of a similar level and, in some cases, against people at higher levels
Also, if asked to critique the applicant, the referee should give a MEANINGFUL critique and not simply offer a hedged criticism or oblique praise. For instance, if the referee says, “X needs to realize that not all people are able to work as hard as she does” it’s likely that he is simply avoiding the labor of thinking more critically or is afraid to say anything genuinely critical. Likewise, “Sometimes X works too hard and I worry that he doesn’t have a social life or time for other pursuits.” Unless this fact substantially gets in the way of your professional performance it really isn’t worth mentioning. The adcom will see it for what it is–the referee’s attempt to avoid answering the question–and they’ll be frustrated.
My final comments on letters of rec comes from a higher authority–Stanford. Here’s what they tell recommenders:
The most useful recommendations provide detailed descriptions, candid anecdotes, and specific evidence that highlight the candidate’s behavior and impact on those around her or him. This kind of information helps distinguish the very best individuals from a pool of many well-qualified candidates. Please write your answers to the following questions in a separate document and upload that document into the online application.
My first bit of advice is to accept the fact that interviews are intense experiences emotionally, physically and intellectually. For that reason, I recommend you start your preparation by listening to this podcast.
Also, being nervous and overly tense is never a good idea, especially before an interview. Yes, you want to be alert but you also want to be calm and clearheaded. I recommend reading this for more on how to achieve the idea state for an interview.
If you have been selected for an interview that is great news–and interview prep is essential. If you have a phone interview, we’ll practice on the phone. If you have a video interview, we’ll practice by video. I can also refer clients to a select group of counselors I have worked with for years if you desire interview training with a complete stranger.
During the interview prep sessions we’ll run through key questions and I’ll press you for deeper explanations to probe your level of knowledge and seriousness. I’ll time your answers and make notes as we go along. After that, we’ll discuss your results and I’ll offer strategies for how to improve. If you’d like, I can record the session and send it to you as an MP3.
One key point about my style for interview prep: we’ll create a body of information from which you can draw an answer for any question. While there are certainly some basic questions most interviewers will ask, it is, perhaps, more important to know what you want to tell the interviewer about yourself than it is to try to predict every question he or she will ask. Likewise, it is better to spend time practicing than it is to become overly obsessive about what this year’s (alleged) interview questions are for this or that school. I find that message boards that post interview questions are are of limited use. Since you really can’t really know your interviewer, it is a better strategy to thoroughly know yourself.
If you are wondering how to make a body of information about yourself, here’s how I recommend starting:
1. Sit down in a comfortable chair, away from noise or distraction. Have a cup of tea or a glass of wine or just breath deeply and relax.
2. Decide what you want the interviewer to know about you by the time the interview is finished — no matter what he or she asks.
3. Think about any weak points in your application. Think about them carefully, even the unpleasant ones, and become so familiar with them that they no longer worry you. Say them out loud. This will help you become comfortable discussing them; they’re just words.
4. Based on the info in Steps 2 and 3, think about what you offer to other students in the program. The deeper and more sincere you can be about this the better.
5. Remember that much of an interview comes down to “feel” or if an interviewer thinks you’d be a good fit for the program. There’s not too much you can do to control this. The best approach is simply to be prepared, relaxed and comfortable with yourself.
One final point: I find that clients can make a lot of improvement on their own by recording themselves answering questions and reviewing this recording. There is no doubt that this can be an uncomfortable experience but I guarantee that it works — and it helps keep your costs down. I can certainly guide you in our sessions but, as with sports and novice musicians, there is no substitute for practice if you want to ace your interview.