Monthly Archives: January 2011

Want to Write a Great Admissions Essay? Look to the Wedding Toast.

Struggling to complete your admissions essays? Think back for a minute and consider the last few weddings you’ve been to. If you’re lucky, you only have witnessed great wedding speeches and toasts, but odds are that you’ve sat through at least one or two bombs. What accounts for the difference?

While your first answer might understandably be, “It’s how comfortable the person is about delivering speeches in front of large groups,” I don’t really think that’s the case. Yes, no one wants to watch the poor guy stand up there and sweat bullets as he fumbles with a piece of paper covered in smeared ink, mumbling into the microphone for what seems like an eternity. Delivery matters, no doubt.

However, content outshines delivery almost every time. Here’s one common culprit that’s made more than a few wedding toasts bad: The speaker just focused on cracking jokes, and left you scratching your head as to who he is, what he has to do with all of this, and why he chose to tell that embarrassing story about the groom. Although he probably thought it was funny, you were checking your watch (or your iPhone; this is 2011, after all), wondering when was going to finish. He didn’t connect with you, and you ended up caring about him or his relationship with the lucky couple no more than when he started.

Now think about the ones that you have enjoyed. Even the most nervous toastmasters deliver good speeches when they’re willing to get a little personal. The good speakers reveal a little bit about themselves, and in doing so they help you get to know them a bit better. They share a vulnerability or concern that we’ve all felt at some point, and everyone shares a small appreciative chuckle. They present a side of the bride and groom that you’ve never seen before (and actually want to see). They make you care a little more. They connect with you.

A great speaker — just like a great admissions essay writer — doesn’t need to leave them rolling in the aisles. Humor helps, but only to the extent that it helps to present and accentuate personal stories that make you feel like you now know the person on more than a superficial level. A great admissions essay works in the same way. It doesn’t focus on devices and gimmicks; it just delivers a message that the reader will leave the reader saying, “I really enjoyed that. He seems like someone I’d like to get to know more.” Whether you’re talking about what matters most to you (… and why), or discussing a time when you failed as part of a team, or discussing where you see yourself in your career ten years from now, this same yardstick applies. Taking a chance and putting a little bit of your self “out there” is the difference between a bore of an essay and a terrific one.

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MIT Sloan Admissions Office Ditches Paper in Favor of iPads

Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that the MIT Sloan admissions office has purchased 15 iPads, which its admissions officers will use to review applications in a 100% paper-free environment. Sloan admissions officers estimate that the move will save the school $10,000 per year in paper costs.

The funny thing is that, although most schools moved to online application systems years ago, usually the first thing that admissions officers do with a newly received electronic application is print it out. From there, the paper application goes through a process that has barely changed in decades: It moves from one pile to the next, from one admissions officers’ hands to the next, until it has been reviewed at least a couple of times. While the online application systems make for better tracking, today schools rarely take advantage of this. Now, however, if Sloan can keep every application entirely online, it can make for much more efficient reviewing and tracking of each application.

While much will probably be made of the fact that Sloan will use iPads for this new way of reviewing the 5,000 or so applications it receives each year, we find this move to be interesting whether they’re using iPads, laptops, or anything else electronic. Why? Because, as schools move towards working more multimedia responses into their applications, it only makes sense to keep the entire application in electronic form. Right now, a school that accepts a video “essay” response must match up each video with the rest of an applicant’s file, which is probably a stack of paper that’s sitting in a pile somewhere — who knows where! — in the admissions office.

Why not review everything in one place? Imagine clicking here to review an applicant’s data sheet, clicking there to read Essay #1, and then scrolling down to pull up a short video from that applicant. Pretty cool!

This move to an all-electronic system makes it easier to seamlessly work such multimedia responses in with the rest of the applications. We wouldn’t be surprised if this move precedes a move by Sloan to work multimedia into its applications over the next year or so.

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Should You Wait Until Round 3?

If you’re scrambling to get your Round 2 business school applications complete, take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I maximizing my chances of success by applying in Round 2?” As usual, the answer is, “It depends.”

No two business school applicants are in the same situation, so the answer we give is never quite the same. One applicant might have lost his job recently. He hadn’t been planning on applying to business school this year, but his sudden unemployment now makes MBA programs look that much more appealing. Another might be in a quandary because she just took the GMAT again and still can’t get above a 650. She had been planning on nailing the GMAT this month and spending a couple of weeks on her essays and letters of recommendation, but now she wonders if she’d be better served by taking the GMAT yet again and applying in Round 3 in March or April. Still another applicant just rolled out of bed last week and decided that he absolutely must have a Harvard MBA. That happens a lot!

Let’s be clear: Round 3 is NOT an automatic black hole where applications go to die. As we wrote earlier this year, top business schools know that great applicants can come in any round, and many schools have very specific reasons (such as U.S. schools needing to stay competitive vs. international programs) for paying close attention to the Round 3 applicant pool.

Still, since in Round 3 your chances of success are very much impacted somewhat by what happened in the previous rounds — Did your first-choice school admit more students than it originally had planned? Are yields higher than historical averages? — you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to get fair shake in Round 3. Ultimately, however, how well you do in Round 3 depends far more on you and your application than on what numbers the admissions office saw in previous rounds.

Round 3 partly has a tarnished reputation because of applicants who throw together their applications at the last minute (rather than having to wait eight months before applying in next year’s admissions cycle) and end up getting rejected. “See,” they say, “I knew I wouldn’t get in. Round 3 is impossible.” But most of them would have been rejected in the previous rounds, too. They threw together half-baked applications, and got predictable results. We could have saved them a lot of time and money.

If you apply to a top-ranked business school with a flaw that really concerns you — e.g., a low GMAT score, or a weak undergrad transcript with nothing to compensate for it, or sloppy essays, or I-hope-he-spelled-my-name-right letters of recommendation — then you can safely assume that flaw will also concern MBA admissions officers enough to keep you out. In that case, we almost always strongly recommend that an applicant wait, takes steps to improve things, and then apply in Round 3 (or next year) when things are in order.

Many applicants act as if they view their applications as lottery tickets: “I’ll take a shot at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Stern, Sloan, Anderson, Yale, and Tuck… One of those is bound to hit for me.” Or, they say, “My odds of getting into a top school are low? I’ll just apply to more top schools then. That will boost my odds.” But applying to more schools with a bad application will only generate more rejections. Coming back to a school as a reapplicant isn’t a terrible thing, but if you’re creating an application now that virtually assures you of having to apply again next year, then don’t bother submitting it.

Do it right the first time. Even if that means applying in Round 3. A great Round 3 application beats a good Round 2 application every time.

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Essay-Writing Services Flourish, but Why?

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article written by an anonymous “hired gun” who writes admissions essays, term papers, and even doctoral theses for paying students, who in turn pass these off as their own. Bloomberg Businessweek also ran a similar piece that profiled a couple of similar services that write essays for business school applicants.

Are these services unethical? Yes, we think so, but that’s so obvious that we won’t devote any more words to it here. (If you’re reading this because you’re looking to hire someone to write your admissions essays for you, then you can keep looking.)

What really concerns us is that schools and admissions offices seemingly don’t question how someone with a horrible command or English could create a perfectly constructed essay or research paper. If you are to believe the sources quoted in both article, these services work well enough (i.e., students get caught rarely enough) that they have thriving businesses with repeat customers. Again, the students who submit these and the hired guns who write them are flaunting the rules of the system, but where the hell the admissions officers, professors, and university department heads who should easily catch this sort of behavior? You mean to tell me that, as a student with broken English clumsily defends a doctoral thesis that he’s barely read all the way through, the thought of, “I wonder if this is his work,” never crosses their minds?

Again, that doesn’t excuse such behavior, but we really wonder about who’s minding the shop at these supposedly academically challenging institutions. Just like the TSA may never catch every pen knife that goes through airport security, it’s understandable if a handful of forged academic papers slip through the system now and then. But, if the practice is as commonplace as the Chronicle piece makes it out to be (just look at the business this guy’s company supposedly does), then someone is not doing their job. This isn’t even a question of what the penalties should be for students who are caught cheating — those penalties should of course be steep — but a question of why more of these students don’t get caught in the first place.

Another concern of ours: It bothers us is that such services cause the whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches to get painted with the same broad brush. As mentioned in the Bloomberg Businessweek article, AIGAC is an international organization devoted to upholding ethical standards among admissions consultants. Bring admitted to AIGAC is no small task — a company and its individual members have to jump through many hoops to be admitted — and maintaining one’s membership is just as involved.

Although AIGAC now has dozens of members around the world, it takes just one or two bad actors (like the ones profiled in these articles) to cause some admissions officer to go off half-cocked and ban any type of application assistance, no matter what the circumstances. We’d hate to see that happen because of these services.

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