Should You Get a Business School Recommendation from an Old College Professor?

Unless your target business school specifically asks for a recommendation from a college professor, before you go ahead and reach out to that old professor from your past, read the rest of this article! Even if you are one of the few students that had a great relationship with a professor, worked individually with them throughout your college years (versus just taking a class or two) and still keep in touch, while congratulations on this accomplishment, it STILL isn’t the right thing to do.

The average applicant to a full-time MBA program is in his or her mid- to late-twenties, meaning college was at least 5-7 years ago, if not longer. While most MBA programs only accept two or three recommendations, submitting a recommendation from academia suggests that you can’t find two (or three) people from your workplace to provide a recommendation for you. If you are just graduating and haven’t had any work experience yet (hence considering the academic recommendation), you may want to consider whether schools will think you are too young or inexperienced.

Further, most professors are unable to answer many questions on the recommendation form (and a lot of “not applicable” response won’t make you look great, either) as most of their knowledge of you will be from a classroom setting versus a workplace setting.

If you are having trouble finding recommendation writers — or don’t want your current manager to know that you’re applying to business school — consider some other potential writers like a client that you have worked extensively for, an indirect manager or team lead, a former supervisor/manager, your boss’s boss (as long as they still know your work well enough) or a manager at a non-profit organization you have volunteered for consistently for a few years.

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!


How the GMAT CAT Works

The Quantitative and Verbal sections of the GMAT both consist of multiple-choice questions that are presented as a computer-adaptive test (CAT). The CAT is designed to dynamically produce exam questions based on your performance on previous questions. These questions, which range in difficulty from low to high, are pulled from a question bank. The result is a unique exam for nearly every test-taker.

The CAT begins by providing a question of moderate difficulty. About half of test takers are expected to get the question correct, and half are expected to get it wrong. If you get the question correct, then a more difficult question is supplied. If you get the question wrong, then an easier question is supplied. By the end of the test, the CAT finds your score based on the number of correct answers given to questions at different levels of difficulty.

As you might imagine, there is a sophisticated algorithm underlying this process, involving knowing how thousands of other test-takers have done on each of the problems you answered. The algorithm decides the appropriate level of difficulty for your next question, the value of that question, and eventually your score. Because your questions are generated based on previous responses, you may not skip a question and return to it, as is possible on some other standardized tests.

Over the years, many myths have come and gone come with regard to how the exam’s adaptive engine works. Perhaps the most pervasive one is the idea that, because the first few questions can cause a wide swing in the whether you receive harder or easier questions (based on whether you get them right or wrong), these questions are by far the most important ones in determining your final score. Many test-takers therefore spend far too much time on these questions, trying to ensure that they get every one right so that the computer puts them in the “smart” bucket, ensuring they will get a higher overall score at the end of the test.

The reality is that the GMAT holds so many data points on every one of the questions you will see that by the end of the test it will know your true level of ability, whether or not you get an early easy question wrong or an early hard question right. It’s also flexible enough to account for “false negatives” and “false positives” (getting a question wrong when you really should have gotten it right, given your ability level, or vice versa). The people behind the test know, for example, that even if you make a pure guess, there’s a 20% chance that you will get a question right. They therefore know that every question helps in determining your final score, but that every question itself may be “wrong” in making that determination. So, they designed the scoring algorithm to stay flexible enough to withhold judgment on your true level until you’ve been presented with every question on the test.

Therefore, you are far more likely to impact your own score by finishing the exam or not. Spend too much time on these first 10 questions and you may risk running out of time at the end of the section. No matter how well you did on the first 10 questions, not answering every question can knock your score down significantly. (The people at GMAC have stated as much publicly.) So, don’t fool yourself into spending precious extra minutes on the first 10 questions… Instead, you should worry about finishing the test on time!

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Applicant and Administrator Feedback on Wharton Team Discussions

Wharton Admissions Director Ankur Kumar recently provided an update on how Wharton’s team-based discussions went during Round 1. It sounds as though the experience has been positive so far, both for Wharton and for applicants. We still have a lot of questions about this as a means if evaluating candidates, but it’s interesting to study the early impressions from applicants and administrators alike.

The feedback we have been hearing from students is that the discussions haven’t turned out to be the shark tanks — with applicants elbowing each other for air time — that some had feared. If anything, applicants have erred on the side of being a little too friendly, with some going out of their way to show how courteous they can be. Many applicants have reported seeing this “unnatural graciousness” in effect.

According to Kumar on the Wharton Admissions Blog:

It was wonderful to observe our candidates connecting with one other – both inside and outside of the team based discussion. We saw you exchange contact information for future business endeavors, continue to discuss the question posed to your team far after the exercise came to a close, and we noticed a few groups that headed out for celebratory dinner or drinks after the interview was complete. The most heartwarming part for us was to see how much you invested in and supported one other; waiting for everyone in your group to be done, high fiving each other, laughing together, this is the true hallmark of Wharton’s culture of collaboration and something we look forward to your bringing to the program.

Wow, sounds like fun! Even the most collaborative MBA classrooms normally don’t have all of the back-patting described here, although we know that the stakes are much higher with these admissions discussions than they are in a typical business school classroom on any given day. Our take is that some candidates are indeed overdoing it, and going out of their way to show that they’re not jerks or sharks. Whether or not this helps them get into Wharton is still to be determined.

At the same time, we have heard that some applicants definitely felt a need to speak up, lest they be drowned out. This is fairly normal — this same pressure exists in the business school classroom, especially at case study-based schools such as Harvard and Darden — but this is the sort of thing that we’re sure Wharton wants to downplay as much as possible.

While we may still sound skeptical, we definitely laud Wharton for taking such a big risk in the admissions process. They, along with other schools that have significantly cut down their essays in some cases, are advancing the state of the art in the MBA admissions process. We’re reserving judgment, however, until we can better measure how performance in these discussions correlates with admissions success.

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

How to Best Coach Your MBA Application Recommendation Writers

How can you make sure your business school recommendation writers say what you need them to say? How much coaching is too much, and what do you do if you’re afraid that your manager can’t write an effective recommendation? It depends on several issues.

Why Not Just Write Your Own Recommendations?
Outside of the ethical reason not to write your own recommendation, chances are that you’ll struggle to write a letter as well as a good recommender would. We’ve found that recommenders can come up with examples that we’ve long since forgotten. Also, avoiding the self-written recommendation allows you to steer clear of the “how positive sounds too positive?” dilemma. Just as it’s an uncomfortable experience to stand in front of a group and extoll your own virtues, writing about how great you are can be very awkward, and you will tend to downplay your own strengths and accomplishments. It’s just human nature. So, make sure the letter of recommendation is in your recommender’s own words.

But what if your boss says, “I’m too busy. You can go ahead and put it together and I’ll be happy to sign it,” leaving you to write it on your own? One option is to simply find another recommender, but odds are that you picked that person for a reason. Your other option is to try to make the process as easy as possible, and you can do that by providing the recommender with substantial background information, which we will show you how to do.

Coaching Is the Key
Next, it’s a question of how comfortable you are coaching your recommenders. Again, it needs to be written in their words, but you can help your chances a lot by at least suggesting some stories from your work history that can illustrate your key application dimensions. Even better, create a game plan, as shown in Chapter 6, and share that with your recommenders. Also, try to provide them with a sample essay or two that provides additional details on your career goals. Review the plan with them and discuss how important the recommendation process is. In those discussions you will inevitably end up doing a lot of self-promotion, so take some time now to get comfortable with the fact that you will be tooting your own horn, or at least asking others to toot it for you! It can also be helpful to provide your recommenders with a sample recommendation, such as the one shown below, to give them an idea of the level of quality that you are expecting.

You can decide for yourself how much detail you want to include in the game plan you share with your recommenders. The idea is to give each recommender enough information so that she can make a statement about you and then back it up with a short, illustrative story. Ideally, you will give each recommender a different set of stories, so that you don’t have three people all writing about the same things. This requires some extra coordination on your part, but is an important step to ensure that each recommendation adds something new (and that they don’t all sound like they were written from the same template). Fortunately, once you do this exercise for one school’s application, it’s not too difficult to replicate for your other applications.

Make It All Fit Together
Remember that not every recommendation needs to sell 100 percent of your skills; it is most important that your recommendations all work together to present a complete picture of you as a well-rounded applicant. So, if one really stresses your teamwork skills and one puts more emphasis on your leadership skills, that’s fine. In fact, it’s ideal in that it helps keep your letters of recommendation from all sounding the same as one another. Of course, you may never see what each of your recommenders writes, but you can definitely influence their output by carefully controlling the inputs that you give them.

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

How to Approach Different Kinds of MBA Admissions Interviews

Who conducts your MBA admissions interview depends on a few things. Where you’re applying obviously matters a lot: Some schools only have admissions personnel conduct interviews, while others rely on a mix of admissions officers, students, and alumni. Where you live also affects how you’re interviewed — if you’re applying to a school on another continent, that school will normally be more willing do your interview by phone or (increasingly) by Skype.

Every business school’s policy is different, and MBA programs’ policies can change over time. For instance, last year Wharton announced that its alumni would no longer conduct interviews, and that all interviews would instead be conducted by admissions representatives or students. So, as you research your target business schools, make sure you’re preparing with the latest information.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on what to expect, based on who conducts your MBA admissions interview:

As interviewers, business school alumni have a reputation for being a little more laid back in terms of how they conduct an interview. They will also have some guidelines for conducting the interview, but tend to be more willing to let it evolve into a natural conversation. Remember, though, that they are still evaluating you. Even more importantly, these are the interviews where you most risk not covering everything that you want to talk about. If there are certain messages that you want to convey and the interviewer just wants to talk about the Yankees, know that the onus is still on you to cover those messages. Also, keep in mind that alumni interviews tend to be the least restrictive in terms of time. Many alumni will let an interview stretch on for well over an hour, if you are both enjoying the conversation. Finally, be prepared for a little more variability in your experience. While most applicants report having great interviews with alumni, there are more than a couple of horror stories of applicants being traumatized by weird, rude, or even harassing interviewers. These types of stories are rare, but know that experiences with alumni interviewers will vary more than those with other kinds of interviewers.

Admissions Officer
These interviews often are the most formal, and the most specific in terms of what the interviewer is looking for. Admissions personnel will usually have a form from which they work, and will make an effort to cover each area before the interview is over. Beware, though, that if the admissions officer doesn’t cover everything in the allotted time and some questions go unanswered, it will be considered your fault. Your main line of defense against this problem is making sure that you don’t ramble. Later on, we will discuss how you can make sure to cover the most important parts of your story.

Some schools, such as Wharton and Kellogg, train their students to conduct interviews. These students will typically work off of the same forms that admissions officers use. While you may hit it off with some students and end up having an informal conversation, many students tend to conduct interviews “by the book” even more so than admissions officers. Schools tend to use the interview feedback they get from students in the same way as the feedback they get from admissions officers. So, you should treat an interview with a student the same as an interview with an admissions officer.

Faculty Member
While having a faculty member interview you is extremely uncommon, there are some schools (INSEAD is one example) that might have you interview with a professor. These interviews generally feel like a discussion with an admission officer, but tend to be more academic in nature. Therefore, you should go into the discussion having a good understanding of the academic choices you’ve made in addition to being able to articulate what you want to get out of the curriculum.

So, knowing all of this, how should you prepare for your admissions interview? Although the meat of your preparation will be the same no matter who interviews you, be aware that there will be some subtle differences in your experience depending on who conducts the interview. Again, your preparation will barely be affected, but it helps to know what to expect going in. If you go into a formal interview expecting just that, then you will likely be well prepared and not be rattled by the formality.

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Businessweek MBA Rankings for 2012

Bloomberg Businessweek has just released its business school rankings for 2012. While it’s debatable as to whether the Businessweek MBA ranking system or the U.S. News ranking system (the other most popular U.S.-based ranking for American programs) is more valid, the fact that BW’s rankings only come out every two years always creates a little more buildup for this moment.

Here are the top 25 U.S. business schools, according to Bloomberg Businessweek:

1. University of Chicago (Booth)
2. Harvard Business School
3. University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
4. Stanford Graduate School of Business
5. Northwestern University (Kellogg)
6. Duke University (Fuqua)
7. Cornell University (Johnson)
8. University of Michigan (Ross)
9. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)
10. University of Virginia (Darden)
11. Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
12. Dartmouth College (Tuck)
13. University of California at Berkeley (Haas)
14. Columbia Business School
15. University of Indiana (Kelley)
16. New York University (Stern)
17. University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)
18. UCLA (Anderson)
19. University of Texas at Austin (McCombs)
20. University of Notre Dame (Mendoza)
21. Yale School of Management
22. Emory University (Goizueta)
23. Georgia Tech (Scheller)
24. University of Maryland (Smith)
25. Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Big changes? Cornell’s Johnson School jumped six spots, from 13th in 2010 to 7th this year. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School jumped four spots, from 15th to 11th. Indiana’s Kelley School also jumped four spots, from 19th to 15th. Haas and Columbia suffered two of the largest drops, falling from 8th and 9th to 13th and 14th this year, respectively.

While each of these moves is nothing to get too excited about, it’s interesting to think about the underlying drivers. It’s not hard to imagine that, in Columbia’s case, continued softness in hiring by banks contributed to its own students only ranking Columbia 20th best among all schools. That’s just one example of knowing he “why” behind the rankings — and not just the rankings themselves — is critical as you research MBA programs

For more MBA admissions news and advice, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

How to Lead Your MBA Recommendation Writers Astray

Putting forward excellent letters of recommendation in your MBA application is a challenge: You’re asking someone who probably knows very little about the business school admission game to argue persuasively that an MBA admissions officer should take a chance on you instead of another ultra-impressive candidate. We’ve written before about how you can boost your chances significantly by choosing someone who knows you well and by arming that person with specific examples of your past deeds to illustrate just how terrific you are. Doing these things can dramatically improve your ability to stand out vs. other applicants.

How can you manage to sabotage your own recommendation writers? Here are three ways:
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