Author Archive | betsy

From the Archives: former GSB Director’s Thoughts on Essays

Stanford GSB admissions directorDerrick Bolton, the head of admissions for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, had been in the post for over a decade, and had written some thoughtful essays of his own regarding the GSB essays.  Since he has moved on to other things, some of his best writings have been scrubbed from the website.   I was fortunate enough to find a copy of some really thoughtful advice, and wanted to publish it here so that others can benefit in perpetuity.

Stanford MBA Program essays

Director’s Corner
In last month’s Director’s Corner, I explained my sincere belief that you benefit from the business school application experience  – regardless of the outcome of the process.  Because essay writing demands so much of your focused energy and time, it can be most difficult to maintain your perspective during what is probably one of the most contemplative periods of your life.  Stanford professor Bill Damon’s most recent book, The Moral Advantage: How to Succeed in Business by Doing the Right Thing, contained a passage that might help you maintain the larger context as you delve into the essay-writing process:

We are not always aware of the forces that ultimately move us.  While focusing on the “how” questions – how to survive, how to get ahead, how to make a name for ourselves – often we forget the “why” questions that are more essential for finding and staying on the best course: Why pursue this objective? Why behave in this manner? Why aspire to this kind of life? Why become this type of person?

These “why” questions help us realize our highest aspirations and our truest interests.  To answer these questions well, we must decide what matters most to us, what we will be able to contribute to in our careers, what are the right (as opposed to the wrong) ways of behaving as we aim toward this end, and, ultimately, what kind of persons we want to become.  Because everyone, everywhere, wants to live an admirable life, a life of consequence, the “why” questions cannot be ignored for long without great peril to one’s personal stability and enduring success. It is like ignoring the rudder on a ship – no matter how much you look after all the boat’s other moving parts, you may end up lost at sea.

The two Stanford MBA Program essays provide you a structured opportunity to reflect on your own “truest interests” and “highest aspirations”.  The essays, along with the letters of reference, are a vital part of the application process.  While the letters of reference are stories about you told by others, the essays enable you to tell us who you are by articulating what matters most to you and why, as well as how you have decided you can best contribute to society. Please think of the Stanford essays as conversations on paper – each time we read a file, we feel that we meet a person, also known as our “flat friends” – and tell us your story in a straightforward, sincere way.

The most important piece of advice on the essays is extremely simple: answer the questions – each component of each question. An additional suggestion for writing essays is equally straightforward: think – a lot; then write. We ask about your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations – and what kind of person you wish the Stanford MBA Program to help you become. Reflective, insightful essays help us envision the individual behind all of the experiences and accomplishments that we read about elsewhere in your application. Your essays are not the entirety of your application: we are reading them with all the information contained in your application as part of a holistic process. Please remember that the admission process for the Stanford MBA Program focuses on intangibles: character and competence, with an emphasis on character. Our goal is to understand what motivates you and how you have become the person you are today.

In the first essay, tell a story – and tell a story that only you can tell. This essay should be descriptive and told in a straightforward and sincere way. This probably sounds strange, given that these are essays for business school, but we don’t necessarily expect to hear about your business experience in this essay (though, of course, you are free to write about whatever you would like). Remember that we have your entire application – work history, letters of reference, etc. – to learn what you have accomplished and the type of impact you have made. Your task is to connect the people, situations, and events in your life with the values you adhere to and the choices you have made – and then to communicate that through your essay. In other words, the essays give you a terrific opportunity to learn about yourself!  While many good essays describe the “what”, great essays move to the next order and describe how and why these things have influenced your life. The most common mistake applicants make is spending too much time describing the what and not enough time describing how and why these guiding forces have shaped your behavior, attitudes, and objectives in your personal and professional lives. We do appreciate and reward thoughtful self-assessment and appropriate levels of self-disclosure.

NOTE from Betsy: the following advice is for a different essay question than “Why Stanford” but the philosophy is useful: In the second essay, please remember that there are three distinct parts to this question (you do not need to answer them separately as long as all three are addressed within your essay). First, we ask you to provide us with a sense of your passions and your focused interests – what you hope to contribute in your career in the short term and in the long term. You don’t need to have your entire life planned, but applicants often find it difficult to address why an MBA is required to achieve your goals if the goals themselves are ill-defined. You should be honest, with yourself and with us, in explaining what you aspire to achieve. Then, please explain why, of all the choices in your life at this time, pursuing an MBA is the best way for you to achieve your personal and professional aspirations. Describe why an MBA is the right way for you to progress toward your professional aim and to develop into the person you seek to become. Finally, explain why you believe that Stanford is the right MBA program to help you reach your goals. <Bolton’s comments on a question that has changed.

I’d like to address a couple of myths. First, one of the most good-spirited but misguided pieces of advice is “Tell the admissions committee what makes you unique” in your essays. This often leads applicants to believe that you need to have accomplishments or feats that are unusual or different than your peers (e.g., traveling to an exotic place or talking about a tragic situation in your life). How are you to know which of your experiences are unique when you know neither the backgrounds of the other applicants nor the topics they have chosen? What makes you unique is not that you have had these life-altering experiences, but rather how and why your perspective has changed or been reinforced as a result of those and other everyday experiences. That is a story that only you can tell. If you concentrate your efforts on telling us who you are, differentiation will occur naturally; if your goal is to appear unique, you may achieve the opposite effect. Please remember that most Stanford MBAs have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.

Second, there is a widespread myth that if you have stupendous essays, you can compensate for an otherwise unconvincing application; and that if you don’t have amazing essays, you won’t be admitted even if you are a compelling applicant. Please be assured that we try to give the benefit of the doubt to the applicant rather than to the application. This means that we will admit someone despite the application essays if we feel we’ve gotten a good sense of the person overall. And the corollary is true: even the best essays will not result in admission for an uncompelling applicant.  Yes, the essays are important. But they are neither our only avenue of understanding you, nor are they disproportionately influential in the admission process.

Alumnus Leo Linbeck, MBA ’94 told me on an alumni panel in Houston a couple of years ago something that I have since appropriated.  Leo said that, in management terms, the Stanford essays are not a marketing exercise – they are an accounting exercise. This is not an undertaking in which you look at an audience/customer (i.e., the Admissions Committee) and then write what you believe we want to hear. It is quite the opposite. This is a process in which you look inside yourself and try to express most clearly what is there. We are trying to get a good sense of your perspectives, your passion for leadership, and how Stanford can help you realize your goals. As professor Damon would say, we are helping you ensure that your rudder steers you to the right port.

Derrick Bolton
[Former] Assistant Dean and Director of MBA Admissions

Choosing an MBA Program: What School Should Be on Your List?

Chosing an MBA schoolMany students who are applying to business school know they want to go to a top school, but don’t know how to come up with a target list.  You might have an idea from rankings, which are a place to see the names of schools, but I’ll say it right here: It’s not useful to just go through the rankings list and pick the top 4 or 5.  You can be more thoughtful than that.  But how do you begin?

10 Things You Can Do Right Now to Start Your List of Schools

Here are 10 things you can do right now to figure out which school should be on your long list.  Unless you absolutely hate a school because of its location, or you think everyone you’ve ever met from that school is a weenie, keep an open mind about schools you simply want to research. It doesn’t mean you have to apply, or if you get in, go. But it helps you clarify your thinking.

  • Ask trusted friends

Ideally, you want to ask friends who know what they are talking about, who have applied, rather than those who are just reading rumors on the internet.  Work colleagues, alumni of your undergraduate school all might have some insights from their own experiences.

  • Think of people you know and admire who hold an MBA

Ask them why they chose that school and how it helped them become who they are.

  • Look up people in your target field and see where they went to business school

LinkedIn has a variety of free ways you can search to figure that out (just make sure you put in “MBA” a search parameter). Or find the profiles of executives at companies you like and deconstruct their career paths.

  • Pick a school, any school, and look at their employment reports

It’s worth it to wander around the career section of a school’s website See who recruits at the school, check out top employers, dig into the actual names of companies that employ students. Also, LinkedIn can help you here – especially if you know the right tricks. (Spelled out in this blog post.)

  • Go to in-person events.

Because it is summertime when I am writing this, going to class is usually not an option. But every business school goes on international and national road trips. These incredibly worthwhile presentations include a mix of admissions officers, current students, alumni, and sometimes senior faculty. The best way to get a seat is to get on the school mailing list so they can email you details of all upcoming events.  Let me say that again in italics: The best way to get a seat is to get on the school mailing list so they can email you details of all upcoming events.  Note: you will not get dinged from a school if you register to a big event and cannot make it.

  • Read through school websites.

Not just the overall marketing material and student voices, which are helpful, but look at the academics. Look at courses, concentrations, special research centers, and initiatives. Many schools have special centers for entrepreneurship and social innovation; but what about real estate, health care, luxury goods, data analytics, or global operations?

  • Look at the school profiles.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a school profile gives the demographics and breakdown of an entering class.  Importantly, you’ll find the average (and hopefully range of) grades, scores, years of work experience, geographic breakdown, previous industry, and more fun statistics to see if you are in the ball park for that school. Be realistic, but don’t consider these numbers gospel. In the case of GPAs, for example, schools are more interested in the quality of your transcript as well as the absolute number. (I talk about it here in this Poets and Quants article. )

  • Look at all-in costs and probabilities of financial aid.

Poets and Quants has done some great work on the average grant size and number of students on financial aid for top schools. Combine this with their work on current costs of business school, and you might add or subtract some schools.

  • Look at a map.

Even in this global world, location does matter. But do keep an open mind.  Most schools are right near major airports, so you can explore and interview without too much trouble.  Still, location tends to have a visceral pull, especially if a spouse or significant other are coming along for the ride.  (And yes, ask for their input.)

  • Look at rankings.

Of course they matter.  But be smart about them.  They are imperfect, and they shouldn’t drive your entire decision.  Or you will drive yourself crazy, and life is so much better than that.

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

resilience as a leadership traitThe essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

Describing Leadership in MBA Essays When You’re Not the Boss

Leadership in MBA Essays

Ex-Marine Angie Morgan

The MBA essay questions are coming out, and students are already pondering how they can make themselves stand out and show leadership in MBA essays. It’s no secret that admissions readers want to read about an applicant’s personal leadership experience.

But what counts as leadership experience? And what if you’re not the boss?

Many students who are admitted to the best business schools aren’t the boss, but are leaders anyway.  That’s because leaders show themselves in many different ways.  Even in the Marines, for example.  Angie Morgan, a Michigan Ross MBA, spent eight years as a Marine, and in many cases throughout her career, she was not the senior person on the team.  But she learned how to show leadership by prioritizing the needs of others.  That is, by prioritizing the needs of the team.

In the video below, she explains that as an individual, even if you are not leading a project, or do not have direct reports, or are not in charge of an initiative, you can still help build a team among the colleagues around you.  “If you step up an serve those around you, you’re going to build that team.”

Every business school looks for emerging leaders; leaders who can influence outcomes and inspire others.  Harvard Business School’s mission is big and bold, “We edcuate leaders who make a difference in the world.”  But to be accepted into a program like Harvard, you have to make things happen, and if you think back on times when you have well served a team, that might very well be a great example of leadership.

I like to look at Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Leadership Behavior Grid of character traits and competencies.  Some of the categories that they are defining as leadership traits are “results orientation,” ” influence and collaboration,” ” developing others” “change leadership” and “trustworthiness.”  Read through the highest standard and you will see similar themes: it’s about serving others.  For example, they describe the gold standard for “influence and collaboration” as “builds enduring partnerships within and outside of organization to improve effectiveness, even at short-term personal cost.” 

Read through the grid and you will see that the military model of service to the team is a good place to start when thinking about how you can describe your own leadership patterns.  You don’t have to have a fancy title. You can lead by stepping in and making a diffierence, empowering others, or standing up for what you know is right.

More on leadership and the MBA:

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

On Failure and the MBA Essays

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays 

The Classic: Leadership and the MBA Application

Harvard Kennedy School Outreach for MPP students


If you are interested in a Master of Public Policy, there is no better school in the world than the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  I’ve been lucky to have advised many students on their quest to attend this program and all have been accepted!  Of course, that has more to do with the quality of the great international students I get to wor with.

HKS goes out of its way to meet prospective students and to be available for information and questions.  I’ve just received an email from Matt Clemons, Director of Admissions at the Kennedy School, outlining their plans for the admissions cycle that begins in 2018.
Reprinted with links below:

The response deadline for 2017 admission recently passed and we are now shifting more of our focus to the next recruitment cycle. A big part of our focus will be on scheduling opportunities for prospective applicants to meet with members of the HKS community around the world. In addition to travels by our staff, HKS students will be completing professional development opportunities in the coming months and many will volunteer to meet with prospective applicants. We worked with students and alumni to schedule over 50 events during June, July, and August last year.

As we schedule events we will make updates to our Admissions Blogrecruitment calendar and Twitter account. We also host virtual information sessions that allow anyone with an internet connection to participate.

Sessions led by students or alumni are usually small, casual gatherings at public places like coffee shops and current students/alumni share about their HKS experience. HKS students and alumni are not experts in the admissions process and the sessions are not formal admission interviews nor do the students or alumni sit on an Admissions Committee or pass along evaluative comments for Committee members to consider. The sessions are simply a time for prospective students to hear from HKS students and/or alumni about their experiences at HKS.

The Admissions Committee has also started to meet to discuss possible changes to the admissions application in the coming year. I just started a long-term application planning series on the blog that will run throughout the summer. You can see the first entry here.  If you wish to subscribe to our Admissions Blog to receive updates each time a new post is published, click on the following link to enter your email address:

Link to Admissions Blog email subscription service – https://goo.gl/ACaFoN 

In person information sessions currently available for registration or being planned are below. If details are pending please make sure to check ourAdmissions Blog and/or our recruitment calendar for updates.

Harare, Zimbabwe – April 26 – click here to register (student-led session)

Managua, Nicaragua – April 28 – click here to register

Vancouver, BC – Late May/Early June

Portland, Oregon – June

Salem, Oregon – June

Eugene, Oregon – June

Budapest, Hungary – June

Vienna, Austria – June

Prague, Czech Republic – June

Washington, DC – June/July

New York, NY – July

I will also be hosting a WeChat conversation (messaging application used predominantly in China) on Wednesday, April 26. For information on how to participate see this Admissions Blog entry or this WeChat promotional link.

Please note that our online application for 2018 admission consideration will be available in September and the deadline to submit the application will be in early December. We are working on final dates and will release details as our plans become final. If you are planning to apply you can get started by reviewing our application requirements page. Thank you for your interest in Harvard Kennedy School—my staff and I look forward to assisting you.

Sincerely,

Matt Clemons
Director of Admissions
Harvard Kennedy School

617-495-1155
admissions@hks.harvard.edu