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GMAT, GRE, LSAT and Your Brain

Starting to think about taking the GMAT, GRE or LSAT?  This is actually the time to start looking into courses, figuring out whether you want to take a class or get a private tutor, or whether doing the online/whiteboard route works for you. You can find variations that suit your timeframe, learning style, and temperament.

Test Anxiety is Normal
Taking tests is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.  I want you all to know that I was a TERRIBLE test taker. My SAT scores were so low that I was laughed out my top choice undergraduate schools. (I eventually had to transfer into Vassar from a state school).  So when I was thinking about applying to graduate school, the hold-it-all back side of my brain flipped out. Eventually, I ended up teaching that emotional bundle of neurons to shut up and let me be the test taker I thought I ought to be. And it worked: I scored in the 93rd percentile, with roughly equal math and verbal scores. Oh, and I got into HBS, Stanford Business School, Chicago, Wharton, and Darden.  Cool, huh?

I’ve been thinking about this experience because I’ve been reading an old classic of leadership training, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman.  He describes a situation a lot of us know only too well: test anxiety. He describes, in scientific detail, an emotional hijacking.  This is where the limbic system, (the part of the brain that tells the body to breathe, pump blood, and run away from predators) disrupts the “working memory.”  So if you’ve ever been in a situation where you sit down at a computer screen in a noisy and unpleasant test center, here’s what’s probably going on.

The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. But circuits from the limbic [most primitive brain part] brain to the prefrontal lobes [the rational/working memory part] mean that signals of strong emotion – anxiety, anger, and the like—can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory.

This limbic system is the hotbed of emotions. The limbic system, which includes the amygdala, if you’ve ever heard of it, is screaming to you as you look at the test questions, “Run away, it’s too scary! You will fail!”

Well, guess what. That amygdala is useful sometimes, but it tends to overreact. And that’s where the thinking, reasoning brain comes in. The prefrontal cortex tells the panic-stricken limbic system that all is not out of control.

The problem is that the cortex sometimes takes awhile to figure out that it needs calm your hysterical primitive, running from-the-burning-house brain. You are sitting in a noisy and fear-inducing test taking center. You know you should be spending no more than two minutes per question. And you are not even conscious of all this stuff going on inside your grey matter!

You Can Get Over It

The task is to teach yourself how to speed up the “thinking brain’s” work and quell those fears.  It takes lots and lots of practice, and it can be done.

I’ve got lots of suggestions, and most of them can be found in a previous article I wrote called Train Your Brain for Test Success: Mastering Test Anxiety.” But if you want to cut to the psychological chase, pick up a copy of Dr. Ben Bernstein’s Workbook for Test Success. He’s an experienced psychologist who knows how to put that amygdala back in line.

If I figured out how to do it, anyone can. I personally know a few standardized testing (GMAT and GRE) tutors whom I like, and rather than shout out here, I am happy to take your calls and make recommendations.   Take a breath and good luck!

10 Tips for Getting Into Business School—Tip 3: Connect with Your Inner Rock Star

Welcome back to the Master Admissions 10-Tip series. In the first tip, I recommended you start early, and in the second tip , I recommended you take inventory. Now it’s time to take the leap to connect with your inner rock star.

Leadership Goes Far Beyond Any Title
Every business school is looking for students who are leaders – and that definition of leadership is very broad. “Leadership encompasses more than managing people,” says the University of Chicago’s Rose Martinelli in her excellent blog, The Rose Report. You may not have had direct reports, but “you were successful because of your influence, effective communication skills, and your ability to motivate people toward a shared goal,” she adds. Dartmouth’s Tuck defines leadership as “inspiring others to strive and enabling them to accomplish great things.”

Demonstrating leadership can mean anything from running a classroom to being the idea person in your work team. From standing up for an unpopular position, to organizing a food drive. In a nutshell, leadership is about your inner rock star.

Get Comfortable with the Personal
So how do you connect with rock-star you? First, you have to get a comfortable with the personal – the application process and the essays require a lot of introspection. Be prepared to explore what makes you want to excel. Admissions officers are clear that they want a fully three-dimensional person sitting in those coveted business school seats. Derrick Bolton, head of the Stanford GSB admissions committee, explains it succinctly: “We want a holistic view of you as a person: your values, passions, ideas, experiences, and aspirations.”

Introspection can, and should be individual. Going through the process of thinking about what makes you that motivated, driven, inspired leader of tomorrow can feel onerous. So make sure you take notes.

You might want to keep a journal of those observations. If you feel that a journal is too Oprah, just scribble down your own observations and thoughts. If you work on a team, take notes on what works, and what doesn’t. Where do you fit in? What would it take for you to oppose the consensus of the group. Notes on group dynamics will also help when you might want to come up with examples of team wins, losses, or conflict resolution.

You’d be surprised over the course of weeks or even months of what you have written. Thoughts and impressions that might have otherwise been lost to memory will help when you start drafting the essays and crafting your story.

Leadership = Emotional IQ

Looking for these rock star traits within yourself does not have to be an exercise in bravado.
Schools are also looking for leaders that present emotional intelligence. For those who haven’t read and dissected Daniel Goleman’s classic works on Emotional IQ, get started now. You can find a summary of his seminal article , “What Makes a Leader?” in a post I wrote back in December. Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence has dramatically improved the global discussion of leadership. Hopefully, this model will help you take both a broader, deeper, and more self-aware view of what you bring to the party.

Leadership is the heart and soul of the business school program. For some more inspiration on how schools look at leadership, take a look at Wharton’s exciting Leadership in Action Programs, Stanford GSB’s leadership labs, or wander around Harvard Business School’s Leadership mini-site.

MBA Deadlines for Round 2 Mostly Behind Us

It has been a crazy few weeks — application deadlines for the most popular application date “Round 2” have come and gone with one significant exception: Harvard Business School.

Indeed, the flagship MBA program has offered potential candidates an extra two weeks beyond Stanford GSB, Wharton and Columbia. Kellogg’s deadline is January 14, and NYU Stern, which used to be later in the month, moved its deadline up to January 15.

Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School’s director of admissions, put a note up on the admissions blog about HBS’s deadline. She offers some handy tips on essay word limits (don’t go way over, but don’t stress over a few extra words), recommender word limits (roughly one page of text, but HBS won’t cut it off if it goes over), and she tells us that it doesn’t matter whether you submit today or a few minutes before the deadline — all applications are considered equally.

Note that this is not true for all schools — Chicago comes to mind as an exception to this rule; Rose Martinelli has indicated that sending earlier in the round is helpful to her team. And then there are the schools like Columbia, which offer a rolling admissions schedule.

Having said all that, if your application was not ready by Round 2, it’s not the end of the world. I know of a woman who applied to Stanford, and only Stanford in Round 3, and got in. And I can guarantee you that her resume did not read like a joint winner of the Nobel Peace and Physics prizes.

Here’s the link to the HBS admissions FAQ.

Harvard Business School Director of Admissions Blog

Remember, proof, proof and reproof where you can. And once you hit send, make sure you go out and celebrate!

Best of luck to all of you. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. The more 85 Broads we get into business school, the better.

Application Tactics for the MBA

So much going on – coaching first-year students at Stanford Graduate School of Business on their Critical Analytic Thinking papers, advising applicants for Round 1 & 2, planning an essay-writing workshop for the Harvard Alumni Club. It’s exhilarating.

So instead I will turn to my favorite admissions blogger, Rose Martinelli, Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She reports that it does pay to apply ahead of the deadline at Chicago Booth. That does not mean that it is true in the case of all schools; HBS reps have mentioned that they do not look at anything in advance of the final deadline.

If you are curious about how your top-choice school reviews the applications, there’s no harm in asking. Just email the admissions office, or send a question in advance of one of their many chats, and you’ll likely get a response.

Here’s Rose:

I’d like to address why you might want to consider applying prior to any of our Round deadlines. Since my team will begin evaluating applications at least one week prior to each application deadline, those applications that are submitted (and are considered complete with all required application parts) will be queued up to enter the evaluation process ahead of those submitted on the deadline. This means that you will hear back from the admissions committee regarding the interview process well ahead of those who wait to apply on the deadline, giving you ample time to plan whether you wish to visit campus for the interview or schedule an interview locally with an alumnus/a.

While the deadline for Round 1 is October 14, the deadline refers only to the last date that we will accept applications. So for all of you A-types that are accustomed to getting your work done well in advance of its due-date, I hope this provides you with an incentive to click submit when you’ve finished rather than wait until the deadline. Happy application writing! Rose

Rose Report

Meanwhile, take a look at some of HBS Admissions Director Dee Leopold’s answers to recent questions. (Bearing in mind that the October 1 Round 1 deadline has passed.)

HBS Admissions Blog

Feel free to email me if you have any questions of your own about b-school applications. –Betsy

Chicago Admissions Director Nails It

Rose Martinelli, head of admissions at the Chicago Booth Business School, just posted an insightful piece about the MBA admissions process on her blog. Admissions committee members are increasingly transparent about what they are looking for. No matter what school you are applying to: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, or any other, her words ring true:

In the midst of all the preparations to apply for business school – studying for the GMAT, researching schools, drafting essays (and trying to keep up with your regular life) — it’s very easy to forget about the importance of taking some time for reflection. Here’s an excerpt:

“There are many tools you can use to help facilitate your self assessment process, but one of the simplest is creating a timeline and inserting points of importance on that timeline (whether good or bad) that were critical to your development. Don’t limit your reflection to work and school alone, but expand it to your interests, passions and community. Once you have completed this, go back and reflect on each point – What did you learn? How have you changed? Etc. The goal is to gain an understanding of your history so that you can build upon it as you pursue the next phase in your life. This process should also help you come up with the “whys” behind your decision to go back to school and which degree may be right for you.”

The Rose Report