Archive | Inspiration

Storytelling to Demonstrate the Real You in B-school Essays

As you sit down to draft your first essay, you might want to think about telling the story of you.  That’s the most effective way to stand out from the rest of the pack and show just how interesting you are.

Tell Stories

Whether you are writing essays, crafting presentations, or getting ready for an interview. Why do stories work? Because they demonstrate behaviors, and show in a few words a whole lot about a person’s character. Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball, and possibly the best business writer on the planet, has been called “a genius at showing how small anecdotes revealed larger truths.”
In business school applications and interviews, telling stories brings those bullet points on your resume to life. But as an applicant, you not only have word limits, but you don’t have a lot of time to get and keep a reader’s attention.

A Story Without a Challenge is Not a Story
I have some good news! All you have to do is follow a few storytelling rules. The most important is that you’ve got to include some kind of challenge.

Most stories in the world are based on myths, and the hero who goes out to slay the monster is one of the oldest. Screenwriters love this tale; many of your favorite TV shows, movies, and video games are based on this theme, which was articulated by Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist. In his many writings, he talked about the archetypical hero, an everyman who is challenged and changed by his adventure. Just look at Luke Skywalker, or Katniss Everdeen. But if you look deeper at the model, you can notice the way challenges force heroes to grow and change; you can even find it in characters ranging from Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black to Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.

Set It Up and Explain the HOW
Even the littlest success (or failure) in your career history can turn into a story.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Take a bullet point from your resume, for example
Revamped a sales memorandum within three days for major client on sale of its stake in a European software firm; attracted 28 bidders.”
A. Identify challenge: Overhaul an important document for a very important client in a short period of time.
B. Demonstrate tangible results : Made company attractive to bidders, client happy, your boss happy.

Step 2: Explore HOW you arrived at results. This is where it gets interesting:
A. Took the time to figure out a plan (skills: ability to strategize, think through a problem)
B. Pulled in a SWAT team to help – for example, other analysts to run numbers or set up charts and visuals. You may have cajoled, offered pizza, or traded tasks. (skills: teamwork, influence, follow-through)
C. Was able to understand what senior partners needed in the sales memo (skills: managing up, anticipating requirements)

The Twist
In line with most challenges, you probably had a twist which made the story even more interesting. For example, in the middle of the process the stock market crashed/a tsunami hit/a subcontractor blew up. You and your team stayed focused and arrived at the result needed.

Meanwhile, as you go through the exercise, remember to keep yourself likeable – keep in mind that your reader is looking for self-awareness, where you acknowledge your own doubts and foibles. Keep it real, keep it humble, and you will absolutely win the hearts and minds of your readers.

What You Wish You Had Known Before Applying to Business School

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A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was recently admitted to Wharton (really) and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. She was also a reapplicant, and has learned While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!


I am so glad that I reapplied. I was rejected from the four top business school programs I applied to three years ago (all without an interview). While it stung to get so little traction in the business school process, I did not take it as a sign that I wasn’t “meant” for business school. Instead I tried to understand the weaknesses in my application and knew that I would try again and do it better. I have learned so much in the application process and am very happy I have even more experience that I can bring to business school when I attend.

Get feedback! Make sure the people you are asking have something valuable to add to the process and take the time to listen — better to find two people who will give you great feedback than send your materials to 10 people and listen to no one.

Also, be strategic in your decisions about who you want to use for help in the application process, and seek out those people early on. Make sure you really WANT someone’s feedback before asking for it; I have been on both sides of the equation. Recently, a friend asked for feedback on his essays. I spent a lot of time on his essays and when I returned them it seemed that he hardly looked at my suggestions. He was giving me the essays because he thought that was what you were supposed to do, but had little interest in following up on the suggestions or incorporating feedback.

In terms of my advice for people who have been waitlisted or general feedback for students after they have applied: the most valuable thing I’ve done in my application process is turn every moment I have been frustrated into an opportunity to do something. When I found myself going crazy waiting for one program to get back to me while another waited on my decision, I brainstormed a list of all the things I had accomplished since I applied and wrote a letter to the school where I was waitlisted explaining those accomplishments. I created a campaign fueled by waiting and (sometimes) panic and created something productive. I am so glad I did this, because the time you spend sitting anxiously waiting and checking MBA chat forums is, in the end, not useful (though I did that too).

Given the calculus course I am taking and other requirements, I have completely neglected to begin financial planning and thinking about the costs and consequences of my decision. I wish I had done this in a systematic way earlier, not only so that I would be better prepared and informed about my choices and responsibilities, but also because finances are an important part of my final decision (for instance, I am trying to make a decision about two programs that cost vastly different amounts of money). Now I am finding myself overwhelmed at the process of tackling everything right now. If I had to do it again, I would start planning and filling out financial aid information earlier and getting the advice of students, faculty, family and others about their tips on going through the process.

This story has been updated since Jennifer graduated – from UC Berkeley Haas, her first-choice school. She turned down Wharton to go to Haas, and has had notable success with the start-up she launched during business school.

This story has been updated since Jennifer graduated – from UC Berkeley Haas, her first-choice school. She turned down Wharton to go to Haas, and has had notable success with the start-up she launched during business school.
A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was admitted to Wharton and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!
A student I worked with, let’s call her Jennifer, was admitted to Wharton and waitlisted at her first-choice school, UC Berkeley. While waiting, she agreed to offer advice from the trenches, of one who succeeded in the process. She discusses four issues: staying committed to the goal, receiving feedback, waiting (lists), and financial matters. This is very useful stuff!

What To Read Now

It’s been a long time since I have written here — it’s March 1 and surely time  to pull out the always appropriate blog post on MBA admission chances for Round 3.  The basic tenets still hold true:  the chances are much slimmer, but if your time is right, your time is right.

The Leadership Component in Admissions
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership. Partly because I’ve been honored to be helping out at the Stanford GSB on what they call L.O.W. Keynote speeches. (“LOW” stands for Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.  These are like student TED talks for the students and are a combination of personal and professional.) I’ve also been thinking about leadership because I’ve been reading a lot.

A Pre-MBA Reading List

My reading list is always eclectic, but I am concentrating on books that I think will help pre-MBA candidates think about their future prospects, help potential applicants start on the self-reflection that is required to submit a good application, and indeed, be a great business school student.  One book that gets you in the mood for thinking about your future is Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life.  Clayton Christensen is a senior professor at Harvard Business School and the author of some famous books on innovation. Here’s his TED talk. The book was interesting in that it encouraged the reader to look at her life as a strategic plan, using the competitive strategy model as a blueprint for life decisions. It mostly works, and got me thinking.

Climbing High

At the same time, a friend of mine, Alison Levine, (picture to the right) published a great, funny, irreverent book on leadership that deserves to be read everyone, including outdoor enthusiasts. Take a look at On the Edge: the Art of High Impact Leadership.  Alison is no standard trekker, she is climber who has done the “Explorers Grand Slam,” which includes the highest peak on each continent, skiing across both poles, performing some of these feats while ditching her derivatives final at Fuqua, others while on leave of absence from Goldman Sachs, and still others in between her lectures at West Point and on behalf of charitable organizations. The thing that gets me about Alison, is that she is so alive and funny. I will be writing up an interview with her for Poets and Quants but meanwhile, check out her book of leadership tips, which include things like, “get used to being sleep deprived,”  “assume everyone on your team is in a leadership position” and “sometimes the weakest link on the team can be you.”   Bad pun but, she rocks.

Articles on Leadership

I can also recommend reading articles on leadership from publications like the Harvard Business Review.  To prepare for the self-exploration that is required for not only a great business school application, but a great experience when you get there, take a look at articles that discuss emotional intelligence and authentic leadership. I’ve written quite a bit on emotional IQ, one of the top characteristics business schools are looking for. (Yale School of Management is thinking of incorporating an emotional intelligence test into the admissions process.)   Take a look at Daniel Goleman’s classic article on “What Makes a Leader” to get a better understanding of the major characteristics business schools include under the leadership umbrella.

Try looking at articles on “authentic leadership” as well. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and leadership thought leader has written a book on the subject, but you can find a quicker read at the Harvard Business Review.  Many people do think that being authentic gives you license to say or do whatever you want. That’s a misunderstanding of the concept of “authentic leadership.” In fact, it means to understand what’s in your heart as well as your head. To figure out who you are at your core and what you stand for, and to learn from mistakes, failures and weaknesses in the quest for self-awareness.

You could get lost in a wonderful vortex or reading and educating yourself, and as I sit here on a rainy afternoon, I think to myself. What other way to spend the day?

Tuck School Also Debunks MBA Application Myths

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As students rush to get their applications in for the second round of MBA admissions, schools are reaching out to students to separate true from false. Part of it is because everyone runs to forums to get their information rather than directly from schools. So when I see an admissions director write up a “Mythbusting” blog post, I feel I need to pass it on. Stanford debunked myths last month, offering useful information about the GSB admissions process.

This time it’s from one of the best schools in the world, the beautiful and close-knit Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Here are the words of the straightforward Director of Admissions, Dawna Clarke (also a very nice person).

The Real Story

Dawna Clarke, addresses some of the most common questions she hears from prospective applicants in this video.

Some of the most common misconceptions about Tuck’s application process are:

Tuck allocates a specific number of admit slots per round: Not true. The number of applicants who are admitted in each round is greatly influenced by the overall quality and size of the application pool each year.

International students are less likely to be admitted after the November round: We’re not really sure how this one got started, but this is also not true. Again, because the overall makeup of the applicant pool varies from year-to-year, how and when applicants are admitted is partly the result of the ongoing application process.

If you haven’t applied by the November round, you should wait to apply early the following year: Again, not true. We admit lots of applicants in the January round and, while the April round is typically the most competitive, a strong application will stand out–regardless of the round it is received in. The important takeaway here is that you should focus on submitting the best application you can and apply when the timing works best for you.

Applicants often think that admissions directors are not as truthful about their process as they can be. I see why it’s confusion, but I suggest paying attention to the words of people like Dawna Clarke — if only to make yourself less anxious!

How Focused Do I Have to Be In My Career Goals?

Over at Wall Street Oasis, I’ve been running a Q&A forum, answering all kinds of questions from specific application tips, to queries about career goals. Yesterday, I received and answered a question on career focus that seems pretty typical, so I thought I would repost it here.

Q: I am going to business school in order to alter my career path, and believe I want to end up in the financial services/investment management GettyImages_91805592industry. However, I am not 100% committed, and intend to explore other possible industries/roles. Is it okay to admit that I have not planned out my exact post-MBA path in the essays?  Thanks!

A:  Let me tell you that you are thinking about it exactly the right way. It helps a lot when you are writing applications to be able to envision a future in a specific career. It helps you wrap your brain around the idea of what you want to be when you grow up, or even what you want to do REALLY. Harvard used to have a question, long since discarded, about your “career vision” and I like that.

The reality is that careers are fluid, and every business school worth its ranking in the top 10 will tell you that students change their minds about careers all the time. That’s because you are bumping into such great new ideas about yourself and about what’s out there that it’s impossible to march forward as if you had blinders on. In fact, a business school would be doing itself a disservice if it encouraged you to stick with the plan.

The other thing is that industries and functions change all the time. If you like financial services because that’s been your background, great, but we all know that it’s very fluid — remember the job market in 2009? But it’s also somewhat flexible. You could change functions within the industry, or use your financial skills in another industry, or you could go abroad, or you could invent something new. Or you could work for someone who invented something new ( Who really knows.

So see if you can imagine a path, and if it isn’t the one that works out, that’s ok. They don’t audit you. Promise.

Q: Should I believe you on the audit part?

A: OK, some schools do compare going-in goals with actual jobs landed (see the charts in these slides from Wharton)

But they don’t take your diploma away, if that’s what you are worried about.  In all honestly, there are too many variables, including macro ones, that will influence your career choice upon graduation. Also, some might choose a career in consulting, say, in the short term, to get to somewhere else in the long term — there are many variables. You just don’t want to look clueless going in, at least on the surface.