Tag Archives | Admissions

The Growth Mindset and the MBA Leadership Essays

MBA leadershipI am not a very good athlete, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when I decided to pick up a new sport. I decided to learn to row – not in a traditional rowboat, but in a long skinny shell with two 10-foot oars. It isn’t that hard, except you’ve got to do a few things right or you end up in the water.

But to really enjoy it, at least for me, I had to accept the fact that I was a novice.  And that meant not expecting myself to get it perfect from the very beginning.  As I found myself cursing my inability to square my blades, I realized that my mind was not allowing me to enjoy what should be a serene, zen-like experience.

Mindset
I was guilty of what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls the “fixed” mindset instead of the more constructive “growth” mindset.  Dweck is an authority on things like brain science and learning. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” she describes the growth mindset as a far superior method for transforming effort into success.  The growth mindset allows you to focus on self-development, self-motivation, and responsibility for results.  A growth mindset keeps you from saying, “I’m a natural-born loser,” and instead saying, “I need to work harder at this.”  In a growth mindset, people are not afraid to make an error, look silly, or show a deficiency.

The growth mindset represents a key leadership characteristic.  It’s no surprise that since 2015, Kellogg’s MBA program has this preface to one of the application questions: Pursuing an MBA is a catalyst for personal and professional growth. How have you grown in the past? How do you intend to grow at Kellogg? 

Dweck’s decades of research are particularly relevant for people aiming for business school.  The growth mindset resonates on a strategic level, considering the personal leadership attributes sought by admissions officers of most business schools. It also resonates on a tactical level, in studying for the GMAT or GRE.

 

The Strategic: Leading
Business schools seek out people with attributes that will make them leaders who will change the world for the better. They are looking for people who don’t give up and see hurdles as a challenge. They want people who can learn from others to improve themselves and their environment.  I worked with one student, now on his way to Wharton, who appeared on the surface to be an all-or-nothing high achiever. At first, he looked like the “typical MBA,” never a good sign. But later, in his application and interview, he mentioned something both disarming and revealing: he never learned to swim. So as an adult, he decided to jump in.  When discussing his recent lessons in swimming, he said “It is never too late for a fervent beginner.” That’s the growth mindset.

The Tactical: Testing
Standardized tests demand a growth mindset. The computer-adapted tests, which give you harder questions if you answer right and easier questions if you score wrong, can send the fixed-mindset student into a failure spiral that will ruin any chances of a decent score.  The growth mindset, however, allows the student to work toward mastery. To put the time and the effort into learning the material and the process.   The growth mindset allows the student to embrace the possibility that skills can be learned (they can), and that sustained effort (and a good coach) leads to accomplishment.  The person with a growth mindset loves to conquer a challenge, while the person with the fixed mindset demands perfection right away.

There may have been a time when business schools were looking only for people with natural-born talent.  But as the world has changed and management science has evolved, MBA  programs want growth-mindset types in their classes. They want people who are willing to try new things, and are prepared to not be perfect the first time out.  They want people who think of themselves as works in progress.

And that’s why learning a new sport (or skill, or technique, or trick) isn’t so bad. I know I was clumsy and got it all wrong with my first attempt at rowing. But no harm done.  I’ll just keep trying until I get it right.

Whenever that may be.

Wrestling with MBA Application Essays

You are thinner, of course

Writing MBA essays can be hard work. If you know anyone who is applying to business school you may have heard them muttering to themselves, “What does matter most to me and why?” (Stanford GSB) or  “What do you hope to gain professionally from the Wharton MBA?”  (or any other school).  They may be victims of an energy-draining syndrome that shows itself every year about this time called MBA essay nightmare.  It’s a regular sinkhole of drafting, pondering, redrafting, questioning, redrafting, wondering if it is getting better or worse, redrafting, and whining.

The essays matter.  Of course the GMAT does too, and, but the real differentiator is the answer to the question behind all those questions, “Why should we admit you to our business school?”

Your answer is going to be as unique as your own DNA. But getting there is quite the chore. You could watch this MBA Podcaster video on YouTube regarding essays (in which I feature with admissions reps from Wharton and Columbia Business School), or you could read on.

Writing is HARD. You aren’t the only sufferer.

I’m going to tell you a secret.  Writing isn’t easy for anyone.  Oh, every so often, someone will tell you that they whipped up their essays the night before the deadline and were accepted everywhere they applied.   Fine.  That person is in the minority.

If you are finding that you are writing and rewriting, and rewriting again, and then stumbling, and rewriting, you are not alone.  Ernest Hemingway was said to have rewritten the ending of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” 39 times. That’s just the ending.  That means he already struggled with getting words down on paper for the first time.  Remember the movie “Adaptation,” where the main character  nearly drives himself crazy from writers block?   That should remind you that lots of people have faced down a blank page.

To write those essays, you have to start somewhere, and believe me, your first try doesn’t have to be perfect.  In fact, it can be terrible. Annie Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, a wonderful book on the writing process, life, and everything else, says it is ok to write whatever comes into your mind. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous,” she says. “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Death by Rewriting

Or what if you are looking at an essay that you’ve rewritten two or three times, and it still isn’t going anywhere?  It feels like it is getting worse word by word. Don’t be afraid to stop writing.  Read it first thing in the morning if you are an early person, or right before you go to bed if you are a late person. Or both. Keep your computer or a pen and a printout of the draft by your bed.  Print it out, walk around with it.

If you hate it, talk the essay over with a friend, confidant, or advisor.  Tell them the story without worrying about the words on the paper.  Does it makes sense? Are you excited by it? If not, go back and forth with this other person: have them tell you when they feel your energy.  If they don’t feel your energy at all when you tell them your story, believe me, the admissions officer won’t feel it either.  You may have to start all over.

These are just some quick ideas to remind you that it is perfectly OK for you to feel stuck. This is really, really normal.  Just don’t be afraid to rewrite, revise, and reconsider your own assumptions.  You probably don’t have to go around 39 times, but give yourself permission to work it until it’s right.

A Reminder: Answer the Question

People always ask: How do I make myself stand out in an MBA application?  I have three words of advice: Answer the questions.  Advice so simple it barely seems worth mentioning.

At a recent school panel, a Yale School of Management admissions officer underscored just how much she and her colleagues pay attention to those answers. That’s because business schools craft their essay questions deliberately. They really do care. To put it in modern business jargon, a rep from UVA’s Darden School of Business encouraged audience members to “take ownership” of each school’s questions.  She’s right. Let them be a chance for earnest self-reflection; let them guide you through a process that not only gets you into business school, and leaves you with a deeper self-understanding regardless of the end result.

A lofty goal, and it’s a little too easy to get cynical, so try not to.  It never gets old.  That’s because the questions are deceptively simple and designed to get you to answer the question behind the question.  You are given a prompt, for example, “Why do you want an MBA”? That’s pretty straightforward, so answer it.  You want to be as unambiguous as you can. I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to change the way health care is delivered around the world, or I want to use private equity to support clean tech investments. There are as many answers are there are people applying, because your answer will be unique to you. But you have to do one thing: answer clearly, and preferably, answer up front. And don’t forget to answer the questions behind the question: why you?  Or, more precisely, what is it about you that puts the very special you at your computer writing an application to business school right here, right now.

No matter how you answer whatever they ask, you can still be humble and compelling in your answer. Say, for example, you want to offer as one of your reasons that you will add to the classroom debate. Support the statement, just as you would in a business problem or a pitch for angel investor money. You might add to the debate because you were raised speaking three languages, or because you were one of 12 children, or because you are passionate about number theory. Whatever you decide to write about is up to you. But you have to frame your response so it answers the question, and support that response.

Finally, just a little admonishment from another one of the panelists at the outreach program last week. Resist the urge to force answers to one school’s essay questions into answers to another school’s questions.  The message to your evaluators is that you don’t care enough about the school or are too lazy to take the time to write a genuine, unique response.  I absolutely positively know for sure that you are not lazy, so be forewarned.

That’s all. Just remember that the writers of those questions write them that way because they wanted them answered. And remember, it’s no different from a business assignment. You’d answer your boss’ question, wouldn’t you?

Interview Tips for When It REALLY Counts

Note: this post is not just relevant for business school, but appropriate for any position in a team-based company.

Welcome to the MBA admissions waiting game. And it’s interview season! The rules for interviewing for a spot in the next business school class are really no different from the rules for interviewing for a coveted job. I reckon that most of you reading this have passed that test several times over, so you are already more than halfway there.

Whether it’s for work or for school, the goal of the interviewer is to figure out what kind of a person you are in the flesh. But there’s a question behind that question too—they want to know how you will fit in. It’s partly about being likeable, but most of all, it’s being able to contribute. Consider the following:

1. The interviewer wants to know how you will be as a learning team member

Are the other members of the team going to be excited because of your industry or academic perspective? Will you be able to add something from a global perspective? From a business success or failure? The interviewer is looking for someone who is going to pull her own weight and make the team stronger.

You’ve got 30 minutes to show your stuff. Your interviewer is channeling those three or four other study group members, those who have earned their way into a very competitive school, and want to know what you bring to the table.

2. Create a portrait through vignettes

You’ve got to tell stories. I like to think of these stories as vignettes – brief scenes, as in a movie. According to Wikipedia, a vignette is a “short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives a trenchant impression about a character, an idea, or a setting.” You are telling stories that give a “flash” impression of you. Another definition of vignette is a portrait; you are filling out the portrait of yourself that you began with your essays.

What kind of stories are you going to tell? It’s ok to tell some of the same stories that were in your application. But tell them in a way as if you were talking to your three or four classmates. Tell them, with specific examples, why you will work smoothly together, how you will help them with their thinking about a problem, tell them how you will help them succeed.

3. Make it Stick

Stanford business school professor Chip Heath and his brother, Dan, a fellow at Duke’s Fuqua Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, wrote a book called Made to Stick. This book, about how ideas gain traction, made it very clear that people have to “get” your message. And what’s the biggest recommendation? Tell stories. Tell stories that are concrete, with a real problem and a real solution. And who is the hero? You.

4. Stay humble

Granted, you are telling stories about why you are great. (P.S. You are!) But don’t overdo it. You’ve done some great things, and you can add to the party, but your classmates will be turned off if you show up like you are too cool for school. UC Berkeley comes out and says that they their students possess confidence without attitude. I think they are onto something.

So tell them sticky stories (without being arrogant) about what you will bring to the classmates of this very competitive business school.

Piece of cake.

–Betsy Massar

Don’t forget to check out our new book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program

Storytelling and the business school essay

Smark-twaintories work. In MBA admissions, investor pitches, in business school classrooms, and on TED. If you want to stand out in front of a bored admissions reader, you need to engage her.  You probably already know this, because storytelling as a meme has been in vogue for the last several years.  Even a look at the august Harvard Business Review offers 14 case studies and 22 articles, going back to 2003, with titles like, “Moving from Strategic Planning to Storytelling.”

But remember, unless you’ve got the full attention of your audience (not so easy), your story can’t be much longer than an elevator pitch.  That means you’ve got to make it tight. You need to control the amount of information you give out to get to your point.  JD Schramm, professor of strategic communications at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, gets right to the point:  “think carefully about how much detail to include; not too much and not too little.”

When writing stories, though, it’s ok to start with a bigger story and cut it down to the equivalent of a poem or haiku.  That’s the beauty of iterative drafts. I’ve seen lots of essay brainstorms start out with, “she said this, I did that, this happened, then we did this…”  And over time, the essence of the story not only engages the reader, but makes her want to know more about you.

Here is a how-to guide a few handy rules to get you started picking good stories for your essays and interviews:

Make sure your story has a challenge

A story without a challenge is not a story. Imagine Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader, or Dorothy without the wicked witch, or team USA vs. Russia.  Good stories have a challenge. That’s what keeps people interested.   Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing, also at the Stanford GSB, says that a story has to show some vulnerability to be believable. She says, “Hone in on your protagonist’s problems or barriers to achieving her goal. What is standing in her way? By incorporating moments of vulnerability or doubt, you create empathy and lend authenticity to the story.”

Set It Up and Explain the HOW

Almost every success (or failure) in your career history can be turned into a story.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Take a bullet point from your resume

  1. Identify challenge: Overhaul a sales memo for an important financial deal in a short period of time.
  2. Demonstrate tangible results: Made target company attractive to bidders and your client happy

Step 2: Explore HOW you arrived at results

  1. Took the time to figure out a plan (skills: ability to strategize, think through a problem)
  2. Pulled in colleagues to help – for example, other analysts to run numbers or create charts and visuals. You may have cajoled, offered pizza, or traded tasks. (skills: teamwork, influence, follow-through)
  3. Was able to translate to the document what senior partners needed in the sales memo (skills: managing up, anticipating requirements)

The Twist

Like with most challenges, you probably had a twist that made the story even more interesting. For example, the stock market crashed/a tsunami hit/a subcontractor went bankrupt. You and your team stayed focused and arrived at the result needed.

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

The Payoff

Your stories don’t have to all have Hollywood endings.  In fact, some of the best stories have ambivalent endings, because, that’s life.  But you always, always learned something. I remember a workshop I took ages ago where the motto was, “You can’t learn less.”

And the real issue in essay-writing/storytelling is to reflect on what you learned.  Business schools don’t need for you to be just a raconteur, but a thoughtful, reflective leader, who can engage the audience.  And show some personal growth as well.