Tag Archives | business school applications

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.

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.

Stanford GSB Debunks MBA Application Myths

 

Students who are applying to business school are rightfully nervous about their chances for getting in. And there are some urban myths that certainly go around the blogosphere about interviews, campus visits and chances. Thankfully, the admissions office at Stanford Graduate School of business has taken on the job of myth-buster, at least according to the GSB.  This is from their admissions blog post of November 8, 2013:

LET THE MYTH BUSTING BEGIN

— by the Stanford Graduate School  of Business Admissions Team

MYTH 1: The interview has a lot of weight so if I blow the interview, I have blown my chances of being admitted.
THE TRUTH: There is no specific weight assigned to the interview; the interview is one part of a comprehensive process. A positive interview does not guarantee admission, while a less than favorable interview does not, by itself, preclude admission. The written application, including the essays and letters of reference, is a critical part of the evaluation process. The interview is a key source of supplemental information.

MYTH 2: I received my interview invitation early in the round so it must mean I have a better chance of getting admitted.
THE TRUTH: The timing of your interview invitation reflects only the order in which your application was reviewed (and the order in which your application was reviewed doesn’t mean anything, honest!). Applications are not reviewed in any particular order, and applicants are not ranked.

MYTH 3: Visiting campus before or after I’ve submitted my application is an important way to demonstrate my interest in Stanford and increase my chances of being admitted.
THE TRUTH: Visiting campus does not affect your chances of admission whatsoever. Think of it this way – we wouldn’t want to bias the process towards only people with the proximity, time, or resources to visit. You may wish to visit if it’s helpful to your research and decision-making process about schools. Of course, we always welcome visitors! But we also understand that for some of you that may not be feasible. If you have only one chance to visit, save your time and money and come after you’ve been admitted for Admit Weekend, where you’ll meet students, alumni, faculty, and your future classmates.

Finding the Right Fit in a Business School

Lots of angles (and curves) to measure

There’s a lot of talk about finding the “right fit” when it comes to selecting a business school.  But as is the case with many words du jour, “fit” is often thrown around without much explanation of what it means.  What exactly is a “right fit,” and how is this relevant to applying to b-school?

Self-knowledge is the secret

Fit is so popular that I’ve written about it myself , but more importantly so have some of the top business schools. Some schools are more specific than others, but the general message is more or less the same: Know yourself.  Understand the cultures of the schools to which you are applying.  Be able to explain exactly how you would strengthen these cultures.

Before you can even think about what schools fit you best, you have to really look at yourself.  You need to know yourself very, very well.  Your level of self-reflection will absolutely show through in your application, and helps admissions officers understand you and how you could fit into the life of their school.  Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, writes in her blog, “Our ability to evaluate your fit with Ross depends on how well you know and tell us about yourself.”  So know thyself!

Common culture with the school

Rose Martinelli, then Associate Dean of Admissions at Chicago Booth, stressed the importance of fit in an admissions chat, “… it all boils down to fit. The ability of the applicant to communicate path and plan, and why Chicago is a good match for them professionally and personally.”  It’s not just about who you are at work.  It’s also about who you are as a son or daughter, friend, and community member.

Berkeley-Haas, in the “Essays” section of its admissions page, goes so far as to say that it seeks applicants “who demonstrate a strong cultural fit with our program and defining principles.”  This does not mean that everyone at Berkeley shares the same opinions and experiences—quite the opposite.  It does mean, however, that students at Haas share a common culture, as outlined in the school’s Defining Principles; students question the status quo, have confidence without attitude, are lifelong learners, and think beyond themselves.

While Stanford’s Graduate School of Business doesn’t explicitly mention “fit” or “match” on its website, it does outline its “Core Values”: intellectual engagement, respect, integrity, striving for “something great,” and owning your actions.  To be a good fit for Stanford, you need to be able to demonstrate your alignment with these values.

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management touches on fit in its third essay question, “What legacy would you hope to leave as a Johnson graduate?”  The question explains that “the adcom wants you to really evaluate what ‘fit’ means to you for Johnson.  ‘Fit’ is different for everyone, so we want to see how authentic and purposeful you are about applying.”

— Researched and written with help from the great Alice Woodman-Russell

Rock Your MBA Application: Admissions Officers Reach Out

I have always maintained that admissions officers are getting more and more transparent. And that’s a good thing. Many admissions officers are regular bloggers; I’ve linked to the Chicago Booth School’s director of admissions Rose Martinelli several times. She has often written thoughtful posts on the substance and process of MBA applications. I’m a big fan. Other admissions officers are regular Twitter fans – I follow MJ Shores of UCLA Anderson and always find her insightful and useful. Wharton’s robust Engage website offers student-led Q&A, blogs, links, and more.

Dartmouth’s Tuck has gone one step further. Not to dismiss their excellent student blogs, but the Admissions office has done one better: they are putting on their own workshop on filling out applications (wait, isn’t that my job as an admissions consultant?). Scheduled for May 14, Tuck Admissions is putting on a workshop designed to help students with the application process. What a great idea! Better than an online chat, but a great way to get the feel for the school and to hear directly from admissions board members about what they are looking for in an application. Each school is different, indeed, but this event will help you get your brain wrapped around those questions and will give you insights from those who will be making the decisions next winter. For more information, please email Cameron.Steese@tuck.dartmouth.edu with a request for an invitation.

To get you inspired, I’ve posted Tuck’s questions for the most recent application cycle:

1. Why is an MBA a critical next step toward your short- and long-term career goals? Why is Tuck the best MBA program for you? (If you are applying for a joint or dual degree, please explain how the additional degree will contribute to those goals.)

2. Tuck defines leadership as “inspiring others to strive and enabling them to accomplish great things.” We believe great things and great leadership can be accomplished in pursuit of business and societal goals. Describe a time when you exercised such leadership. Discuss the challenges you faced and the results you achieved. What characteristics helped you to be effective, and what areas do you feel you need to develop in order to be a better leader?

3. Discuss the most difficult constructive criticism or feedback you have received. How did you address it? What have you learned from it?

4. Tuck seeks candidates of various backgrounds who can bring new perspectives to our community. How will your unique personal history, values, and/or life experiences contribute to the culture at Tuck?

Dartmouth Tuck School