Tag Archives | Derrick Bolton

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

Best of the Web: MBA Recommendations

As we come up to the business school application deadlines, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. It’s tough to navigate, but there are resources out there, and most of them are on the web. Below are some excerpts and links to some excellent, easy-to-follow guidance on how to manage the entire process, from picking recommenders to putting together their briefing packages. If you click and read through all the links, particularly the link to Palo Alto for Awhile, you’ll find actionable advice to that can help you get stronger and ultimately, more helpful recommendations.

Take Admissions Officers at their Word
You can find many opinions about how to strategize MBA recommendations all over the web. But why go for conjecture when you can find real answers from the schools themselves? Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.

A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former Director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way.“

Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.

Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:

You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.

And from Harvard Business School…
Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid ex-Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific. Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples,” she explains. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Her blog is not indexed, so I recommend searching for her posts of August 13, 2012, Aug. 24, 2009 and June 17, 2008.

The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips

1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time

I’m a fan of Julia Campbell, from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, who highlights an important point: make sure the recommender likes you.

Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many candidates have letters of recommendation submitted by people who write just a few words (“She’s really great.”), come up with poor examples (“One time we had a problem with a client, and she handled it well”, or clearly just don’t think that highly of you (“She performs equally well when compared to her peers at a similar level.”  You might as well have asked a perfect stranger to write it and it probably would have come out better.

Really Useful and Excellent Resources: 
Several students and former students have chimed in on the MBA recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process. [One caveat to her recommendations — use first person always when writing a memo for a recommender.  If you write suggested anecdotes in third-person, then it might look like you wrote the recommendation.]

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who was on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and graduated from the JD-MBA program. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”

Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.

Ready? Now let’s go and get some professional love letters.

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Wrangling Recommendations for MBA Admissions

As we come up to the business school application deadlines, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. Some might argue that it’s already too late to hit up a busy executive for a b-school recommendation, but if you plan and execute right, the amount of time remaining should be reasonable.

Don’t Overthink
You can find many opinions about how to strategize the recommendations all over the web. I only have three words to say about it: Don’t overthink it. Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.

A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former Director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way. “

Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.

Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:

You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.

And from Harvard Business School…
Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific (good advice for applicants as well as recommenders!). Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples of how your wonderful qualities play out in real life,” she explains. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Her blog is not indexed, so I recommend searching for her posts of August 24, 2009 and June 17, 2008.

The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips

1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time

More Excellent Resources Available

Several students and former students have chimed in on the recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process.

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who is on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and currently a JD-MBA student there. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. Good question! His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”

Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.

I know you’ve got it in you.

What You Can Do NOW to Boost Your MBA Application

With deadlines for MBA applications about six months away, you might think there’s not much you can do to prepare right now other than take the GMAT or GRE. Even if you’re planning to apply to schools next year, you may think that your profile as a candidate is already set in stone.

But the truth is, you can always improve—and whether you’re a few months or years out, you’ve got time to plan your campaign and enhance your application. Admissions officers are looking for several key things—ability to handle academic rigor, career progression, and leadership potential. “Virtually every MBA program looks for students who exhibit intellect and leadership,” writes Derrick Bolton, Director of MBA Admissions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Here are three concrete ways you can demonstrate your potential to admissions officers—and even beef up your future employability, too.

 Take Undergraduate Quant Classes

Because business schools are very quantitative, they want to know that you can do the work that’s required. Plus, potential employers will be happy to see that you can handle numbers as well.”We want to be sure that you will be able to handle the rigor of Tuck’s quantitative program.” says Pat Harrison, associate director of admissions at Dartmouth’s Tuck School.

You might think your GPA, that C+ in economics, or the fact that you’ve never taken calculus will doom you—but that’s not the case. You can take an online calculus or business statistics class from any number of accredited universities now, and use those grades on your business school applications. In many cases, accredited, graded courses can mitigate a less-than-perfect undergraduate record.

Another option is a specialized pre-MBA program, like the Tuck Online Bridge program, which offers courses in a number of disciplines, including managerial economics (statistics). If you’re just trying to beef up skills and don’t care about a grade, take a look at MBA Math, which offers very practical lessons in financial math, statistics, accounting, and microeconomics.

Demonstrate Your Career Progression
Admissions officers and potential employers are looking for people who have moved forward and will continue to advance in their careers. Chicago Booth’s evaluation criteria includes “track record of success, resourcefulness,and sense of personal direction.” Success doesn’t necessarily mean title advancement—rather, it’s about taking on an increasing level of responsibility. And not just when it’s offered.

Naturally, if your boss assigns you to spearhead a new product, run with it. But if that opportunity isn’t handed to you, you can volunteer to mentor new employees on your team, or develop an outreach program to educate internal clients about your group’s initiatives.

You can also ask for additional assignments that might teach you about a different part of the company. As long as your boss doesn’t think you’re leaving your current assignments unfinished, see if you can broaden your experience. Ask to join an existing firm-wide committee, or simply offer your services when you see someone else feeling overwhelmed.

These are little things that can expand your influence within your current position and propel you to a promotion, whether it’s official, unofficial, or even into another company. And even if you don’t get that promotion before you turn in that b-school application, the extra responsibilities and your initiative will reflect well on you.

Expand Your World
You can also look outward to the community to increase your leadership experience. “Our students…have to be seen as people who are creating value in society,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria.  I’m not suggesting that you merely add to your list of extra-curricular activities—the way you are involved in an activity can tell an admissions committee member more about you than can a lengthy list of organizations. So, look at what you’ve already been involved in and where you can deepen your leadership role and have a greater impact on your organization.

If you’ve been tutoring at-risk youth, for example, you might create and implement a strategic plan to bring on more volunteers to your group. Or if you’ve been raising funds for an annual 10K, you could develop relationships with corporate sponsors who may be able to help year after year. These types of activities can illustrate your initiative and long-term planning skills, and can be incorporated into the stories you tell in your essays.

As a business school applicant, you always have the potential to learn and grow—even in the months before you apply. Continuing to add to your portfolio of skills and achievements as you’re selecting schools and studying for the GMAT will show a propensity toward mature leadership—and that’s something admissions officers can’t wait to read about.