Tag Archives | MBA recommendations

Resilience as a Leadership Trait in MBA Admissions

resilience as a leadership traitThe essays and recommendations play a big role in MBA admissions, mostly because admissions committees are trying to gauge the candidate’s leadership potential.  When preparing your essays or your briefing sheet for your recommenders, you want to address very specific leadership traits.

Many prospective students ask me what leadership means in MBA admissions.  I completely understand the confusion! The reality is that there is no real textbook definition of leadership, and if there is, but it’s very mushy.  But one element most people agree on as a measurement of a good leader is RESILIENCE.

Executive leadership expert Rebecca Zucker, founder of Next Step Partners, wrote an excellent article on ways to identify and improve your resilience, strategies which “help you prepare yourself so that you will be ready to take on tough challenges, setbacks, difficult experiences or failures when they inevitably happen.”   Here they are in brief; check to see if these are your normal behaviors, or you need a little practice:

  1. Cultivate a growth mindset: A growth mindset looks at setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
  2. Don’t over-ruminate: Reflecting and acting is positive. But morosely wondering “what if”?  leads to unproductive wallowing. Especially stuff that is outside of your control.
  3. Take care of yourself: Be healthy in mind and spirit. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
  4. Seek inspiration: seek out stories of people who have overcome failure. They are everywhere, not just on TED. Or Michael Jordan Nike commercials.

The Resilience Checklist

Rebecca Zucker’s article also includes a resilience checklist – which comes close to helping us define leadership in specific terms that prospective and current MBA students can think about and model. Many of these attributes are similar to those that you will find as part of the MBA recommendations forms.

The full worksheet has 18 behaviors, most of which would work quite well in an essay describing personal leadership in the MBA application.  The first, “I have good knowledge of myself” is probably one of the most important – self-awareness is a particularly useful trait for leaders of all levels, particularly young professionals on a rapid trajectory.

“I am flexible and can adapt to changing situations” might be easier to write about. Businesses are unpredictable. For internal or exogenous reasons, stuff always happens at work, and it’s an asset if you can deal with uncertainty.  If you can incorporate a story of your own personal flexibility in the face of a changing work environment, you’ll be demonstrating resilience and maturity.

“I am able to see multiple perspectives on a situation” is useful for your personal growth; for example, it keeps you from ruminating or getting stuck in a doom loop. But it is also useful for working in teams; small or large there are bound to be as many perspectives on a problem as there are members of the group.

“I am able to ask for help” is a definite statement of strength rather than what looks like a sign of weakness. Digging your way out alone is never pretty (or efficient). You might think that puzzling over a knotty problem and finding the aha moment shows your brilliance, but often the opposite is true.  If you are really in trouble, not asking for help just makes things worse.  At work, if you see that your project is falling apart, get resourceful and find someone who can help you solve your problem.  You might break down a few silos in the process.

It’s Not About You

But sometimes things are just awful, and that’s when personal resilience is about not taking it personally. Lost your job? Had a project taken away? Get a rejection letter from the business school of your dreams?  In all these cases, it’s not necessary that you just put on a happy face. That’s not realistic. But look at contingency plans, your support picture and the longer-term perspective.  The universe hasn’t singled you out of bad news, even though it might feel that way at the moment.

Setbacks, failures, defeats—they are all part of life.  But resilience with grace, humor and grit, that’s what makes a leader.

Read more on leadership and MBA learning:

Some Introspection in Advance of Your MBA Essays

How to Convey Leadership in MBA Essays and Interviews

Leadership and the MBA Application

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.


HBS Admissions Director Speaks Out on Application Process

There are those who revere her and those who fear her–but one thing is certain about Dee Leopold, director of Harvard Business School admissions—she tells it straight. After the May 22 announcement that HBS would modify its

You could wear this on your blue blazer

admissions process, Dee made herself available to answer questions. She granted an exclusive interview with Poets & Quants and immediately scheduled a webinar to explain the new process. I’ve posted highlights of that webinar below.

In short, the new HBS application reduces previous years’ essay requirements and asks interviewed students for a written reflection within 24 hours of meeting the admissions representative.

During that webinar, Dee spent a few minutes explaining the reasoning for the new process, admitting that it was not a “cataclysmic change.”  The rest was straight talk, including some great nuggets for what you need to know about HBS and getting in.  This director of MBA admissions has always been direct about what it takes to get into Harvard Business School.

Here are a few nuggets that I found insightful and worth remembering as you consider Harvard Business School during the coming application season.

GRE vs. GMAT:   Harvard does not prefer one or another. “I think both tests are adequate indicators of what standardized tests can tell,” says Dee Leopold.  Note the phrasing – she careful not to endorse either test as a measure of intelligence. She simply notes that because they use standardized tests as an application requirement, either the GMAT or GRE is fine.

She also notes that the overall score is not the most important, but the quantitative and verbal sub-scores matter more.  For example, in the case of someone who has demonstrated an affinity with analytics in their coursework and jobs, “We want to look at their GMAT verbal score because maybe they haven’t had much practice in terms of writing or reading long passages. The absolute flip side would be for someone who had not had any quantitative work in college or had not had quantitative work on the job,”

GPA:  At Harvard, like most business schools, admissions directors care about your transcripts. “Your GPA is just a number. We spend an awful lot of time looking at the courses you are taking. Have you challenged yourself? Have you taken some risks? I would hate to think that people would be simply courting the perfect GPA and not really maximizing the opportunity to take some risks.”

The interview: Dee was very specific about your prospects if you are chosen for an interview. If you get as far as an interview, you have a better than 50% chance of joining the class. “We like the interview to be a not a slam dunk, but neither do we want it to be such a long shot.”

Indeed, the post-interview essay is new, and meets a specific need in the evaluation process.  “In our MBA program there is an emphasis on reflection. We think that leaders and managers need to learn to step back a bit to absorb what they’ve experienced and to be able to put it in writing,” said the admissions director. She also gave the rationale that you will be asked to write on the job with an equally short turnaround – not months and months like the regular essays allow for.

Age: “The average age is around 27… No one comes to Harvard Business School straight from college.  There is no right number of years and months of experience, some people are ready after two years, and there are some people for whom the optimal time may be 10-20 years later.”

Recommendations: “We would like to see one from your immediate supervisor, but this is a judgment call for you.” Further, if the potential recommender has been able to give you constructive advice, “then that’s a pretty good choice.  However, your piano teacher, or family friends who have simply watched you grow up are not the right ones. (Betsy’s note – questions about MBA recommendations  come up regularly – and the answer is always the same.)

Financial aid: “We are a need-based school and we have just as much money available for the last round admitted as we do for the first. We do not have merit fellowships. We are need-blind when we make our admissions offers.”

MBA Resume: “I truly believe that a resume for someone at your career stage should be one page.”

Deadline: We don’t do anything until the deadline. (First round, Sept 24) Then we then look at everything; as soon as that deadline passes, it is game on. There is no correlation whatsoever between when you submit your application and when you are invited to interview.

2+2: If you not get in to this “tiny” program, “there is no stigma about reapplying later…we hate to think that you might go away and never think of yourself as a candidate for HBS.”

So with the first round deadline only three months away, time are you ready to apply?