Tag Archives | MBA

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.

On a Great One-Page Resume

You use a cleaner font, I’m sure

Got questions about your MBA resume for your application? You are not alone. Everyone who has applied to an MBA program or for any job worries about their resume.  How on earth do you fit your entire life story into one page?  And what a challenge that someone actually thinks you can!

Your resume has almost nothing to do with your real life. It’s about your professional life, and it’s about your achievements.  I have heard MBA admissions officers and career advisors say that the resume is not a list of job duties. It is a record of your accomplishments.  That means you don’t need to put in the stuff that bores even you.

For example, I had a client who worked for a financial startup, so she wore many hats on the job. She created new financial tools, traded securities, and established deep relations with new and existing clients.  She also handled the monthly newsletter, which took a lot of time, but didn’t represent her highest talent.  So we cut it.  She’d already shown achievement in her other, more productive areas of her job, so she emphasized the best part: influencing the organization in tangible ways.

Follow the Rules, It’s Easier
Remember, you have three-to-five bullet points per job, and anything longer than two lines per bullet becomes too dense for the reader, so put in the highlights: your tangible, measurable accomplishments, using active verbs and concise language.

Still, the resume has one place where you can show your individuality – the “Additional” section. Everyone reads that stuff. Promise. You have two or three lines to talk about interests, skills, and all that other stuff. Any hobby is fair game – I’ve seen everything from canine agility to financial system reform.

A few rules to follow:

Avoid acronyms and industry jargon

  • Don’t try to make the reader learn new acronyms for your company. They don’t have time to figure out what RMD or HSDRC means

Try to keep bullet points to no more than two lines, if possible

  • Anything longer is too dense and the reader just skips it

Don’t feel like you need to use up four or more bullet points – three is fine

  • You can include only two or fewer bullet points for part-time jobs and internships

Use 12- or 11-point type, depending on the font you choose.

  • 10-point type can be too small. Anything else is ridiculous
  • Leave a one-inch margin all the way around

Place education at the bottom if you are working full time and career is the most important

  • If you are a current student, education leads the resume

If you held a leadership position in a non-profit, be sure to include it

If you are interested in a free resume template based on the work I have done as a resume coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, please email me and I’ll send it along.

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?

After Round 2 — And Some Interview Tips Too

This is the in-between season for MBA applicants, characterized by anxiety for everyone, including me. Reason: those who have already met their first-round deadlines have nothing to do but wait, and are suddenly overwhelmed with free time and unused gym memberships. Those who are applying in round 2 realize that they have to go through the crazy deadlines and last-minute rush they saw their friends go through.
But here’s the good news: For round 1 folks, you will know what is going on by Christmas. Either way. In the meantime, you’ve got interviews to go through, which are actually fun. I mean, what better way to talk about yourself for half-hour?  It’s not that hard, even at HBS, where the interview really does make or break the application. So, for those of you who are getting ready to make their case in person, here are three handy tips:

1. Be over-prepared. About your story (why MBA, why you) about your leadership examples, and about why this school. You want to be confident, and with most type-A people (the kind of people applying to business school), the best way to be confident is to practice, practice, practice.

2. Look at the interview as a fraternity/sorority rush experience. The most important thing an interview is going to tell the admissions committee is whether they think classmates will benefit from having you around. Remember, your sectionmate/team member is paying $150,000 for the privilege of learning from you. Your interviewer is looking not only at what value you add, but how likeable you are. Face it, there’s an element of popularity here.

Having said that, you are not the interviewer’s best friend, so don’t get too cozy or flip. This is business.

3. Be prepared to talk about a fun fact.  If you don’t have a fun fact on your resume (glassblowing, member of the national darts team, lived in Suriname for a year), be prepared to talk about something a little unusual. Or at a minimum, be prepared to talk about what you are reading. Interviewers want to know something about you that’s just a little different from the others. Knowing every word from “The Big Lebowski” doesn’t count.

BONUS

4. Know your industry’s headlines. This is a new one, something I picked up from an interview guide published by HBS students. If you are in social media, there’s a good chance that the interviewer may ask you to opine on Twitter’s newest change (as of this writing it’s the ability to be able to direct tweet anyone). If you work for JPMorgan, you should probably be aware of what the media is saying about Jamie Dimon, even if it bears little influence on your division. You just don’t want to get caught off guard if an interview says, “Oh, you work in consumer tech, what do you think of Apple’s new head of retail sales?”

So remember, practice, stay interesting, and enjoy the process.