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Making Your Application Shine

Linda Abraham founded in 1997, after three years as an essay consultant. To date, she has worked with over 1,000 prospective MBAs on their application strategies. She has lots of ideas about innovative ways MBA candidates can market themselves to admissions committees in personal statements and essays.

Abraham is active on the BW Online's B-School Forums, where she responds to questions in the "Ask Linda" discussion thread.

Abraham's comments came during a live BusinessWeek Online chat on June 27. She was responding to questions from the audience and BW Online's Jack Dierdorff and Mica Schneider. Following is an edited transcript of their discussion:

Q: Linda, you've helped hundreds of prospective MBAs apply to B-school. What was distinct about this year's application season?

A: This year's application season saw an unprecedented number of last-minute applicants.

Q: How important is the essay in the overall application package?

A: The essays are critical in distinguishing the applicant from his or her competition with similar statistics, work experience, and ethnic background. The essays are the applicant's opportunity to really shine as a human being and as an accomplished individual.

Q: What should applicants be doing at this early stage in the admissions process?

A: Right now, the applicants -- if they haven't already -- should be working to get the highest GMAT they can get. They should be researching the schools, so that they know which schools they want to apply to and how those schools support their goals. And they should be lining up their recommenders.

Q: What advice do you have for reapplicants to MBA programs?

A: Reapplicants have to focus on how they have improved since their previous application. Submitting the same application that got them rejected is highly unlikely to change the outcome. Consequently, they need to emphasize growth, improvement, and, if possible, increased responsibility and leadership experience. Obviously, if they have a low GMAT or GPA, it would be ideal to apply to the schools when they have a higher GMAT or after having taken some classes and earned A's in them.

Q: As a general rule, should they mention that they're reapplicants in the new essays that they write?

A: The schools normally require on the applications that the applicants indicate that they are reapplicants. Many schools actually have different application requirements for reapplicants.

Q: Linda, are there any characteristics that you can cite for strong essays?

A: I would list four primary qualities of strong essays. The first one would be that it answers the question. The second one would be an effective, persuasive use of detail and anecdote. The essays should not be collections of platitudes and generalities. Third, the essay should demonstrate sincere personal reflection -- looking inward, and not just reading the schools' brochures, though they should read the school's brochures as well. Fourth, the essays should demonstrate -- not just talk about -- a fit with the school.

Q: Is it a good idea to use charts or graphs in an essay?

A: I've never seen charts or graphs effectively used in an essay. The point of an essay is to go from numbers to human beings. I don't see how a chart or a graph would support that goal.

Q: Should an applicant address the issue of poor undergraduate grades in his or her essays? If yes, what is the best way to do so?

A: Well, that depends. It depends what the reason was for the poor undergraduate grades, it depends how poor those grades are, and it depends on what you're not going to write about because you're choosing to write about the poor grades. If your grades were under a 3.0 [grade point average], I really think they have to be addressed somewhere -- probably in optional essays. Certainly, if you worked your way through school and the demands of working full time and going to school contributed to poor grades, then that should be brought out. If it was a matter of immaturity, partying, and stupidity, then briefly 'fess up and show how you've matured through your professional experiences since college.

Q: Is it recommended that applicants write optional essays?

A: If you can fit everything distinctive and impressive about you into the required application essays, then no, don't write optional essays. However, I have rarely seen an applicant with accomplishments in diverse areas of their life and the kind of experiences that get one into a top B-school who was able to do that. Consequently, I look at the optional essays as an outstanding marketing opportunity and a place where applicants can provide the school with additional reasons to admit them. I hate to waste that opportunity.

Q: Here's a question shared by a lot of MBA hopefuls: In the optional essay question, is it trite to explain low GMAT scores as a result of being a poor test taker?

A: No, it's not trite. Again, there's always an opportunity cost in using an essay to provide an excuse. If your GMAT is more than 40 points below the average GMAT for the schools you are applying to, then you should somewhere address the fact and provide evidence of being a poor test taker. What would that evidence be? Repeated attempts to take the test with mediocre results, combined with an otherwise stellar academic record and an outstanding professional record. A low SAT and a high undergraduate GPA also supports the label "poor test taker."

Q: Most B-schools have an essay on the topic of failure. Is it O.K. to talk about something that happened eight years ago?

A: Yes, but you should also -- assuming the question allows this kind of answer -- discuss how you've handled similar situations since then successfully.

Q: Are there any particular areas a 38-year-old coming from a successful career in the military should focus on in his essays?

A: You have to focus on what you want to do with your MBA. It's very important for older applicants to explain why they're going for an MBA now. Now, coming off a military career, that will possibly be somewhat easier for you than for other older applicants. But you still have to be particularly clear on why you need an MBA to achieve your civilian goals. And as a [final note], make sure that your civilian goals are realistic for someone who wants to start a career in his or her early 40s.

Q: If being concise is a problem because your story is so good, is it better to censor yourself or be long-winded?

A: That's a tough question! It often depends on the school. Some schools -- Wharton, for example -- have in the past been somewhat flexible on their length limits. If you really had valuable content that went beyond their limits, they were willing to read it. And Stanford gave a lot of space for the applicants to use. Harvard, on the other hand, means business with its limits. In general, we recommend that our clients stay within 10% of the word limit, and in the event of a really exceptionally good story that can't be cut to the word limit, the client will take a calculated risk and go over. But that is an exception to the rule.

Q: Are there key differences between what schools such as Insead, Harvard, Wharton, and MIT look for in applicants? Rumor has it that Harvard is looking for leaders and Wharton is looking for team players.

A: I think some of these generalizations are true, such as Harvard is looking for leaders and Wharton and Kellogg emphasize teamwork. But that doesn't mean that Harvard wants lone wolves or that Wharton wants followers. To the contrary. In the essays, it's a matter of emphasis. Stanford, for example, wants its applicants to reflect deeply on the personal experiences in their lives and show how those experiences have effected change. How have they acted differently? What initiatives have they taken? How have they led, as a result of their personal experiences and values? Wharton, in particular, appreciates international exposure and a breadth of experience.

Q: Here's one for the job changers: Should applicants address the fact that they're about to switch jobs, even if it's in the middle of the application process?

A: You need to consider: Is this a change that resulted from a layoff or is this an advancement? If the latter, you probably want to let the schools know that you have gotten a significant promotion and greater responsibility. If it resulted from a layoff, unless you manage to turn the layoff into a growth opportunity, you probably would not want to address it. It would depend on the whole package.

Q: You talked about the four things that make a stellar essay. What are some of the biggest things to avoid in an essay?

A: First, not answering the question. Second, saying what you think they want to hear without reflecting anything of your own values and mores. Third, being shallow and superficial in answering the "why this school" question. If you're just cutting and pasting and changing the name of the school, you haven't done your job. Fourth, focusing on platitudes and generalities -- writing in what I call "consultantspeak" that almost obfuscates and hides who you are as a unique, thinking individual.

Q: Schools mention that the work on the essays must be an applicant's own. How do they look at help from consultants or other individuals?

A: Well, on some level, I think you have to ask the schools. On other chats, I've seen representatives from Wharton and MIT encourage use of consultants to help applicants best present themselves, as long as [the applicants] write the essays. As far as other individuals, I don't see why one should limit oneself to seeking assistance from those who are not professionals and possibly unable to really provide assistance of any value.

Q: Do you keep track of how many of's clients get into top schools?

A: For most top schools, our acceptance rate is roughly double the overall acceptance rate. And in some cases, more than that.

Q: What do you think about social commentaries? For example, someone considering writing about mismanagement in education.

A: My question to that person would be: What have you done about it? If you're going to write theoretically about mismanagement in education, almost from a distant and intellectual vantage point, I don't think that will help your cause. If, however, you're going to write about how you have attempted to improve management in education, and how you want an MBA to make you even more effective in achieving that goal, then I think it would be a very fine essay. The focus of these essays should be on you.

Q: How about applicants that lack the stereotypical job experience of the average B-school applicant. How does someone set themselves apart if they've worked solely for small startups, never at a big consulting firm?

A: You're going to have to show how much you've accomplished and learned in working for the small startups. And if these startups were in different fields or you were in different roles, bring out some breadth of experience that you've acquired. Also, if you've played leadership roles in these startups, you would want to emphasize that.

Q: Is it generally a good idea to mention the names of employers that an applicant wants to work for in their essays?

A: Yes, you can certainly mention the names of employers. It would have to be clear why you want to work for these employers, in terms of your interests and past experience. You should also make sure that these employers are big recruiters at the schools you're applying to.

Q: Is there anything you'd recommend applicants do right now, before the applications are out? Especially those considering several schools?

A: Yes. Assuming you've already taken the GMAT, as I mentioned above, I think you should research the schools very carefully. You should know why you would want to attend any one of these schools. It should be very clear in your mind how each of these programs supports your goals. And if you have the opportunity to talk to current students or even to visit the schools at the beginning of the next school year, I encourage you to do so.

Q: Do you have any insight on admission to B-schools in the coming years, 2002 and 2003? Are things going to be more competitive compared to the last two years?

A: That's a real tough question to answer. My guess is that 2002 will be a tough, competitive year. I wouldn't even hazard a guess for 2003.

Q: This next question brings up a situation that may unfortunately be more common in this slowing economy. Does it hurt you to have someone who is currently unemployed write your recommendation?

A: I don't think it's a significant negative. It would be better if he or she could write it on company stationary. Otherwise, the key to the recommendation is to have the recommender be able to write on the basis of personal experience with the applicant. And the recommender should point to specific experiences and accomplishments of the applicant in his or her recommendation.

Q: How does an applicant convey modesty when talking about their accomplishments?

A: Good question! I don't think the question is really modesty -- it certainly is not a place for false modesty, but it is also certainly not a place for arrogance. Pride in one's accomplishments and the confidence that brings is what you want to have come through in your essays.

Q: Is there a template that applicants can follow for application essays?

A: I don't like templates. I think that you want to follow the rules of good writing, but more than a template, you have to think about your life, your experiences, and your goals, and relate them to the question as an individual. I will, however, give some tips on structure. First, have a theme that ties each essay together. Second, open with an anecdote, a description of a scene, a question -- something that will engage the reader. Third, make sure your conclusion concludes -- ties the essay back up. Ideally, it should tie back to your lead. Fourth, use specific anecdotes and details to support your thesis, to add interest to your essays, and to distinguish yourself from the competition.

Q: What do you suggest for someone applying to an evening MBA program in New York who's living in San Francisco right now? How should that person address that circumstance, if at all, in an essay?

A: I'm not sure you have to address it. But if you do address it, I would just talk about what you do, why you feel you would have no trouble getting a job, and, of course, why you want to go to NYU's part-time program.

Q: From a recommendation point of view, does "the more, the merrier" apply?

A: Not necessarily -- certainly not initially. I recommend you only send in the requested number of recommendations unless you're wait-listed. If you're wait-listed and you have more recommendations, then I would say that you should send them. My wait-listed comment is primarily for schools that encourage wait-listed applicants to send additional material.

Q: Should the recommenders type one letter or fill out all of the forms, which can be very time consuming? Also, should applicants collect and submit the letters on their own, or have the recommender mail them directly?

A: Most schools, I believe, want the recommenders to send in the recommendations directly. They should simply follow the directions given by the schools. As far as recommenders typing out one letter or filling out the forms, I see a gradual change, a trend, where recommenders are more frequently filling out the entire form. It used to be that they would write a letter, fill in the grid, and that was enough. Now, more recommenders are doing the form.

Q: Do admission committees really read all application essays in their entirety -- even the boring ones?

A: As far as I know, yes they do.

Q: Is being a minority really an advantage? Should applicants play that up?

A: It's hard to answer a question of whether you should play it up if you have achieved a lot in your life. You should certainly let it be known if you are from an underrepresented minority. But it's impossible for me to say, without knowing much more about you, the amount of emphasis you're going to put on it in your essays and applications. The essays should reflect the importance of your ethnic identity to you.

Q: Finally, Linda, how much risk do you suggest applicants take in their essays? Is trying to be funny a bad move?

A: Trying to be funny -- if you fail -- is a bad move. Trying to be funny if you're successful is a good move. Trying to be funny if you rarely crack a joke is probably going to come off as being silly. The essays should reflect you and your personalities and your interest. So if you're a highly creative person, that should come through, and not in a forced way.

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