Applying Oneself, Creatively

Some B-schools are offering unusual ways for applicants to express themselves, showing admissions officers a more complete picture

The admissions staff at the University of Colorado at Boulder Leeds School of Business University of Colorado at Boulder could hardly believe their eyes when MBA applicant Kim Curtis walked into their office last fall carrying a box holding a 14-inch organic-chocolate ganache truffle cake. One by one, the admissions officers emerged from their offices to steal an admiring glance at Curtis' culinary creation, which she had labored over for two days in her kitchen.

Curtis, a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu cooking program in Chicago, was one of a number of applicants who jumped at the chance to respond to a creativity challenge posed by the school's admissions office. "When you are just your grades and GMAT score and an essay, it's very two-dimensional," says Curtis, a senior software engineer who cooks in her spare time. "I felt the school was looking for more of what I am and what I can create, and that made me more interested in becoming part of their program."

Character Exploration

Leeds is one of a small but growing number of B-schools that are putting a new twist into the application process, experimenting with the format that usually uses written essays to shed light on a student's specialties and interests. Admissions officers are posing questions to applicants that require them to showcase their creativity, encouraging them to submit art projects, slide shows, and unconventional projects with their applications. Some schools, like Leeds, are just beginning to experiment with optional creativity essay questions, while other schools are making them a mandatory part of the application. The University of Chicago, for instance, will require applicants this fall to submit up to four PowerPoint or similar slides with pictures, graphics, or text, along with the two standard essay questions. NYU's Stern School of Business has had an application question for years that gives applicants an opportunity to talk about their life experience outside the conventional essay structure.

Admissions directors say they are including these questions because they want to get deeper insight into applicants' character and problem-solving skills. "We're trying to break the mold," says Rosemaria Martinelli, Chicago's director of admissions. "I think the admissions process in MBA programs needs to be shaken up and a lot more things need to be looked at than the standard essay questions."

When admissions officers throw these types of questions out to B-school applicants, what comes back at them can be surprising. A 50-pound bag of concrete, a computer with an ice pick stuck through it, and a self-portrait are just some of the unusual items now sitting in the office of Anne Sandoe, director of Leeds' MBA program. "It just gives you insight into peoples' personality that is very difficult to get on paper," Sandoe says. "Although we do meet and interview many of our candidates, it's nice to see what is on the other side of their brains."

Free Rein

Sandoe says Leeds offered the extra-credit creativity challenge to applicants this year for the first time in an effort to distinguish the program from what she terms other "vanilla" MBA programs. Applicants had to adhere to a few guidelines—submissions couldn't be heavier than 50 pounds or larger than 2 cubic feet—but otherwise had free rein. Though the question was optional, over 75% of the approximately 300 full-time day MBA applicants responded to it.

One of the submissions was from Whit Hammond, an incoming student who decided to submit photos of a tree house that he had built on South Whidbey Island, near Seattle, during his high school and college years. The tree house, nestled in the natural foundation of a tree and outfitted with a sleeping loft, propane fridge, and wood stove, was an extension of his passion for nature and craftsmanship, he says, and was an item that he never thought he'd be able to weave into a typical business school application. "It sort of affirmed my belief that I was applying to a school that has the same values that I do."

Tom Carney, a manager for General Electric (GE) who will attend Leeds this fall, says he found it refreshing that the school gave students a chance to deviate a bit from the standard essay questions. He submitted a Chinese scroll with the characters for "pride," "courage," and "passion" on it, an item that he designed while on a trip to China. He later gave about a dozen of these scrolls to his team of engineers as a holiday gift.

"I was glad to see that they stayed away from the standard questions, like 'What do you want to do when you grow up and why are you a good fit for the program.' Those are all typical and you feel like you have to have a right answer," Carney says.

No More Sushi

While some students embrace these more unusual questions, others panic when they realize they need to impress an admissions officer with their wit and imagination, says Linda Abraham, an admissions consultant for "There is very little neutrality. Usually, some say, 'Hey, I'm going to have some fun with this,' while others react with just one big, 'Oh no.'"

So what should an applicant do if they find themselves stumped by a quirky essay question? They should try to look at the question in the context of the entire application, Abraham says. For instance, she will usually ask students a series of directed questions until they home in on an experience or project that can aptly convey their personality. "You have to look at the points you want to get across in the application as a whole and then you fit the puzzle together," she says.

Isser Gallogly, executive director of NYU's MBA admissions office, is familiar with the angst these questions can sometimes cause students. Gallogly says the school's third essay question has become "legendary" among business students. It asks students to describe themselves to an MBA classmate, using whatever means they like. "At first, people say, 'I don't want to be creative. I'm terrible at Pictionary,'" says Gallogly. "But as soon as they start to do it, they find it to be incredibly enjoyable and get really into it."

The NYU question used to be open-ended, but some parameters have been added in recent years. The admissions office banned perishable items after they received a box of homemade sushi that got delayed in the mail and arrived at the office rotting. They also discourage items such as worn clothing and electronic media.

Standing Out

Even with those restrictions, there's still plenty of room left to be inventive. In recent years, students have submitted stuffed animals with customized sound chips, snowboards, and action figures. Gallogly once met with a young woman who poured out the contents of her purse and proceeded to describe what each item expressed about her. Some students choose to approach the question by writing a conventional essay, which is "completely acceptable," says Gallogly. "It's certainly not an art contest. It's whatever speaks to you as a person."

The creative questions are just one additional way candidates can distinguish themselves from their peers in a competitive applicant pool, says Chicago's Martinelli. Chicago typically includes an essay in its application that encourages students to think outside the box, she says. In the past, the school's creative essay question has asked students to design a mascot for the University of Chicago or give recommendations for a book, play, or movie. The school's addition of the four PowerPoint slides is just another avenue for self-expression.

The answers students submit for Chicago's creative essay questions usually don't come into play when admissions officers are first sifting through applications. It's only as they begin to narrow down the pool of applicants that they take a closer look at those responses, says Martinelli. "When you're crafting a class, those are the elements that really stand out and make a difference."

Check out the slide show to see examples of some creative submissions from B-school applicants.

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