This is the third post in a four part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 4.
After you read the post below, for my additional comments regarding this question, see here.
It is not often that a school’s essay question gets the attention of the press, but the University of Chicago GSB’s Question Three has done that.
While the mandatory use of PowerPoint is novel, is this question so odd? See below!
After I analyze GSB's PowerPoint question, I conclude with some specific suggestions for how to brainstorm for your answer.
While Chicago GSB has proven itself to have an absolutely brilliant PR strategy by issuing press releases and otherwise making it appear that this totally new, as I will discuss below, I think this is only partially the case. Certainly Chicago is the first school to require a PowerPoint as a part of the application, but it is not the first to allow the use of one as part of the process.
Question Three (taken from the online application, you can find the web version here, but the online application version is more clear regarding the length of the notes):3. We have asked for a great deal of information throughout this application. In this portion of the application, we invite you tell us about yourself using a non-traditional application format--a PowerPoint presentation. In four slides or less, please provide readers with content that captures who you are.
[PLUS] PowerPoint Notes (200 words maximum)
Next here is the advice that Chicago provides on the web as part of the question and in an expanded version in the online application form. I have used the application version (you must register as an applicant to access it):Essay Three One of our students summed up the rationale behind this portion of the application with the following feedback: “In today's business world, written communication is often limited to short e-mails and PowerPoint presentations, so the new question provides us with an opportunity to judge the applicants' presentation skills and their ability to express essential ideas. In addition, when we read text, different readers may have different perceptions of what the key points are, and the power point format helps the applicants overcome these differences because they have an opportunity to spell out the main ideas.” Given this is a new section, and there are varying degrees of comfort and experience using PowerPoint we have set forth the following guidelines for you to consider when creating you presentation.
PowerPoint Guidelines1. The content is completely up to you. There is no right or wrong approach to the way you construct your slides or answer this question.
2. There is a strict maximum of 4 slides, though you can provide fewer than 4 if you choose.
3. Slides will be printed and added to your file for review, therefore, flash, hyperlinks, embedded videos, music, etc. will not be viewed by the committee. You are limited to text and static images to convey your points. - Color may be used.
4. Slides will be evaluated on the quality of content and ability to convey your ideas, not on PowerPoint expertise or presentation.
5. You are welcome to attach a word document of notes if you feel a deeper explanation of your slides is necessary. However the hope is the slide should be able to stand alone and convey your ideas clearly. You will not be penalized for adding notes but you should not construct a slide with the intention of using the notes section as a consistent means of explanation.
6. If you do not have access to PowerPoint or a similar software application, you can contact the admissions office at email@example.com for alternative methods for completing this required section of the application.
Two Prior Uses of PowerPoint in the MBA Application Process:
I think it is important to realize that Chicago GSB is not the first school to allow for the use of PowerPoint or other presentation slide content as part of the application process.
The use of slide presentations has long been a possibility for both NYU Stern and HEC.
NYU STERNFirst,it has been possible to create a short PowerPoint presentation as part of the NYU Stern process for years. The Stern question reads:Please describe yourself to your MBA classmates. You may use almost any method to convey your message (e.g. words, illustrations). Feel free to be creative.
One such method for doing so is an actual presentation. Whether made with PowerPoint or other tools, applicants have been doing this, both successfully and unsuccessfully, for years.
HEC (Ranked Number 1 in Europe by the Financial Time, see full rankings here) requires presentations as part of its interview process. The relevant part of the instructions are as follows:
The interview starts with a 10-minute presentation made by the candidate on the subject of his/her choice. The main objective of this presentation is to judge the candidate's communication and presentation skills, the capability to synthesize a subject in 10 minutes while keeping the interest of the audience. The candidate may use any presentation method he or she wishes, such as transparencies, notes, slides, etc.
The presentation is then followed by 30 to 40 minutes of questions and answers, first on the presentation, then on the candidate's motivation and other elements mentioned in his/her application.
Actually, HEC candidates have to make this presentation twice to different interviewers. Now while it is possible to not use PowerPoint to make one’s HEC presentation, I have never worked with anyone who did that.
I point the above two examples out merely to show that while GSB's use of PowerPoint is certainly novel, it is not without precedent.
MAKING A PRESENTATION IS A PRACTICAL TEST OF BASIC BUSINESS ABILITY
Consider some of the standard parts of the application and how they reflect on the applicant's abilities:
RESUME: Ability to effectively convey one's core professional, academic, and personal experience for the purposes of getting selected for an interview.
GOALS ESSAYS: Ability to clearly articulate a plan.
INTERVIEW: Ability to effectively convince an interviewer that you are good fit for the organization (in this case as a student in B-School).
RECOMMENDATIONS: Ability to obtain powerful endorsements designed to help convince a selection committee.
Looked at from this perspective, the comment that begins the GSB's explanation of the question- In today's business world, written communication is often limited to short e-mails and PowerPoint presentations, so the new question provides us with an opportunity to judge the applicants' presentation skills and their ability to express essential ideas.- makes even more sense.
PowerPoint is a fundamental business skill. Like MIT Sloan's cover letter and every school's resume, at some level, Chicago 3 is testing the applicant's basic business skills. Why not test for it?
Anyone who has been or wants to be a businessperson will have spend countless hours preparing and delivering presentations. If you want to go do IPO Roadshows, sell a room of people your services, convince a Board of Directors, etc, you will need slides and those slides will be made with PowerPoint. Seems totally reasonable to me to ask anyone to use it because they will have to anyway.
Especially if you don't know how to use PowerPoint, my suggestion is NOT to focus on style, but on your content. That actually is true for anyone (even those who are PowerPoint Gurus) and is clearly the message that GSB is delivering: This question is not designed to evaluate the applicants’ PowerPoint expertise, but rather to reveal how people think and communicate their ideas. This question, like the rest of the essay questions, is designed to provoke critical thought and self-reflection, not just their creativity. It is the message within the slides that is important, not the presentation.
Rose Martinelli's comments above clearly indicate that the focus is on the message, not the overall aesthetics of the presentation.
IS THIS REALLY A TEST OF PowerPoint SKILLS?
NO. I think it is a test of your ability to prepare a very simple presentation about yourself. Remember that you are preparing slides for a presentation that will only be delivered on paper and unlike a presentation that you would deliver, you are not able to take advantage of what PowerPoint can do:
Slides will be printed and added to your file for review, therefore, flash, hyperlinks, embedded videos, music, etc. will not be viewed by the committee. You are limited to text and static images to convey your points. - Color may be used.
In fact, for anyone who has actually is good at PowerPoint, they will like find it necessary to compromise on their aesthetics and technical skills in order to most effectively answer the question. Especially those who believe in providing a minimal amount of content per slide, might find it necessary to increase the amount of content they include.
As someone who spent the last four years making the transition from text heavy slides to minimalist ones when delivering sales and marketing presentations, I know that if I had to answer this question, I would have to compromise on what I consider to be my own best practices for making PowerPoint slides.
NOT A TEST OF YOUR ABILITY TO DELIVERY A PRESENTATION, BUT A TEST OF YOUR ABILITY TO PREPARE ONE
Always remember that you are being tested on your ability to prepare a presentation, not to deliver one. Hence you should always first think of this as a text that will be read, not one that will be spoken.
If you still think you need to learn more about PowerPoint, I suggest reading Presenting to Win by Jerry Weissman, the Silicon Valley PowerPoint Guru. When I first read Chicago's question, I looked for a book focused on the story telling aspect of PowerPoint and I think this is it. You can read my mini-review and buy the book here. Visit Weissman's site here.
WHAT ABOUT THE NOTES?
Given GSB's very specific instructions about the Notes, you should think about them as an opportunity to explain something in the slide in greater depth, but not as a speech for the slides:You are welcome to attach a word document of notes if you feel a deeper explanation of your slides is necessary. However the hope is the slide should be able to stand alone and convey your ideas clearly. You will not be penalized for adding notes but you should not construct a slide with the intention of using the notes section as a consistent means of explanation.
Let's Think About Length
You will have four slides plus 200 words for the notes to communicate your message. Regarding the notes, Rose Martinelli has further stated that the notes document "should not exceed one paragraph per slide." Depending on your perspective, this might seem like a great deal of text or not very much. Given that the notes give you about 50 words to further clarify each slide, the actual total amount of content is really likely to be in the 300-600 word range depending on what you do with the slides.
IS THIS AN ESSAY IN DISGUISE?
Rose Martinelli says:In many respects we are looking for similar things in the slides as we would in the essays. We are looking for organized thoughts, strong communication skills, and the ability to convey ideas clearly. We will also be looking at an applicant's ability to be insightful and their willingness to express themselves in a new medium. In some respects, this question adds an element of risk to the application that has not been there before.
I think it is helpful to conceive of as have exactly the same function as an essay, but you should consider...
including visual imagery AND/OR
using bullet points AND/OR
using metaphor AND/OR
being non-linear AND/OR
minimizing or eliminating introductions and conclusions.
Rose Martinelli states:Well, as you know, the Chicago GSB has a reputation for challenging norms. In some respects that is what the PowerPoint is doing. Traditional essays, although helpful in the application process, tend to be confining. Essay questions do not allow applicants to fully stretch beyond the question and communicate their strengths, weaknesses, passions etc. The PowerPoint slide is our way of giving applicants a blank slate on which to communicate with us. There aren't many restrictions for an applicant, and they have free reign to communicate to the committee whatever they feel is valuable for us to know. An applicant can expand upon their application or they can go beyond it and reveal something completely new. This is their opportunity to express themselves without guidance or restriction.
Thus you would best advised to not simply take an essay and divide in among the four slides. Instead, show creativity. One effective way to organize your slides is to have each slide make one key point or communicate one key idea about you. And in a real sense, this is no different from what a good paragraph should do.
Now that we can looked at the overall context for this question, let’s think about what is actually being asked.
What was the question again?
THE CORE PART OF THE QUESTION: "we invite you tell us about yourself" is very simple. I could restate it as "please help us understand who you are."
WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT WRITE ABOUT:
1. As the beginning of the question states, Chicago GSB has already asked for "a great deal of information throughout this application." This is stated in contrast to what they want you to tell them. Therefore don't focus on facts that they can find elsewhere in the application.
2. In Essay 1, you have already discussed your goals and why you want an MBA from Chicago, so don't discuss goals and why MBA here.
3. In Essay 2, you have an opportunity to write about someone else, so focus on yourself here. Even if you were to discuss what other people say about you, this presentation should be focused on you, not them.
SO WHAT WAS IT I WAS SUPPOSED TO WRITE ABOUT?
IT IS ALL ABOUT YOU!
Some Questions to get you brainstorming:1. What do you want Chicago GSB to know about you that would positively impact your chances for admission?
2. What major positive aspects of your life have not been effectively INTERPRETED to the admissions committee in other parts of the application?
3. If you were going to tell admissions four things about you that would not be obvious from rest of the application, what would they be? Why should GSB care?
4. If there was one story about yourself that you think would really help admissions understand you and want to admit you, what is it?
5. Do you have a personal interest (painting and poetry for example) that would work effectively in a PowerPoint?
As you can see, these questions would lead to very different kinds of responses. There is no one way to answer this question, but I believe there are right ways for every applicant to do so.
For my additional comments regarding this question, see here.
Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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