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You can find a better version of my blog at http://www.adammarkus.com/blog/.

Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

December 31, 2007

Play it smart, but be real: The Limits of Self-Marketing

While I most certainly believe in the importance of effective self-marketing when applying for an MBA or actually any kind of degree, I believe more in the truth.

For obvious reasons, MBA applicants in particular are easily drawn into the traps of the pure self-marketing strategy, but this can be the case with anyone applying to any sort of graduate school program. Here are some traps to avoid:

1. Essays that are merely branded abstractions that contain no substantial details. No example will be provided just assume a story that contains few details,but frequently mentions words like teamwork, leadership, responsibility, and decision making. At the point where you are merely engaged in using keywords that are not backed by substance you can pretty much assume you are either boring or annoying your reader. God help you if that reader decides you are the guy who has done it too much. I am all in favor of using such words, just tie them to specific actions that demonstrate the label you are applying. When the brand image and the reality behind the brand image coincide the reader will not only believe you, they are more likely to endorse your candidacy.

2. Essays that impose overt business language on activities that demonstrate other strengths that an MBA program is looking for: "My decision to major in both Economics and Biology demonstrates my commitment to being a change agent." Well maybe, but it might actually be better stated as a demonstration of one's potential for thinking about a variety of complex systems in two very different academic fields, which is certainly the kind of academic potential that schools are looking for. In other words sell your experience based on your real merits. Depending on the schools essay topics, these need not be expressed within the limited confines of teamwork, leadership, and/or accomplishment, but also such categories as intellectual abilities, ethical values, and creativity.

3. Essays that brag: Are you really the greatest, the best, most important, only one could do it? Are you sure? Compared to who? Do you know them all? A little humility will make you human. Lack of it is likely to make you look like a bragging egoist. You should stress your accomplishments, but should state them in a manner that does not overplay their value.

4. Essays that lie: I am all in favor of telling the best version of a story that you can, provided it is also believable. Bad self-marketing is frequently based on lies that can be seen through. I have met many admissions officers and while not all of them were brilliant, all the good ones had finely tuned "bullshit detectors." If your essays have a seemingly tenuous relationship with reality, you are likely to be setting yourself up for a ding.

5. Essays that lack even an informal logic based on cause-effect relations or chronological sequencing: In some marketing, say TV ads for cars or children's toys, logical explanations are not important. However, if your audience is highly scrutinizing what you are selling, such a non-rational approach will not work. Instead, you must make a rational argument. Marketing is often as not about analogy, feeling, metaphor, and innuendo. And while all of these have their place in your essays and in fact can be at the heart of certain types of essays, they can also undermine your ability to clearly state what happened and the real potential demonstrated by your actions. Cause-effect relationships should not be merely implied where possible. Especially when applying to MBA schools like Stanford, MIT, and Michigan that specifically have essay questions that ask for stories related to the detailed process behind your actions, it is very important to show how these things actually connect together. As I suggested in my analysis of leadership essays (applicable for both MBA programs like HBS and public policy programs like the Kennedy School of Government), showing your actual action steps is critical. A full explanation might be impossible because of word count, but if you tell things in sequence, it usually provides that explanation.

In closing, this will be my last post of 2007. My New Year's Resolution: More and better posts in 2008! (Also I need to go on a diet...)

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
MBA留学 ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング エッセイ

December 26, 2007

To my readers

Thank you for continuing to read my blog. Sorry that I have not written more lately, but I have been focused on consulting my clients. Once things quiet down, I will have more posts. For those applying for 3rd round, 4th round, January 2009, or Fall 2009, look for a further expansion of my blog next year. For those, thinking about admissions counseling services, please learn about my services here (日本語). For those with questions about admissions issues, please see my FAQ.

If my blog has been helpful to you, I would love to know about it. I would especially like to hear from anyone who received admission after following my advice. I look forward to hearing from you.
Happy Holidays!
Adam Markus

December 15, 2007

MBA First Round Blues: Learn from Failure

Situation: You applied first round and were rejected by one or more Business Schools for Fall 2008 admission. Alternatively you applied first round, but have been put on the waitlist. In any event, your first round MBA applications have been less than a success, if not an outright failure.

This is a common enough situation that many applicants encounter. Actually the 1st rejection version of it is better than the full re-applicant version because at least this way you don't have to lose a year. The great advantage of 1st round rejection is you still have a chance to get into other schools in the 2nd or 3rd round. Of course if you applied everywhere you wanted to go in the 1st round, you will have to think about either some more schools or your re-application strategy for Fall 2009. That said, my remarks below are principally designed for those who still plan to begin in Fall 2008, but also applicable to re-applicants and anyone who needs an application self-diagnostic checklist.

Doing the same thing you did first round in the second round would be really stupid. The main thing you need to ask yourself is "WHY DID YOU FAIL?" Only if you begin to know that will you get yourself on the pathway to future success.
(Obviously things like GPA, TOEFL, and GMAT might be reasons for your failure, but there is probably not much you can do about them now unless you are still working on test preparation. If you are still doing test prep, see my comments below and also please read this post.)

Here are some suggestions designed to help you figure out the reasons why you are getting rejected.

1. Did you really know about the programs you applied to? How was that reflected in your essays? Did you merely restate obvious information about the school or did you show exactly what aspects of it will meet your academic and professional goals? Did you demonstrate a clear connection to the program? Did you even think about fit? Stating unremarkable things based simply on reading the web site or brochure is not enough, you need to show why a specific program really fits your personality and goals. If you had an interview, how effective were you at establishing fit?

2. Was there a problem with the way you expressed your desire for an MBA or your goals? I have often found this to be a major problem with many failed applications that I have seen when clients ask me to review them. Actually almost every re-applicant I have worked with had a serious problem clearly articulating their goals. If you think your goals might be the problem, read this and complete the table you can find there. Were your goals based on any research? Are they interesting?

3. Did your essays fully demonstrate your potential as a student and a professional? The way you write about who you are and what you have done is a major way that admissions evaluates this. More specifically: Could you clearly express selling points about yourself in your essays? Did you provide sufficient details about what you did combined with a sufficient explanation for why? Are your essays about you or just about what you have done? Are your essays mere extensions of bullet points on your resume or do they tell effective stories about you? Do you really understand the essay questions? How effective were in writing about such common topics as contributions, leadership, and/or failure?

4. Did you put a sufficient amount of time into writing your essays? Writing great essays usually takes time and multiple drafts. Did you write multiple drafts of your essays? Were your essays quickly written? Did a significant amount of thought go into them?

4. Did you resume (CV) present your professional, academic, and extracurricular experience effectively? A great MBA resume requires effective presentation of your past experience so that an admissions committee can gain insight into your potential to succeed in the MBA program and in your future career. A great resume is also an effective agenda setting device for an interview. Did your resume contain clear statements about your accomplishments? Did your resume honestly and effectively represent the full range of your experience?

5. Did you really address any potential concerns that an admissions committee may have about your suitability as a candidate? Even though there is always an optional question available for this purpose, did you make use of it? If there was something you wanted to avoid discussing, maybe you should consider doing so.

6. How were your interviews? If you did interview, were you well-prepared? How do you judge your own performance? Did you practice enough? Are you good at interviewing? For non-native speakers: Are you good at interviewing in your own language? I believe that the only effective way to prepare for interviews is to be over-prepared: You need to appear relaxed and comfortable talking with the interviewer, to be ready to address the hardest questions, to be comfortable with your own selling points and the stories that support them, and have to have enough knowledge about the school to show a passion for it.

7. How were your recommendations? Did your recommendations honestly and effectively endorse you? Did they contain sufficient detail to help an admissions committee understand your selling points? Did your recommendations really evaluate both your strengths and weaknesses? Were your recommendations authentic or is there any possibility that an admissions would be concerned about their authorship?

8. How good was the advice you received from other people about your application(s)? In addition to yourself, who read and advised you on your essays, resume, interview(s), and/or other aspects of your application process? Alums, mentors, admissions consultants or counselors, editors, and/or ghostwriters? While I would not suggest blaming those who advised you, you may want to seek out new or additional advisers. Of course if they told you that your essays, resume, or some other aspect of your application were weak and you did not address it, they are providing good advice. Additionally if they expressed concerns about your likelihood for admission, there advice might be good (beware of those who always hedge their bets).

If you relied extensively on an editor or paid a ghostwriter and seem to be getting dinged really quickly, you have discovered the pitfalls of those highly dubious strategies. Consider writing your own stuff and discover the potential of your voice.

If you used an admissions counselor or consultant and did not get any good results and they told you that your applications were good, it is time to decide whether their advice is really effective. If your counselor has limited experience, this is pretty much an indicator that you should have gone with someone experienced. If your counselor seems exhausted or rushed, you also have a problem because this person is unlikely to be able to be devoted to helping you enough. If you purchased a counseling service and not the services of a particular counselor, I would not be surprised if you encountered someone overworked. After all, one critical difference between counselors who work for themselves and those that work for someone else is the amount they make for the work performed. Those that work for someone else make considerably less per hour and often have to work more and under higher pressure than those that work for themselves. This is not to say that highly experienced counselors employed by counseling services can't be excellent, but based on my experience there are pitfalls to such services. On the other hand if they have high quality control standards, they can be just as effective. That said, the issue will always come down to the specific advice you are being given, which means the particular person you are working with. In addition to contacting me, one good resource for finding a new counselor is through the Association of International Admissions Consultants where you find a directory of my colleagues around the world who are committed to providing high level service to their clients.

9. Was your GMAT within the school's 80% range? This is a fairly obvious issue. If your score was within the 80% range, this was not likely to have been the reason for rejection. If it was below the 80% range for one or more schools, you should consider whether you are willing to apply at school where your GMAT is within the range or whether you want to continue taking greater risk. Obviously if your score is below the 80% range, you should assume your chances for admissions are less than the stated admissions rate. I am not saying to only apply to schools where you are within the range (see my earlier post on this issue), but I would suggest taking account of the risk in terms of (1) school selection, (2) the number of programs you need to apply to, and (3) expectations for success.

10. Was your GPA equal to, above, or below the average reported GPA for the school? If it was below, this may have been a factor against you. If you score is significantly below the average GPA and your GMAT is equal to or above the average score, did you write an optional essay? Did you highlight your academic potential in some way to counter the issue of your GPA?

11. Did your TOEFL meet the school's minimum stated requirement? If your score was below the minimum, did you discuss this in the optional or some other essay to make the case for your English abilities? If you think you can improve your score, take the test again.

If your score on TOEFL is really weak, have you considered taking IELTS? Some applicants actually will do better on this test than on ibt TOEFL. It is no easy thing to prepare for a new test, but I think it might be a viable strategy for some of those who are applying to schools with late deadlines.

12. Were you realistic about school selection? I have discussed this issue in other posts, but it certainly one worth considering.

13. Were you honest about the way you presented yourself in your whole application? As a strong advocate for honesty, I have a bias for this particular approach to the process. That said, if you are getting dinged after misrepresenting one or more aspects of your experience, you might want to consider that it is the job of admissions officers to eliminate liars. They get through anyway, but not all of them. Anyway, the truth will set you free to succeed. If you have over-marketed yourself, you may also have come across as less than authentic.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
MBA留学 ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング エッセイ

December 11, 2007

MBA Application Myth: GMAT is Everything!

Yes, the GMAT matters, but some applicants focus too much energy exclusively on GMAT and don't think about the rest of the process. Of course, you maybe forced to study GMAT while simultaneously preparing your applications. This is not ideal, but it beats doing the applications as an afterthought.

Myths about the GMAT abound.
More specifically...

A. Myth: You need a 700 or higher to get into a top MBA Program. Assuming the school has an 80% that does not start at 700 and no school does, why make this assumption? Schools repeatedly state their processes are holistic and that GMAT is just one factor. Applicants focus on the GMAT score for good reason. While it is the only indicator for measuring all applicants in exactly the same way (TOEFL, see below, only applies to international applicants), the reason MBA program put such an emphasis on other aspects of this process is because it is only one factor. The 80% range for any school is a pretty good indicator of what range of score is sufficient, but clearly some are admitted both above and below that range, so overly focusing on a particular numerical target can really overly focus applicants attention on their GMAT scores both in terms of school selection and in terms of time allocation.

B. Myth: You need to get a score that is at least the average for those admitted. Look at the 80% range and as long as you are in it, your GMAT score is potentially sufficient to get in. At Stanford University GSB for example, the 80% range is from 670 to 770 with a mean of 721 and median of 730 according to Businessweek. Means and medians are just averages, but very poor indicators of how specific applicants are likely to be viewed.

C. Myth: No one gets in with a score below the 80% range. Well clearly someone does because that 20% range that is not accounted for includes people with scores below the range. For example, Stanford GSB states that the GMAT range is from 500-800. Of course, some schools may actually have a stated minimum. In such cases, it is best to simply contact admissions and see if they ever make exceptions. If they say they don't then there is no point in applying, but if they say they do than it becomes an issue of whether you want to take a chance. Yes, you have to be great overall candidate to get into Wharton with 600 or Harvard with a 650, but it can be done. In my experience, it is better to take a chance on at least one reach/dream school than to not try at all. I know it is an expensive gamble, but I guess if you think the potential pay-off is sufficient than you will conclude it is worth doing.

D. Myth: A high GMAT will get you into a top program. One of the saddest things I have seen is otherwise highly qualified applicants overestimate the value of the GMAT. Actually given the relatively high rate of 700 plus GMAT scores among applicants to top programs, it is merely one factor. In fact top programs like Stanford, Wharton, HBS, and Chicago are likely to be less concerned with GMAT for good or bad than with the overall strengths of an applicant.

So clearly the final Myth that relies upon one or more of the above is that "I should select schools based primarily on my GMAT score." Based on the above, I obviously think this is a very poor idea. School selection should be based on multiple factors including but not limited to cost, starting salaries for graduates, location, TOEFL score, and suitability based on academic and professional goals. Be realistic, but also try to get exactly what you want. As I wrote in a previous post, I don't like the idea of back-up schools. That said, you need to determine how much risk you are willing to take and what is your minimally acceptable ROI on the degree.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions, I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
MBA留学 ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング

Myths of the Application Process: I'm not unique just by being me

Image the following hypothetical situation: You are in a selection process involving 10,000 candidates and only 10% will be accepted. In order to differentiate yourself from the other 9999 candidates, you begin collecting reports on them. After all if you have to market yourself and be viewed as unique you better know who your competition is.

Clearly this is absurd. Yet I think it reflects the actual mentality of many applicants who spend time worrying about their competition instead of simply focusing their time on writing the best essays they can. They buy into the myth that they are not unique just being themselves.

Like admissions officers, I share the assumption (One that is cultural, philosophical, or perhaps even theological) that each person is unique. Regardless of whether you are applying to an MBA, LL.M., Masters, or Ph.D. you need to able to express your best self through your application. Your best self is the distilled version of yourself that you communicate in the essays, resume, and other parts of the application. Hopefully it is also that part of you that your recommenders discuss.

MBA programs in particular make this assumption about you being unique in the very way they form questions. See below and my posts on NYU Stern, University of Chicago GSB, and on contribution questions at Kellogg, Duke, McCombs, Babson, and London Business School for my examination of some of the specific ways in which particular schools ask about this.

Some applicants become so concerned about appearing unique that it paralyzes them when they try to write. Other applicants have no problem writing, but what they write consists either of extreme exaggerations or outright lies. In either case, the root problem is often one or more of the following false assumptions:
1. I am not a superstar therefore I am not unique.
2. Compared to other people I am not unique.
3. My GPA/GMAT is/are not that high so I can I be concerned unique?
4. My work as a....is really routine and have no specifically great accomplishments.
5. I have no experience having formal management responsibility, so my leadership skills can't demonstrate why I am unique.
6. My hobbies are routine.
7. I have never done anything important.

The above are assumptions that I have encountered over the years from clients. In order to overcome these assumptions, I make the following argument:
"What makes someone unique is their own particular story. Your own particular experience and your ability to reflect upon it and identify specific ways you have demonstrated potential for success in your graduate program and afterwards is what is most important. Don't worry about being special, just tell your own story and in the process we will figure out how to effectively interpret that story for the admissions committee. The devil is always in the details initially. After that we work on branding."

Take it on faith that you will be unique if you tell your own story and also effectively analyze that story. For instance with MBA questions they are always asking "why" not just "what or how."

Sometimes this is stated very directly: INSEAD asks applicants to "Describe what you believe to be your two most substantial accomplishments to date, explaining why
you view them as such." In this essay as in the similar HBS question, the reason why you view the accomplishment as substantial is at least as important as what the accomplishment is. Accomplishments can be substantial for yourself and/or for others. Some of the most unique accomplishments will in fact be those that may have little significance for anyone but the applicant. In such circumstances the "why" part of the question is really critical in order to show why this accomplishment is a highpoint in the applicant's life.

Columbia Business School asks applicants to"Please tell us about what you feel most passionate in life. " This is really a great question because any applicant should be able to answer it (By the way, if you feel passionate about nothing, you don't need an MBA, you need mental counseling!). This question provides a great opportunity to help the admissions office under you as a person. While some good judgment is required here, talking about a hobby or activity or one's family would be quite appropriate. While good judgment is always required for selecting the topic, the important thing is not only the "what," but the "why."

So for those in the midst of this process, I say don't worry about the other applicants, just focus on yourself and reveal your best self through your applications.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
MBA留学 LLM留学 大学院留学 ビジネススクール カウンセリング コンサルティング エッセイ

December 06, 2007

Myths of the Application Process: The Admissions Office

This is the first post in a series on myths of the application process.

I am tired. More specifically, I tired of hearing the same myths regarding the application process year after year. These myths misinform applicants, fill them with fear, contribute to some applicants not applying, and to others not trying to get into their dream school.

The myths surrounding the MBA application process are particularly pernicious, so in the series that I will be posting I will be referencing the MBA process for the most part.

Actually, since I started in 2001, I think it has all gotten worse in a way because the amount of noise out there only increases as more online venues exist for rumors and misinformation to circulate. In this post, I will address one of the most persistent rumors about the MBA application process, but first I would like to emphasize one thing:

Of course, if the answer can be found on their website, don't waste the admissions officers' time asking unnecessary questions. That said, any decent school will answer your questions about their internal processes. There is nothing mystical about these processes. Which leads to...
Myth Number One: The Admissions Office Has Secret Practices
Any accredited school's admissions office will be following a set of standardized practices for the handling of applications. These processes, like that of any bureaucratic organization, have to be sufficiently transparent to meet legal and regulatory requirements. While potentially subject to outside influence from professors, development offices, powerful alums, and other key stakeholders, admissions committees often pride themselves on being fair. They are not perfect because they are composed of individuals, but they are not secret cabals either. Like any organization, they will make exceptions to their general practices from to time to time, but only at the margins. Hence the websites, brochures, and other information they provide about their admissions processes is really quite accurate. Therefore if you want to know whether they will consider a GMAT submitted a week after the application was sent or any other such question, simply ask. Try finding the answer on the website first, but if that does not work, contact them. Part of their job is to answer your questions.

While schools vary greatly in their degree of openness and level of customer service, most will answer questions. And unless an inquirer is simply asking questions that can be easily answered through reviewing the admissions materials, it is safe to assume one will receive a response. If you don't receive a response by email, try calling. If you are treated rudely ask yourself whether you want to go to the school. I especially would be concerned about an MBA program that lacked the customer service skills to appropriately field the inquiries of potential students (customers).

While I have been very critical of less than transparent processes used by most Law Schools regarding Master of Law (LL.M.) admissions, especially when it comes to MBA and JD programs, admissions offices are very transparent. In fact those applying to other kinds of graduate programs (with the exception of healthcare degrees) are at a relative disadvantage compared to MBA and JD applicants in terms of the availability of good data upon which to make application decisions.

Finally, given that admissions offices may have very limited December and January schedules, I would try to get in all your questions either before or after the Winter holiday season.

-Adam Markus
アダム マーカス
MBA留学, LLM留学, 大学院留学
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