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

January 17, 2008

Columbia Business School Fall 2008 Admission Essays

File this one in the better late than never category. I have been busy with clients and thus not able to cover all the topics I had wanted to last year. For those who have not applied yet, I thought I would post my analysis of Columbia Business School's very odd set of questions. If you find the beginning of my analysis somewhat cynical and mean spirited than chances are you don't belong in New York City anyway. That said, the first few paragraphs below are as much for amusement as for utility. After that I get more practical (mostly).

I say this is a very odd set because this is the only essay set I know where students are being specifically asked to analyze themselves in relationship to the perspective of the Dean of the Business School. By the way, I suggest watching this little video the students at CBS put together for the CBS Follies about the Dean's failed candidacy for Chairman of the US Federal Reserve (for the full story behind the video, see here).

Another aspect that is odd about this essay set is that the first two questions are likely to generate overlapping answers because in both cases one is being asked to assess the value of an MBA to your future. What is worse is that because essay 2 and 3 both reflect the Dean's views on entrepreneurship, there is also potential overlap between these two questions. I will discuss how to handle these problems below. Frankly, I consider this to be a badly formed set of questions as a result. One hopes that next year the Dean will let admissions ask distinct questions that are better designed not to blend into one another. It is their choice of course, but I will be very surprised to see them do this same set again. In the increasingly unlikely event that the Dean gets some great political appointment (in lieu of the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve that he lost out on) from President Bush than he likely wouldn't be the Dean next year. I am guessing that supporting Mitt Romney for President will not have been one of the Dean's better moves, so he might be the Dean at Columbia for a good long time. In that case, the questions might get even more focused on his perspective.

The Columbia Business School Essays for Fall 2008 are available in the online application. My analysis follows after each question. Unlike other schools, Columbia does not number its questions in the application, but I have taken the liberty of doing so below:

1. What are your short-term and long-term post-MBA goals? How will Columbia Business School help you achieve these goals (Recommended 750 word limit)?
Over the years, Columbia has been very consistent in the way they ask this question. At first glance, it does seem pretty routine, but notice that something is missing from it? Compare it to NYU Stern or Chicago GSB or Wharton and you will see that there is no reference to the past. While one must certainly address one's past when answering this question, there should be no extended analysis of your career progress to date and you need not emphasize how your past experience will contribute to your future goals. Instead focus this on showing how Columbia will help you achieve your goals. The resources available at CBS and Columbia University are vast, so figure out specifically what you want from the school. The program is flexible, so identify your needs from Columbia as specifically as possible. Also keep in mind that CBS is changing its core curriculum.

Columbia wants to be loved. CBS has an institutional inferiority complex in regards to Harvard Business School and Stanford. After all, when you are frequently second choice, it hurts. What do I base this cruel allegation on? Two things. First, alumni interviews where demonstrating that Columbia really is the interviewees first choice seems to be a very common question and carries greater weight than at other top schools. Also (and more objectively), I look at the yield rates from Businessweek:
HBS 89%
Stanford GSB 80%
CBS 77%

Now Columbia's yield is certainly solid. That said, the good old early decision round helps to keep it that way and hence given the unique nature of that round, comparing the rates of CBS to other programs is somewhat problematic because by comparison the other schools are at a disadvantage. Which is to say if Columbia did not use the mandatory $6000 deposit and ethical stranglehold approach it takes to those who are accepted for the early decision, its yield would easily fall. How far, I am not sure.

Making a clear case why your goals are best achieved at CBS should be at the core of the essay. To make sure that they can see that, be very specific about what you need to learn at CBS to achieve your goals. After all, you want to show them you love and need them! If your goals are hot, that will making this essay even better. For learning about what is hot at Columbia, I suggest taking a look at their new blog: Public Offering.

2. In a recent speech delivered to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, Dean Glenn Hubbard discussed the new, essential elements of the 21st century MBA: http://www.gsb.columbia.edu/admissions/21st_century_MBA.pdf. How will your MBA prepare you for a rapidly changing business environment (Recommended 500 word limit)?
I will NOT be providing you with an analysis of the Dean's speech. Read and reflect on it yourself. Here I will focus on how to answer the question. As mentioned above, Question 2 overlaps with question 1 and since Question 2 is partially focused on the role of entrepreneurial education, there is also some significant overlap between this question and Question 3. My suggestion is actually draft your answers to Questions 1 and 3 before answering Question 2 so that you fully differentiate between the essays and because if you have completed other school's essays already, you are likely to have a good start on Questions 1 and 3.

A number of my clients have asked me what the difference is between Questions 1 and 3. I think one huge difference is that 1 is specifically about your goals and about why CBS is the right place to achieve them, while 2 is about how you will use an MBA to adopt to a changing world. Thus I would suggest using 1 as a space to provide a very specific career goal oriented essay and 2 as a space to write more thoughtfully about the kind of very significant challenges taking place in your imagined future that an MBA will help you with. My clients have also asked to what extent reference should be made to Hubbard's speech and my general answer is that it should be clear that you read it, but DON'T WRITE A 500 WORD ANALYSIS OF HIS SPEECH. Mention ideas from his speech that are relevant to your answer, but don't feel obligated to write about the speech at any great length. Use Hubbard's speech as a springboard for writing your own essay, not as the core of tour essay.

3. The entrepreneurial mindset is an integral component of the Columbia Business School MBA. Please discuss a time in your own life when you have identified and captured an opportunity (Recommended 500 word limit)

Question 3 was previously Hubbard's question and identified in previous years as such. It reflects his focus on entrepreneurial education, but is actually a very open-ended question. For a story to fit, it essentially needs to consist of both a clear demonstration of your ability to identify an opportunity and to get it implemented. Let's discuss each step in turn.

The identification of the opportunity is really critical. If you are about to write a leadership essay about how you lead a team successfully by carrying out someone else's plan, you don't have the right topic for Question 3. The key part of this essay is that you identify something that other people can't see or don't see, that you initiate a positive change that adds value. I think the add value test is really important. A story where you identify a potential problem and simply prevent it from taking away value is not going to work here.

Capturing an opportunity means to get it implemented. To what extent you you do the actual implementation yourself is less important than your ability to go from having a good idea to making into a reality. If you do actually handle all the implementation then to the extent possible, explain what you did. In this sense, this essay could be like a leadership essay. Capturing an opportunity is ultimately about results, so describe the results very clearly. Obviously a situation where your are in the midst of implementing something will not likely work well here. You should be writing about a situation with a clear positive outcome where you added value.

While the story need not be on a professional topic, it should be on a topic where the outcome is clear and that best showcases your ability to find and realize opportunities. I think applicants with only two to three years of professional experience can more reasonably write on a non-professional topic than those with five or more years of experience.

4. Please tell us about what you feel most passionate in life (Recommended 250 word limit)

Passion is about emotion, it is about motivation. It is not rational and hence is in contrast to the very rational questions that make up the rest of the CBS application. In past years, I have seen successful essays on this topic on a variety of subjects, but the only common thing was that no one wrote about work. For those who write about work in Question 3, Question 4 is the main place in the essay set to write at length about something other than work. Whether it is your committed involvement in an organization, an issue that you care deeply about, or a hobby/interest that you have long been engaged, provide Columbia with some further insight into who you are as a person through this essay. If you have chosen to discuss a non-professional topic in Question 3, I think it is possible to write about a professional topic here, but be really certain that you are focused on passion. Whatever it is that you do write about, passion has to be there.

5. Optional) Is there any further information that you wish to provide to the Admissions Committee? Please use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history. [ADAM: Length not specified, 600,000 characters maximum, BUT KEEP IT BRIEF]
As with other school's optional questions, do not put an obvious essay for another school here. This is bad in general, but especially bad for CBS, given my comments above about their sensitivity. If you have negative issues of concern, see my post on the Chicago optional question. You can certainly write on something positive here, but before you do, ask yourself these questions:
1. If they did not ask it, do they really need to know it anyway?
2. Will the topic I want to discuss significantly improve my overall essay set?
3. Is the topic one that would not be covered from looking at other parts of my application?
4. Is the essay likely to be read as being a specific answer for Columbia and not an obvious essay for another school?

If you can answer "Yes!" to all four questions, it might be a good topic to write about, but my suggestion is to keep it brief so as to be consistent with the length for the other essays, ideally around 100-500 words.

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
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