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July 23, 2008

Chicago GSB Fall 2009 Slide Presentation

This is the third post in a four part series. Part 1. Part 2. Part 4.

This is the second year that the University of Chicago GSB has required a slide presentation. Based on working with a client who was admitted there as well as with a couple of clients whose applications resulted in interview invitations, I am confident that the advice I offer below is effective. Actually, my Chicago GSB results for Fall 2008 admission were one admit, one post-interview waitlist, and one post-interview ding. None of my clients were dinged without interview, which indicates that their applications were strong.

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
did that last year. 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 is totally new, I think this is only partially the case, as I will discuss below. 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.

  1. The content is completely up to you. There is no right or wrong approach this essay. Feel free to use the software you are most comfortable with. Acceptable formats for upload in the online application system are PowerPoint or PDF.
  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 technical expertise or presentation.
  5. You are welcome to attach a document containing notes if you feel a deeper explanation of your slides is necessary. However the hope is the slide is 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. (200 words maximum, see online 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.

First, 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 out the above two examples out merely to show that while GSB's use of PowerPoint is certainly novel, it is not without precedent.


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,
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 spent 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. It 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.

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 may 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.

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.

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 document containing notes if you feel a deeper explanation of your slides is necessary. However the hope is the slide is 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.

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 metaphors 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 it 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 have looked at the overall context for this question, let’s think about what is actually being asked.

What was the question again?
you would like your future classmates to know about you" is very simple. I could restate it as "please help your future classmates understand who you are and why they would want you to be their classmate."

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.

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?
6. If you have a sense of humor and/or creativity, how can you express it here? I suggest doing so if you can.

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.

Last year, one of my readers asked three very good questions about the Slide Presentation. I am reprinting them in slightly altered form below.

1) In your opinion, should one use a minimalistic approach involving images to convey one's ideas?

I think this will really depend on you. The important thing is to effectively convey something important about who you are to the admissions committee. If that can be done effectively with more images that is great, if it can be done effectively with minimal or no images that is also great. The important thing is that your reader understands the significance of any images you use. Luckily, you have the notes for that purpose. Just as in "real" PowerPoints, images or any graphic element can be used effectively or badly. Always ask yourself, "Why am I using this image? Does it really help them understand me?" If it does, keep it. If it is mere decoration, think about eliminating it or replacing it with something that will have a positive impact on Chicago GSB's ability to understand who you are.

2) Would a little bit of humor do good e.g. a cartoon?
Keeping in mind what I just wrote above, I think humor can be used effectively. You must practice extremely good judgment when using humor for any application. Don't make a joke simply to make one. Use humor if it is effective in conveying something that will compel Rose and her colleagues to want to interview you. That said, I have had a number of clients who successfully used humor in their applications for Chicago GSB.

3) Is GSB looking for an analytical assessment of one's personality in these slides?

I think they are looking for a meaningful assessment of your personality. I will not say "analytical" because that is just one possibility. If by "analytical" you mean a detailed explanation for your character making use of standard forms of argument, it is fine to do it that way, but not the only way. I use the word "meaningful" because it does not necessarily require logic or analysis to do so. For example, an image with some kind of description may provide Chicago GSB with great insight into who you are. Since Chicago is specifically being "non-traditional," you certainly can be also so long as you answer the question.

Finally, think big and be creative. To answer this one effectively will take time, but if you want to get into Chicago GSB, put in the time.

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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